What does kingship in the Old Testament have to do with church leadership today?
Quite a lot, as it turns out—though perhaps not in the way you would assume.
Kingly leadership has little to do with visionary leadership in the pulpit and much to do with righteous judgments in the pews.
To understand the implications of Old Testament kingship for the church today, let‘s first take a look at the failures of the Israel’s kings and the prophecies of Isaiah.
The Failure of the Kings
The kings of Israel and Judah were called to live as righteous judges who pursued justice for their subjects–but these kings failed, and failed miserably. In the seventh century B.C., God revealed a new possibility for kingship to the prophet Isaiah, a skilled poet writing between the fall of the northern kingdom and the exile of the southern kingdom. What Isaiah saw was a future day when God himself would reign as his people’s only king. On that day, the people would say, “The LORD is our Judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our King” (Isaiah 33:22). God himself would “settle disputes among the nations and provide arbitration for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4). What’s more, this divine king would be—by some means that Isaiah did not explicitly reveal—”a son” who would sit on David’s throne (Isaiah 9:6-7; see also Hosea 3:5).
It was, of course, in the virgin womb of a girl from Galilee that the consummate fulfillment of these prophecies began to blossom (Luke 1:32-33). God himself entered the cosmos in the flesh of Jesus Christ to do what no previous king had done or could do: he upheld every covenant of God and inaugurated a “kingdom not of this world” to provide a foretaste of perfect justice on the face of a fallen earth (John 18:36). This divine descendant of David laid a foundation for lasting justice not by judging humanity but by submitting himself to God’s judgment on humanity (John 3:17-18; 8:15-16). Through this sacrificial submission to his Father’s judgment, God in Christ established a new covenant and embraced the death that we each deserve for our failures to pursue perfect justice. Through his empty tomb, Jesus Christ guaranteed a future day when he would reign and “judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31; see also Acts 10:42-43). Now, in this present era that stands between the empty tomb and the judgment throne, God is in the business of uniting unrighteous sinners with the risen King, counting the unjust as just on the basis of the Son’s sacrifice and resurrection life.
The kings of Israel had been called to live as protectors and judges who mediated God’s reign and modeled faithfulness to God’s covenant. From the womb of Mary to the garden, tomb and beyond, Jesus Christ followed every detail of God’s design. He submitted to his Father’s Word, rejected every trapping of earthly power, and refused to exalt himself above his brothers (John 5:19-20; 8:54; 18:36). He was a king who came proclaiming a kingdom (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43), and he will come again to multiply this kingdom around the globe until the earth is “filled with the knowledge of the LORD’s glory, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).
What Kingly Leadership in the New Covenant Isn’t
In light of what we’ve explored about kings and judges in the old covenant, how should these offices shape the leadership of God’s new covenant people? According to those who treat kingship as a typology for a particular kind of church leader, kingly leaders are visionary builders who develop organizational strategies and take responsibility for the church’s direction. “Ultimately”—claims one pastor who promotes this typological approach—“large ministry areas must be led by a king” because kingly leaders are the ones who actually get jobs done. Another proponent of this approach specifically urges “upper-echelon leaders of complex organizations” to live as kingly leaders, emulating the template for Old Testament kings.
In stark contrast to these understandings of kingship and leadership, Scripture does not describe kingship in terms of visionary leadership or strategic skill. Neither in Moses’s description of God’s design nor in later depictions of the ideal king is there any hint that visionary organizational strategies were part of the job description for kings in Israel. As such, even if we supposed that kingship might be a type of leadership that is conveyed to particular individuals in the church, the definition of a kingly leader as a dominant visionary strategist is unbalanced at best and fundamentally flawed at worst. Treating kingly leadership as visionary strategy imports a very modern and Western concept of leadership into old covenant kingship and, in the process, skews our understanding of church leadership in the new covenant. This is not to suggest that visionary strategies are completely unhelpful or unnecessary for leaders! The point is that Scripture never links such capacities to the office of king. Kingship in the old covenant was focused primarily on modeling covenant faithfulness and on judging the people in righteousness, not on visionary leadership or strategic planning.
Even more problematic for the claim that kingly leadership is conveyed to particular individuals in the church is the fact that kingliness in the new covenant is never identified in any way as the property of any individual Christian. Kingliness in the kingdom of God is ascribed to God in Christ and to the whole people of God in union with Christ. Jesus promised his first followers that they would reign alongside him (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30). But this glorious privilege extended far beyond those first apostles! “If we endure, we”—Paul wrote to Timothy, referring to all of God’s people—“will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12; see also 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 20:4-6). Through union with Christ, every believer in Christ participates in the kingship of Christ—and this participation is corporate and communal, not individual. None of us has the right to reign individually or independently in a kingly manner in the church of Jesus Christ.
