Assessing Political Leadership
We examine Christ rebuke of the teachers of the law to understand Solomon’s vision of effective leadership in the context of assessing the promises and performance of a modern-day political leader. Christ rebuke of the teachers of the law indicates effective leadership includes promoting conditions for equal application of laws and regulations to all, irrespective of status; focuses more on the purpose of laws and customs and less on symbolic gestures; promotes their intrinsic values; and refrains from living for display, admiration, personal honor and actions or behavior that could mislead the people.
Solomon’s vision of effective leadership is presented in the bible as an interaction whereby God approved of Solomon’s desire to govern effectively as king of Israel based on capability and habit of “discernment in administering justice” [1 Kings 3:11]. Although Solomon’s reign provides several illustrations of effective leadership, we turn to Christ teaching in a rebuke of the religious leadership of Israel for a conceptual understanding of effective leadership applicable to modern-day experience. Christ rebuked the teachers of the law for misleading the people because of living a life that suggests the law, Scriptures, and customs applied more to the people and less to their leaders—the teachers of the law. In the rebuke, often referred to as the Seven Woes (Matthew 23), he advised the people to honor and heed the teachers because of their authority but abhor their lifestyle that was inconsistent with their interpretations and teaching.
We examine Christ rebuke of the teachers of the law in the Seven Woes: to understand the meaning of effective leadership as envisioned by Solomon, in the context of God’s purpose for the promises and performance of modern-day political leadership.
Solomon’s Vision of Effective Leadership
Solomon was in Gibeon to worship and offer sacrifice when he dreamed God appeared and told him to “Ask for whatever you want me to give you” [1 Kings 3:5].
In humility toward his position as king of Israel: he acknowledged he was king because of God’s favor to his father David; inadequate to replace his father as king; and overwhelmed by Israel’s size, population, and need. He desired to be an effective leader for Israel and to rule with clear understanding of right and wrong. Therefore, he asked God [1 King 3:9]: “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”
God was pleased and promised to grant Solomon his request [1 Kings 3:11–12]: “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked.” Furthermore, God promised to give more than he requested: “Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings” [1 Kings 3:13].
Through the dream, Solomon introduced his vision of effective leadership as necessary to serve God’s purpose for making him king over Israel: so much that God granted his prayer and, in addition, blessed him abundantly to fortify him to implement the vision and reward him for selflessness. However, the biblical account of his dream doesn’t explain the meaning of effective leadership clearly enough to provide a basis for assessing modern-day political leadership. But Christ did: in his rebuke of the teachers of the law. We examine the rebuke for more specific understanding of the concept and potential applications.
Christ Rebukes Religious Leadership
Christ taught the responsibilities of leadership through an interaction with his disciples and others regarding the teachers of the law. As we discuss in a previous study under Responsibilities of Leaders and Followers—Christ Teaching in the Seven Woes, he rebuked the teachers for not living according to their interpretations and teaching of the law but did not question their authority. He rebuked them for interpreting the law and Scriptures for others but making no effort to follow their own teaching. Also, he rebuked them for focusing on displaying for others to win honor and respect for themselves; and, as a result, misleading people that looked up to them.
The teachers of the law were educated in the body of laws that God gave to the Israelites through Moses, referred to as the Law of Moses and available in the present-day bible in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. The teachers of the law are experts in these laws and their interpretations, as well as in the body of writings by prophets referred to as the Scriptures. They teach and interpret the law and Scriptures, make rulings based on the interpretation, were recognized as having the authority of Moses, and were at times in charge of law enforcement. For example, a famous teacher of the law, Saul, was on his way to Damascus to arrest members of “the Way” [Acts 9:2] when he had an encounter with Christ and was converted. The teachers of the law were recognized as leaders of society, because of their teaching and interpreting the law and Scriptures, making rulings based on the interpretation, and enforcing the ruling. Therefore, Christ rebuke of the teachers of the law provides information relevant to understanding the concept of effective leadership.
Christ explained the teachers of the law inherited the leadership role of Moses: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat…” [Matthew 23:2]. Therefore, like Moses, they represent a constituted authority under God and deserve every person’s attention, respect, and obedience: “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you” [Matthew 23:3]. However, the responsibility to respect their authority and heed their teachings and interpretations does not necessarily imply a call to follow their living. Christ knows the teachers of the law did not live according to their teaching. Therefore, he told the people they should not emulate the teachers’ lifestyle: “…But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” [Matthew 23:3].
