Monday, October 03, 2016

Anointing a Bramble

The worst leaders are people desperate to lead.

I think we’re all seeing that on TV right about now. The conventional wisdom is that America is reduced to scrounging for its least-worst presidential option, and the pickings are world-record slim.

This is not a new problem. In democratic countries, politicians are stereotypically less credible than used car salesmen, TV evangelists and the mainstream media.

People who want to run the show are often the worst people to actually do it.

The Best and Brightest

Makes me think it might be more prudent to draft our leaders against their wishes rather than allowing them to volunteer. The best and brightest have a tendency to be doing something more constructive than self-promotion in the year and a half before any given election. Not only that, most people who characteristically produce value in this world prefer to continue producing so long as any choice is given them, as this parable told by Jotham son of Gideon to the leaders of Shechem reminds us:
“The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?’

And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?’

And the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’

Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’ ”
Well, perhaps “told” is the wrong word.

A Little Backstory

Actually, I suspect Jotham may have shouted his parable, because he was standing on the top of nearby Mount Gerizim in what is now the West Bank — the place where twelve curses had been pronounced by the Levites when Israel first entered Canaan — and he was addressing people in the valley below him. The setting was singularly appropriate; he too had a curse to pronounce.

For Jotham, standing atop Gerizim was the safest place to be. After all, the leaders of Shechem had just helped Jotham’s half-brother Abimelech murder seventy of Jotham’s siblings one after another. Once he had finished his parable and explained it, Jotham pronounced his own curse on Abimelech and Shechem and promptly ran away.

The parable is an insult in that the trees symbolize the leaders of Shechem and the bramble symbolizes Abimelech, who turned out to be pretty worthless leader and ended up literally burning those he had led, just as Jotham’s curse foretold.

Come and Take Refuge in My Shade

Now, the bramble is a thorny bush substantial enough to burn for cooking but not useful for much else, and bound to be an annoyance when clearing land for settlement. The bramble’s line, “Come and take refuge in my shade” is probably sarcasm.

Notwithstanding the fact that it was entirely unsuited to be king of the trees, every other tree that was asked — every one the least bit qualified, desirable or otherwise appealing — felt they had better things to do.

So the bramble was the only game in town.

In some situations, being leaderless beats the alternative.

Thanks, But I Gave at the Office

I have a feeling the leaders in some churches, while hopefully not quite so bad as Abimelech, have assumed responsibility under a similar scenario: because too many truly qualified men have said ‘No, thanks’. I don’t imagine drafting elders is a realistic option, but we need to remember that many of the best leaders in scripture seem to have been those who were not out looking for the job of leading anybody: Moses, Samuel, David, Ezra and Nehemiah all led from a sense of obligation to God and his people rather than a desire to be prominent. Great victories were won in Israel by men like Gideon and Barak, who didn’t want the job.

Paul tells Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task”. Leading the people of God is, first and foremost, a task. It’s work. Most of it is work you can do without the “office”.

In fact, the word “office” is not even there in the Greek. That’s our overly-helpful ESV translation team acknowledging the current state of church leadership and attempting to find some sort of English equivalent people might understand. Their solution is inelegant, to say the least; it makes overseeing the church of God sound like a prestigious elected position rather than the hard labor it really is.

A Bit of an Oversight

In fact, the words “to the office of an overseer” in English are all one word, episkopÄ“, denoting an examination. It might be clearer in English and truer to the Greek to simply say, “If anyone aspires to oversight”. Oversight is the aspect of the elder’s job that involves seeing the people of God as they are; being clearheaded, perceptive and intelligently aware of their needs and the dangers to them. You can’t shepherd the sheep if you can’t see them and their environment clearly. Overseers must “pay careful attention”, as Paul told the elders in Ephesus.

It ain’t an office, folks. There’s little obvious prestige (though there should be), no regular pay, no cushy earthly retirement plan and not a lot of ceremony. Just hard work, much of which is near-invisible to onlookers, and most of which can be done without any sort of acknowledged “office” at all: Bible teaching, formal and informal; counseling; hospitality; prayer; visiting the sick and needy; giving advice; encouraging; motivating and leading by example. Nobody needs certification for any of that.

And Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would be spectacularly uninterested in the job.

Squeezing the Olive Tree

So, if your church needs leadership, look for men who are already doing that sort of work without being asked, and ask them to consider doing it a little more recognizably alongside others with the same desire to serve. Squeeze the olive tree a little harder. Tell the fig tree the sweetness of his fruit is better shared. Tell the vine there are more hearts to be cheered than he is currently reaching.

Point these men out to others if you have to. Draw attention to their good works. Then if you must take no for an answer, don’t take it easily.

Now, if your church hasn’t got any men like that, that’s a different problem entirely; one that calls for serious consideration, public discussion and prayer.

Leaving Your Abundance

And if by chance you happen to be a man like this, doing the work of an overseer but saying no to any sort of formal recognition for one reason or another, take a moment and reconsider your position. If you feel you’re unworthy of the job, well, good. Excellent, even. In some ways you probably are. If you felt totally worthy of the job, you’d be Hillary Clinton, or maybe the bramble in the parable. Do you really want to go there?

But if your fellow believers are convinced you have the scriptural qualifications and you’re already doing much of the work out of love already, what’s to lose? Unless, like the olive tree, you’d rather not “leave your abundance”.

I hope not. The job is worth the risk: the personal, financial, emotional risk. And if you don’t step up, bear in mind that somebody eventually will — somebody who probably sees the job very differently than you do, who craves visibility more than service, is prickly and painful to deal with and is happy to offer your church shade he hasn’t got.

That somebody may burn your church badly.

Either way, churches shouldn’t settle for brambles. Nobody needs THAT sort of leadership.


  1. Do you think the Scripture ever envisages a local church without any shepherds? I'm thinking of men gifted by the Spirit of God for that function.

    1. An interesting question, Patrick. Hmm.

      The church in Antioch (Acts 13:1) was said to have "prophets and teachers". I find it notable that the words "shepherd" and "elder" are not used if such were already being recognized in the churches at that time. It would have been natural for the Holy Spirit to say so, I'd think. But we don't find elders being pointed out until the end of chapter 14.

      Yet Antioch still functioned effectively enough to send out the first missionaries. (My suspicion is that church already had gifted men doing the work of elders, whether or not they were recognized.)

      I have certainly been in small local churches that would appear to have no genuine shepherds. I bet you have too. I can only think that their prospects are hardly ideal, and yet I would be quite reluctant to tell them "You're not a church" because they lack biblical leadership.

      I'm curious now: what are your thoughts about this?