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Learning Leadership From Moses

A Biblical Model for the Church Today
The story of Moses provides us with lessons in Christian leadership for God's people today.

This quality of humility is visible in Moses’ call story in Exodus 3. After hearing God’s call to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses protested: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). Moses was acutely aware of his own limitations, including his lack of eloquence: “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). These limitations forced him to rely radically on God, who promised to be with him. And he also was forced to rely on his brother, Aaron, who was the public voice for Moses when he went before the Pharaoh. Moses knew that he could not accomplish his mission alone; he needed the help of his brother. And the whole bold venture could succeed if and only if it was sustained by the power of God. Leaders who possess humility know well that the success of their work does not depend on their own brilliance or force of will: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

Vision, not Popularity

A corollary of the first five characteristics we have named is this: Moses’ actions as a leader were grounded in a deep trust in God that enabled him to stay faithful to his vision even in the face of opposition. He did not seek popularity or strive to stay on top of opinion polls; instead, he stayed the course, following the vision he had been given. In the story told in Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam spoke enviously against Moses, but he did not seek to rebut their criticism of his leadership. Instead, he trusted God to defend him against detractors, leaving his vindication in the hands of God.

Throughout the story of the wilderness wandering, the people again and again opposed and complained about Moses’ leadership, but even though he was sometimes deeply frustrated, he never wavered or compromised his mission. He kept his eye on the calling he had been given by God and remained faithful for 40 years, regardless of the swings of popular opinion—whether adulation or rebellion.

It is a delicate matter to discern the difference between steadfast faithfulness to a calling and stubborn resistance to the counsel of others. Surely the difference hinges on the authenticity of the calling to which the strong leader remains faithful. I would venture the judgment, however, that in our time too many who aspire to leadership are driven by the need for popular approval, or they use that approval as their barometer of success. Moses, by contrast, provides a model of a leader whose eyes remained on the prize of the promised land.

Passing It On

Finally, the story of Moses reminds us of the truth that even the greatest leaders never fully finish the work. They must anticipate not only their own mortality but also the need to raise up other leaders to follow them. Moses told the people of Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people,” and he solemnly admonished them to “heed such a prophet” (Deuteronomy 18:15–19). He specifically identified Joshua as his chosen successor and commissioned him to carry forward the task of leading the people into the land, under the Lord’s guidance (Deuteronomy 31:1–8). “Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Deuteronomy 34:9). An important part of the responsibility of wise leadership is to identify and raise up the next generation of leaders to follow, and to “lay hands” on them in blessing to carry forward the unfinished work.

These seven qualities of Moses’ leadership offer a biblical model for imagining how we might faithfully fulfill the leadership roles to which we are called in our time. But the pattern described here also prefigures the way of one who is the truest paradigm of leadership, one who, “though he was in the form of God, ... emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6–7). We cannot be Jesus, of course. But just as Moses’ pattern of humble service prefigured Jesus’ counterintuitive way of embodying authority, so also our leadership should reflect, even through a glass darkly, the Christ-shaped pattern of true leadership.

As we reflect on our own vocations to leadership, may God give us first the humility to say, “Who am