When a few Christians in Corinth began to act like royalty in a manner that separated them from their fellow believers, Paul demanded that they return to unity with the body. “You have begun to reign as kings without us,” Paul declared with a generous dollop of sarcasm, “and I wish you did reign, so that we could also reign with you!” (1 Corinthians 4:8). Instead of affirming these kingly claims or claiming a kingly role for himself over the Corinthians, Paul called them to imitate his way of life as a servant of Christ and as a manager of God’s mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1, 16).
What Kingly Leadership in the New Covenant Is
So, if kingly leadership isn’t an individual capacity for organizational effectiveness and strategic vision, what is it? Notice the following biblical patterns:
- The ideal king in the Old Testament was an exemplar of covenant faithfulness who judged the people according to God’s Word (1 Samuel 8:5-6, 20; 2 Samuel 8:15; 2 Chronicles 1:11; Psalm 72:1-2; Proverbs 20:8; 29:14).
- When Jesus told the apostles that those who remained with him would also reign with him, he tied this reign to participation in the judgment of God’s people (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:28-30).
- When the saints were enthroned in John’s heavenly vision, they were “given authority to judge” (Revelation 20:4).
From these texts and others, it seems that one of the primary expressions of our union with Christ the King will be participation in his judgment at the end of time. And yet, our participation in this future judgment will not wait until the end of time. The church’s participation in this judgment begins in the present. When God’s people join together in the holy work of church discipline, we participate in the very judgments of God.
Church discipline is sometimes misperceived as the expulsion of errant or troublesome members from the congregation—but the goal of church discipline is never removal of anyone. The lives of believers have been joined with Christ the Judge who delivered us from death by dying in our place; therefore, the desired consequence of a guilty verdict in the new covenant community is not destruction but deliverance (1 Corinthians 11:31-32; Galatians 6:1-2; Hebrews 10:1–12:13). God’s design for church discipline is to call wayward believers to repentance and to restore them to full fellowship with God’s people. Church discipline serves, in the words of Robert Cheong, as “God’s ongoing work through his living Word and people as they fight the good fight of faith together to exalt Christ and protect the purity of his Bride.”
This is not to suggest that new covenant believers possess any sort of independent or individual capacity to pass judgment on anyone (Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37; Romans 14:1-13; James 4:11). In the New Testament no less than in the Old, God alone remains the supreme Judge (2 Timothy 4:8; Hebrews 12:23-24; James 4:12), and he has designated his one and only Son to enact his judgments (Acts 17:31). United with Christ the King, we participate together in the judgments of God.
The process of church discipline begins with a personal expression of concern from one believer to another; this confrontation occurs in a conversation between individuals—not in a group, not from a platform or pulpit, not in an open letter posted on a blog, not on a social media page, but personally and privately. If sin is present but the concern is ignored, the confrontation extends to include one or two other believers so that evidences can be assessed fairly. If it becomes clear that the church member is persisting in sin, the entire local congregation must be made aware. If the offender still refuses to repent, he or she is treated as someone who needs to hear the gospel and to trust Jesus for the first time (Matthew 18:15-19). This final, heartbreaking step of separation happens only when a professed believer chooses to persist in behaving or believing like an unbeliever. If a leader is removed because of sin, it is particularly important for the entire congregation to hear the rebuke, because the leader’s sin is a sin against the whole community (1 Timothy 5:20).
Church discipline is not a process for removing difficult members from a humanly-manufactured crowd or social club. Church discipline is the holy work of participating proleptically in God’s future judgment for the purpose of preserving and expanding God’s present reign in the lives of his people. Whenever we as God’s people call one another to repentance, we—united with Christ through faith—join in Christ’s final judgment on sin by concurring in the present with a verdict that God in Christ will pronounce in the future. In this foretaste of the final judgment, the sinner’s repentance and embrace of transforming grace culminates in sweetness and joy throughout the community. If the sinner persists in his or her rejection of God’s goodness, the result for the individual and the community is the bitter pain of separation.
This post is excerpted from my book The God Who Goes Before You: Pastoral Leadership as Christ-Centered Followership.You can order the book here.
Think About Leadership:
If you are a church leader, when was the last time someone confronted you in any of the ways that Jesus and Paul described in these texts? If no one has done so, it isn’t because you’re such a sanctified person that you’ve left every shortcoming behind. Have you, perhaps, insulated yourself in such a way that you are no longer being held accountable in your spiritual life? If someone has corrected you recently, did you react defensively, with excuses or justifications for your actions? Or did you carefully consider their words and respond with humility and grace? Does your church have a biblically-grounded process to call you to repentance if you are leading in ways that are ungodly or unhealthy? When you become aware of a grievous or persistent sin in a church member’s life, do you view church discipline as a repugnant duty to be endured or as a difficult but beautiful opportunity for God to redeem and to restore his repentant children?