By Collin Ross
Walk into any bookstore, and you will find a section of titles all about effective leadership. These manuals all assume the same equation: become a better leader, and you will find greater success. Most of us would agree that the success of a movement, enterprise, or community largely depends on the leaders at the helm. If your leadership is effective, you are on your way to achieving your goals.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that at this moment of great transition for the Israelites, Moses takes time to explain how leadership will function in their new home. And even though this reading is full of ancient cultural references and situations, a clear principle shines through regarding authority in Israel. For every Israelite, there is One above and none below.
Though they’ll have judges, officials, and one day even kings holding office in their new home, it is clear that God is Israel’s ultimate authority. Not only will God appoint the king of His choice, but the king’s primary responsibility will be learning to “fear the LORD his God” and to observe all the words of God’s instruction (Deuteronomy 17:19). It isn’t difficult to discern who is really in charge here.
The judges are also beholden to the Lord’s authority, for they are to “judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18). According to whose standard for righteousness shall they judge? For Israel, it is that of the Lord their God.
So, from the kings to the judges to the common Israelite, there is One who stands above them in authority. Under His leadership, all of Israel is united. And this unity is maintained by the second facet of how leadership and authority is to play out in the promised land: No one is to view another as inferior. There are none below.
This idea was, and continues to be to this day, radical. Human culture seems to naturally stratify into degrees of perceived value. One category of person is viewed as more valuable to society than others, while another is seen as less important. And more often than not, those with power perpetuate these divisions.
But it wasn’t to be so in Israel. With his eye to those with power, Moses commands, “Do not deny justice or show partiality to anyone…pursue justice and justice alone” (Deuteronomy 16:19–20). Even the king was to guard his heart against feelings of superiority (Deuteronomy 17:20)!
When I was just starting out in ministry, a mentor offered a definition of leadership that has stuck with me. He said that leadership was taking initiative for the benefit of others. Each of us has been given some degree of power and influence to wield in our lives, whether as a barista or CEO. How we leverage that power speaks volumes about who we believe is above us and who we believe is below us. Are we getting it right?