Numbers 27.12-21, John 10.11-16
The federation of the tribes of Israel, gathered under Moses' leadership, was an experiment in a new kind of nation building where, instead of gathering around a king or queen, the people sought to follow God's will as mediated to them by Moses. In theory, once they knew what God wanted, and so long as they kept to these rules for living, the nation of Israel considered themselves to be a free people, no longer under the yoke of oppression, unlike every other nation on the earth.
But as Moses’ death approached there was the risk of a leadership vacuum; in the Bible's view, even a free people needs a guiding hand on the tiller. Without any leadership at all, warned Moses, the people would be like sheep without a shepherd. It’s a recurring motif in the Bible story.
Since the EU Referendum we've had our own experience of the need for leadership. In the Referendum we - the people - decided by a narrow margin to leave the EU, but we didn't decide how to leave and what kind of future relationship we wanted with our European neighbours. It was a moment when we needed a guiding hand on the tiller.
Instead, the leader who called the Referendum promptly resigned, and the leaders of the winning Leave campaign fell out with one another and couldn't find enough support to take his place. For a moment it seemed as though we would be left with a leadership vacuum, like sheep without a shepherd.
That's when the prime minister stepped into the breach. She's never made any secret of the fact that she thinks leaving the EU was the wrong decision. However, it's what the country chose to do and she saw it as her duty - perhaps even a religious calling - to provide the leadership that was lacking. But her interpretation of leadership wasn't Moses’ interpretation. It wasn't a top down style of leadership where the leader calls people to follow their lead, or even nudges their followers in what he or she thinks is thinks is the right direction, but a bottom up version where the leader tries to understand which direction people want to go and then delivers the will of the people for them. And that pretty much sums up Jeremy Corbyn's approach to leadership too, at least on this issue.
The Bible is pretty stern in its verdict on bottom up leadership. It says that Moses and Aaron disqualified themselves from leading Israel into the Promised Land because, at a place called Meribah, they disobeyed God’s command and followed the people's choice, when the people insulted God there and refused to believe in his holy power to guide and protect them.
This isn't to say that in God's realm people aren't allowed to choose their own path. It's just to say that God expects the people’s leaders to guide and inspire them rather than sit on the fence, otherwise the people will be like sheep without a shepherd.
So what does the Bible mean when it compares the nation to a flock of sheep? Does it mean that the Bible writers thought we’re all stupid and need someone to tell us what to do?
I don't think it’s quite as simple as that. The Bible does believe in people's capacity to choose their own way in life but, crucially, it balances this freedom with another idea that is central to the Bible story, unity of purpose. If every sheep in the flock is given complete autonomy the flock will fragment and go in different directions. Only a guiding shepherd can maintain the unity of the flock.
Of course, the problem with accepting our need for guidance is how to recognise whether the leader is a good shepherd who is pointing us in the right direction. That’s where democracy has a role. Should we follow the first leader who comes along or look for another, more inspired one?
When Moses was in charge, this was easy. He took his instructions direct from God and everybody could see how inspired he was. It positively shone out of him, written on his face. But in future that moral purpose would have to be channelled through the priests. They would interpret the will of God and channel it to the leader.
This sounds like a political theory, and it was, but it was also a formula for how leadership should work in every part of life. A writer on leadership, Eliane Glaser, says, ‘I took the kids to a music workshop... We all sat around in a circle being creative. After a while, one boy got bored and started stomping around the room, singing loudly. His mother didn’t tell him to sit down, and neither did the “facilitator”. She said: “Can I just ask you to be a tiny bit quieter, please?”’
Needless to add, Glaser doesn't think that was an example of good leadership. She’s scathing about ‘teaching from the back of the class’ and other similar educational theories that replace ‘the sage on the stage with the guide on the side’ and argue that ‘every opinion is valid.’ She bemoans the fact that when she was 14 she was asked by her geography teacher to roleplay being a power station manager when what she really needed, she thinks now, was to be told from the front how a power station actually works.
As we might expect, the Bible’s understanding of how the people of God should be led can also be applied to the Church. In the Roman Catholic Church this is pretty straight forward. The Pope plays the part of Moses, combining in himself the roles of priest and leader. But Protestant churches believe in ‘the priesthood of all believers’. We don’t believe that we need anyone to channel God’s will to us. Each of us has direct access to God and can know God’s will for our lives and our community.
Some of my great grandparents were members of the United Methodist Free Churches, which broke away from the Wesleyan Church in order to organise church life more democratically. One famous leader of the Wesleyans had said that democracy was a sin and in the Wesleyan Church its ministers controlled all the important decisions about church life, worship and mission. In contrast, at a time when most ordinary people still didn’t have the vote, the members of the United Methodist Free Churches decided that every member of the church should have a direct say in how the church was run.
My grandmother remembered, and passed on to me, an acted parable of how this attitude to leadership worked in practice. My great-grandfather deplored smoking. He thought it was a filthy habit but good manners dictated that, when smokers visited the house. he had to permit them to smoke. The one exception he made was for the minister, who had to go outside if he wanted to smoke. That’s how important the minister was in the United Methodist Church Free Churches, and in the United Methodist Church which had - by my grandmother’s time - taken over their chapels.
The whole of the Methodist Church has now adopted democratic ways of decision-making, at least in principle, and the United Methodists’ levelling attitude to leadership persists. Nor is it just a hangover from the past. It’s been reinvigorated by the grassroots movement, a bottom up way of making decisions and getting people to own them and make them happen on the ground, and by ideas like leading or teaching from the back of the class.
So I’ve heard ministers say that it’s not their role to guide their churches. Instead, they see themselves as a sort of caretaker leader, enabling the smooth running of the church in the background, so that the members can get on with making the important decisions about church life, or even as a fence sitter whose job is to carefully avoid coming down on either side in any discussion but just to arbitrate disputes.
Proponents of this style of leadership have argued that good shepherds don’t lead from the front, calling their flock to follow them, but from behind, coaxing the sheep to go forward. But in the Bible lands shepherds do lead their sheep, and the sheep know the shepherd’s voice and follow them.
I’m not arguing for a return to the bad old days when the Wesleyan minister ruled the roost, but for a recognition that good leaders can have a role as channels of inspiration. It is always the role of the people to decide, but it can be the role of the leader to guide.One would expect a church which believes in a risen Saviour, whom the members acknowledge as the Lord of life, to have a fairly strong model of leadership. There is always only one good shepherd - who has laid down his life for the sheep - but his ministers and lay leaders might aspire to be like him, to love the sheep and call them to be one and to be united in sharing a common purpose. And the members of that church, while retaining the capacity to listen directly to the voice of the good shepherd, might at least keep an ear open for the voice of their pastor, to see if he or she might be channelling any inspiration about what God wants them to do.