The Spirit of Excellence: Leadership and the church in South Africa

by Dr. Theuns Jacobs
Pastor of Shofar Cape Town City

But Daniel, brimming with spirit and intelligence, so completely outclassed the other vice-regents and governors that the king decided to put him in charge of the whole kingdom (Daniel 6:3, The Message).

Martin Goodman asks a simple, but important question[1]: why did political violence escalate in first century Judea and Galilee? This type of violence became so endemic that the Jewish War contained elements of both an internal civil war and an external war against the Romans. Conventional wisdom dictates that the Romans destroyed the social fabric of Judea and Galilee, and that this led to a spiral of violence. But Goodman makes a different argument[2]: the most important factor to societal breakdown in first century Judea and Galilee was weak leadership from local political and religious leaders. This is a startling conclusion. Although many other Mediterranean regions managed to adapt to Roman rule (and often thrived), Judea and Galilee could not because of a lack of leadership. Not only does this imply that Judean leaders failed in their task of facilitating societal stability and cohesion, but that they also failed to bring about the required societal renewal in the face of uncertain times. They failed in their most important tasks as leaders of God’s people.

Nowhere is this argument more clear than Jesus’ verdict that the Temple became a den of robbers.[3] It is worthwhile noting that the religious leaders of the Temple were mostly political leaders as well. They were not a few pastors gone rogue; they had real influence in both the social and political landscape of Judea and Galilee. And instead of keeping the Temple’s divine design as a house of prayer for the nations, they reshaped the Temple into a racketeering opportunity. This line of argument is echoed elsewhere in the Gospels.

[1] Goodman, M 1987. The Ruling Class of Judea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt against Rome AD 66–70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] In Goodman’s opinion, five possible causes can be suggested for the Jewish War of 66-70 AD: the first possible cause was the incompetence of Roman officials who could have quelled social unrest with softer diplomatic skills, but instead opted for physical violence. The problem with this explanation is that some of the Roman officials were promoted after their stint in Roman Palestine. So they were not seen as inept by their superiors. To be sure, some Roman governors were singled out by their compatriots for inept handling of the Judean situation, but that is not true of all the procurators and prefects. The second possible cause is the inherent oppressive nature of the Roman rule in Judea. That would have negated good governance from some of the procurators in the long run. The question here is whether Roman rule was so much more oppressive in Judea compared to other Roman territories. It is unlikely that Roman Palestine was singled out for harsher treatment by the Romans. The third possible cause is that Jewish religious sensibilities were trampled on and led to a religious war against the Romans. The problem here is that, although instances of Roman insensitivity around the Temple and Passover can be found, the Romans also permitted many extraordinary freedoms to the Jewish people compared to other religious groupings in the Roman empire. The fourth possible cause given by Goodman, was the developing class tensions within Judean and Galilean society. But then, why were these class tensions allowed to simmer and escalate to such an extent if civil government and a local elite were available to address the issues? So lastly, Goodman argues that the most important cause for the inevitable war was the collapse of an effective local elite who could represent the non-elite and the Roman interests to the best of all involved.

[3] “And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers”” (Mark 11:17, ESV).

Consider the way Jesus took on some community leaders in Luke: “When the Pharisees[4], a money-obsessed bunch, heard him say these things, they rolled their eyes, dismissing him as hopelessly out of touch. So Jesus spoke to them: “You are masters at making yourselves look good in front of others, but God knows what’s behind the appearance. What society sees and calls monumental, God sees through and calls monstrous” (Luke 16:14–15, The Message). It was the same political and religious leaders who deemed the Son of God as an obstacle that should be removed for the well being of Judea — an ironic position at best.

This brings us to the current break-neck speeds of political and economic changes in South Africa. Though corruption and economic inequality are twin dangers that drive much of these changes, the conclusion of Goodman on first century Judea and Galilee is very applicable here as well. Perhaps the greatest danger that South Africa faces is not poverty and corruption. After all, there is a reason why these things are not improving. The greatest danger we face as a nation is a lack of moral and courageous leadership. Many would argue that we have the people and resources to build a far better society, but we currently lack leadership.[5] But, before this is read as another attack on the ANC political elite, it should be clarified that weak leadership includes, but also goes beyond, the ANC political elite. The sword has a double-edged blade. It can be said that general leadership of South African business, church, civic society and family is in a weak state.[6] For any real change to come we either need new, or renewed, leaders in all spheres of society.

And here the Church plays a central role. One of the most important roles of Church is not just to foster more intimate personal connections with Jesus, but also to be a formative environment for social leaders. Daniel possessed an extra-ordinary piety and character, but he was also a person “brimming with spirit and intelligence”. We need more leaders from this mold. Just as Daniel brought undeniable competence and spiritual power to a highly problematic time, so the Church must help produce leaders who lead rightly and justly in all spheres of society. We need “prophets” who speak truth to those in power, we need “kings” who steward various social institutions well, and above all, we need “priests” who can reconcile people with God and with one another.

Here are some broad suggestions in this regard:

  • A Church that produces leaders is an interceding church. “One day as they were worshiping God—they were also fasting as they waited for guidance—the Holy Spirit spoke: “Take Barnabas and Saul and commission them for the work I have called them to do”” (Acts 13:2, The Message). This seems like an obvious suggestion — but the question is whether a church is seeking the face of God for our whole nation, or only for immediate concerns.

[4] Again the distinction between religious and political leaders was not neat in the time of Jesus. It is currently thought that the Pharisees (because of the influence they had on Judaism) played a very important role on local community level. Notice, for example, how the Pharisees were the main opponents of Jesus when he ministered in villages. But this changed as Jesus ministered in the capital — Jerusalem — where the chief priests and their proxies played a more important role.

[5] To be fair, this is a sweeping statement. Some individuals shine in this regard, but the argument is that the general state of leadership in the country is weak.

[6] Consider again the static nature of the social problems we face. If there had been more courageous leadership in church, business and civic society in general more change would have happened.

  • A Church that produces leaders is not afraid to engage people around their social calling. Although it is already difficult for many believers to have clarity around personal vision, the church should not hesitate to frame calling within the context of society as well. We are not only called to Someone, and to something — we are also called to somewhere! We need self-aware leaders with a profound sense of calling for South Africa and for the people of South Africa.
  • A Church that produces leaders robustly engages Scripture. Reading Scripture is important, but not enough. “Instead you thrill to God’s Word, you chew on Scripture day and night. You’re a tree replanted in Eden, bearing fresh fruit every month, Never dropping a leaf, always in blossom” (Psalm 1:2–3, The Message). Again, this may appear like an obvious suggestion, but the question is whether we are producing thought leaders who are able to give a Biblical critique and solutions to social problems.
  • A Church that produces leaders is not afraid to discuss the broader social issues that we face (whether that be in the arena of political, business, community, church or family). Churches are often cautious not to seem political — and to be fair — people often come to church to be inspired, not to discuss overwhelming social realities. But here is the thing: real faith is forged in the face of realities, not in a removed feel-good space that is irrelevant to the challenges we face. We do not want people to merely feel inspired, we need leaders with resolve in the Spirit.
  • A Church that produces leaders practices what they preach. Jesus did not only raise disciples and preach. He helped people and communities. So should we.

Leave a Comment