God and Government: Christian Leadership

I’ve got two words for you: “oxymoron.”

Now, admittedly, that comment is going to get me a lot of flak (“flack”? whatever) from everyone who read Christian Leadership and thought about those retreats we went to in youth group and the really eloquent speakers you’ve heard at a workshop or lectureship. That’s not really what I’m thinking about here — I’m thinking about Christianity in government — but some of the same ideas apply.

Listen, before Jesus died, he spent a lot of time talking. A lot of people miss out on that, especially because, later, Paul spent a lot of time writing, so he kind of eclipses a lot of what Jesus had to say.

But Jesus had a lot to say about leadership and authority. He said most of it (that is, the most important bit) when he wrapped a towel around his waist, got down on his knees, and washed his apostles’ feet. We all know that story so well, and what it represents, y’know, metaphorically, that we kinda disregard what he was saying there. That is, we focus on the theological aspect of an act that is, first and foremost, a political one. Whereas, in Christ’s teaching, he chose instead to put forth the political lesson, and let us derive the theological.

Hmm…that might sound like I’m saying the same thing. The problem here is that we, as Christians, are reading the New Testament in exactly the same way we get so frustrated at scientists for telling us to read the Old Testament. (That sentence might be grammatically correct….) The thing is, something can be metaphorical or figurative and still hold literal meaning. In fact, a good metaphor ought to be wholly accurate on both levels of perception: the literal and the figurative.

So when Jesus said we ought to wash each other’s feet, and what he meant by that was that we ought to serve one another’s physical comforts, and what he really meant by that was that we ought to serve one another’s spiritual comforts…we follow that line of reasoning, and teach our kids that Christians should look out for each other’s spiritual comfort. And how can you tell? Why, because Jesus himself said that we should look out for each other’s physical comfort.

Now, if you’re one of those trying to rush ahead of what I’m saying, then you’re probably getting annoyed at my choice of passage, because this isn’t a perfect one for what I’m trying to say. It’s an excellent illustration of how we misuse Jesus’ metaphors, though. Now that we’ve seen that, though, let’s focus on another passage. There’s a story in the New Testament where a couple of the apostles (I’m going to take a wild guess and say “James and John,” rather than actually looking it up) ask Jesus if they can be first in the Kingdom of Heaven — following him, of course. Jesus rebukes them, and the other apostles get in on the rebuking because, y’know, they should probably have asked, but Jesus calls them all down. Here’s the passage:

When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that in this world kings are tyrants, and officials lord it over the people beneath them. But among you it should be quite different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”

Okay, we’ve all heard that, and we understand that this means Christians shouldn’t be tyrannical. That’s not the point, though. The point is that Christianity cannot be achieved through authority. It’s earlier in that paragraph that Jesus talks about the Vineyard Workers (a parable I wrote on in an earlier post), and that parable ends with these words:

“And so it is, that many who are first now will be last then; and those who are last now will be first then.”

We also have the passage where some trickster challenges Jesus on paying taxes, and Jesus talks about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. In that passage, Jesus clearly recognizes the temporal authority structure without participating within it.

And that wasn’t a new attitude, when we saw it there. We’d already seen it in the desert, when the Tempter offered Jesus dominion over all the world. Jesus turned it down.

He turned it down, and then he didn’t go to the politicians, to change the world. When he was brought before Pilate, he answered him in silence. In fact, we have no record of Jesus deliberately seeking out politicians or trying in any way to change world or national politics.

Jesus’ message is one of a personal relationship with God. The lifestyle he teaches is a self-sacrificing one. It is not a message that makes for good government — it’s one that makes for good people. If people were good, we wouldn’t need government. Got it?

I know my dad thinks there ought to be more Christians in government — he’ll vote for one any chance he gets. The problem is, a good Christian has to be ready to forgive every offense against him. A good Christian has to be ready to give more than he is asked for, to respond to violence with submission. These things will make a good person.

But they will only make a good governor when all the rest of the world’s governors are prepared to respect like that. Or, alternately, when every one of the governed is precisely as devoted to the governor’s Christianity as he is. In the first case, none will take advantage of the governor or the state he represents. In the second case, although others will take advantage of his state, the people of the state will accept it, as they accept the same within their personal lives.

Show me a world where all of the powers are Christians, and I will vote for a Christian leader. Show me a state where all of the citizens are Christians, and I will vote for a Christian leader. Otherwise, in any other circumstances, you are either willfully sending sheep among the wolves, without any sort of defender (note that we are talking temporal authority, which Paul claims God has put in place to serve its purposes, even as the Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews served God’s purposes), or you are placing a Christian in a position that will force him to curb his own faith in order to fulfill his job. That is, a good Christian placed in a position of authority must, within that authority, be a worse Christian to properly fulfill his responsibility.

If you, as a Christian, decide to take on a leadership position — perhaps you think that, by acting to protect the weak, you can do enough good to offset the evil of not turning the other cheek, for instance — then you have made that choice for yourself, and power to you. However, I will not (or, to be more accurate, would not) advocate voting for you on the sole grounds that you are a Christian. That is because, inasmuch as you are a good leader, you become less of a good Christian. And inasmuch as you are a good Christian, you become less of a good leader.

Now, to perfectly clarify, I am talking about temporal authority. There are other forms of leadership than temporal authority, clearly. The foremost, with regard to this conversation, being that of a role model. Christ was clearly a leader, and his Christianity made him a better leader, clearly. That’s the whole point of the washing of his apostles’ feet. Jesus was not one to say “Go and do,” and have others obey him on his authority. Rather, he was one who said, “This is what I do.” And others could choose to be like him because they saw the effect Jesus’ actions had in his life and in theirs.

And this all speaks directly to my opinion concerning elders within the church. I flatly stand against the idea of elders who meet, decide what the church should do, state their opinions, and then the church does it. Which is to say: elders.

That is not what eldership has represented for the bulk of human history, and it is not what Christ called for. “Elder” is a name we use (not one the elders themselves use) to indicate someone who, by the evidence of his life, has established himself as a role-model and source of information, who we would like to follow. It is the very heart of Jesus’ method of leadership and it is (this is the most important part) an entirely optional authority. That is, it is one that you can approach and say, “I choose to live like you.” And if you do, so much the better, and if you don’t, it in no way detracts from the leader’s authority.

Ehff. I’ve gone on too long, and I’m onto another topic altogether now, but it shows what I’m getting at. In fact, it highlights it well. The very best I think we could hope for, in electing Christian leaders, would be to achieve something like the elderships we’re all so familiar with. Imagine the board of elders from your congregation as the House and Senate of the U. S. That’s the ideal of that system. That is the best that it could achieve and, honestly, it’s not much different from what we already have. You could probably name nine key political decisions that would be decided, once for all, if that were the case. Other than that, replacing the Senate with your church’s eldership would pretty much be the same as electing a bunch of Republicans.

And, no, that’s not utopia. Honestly, it’s not much better than everyday. It might be more comfortable — that is, your personal opinions on some topics would be more accessible within the community — but you can achieve that with a political action committee. And, if you think about it, that really just means someone down the street is less comfortable.

And none of that sounds like the kind of authority Jesus promoted. No, Jesus’ solution to the world problems takes place inside individual folks, not in halls all made of marble. That’s what it boils down to.