In many instances in this world, we are either one of two things: a leader, or a follower. There are those of us who take the reins, who shoulder the great responsibility of leadership, and there are those who would rather defer judgement on a wide range of matters to others, typically those who they believe can make the most informed decisions and guide them in the right direction and follow them almost like sheep. Leaders and followers both have an important part to play in the Western world. If we explore these roles in greater depth, we may come to understand the significant value in choosing when to be a leader and when to be a follower, and the importance of selecting those amongst us who are most appropriate for a position of leadership within society.
To understand these social roles, we must look back on their origins, which lie in Biblical times. There are several instances of leaders and followers within the Biblical text. One might look to the time when the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, led by their ruler Pharaoh, who refused to let God’s people leave. Many may be familiar with the phrase, “Let my people go”, found in the Book of Exodus where God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh:
“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast for me in the desert.’” Pharaoh replied, “Who is the Lord that I should listen to His voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”(Exodus 5:1-2)
In this passage, Moses does indeed tell Pharaoh to allow the enslaved Israelites to go free into the desert, led my Moses himself, as God wishes, but Pharaoh, the ruthless leader of Egypt, is unwilling to do so. Thus, God brings ten plagues upon the land of Egypt. After the first plague, He gives Pharaoh another chance to let His people go. Pharaoh refuses to budge. Again, after the second plague, God gives Pharaoh another chance. He again refuses to do so. This occurs with at the conclusion of each plague, until the point where God inflicts the final plague, striking down all the firstborns in the land and creating the means necessary for the Israelites to escape under the leadership of Moses.
In this instance, there are two leaders and two different forms of leadership. On one side, we have Moses, chosen by God to lead His people, a man of righteousness following the Word of God. On the other, we have Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, a king unto himself, a man who does not do the bidding of anyone else, even God. Moses is one to obey authority, whereas Pharaoh is authority itself, corrupted by power and self-obsession. One may even argue that in this Biblical story, there is a third leader, that of God Himself, who leads Moses. In these circumstances, the Israelites are followers, both of Moses, and of God. Likewise, the Egyptians are the followers of Pharaoh.
This is in some way reminiscent of the circumstances we face in the present. Throughout the world are leaders, all of various kinds. There are political leaders, those who govern our nations. There are our pastoral leaders, those who lead the Church and guide us in the faith. There are leaders in our workplaces, in groups we are a part of, and so on. Each of those in a position of leadership must be capable of taking on responsibility, something that can vary in size and burden. Sometimes that burden may be something a minor as a simple choice. But sometimes, that choice can be so great, so heavy, that it becomes much more difficult to deal with. And sometimes the burden we carry as leaders can be too great to bear. It may therefore become necessary to have someone help us to carry that cross. That is why leaders typically have advisors, those who assist them with decisions, particularly tough ones.
When we are in positions of leadership, we need someone to talk to, a mentor of sorts. We need someone to discuss critical decisions with, because those choices can be some of the hardest to make and can thereby have a significant impact on our mental health. As leaders, we assume responsibility for the outcomes of our choices, whatever they may be. If the consequences of our decisions are dire, then we must be able to come to terms with them. This may not be easy, given sometimes the decisions of leaders can cause despair, grief, pain, even death. A gracious leader with a good heart will rally with their people in difficult times, expressing emotion and connecting with their followers. A leader that shows no care for the terrible outcomes of a decision they have made is unlikely to be worthy of their position. In fact, it would likely be better for their people that they do not continue to hold a position of leadership at all.
Leaders are often borne out of crisis. In such times, there are certain individuals that rise to the forefront, taking on the responsibility necessary to navigate the difficulties that lay ahead. Such people who can do this, and do it well, are natural leaders. They are born to take charge, to steer people to safety, to guide them in the right direction. These are the individuals we want in leadership positions throughout society. We need strong, compassionate, righteous leaders to guide us through whatever may come our way. We need those like Moses to step up and lead their people from dark to light.
But while there are leaders out there in the world much like Moses, there are also Pharaohs who seek only to conquer and serve themselves. These are the people obsessed with power, who will do most anything to take more and more at all costs. If it means people will suffer, it does not irk them, as long as they get what they want. These people will steer their followers off a cliff if it means they can get some sort of thrill out of it. The psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists of the world are typically the most dangerous when it comes to leadership. These are the people that God was likely referring to when He spoke of the “bad shepherds”.
In order to understand this reference, let us return to the Bible, this time the New Testament. The New Testament begins with the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These four Books detail the Earthly life of Jesus Christ, a leader Himself (one might say the ultimate leader), who brought together a group of twelve men, who would become known as His Apostles. There were also some women amongst the group, including Mary Magdalene, a woman who had led a difficult life until Jesus came to her aid. The twelve men, collected over time by Christ, were: Simon Peter, who would later go on to lead the Church as the first Pope, his brother Andrew, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who Jesus gave the name “Boanerges”, meaning “Sons of Thunder”, James son of Alphaeus, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, Philip, Thaddeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot, who would go on to betray Jesus on the night of the Last Supper (There was also a thirteenth, Matthias, who replaced Judas to make up twelve). Of the twelve, two wrote accounts of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and Ascension into the Kingdom of Heaven. These were John, also referred to as the Beloved disciple, the only one of the twelve post-Ascension to not be martyred, and Matthew.
