Book Review — Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader, edited by Benjamin Forrest and Chet Roden
Benjamin Forrest and Chet Roden, eds. Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017. 512 pp. $31.89.
Books on leadership abound. This includes works that include a prefatory term, such as “Christian,” “biblical,” or “Christ-like.” With so many resources on the topic, one wonders if there’s really anything new to say. There’s also the continual separation that seems to persist between biblical and theological studies, and that of “practical” Christian living. It seems that these two worlds seldom intersect, to the detriment of both.
This is unfortunate because we’re in great need of engaging with the very best of biblical scholarship, knowing, delighting in, and obeying the teachings of Scripture. However, as Christians, leadership is an area that also needs continual application as we lead within various spheres of life, such as the home, the church, and at work—in both formal and informal settings.
With this in mind, Biblical Leadership is a welcome addition to the literature on the subject.
This work is part of a new series with Kregel entitled “Biblical Theology for the Church.” Benjamin Forrest and Chet Roden—both professors at Liberty University—serve as editors and have assembled a broad array of scholars to contribute their expertise to the topic (most of the contributors are from the Baptist tradition, and a fair number are associated with Liberty University).
Biblical Leadership contains thirty-three chapters, as well as an introduction and epilogue. The editors state that their purpose is “to provide the reader with excellent biblical scholarship that analyzes the scriptural text for the sake of drawing out a biblical theology of leadership” (22). They recognize that the Bible isn’t a textbook on leadership, and that their book contributes to the discussion in that it draws from Scripture directly as opposed to translating business principles.
Chapters 1 and 20 are “concept studies,” focusing on etymological and semantic study to determine what Hebrew and Greek terms are relevant to one’s study of leadership. Aside from these chapters, the work goes through the various books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Most chapters follow the same format: summarazing the original setting and exegetical details of leadership principles in a particular book or cluster of books, synthesizing that summary into a “theology of leadership,” and then applying specific leadership principles for today.
While many edited works are critiqued as being uneven in content and in style, this work approaches the material in a balanced and consistent fashion. Several chapters, however, do stand out for pastors and other Christian leaders.
Michael Thigpen and William Osborne give incisive comments on leadership during the united and divided monarchies of Israel. They remind us that leaders must acknowledge God as supreme overall, accept his discipline, and recognize that the people will only flourish under godly leadership. As such, “Godliness in leadership, not greatness, leads to flourishing among the citizens of the kingdom” (139).
Dan Estes also writes a helpful chapter on the connection of biblical wisdom and leadership, arguing that good leaders promote what is right, evaluate people with discernment, accept responsibility, oppose what is wrong, and provide for the good of others (170–71).
On the New Testament side, Ben Merkle provides well-researched insights regarding the titles and roles of leaders, and Bill Mounce offers great wisdom on this topic from the Pastoral Epistles.
There are, however, moments where the applications made in the book seem to miss the point of the biblical text itself. For example, when speaking of the leadership of Moses, one author notes noted that God gave him signs (e.g., staff turning into a snake) so that the people recognized him as God’s leader. While the author says our experience will likely not be identical to Moses, “the principle is that God will not leave his leaders without some sort of visible or tangible indication that the leader is God’s man or woman in a given situation” (46). This raises questions about what this text is trying to convey. Surely, the way in which God worked with Moses isn’t the way he works with all leaders, even those in biblical history. As such, caution must be exercised when seeking to apply these points to modern-day leadership.
Thankfully, the majority of what’s said in this book is based on careful, rigorous exegesis. Some readers, however, will read it and question the validity at least two facets of the overall project. First, are all of the passages mentioned about “leadership” or simply living before God as his people? Certainly, some places in Scripture single out the way in which a leader must live (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:1–7). But what’s striking about such passages is how unremarkable they are, how they primarily describe the character of any Christian—not a special class of Christians called “leaders.” In this way, one should recognize the key role of leaders without making unnecessary exegetical bifurcations for people who are simply called to live godly lives.
Second, some will question if this project properly approaches the discipline of biblical theology. Debate abounds regarding the definition and application of biblical theology, and some will see this book as a step in the wrong direction. It would have been helpful for the editors to explain their understanding of the discipline and how this project fits within recent scholarship. Even as a topical approach to biblical theology, many will see “leadership” as falling outside the purview of typical topics related to biblical theology (e.g., temple, atonement, creation, kingdom, covenant, etc.). However, a number of scholars do excellent work in linking the concept of leadership to other themes of biblical theology (e.g., Chapter 21 on the Synoptic Gospels linking leadership with the kingdom of God). While not the most prominent theme, the authors have demonstrated the way in which Scripture speaks of such matters.
Works in leadership and biblical theology continue to come out in great numbers, with no signs of relenting. It would likely be helpful to read a biblical theology, such as Jim Hamilton’s God’ Glory in Salvation through Judgment or Tom Schreiner’s The King in His Beauty, prior to reading this work, just to orient oneself to understanding and embracing the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors. Having a biblical overview in mind will be helpful when reading Biblical Leadership, so as to keep the biblical storyline intact while viewing a key theme across the canon of Scripture. This could lead to great growth in leadership for the good of the church and the glory of God.