He rebuked the teachers of the law for inconsistent application of the law to themselves and their followers, living for the purpose of winning praise and admiration from people, misleading their followers, focusing on winning converts without doing enough to lead them, emphasizing the worldly value of things while ignoring their spiritual significance, interpreting God’s law to support traditional practices but forgetting the purpose of the law, and promoting a symbolic repudiation of past sins without any real effort at advancing repentance. Each aspect of the rebuke (at times referred to as the “Seven Woes”) has implications for understanding effective leadership and potential applications in assessing the promises and performance of a modern-day political leader.
Selections from the Rebuke
Inconsistent Interpretation of the Law: He rebuked the teachers of the law for interpreting the law differently for other people than for themselves. They provided at times heavy-handed interpretations for others but made no attempt to apply the interpretations to themselves: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” [Matthew 23:4]. Any person in authority position must refrain from behavior that is inconsistent with the laws or rules they enforce on other people. A modern-day example could be a president or prime minister that dodges taxes while presiding over a government agency that enforces tax payment on other citizens.
Living for Public Display: He rebuked the teachers of the law for their focus on seeking admiration and honor for themselves. He gave example with their wearing wide phylacteries (leather patches with inscriptions of the law) and long tassels to promote themselves as religious leaders while ignoring the essence of these symbols. He described their behavior as hypocrisy, which he likened to cleaning “the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” [Matthew 23:25]. A modern-day example could be a president or prime minister that demands praise from the people without doing enough to earn the praise.
Misleading Followers: He rebuked the teachers of the law for shutting “the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces,” thus, preventing others as well as themselves from entering [Matthew 23:25]. Such could result from either a sinful but alluring life that directs faithful followers away from God or a sinful and noxious life that discourages less-faithful followers from seeking God. Parallel behavior from modern-day political leadership could include a president or prime minister misleading people to disregard safe public-health practices such as mask wearing and social distancing that are necessary to reduce the spread of an infectious disease.
Winning but Failing to Lead: He rebuked the teachers of the law for failing to lead their converts: “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” [Matthew 23:15]. Convincing someone to believe in your leadership is important; however, providing positive leadership to the convert is more important. The responsibilities of a leader begin with convincing others to accept him/her as a leader and continues with providing positive leadership. Christ rebuked the teachers of the law for failing in the second task after succeeding in the first. Parallel behavior from modern-day political leadership could include a person riding a wave of public dissatisfaction with the immigration program to win support; however, after riding to a position of authority, fails to provide positive leadership to resolve the concerns with the immigration program.
Surface Value vs Intrinsic Value: He rebuked the teachers of the law for emphasizing the worldly value of things but neglecting their spiritual significance: “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’” [Matthew 23:16]. Also, he gave an example with their value for gifts brought to the altar, which they considered to have greater meaning than the altar itself. Every action can be associated with an intrinsic value and a surface value. Effective leadership entails understanding and promoting the intrinsic value and de-emphasizing the surface value. An example could be a president or prime minister paying lip service to worship but nothing in his/her interactions with the public indicates any real belief.
Customary Religious Practices: He rebuked the teachers of the law for their focus on customary religious practices while neglecting the essence of worship that is the basis for the customary practice: “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” [Matthew 23:23]. The customary religious practices evolved to accomplish the worship objectives of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He rebuked them for focusing on the practice while neglecting the objective.
Focus on Symbolism: He rebuked the teachers of the law for substituting meaningless symbolism for repentance: “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets’” [Matthew 23:29–31]. He rebuked them for promoting symbolic gestures to condemn the sin of previous generations without any real effort at advancing society toward repentance from such sinful practices. This rebuke applies today to any leadership that focuses on promoting symbolic gestures without seeking or advocating a real understanding of the significance of the gestures. An example could be a president or prime minister making a great speech to observe the birthday of a slain civil rights leader (such as Martin Luther King Jr.) without any real recognition of the rights he fought to preserve.
Summary of What We Learned
Leadership responsibilities based on Christ rebuke of the teachers of the law include the following.
- Promote conditions for equal application of the laws and regulations to everyone, irrespective of position as political leader or a person with no special status.
- Refrain from living for display, seeking admiration, or personal honor.
- Refrain from actions or behavior that could mislead the people.
- Provide positive leadership toward resolving society concerns.
- Understand and promote the intrinsic value of laws, customs, and regulations and reduce focus on the surface value.
- Understand the purpose of each law, regulation, or custom and promote such understanding to advance people toward the purpose.