The twelve were Jesus’ followers, and He their leader. In John’s Gospel, we read of how Jesus, in discussion with His disciples, called Himself the Good Shepherd:
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. The hired man, since he is not the shepherd and the sheep do not belong to him, abandons the sheep as soon as he see a wolf coming, and runs away, and then the wolf attacks and scatters the sheep; he runs away because he is only a hired man and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep. And there are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and I must lead these too. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be only one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:11-16 New Jerusalem Bible)
Jesus spoke in analogies on many occasions; it was His way of getting an important message across to the people. In the above analogy presented in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of sheep and called Himself the Good Shepherd. In other words, the sheep are His disciples and Jesus is their shepherd, their leader. They follow Him, and He takes care of them, protecting them from wolves, representative of temptation, sin, and evil, that seek to scatter them and lead them astray. Jesus also says He will lay down His life for His sheep, foreshadowing His death upon the Cross, whereby He would sacrifice Himself to cleanse us of sin and give us all the chance to live in eternal glory with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven. In last part of the verses above, Jesus tells His disciples that there are other sheep he also must lead that are “not of this fold”. These sheep are everyone else, all those who will follow Christ, even if they have not seen Him. They are not of His chosen fold, the twelve disciples, but are still believers and are joined as one in their following of Jesus Christ.
While there are leaders on this Earth that espouse well-rounded leadership and lead with goodness in their hearts, there are also those who do not, those who lead with self-interest at the forefront of their minds. These are what we may refer to as the bad shepherds, the ones who deceive, mislead, and create division amongst the sheep. There are several passages from the Bible that mention such people. The first of these comes from the Book of Jeremiah:
“Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore, the Lord, the God of Israel, says this to the shepherds of my people: “You have scattered my sheep and driven them away instead of caring for them. Now I will take care to punish you because of your evil deeds”, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:1-2)
In this, God says that there are those who appear to be guides to the people, leaders of sorts, but who have wrongful intentions, with the aim to divide the people and lead them astray. We see this reflected in modern times, particularly in self-serving politicians and other various leaders who have an agenda they wish to drive forward. We also see it in the Church, where certain church leaders cast aside the values of the faith to pursue what is expedient to them, be it money, power, an agenda, or even just popularity. There are those that twist the words of Scripture to suit their own purposes, to support dangerous ideologies.
This is reiterated in Ezekiel 34:1-6:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel! Prophesy and say to them, ‘The Lord God says this: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? But, you feed on milk and are clothed in wool, and you slaughter the fattest sheep. You have not taken care of the flock, you have not strengthened the weak, you have not cared for the sick or bandaged the injured. You have not gone after the sheep that strayed or searched for the one that was lost. Instead, you ruled them harshly and were their oppressors. They were scattered for want of a shepherd and became the prey of wild animals. My sheep wander over the mountains and high hills; and when they are scattered throughout the land, no one bothers about them or looks for them.”
In this, the shepherds, the leaders of God’s people, are again berated by God for serving themselves rather than serving His people. We see how God is dismayed at how they have reaped the benefits of their leadership for themselves, but have left the people to their own devices, neglecting them, abandoning them, scattering them, exposing them to danger. Again, this is visible in the world of today, whereby those in positions of leadership divide their people, neglect them, and expose them to danger for the sake of their own interests. For example, people are sent to senseless wars because politicians are acting selfishly, putting the lives of the people they have been elected and sworn to protect in grave danger for personal and political gain. Peace is forgone because of poor leadership.
There is great importance in the animal selected by God to represent His people. Sheep are not necessarily smart animals. They can easily get lost or be led astray. This is because sheep do not typically think for themselves. They can follow someone blindly, lacking direction and putting their lives in the hands of someone who may not have good intentions.
So, while it can be beneficial to be a follower, we must still be wary of those we follow and use good judgement to determine whether the direction they are leading us in is good. If it is, we may keep following them, carefully reassessing along the way. However, if it is not, it is pertinent that we find new leadership so that we may be steered back onto the right path.
Leaders are necessary for society to maintain stability and even progress, but we cannot always just take their word for granted. It is crucial that we think for ourselves. We must continue to question the motives of our leaders to ensure they are good and righteous. We must continue to question the decisions of our leaders, to ensure they are right and just. We must ensure that we are being led down a path of truth and right judgement.
There is one final passage that I would be remiss not to mention in this edition of Uncovering Christianity. It is Psalm 23, which I think sums up the kind of leadership each and every one of us is in need of:
The Lord is my shepherd, what more do I need? In green pastures He lets me rest. To quiet streams of water he leads me, and revives my failing spirit. He leads me along the right paths ever true to Hi name. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, no harm would I fear, for you are there by my side. With your rod and your staff you give me comfort. You prepare a banquet for me in the presence of my foes. You anoint my head with oil; my cup is overflowing. Only goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever and ever.
For Christians, Jesus Christ is our leader, our Good Shepherd. He guides us in all we do. He is there for us through the good and the bad. He never abandons us. I can say without doubt that His presence in my life has been central to getting me to the place I am in now. It has enriched my life, giving me something to hold close to my heart at all times. In moments of anxiety, doubt, and despair, I have turned to Him, spilling out the contents of my heart and mind. Through Him, I am able to make sense of the world. Through Him, I am able to make good judgement. In Him, I find peace.
There are only some people who are willing to do anything for the people they lead. There are only some who are capable of staving off the corruption of power in positions of leadership. The strong-willed, humble, morally righteous, good-natured people are those who should be permitted to lead our society.
We all have the capacity to be followers, but there are only some amongst us that are capable of being good leaders.