Formation

Prophets vs. Pimps: The Tension of Spirit-Led Leadership

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What does it mean to lead in the power of the Spirit? And why is it so difficult?

These questions are not just for those in formal church leadership, but in all situations where one has influence. The good news is that passages such as Numbers 11 give us insight into how we might answer the aforementioned questions. The bad news is that one cannot lead in the power of the Spirit without also engaging in struggles.

As a prime example, we turn to the story of Moses.

In his thought-provoking commentary on Moses, James Montgomery Boice offered this reflection:

Apart from Jesus Christ, no person in history has made as deep or lasting an impression on the world as Moses, the “servant of God” (Rev.15:3) …His was a remarkable career. The Exodus from Egypt alone is one of the great stories in history. The law, which contains the Ten Commandments, is one of the great treasures of the world.[1]

Indeed, Moses is rated highly in Scripture. It was Moses who, along with Elijah, was given the special honor to visit with and encourage Jesus on the evening of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-13). And it was Moses who God defended time and again whenever his leadership was called into question. Yet despite being one of the greatest figures in human history, Moses is not the sort of leader we would look for today, let alone follow.

In my experience as a pastor and chaplain who has worked with churches, non-profits, hospitals, and universities, the highest places of leadership are generally reserved for those with money, power, and networks. These folks always seem to know what they are doing, where they are going, and they have the resume to prove it. Talented (or at least affluent), confident, visionary… that is, by and large, the expectation we have of our leaders and what our leaders often expect of themselves. And while we may preach humility and weakness, we demonstrate through our actions in many of our churches a view of leadership that is not altogether different from the status quo.

While we may preach humility and weakness, we demonstrate through our actions in many of our churches a view of leadership that is not altogether different from the status quo. Click To Tweet

In contrast, Moses was a murderer and former fugitive, an inarticulate speaker, and lacking in charisma. And given how frequently people tried to bully him, including his own brother and sister (Num. 12, 16), he himself was likely not intimidating. The stressful and wearying situations that Moses endured in the Exodus account were numerous. It would have been natural if he had habitually responded with defensiveness and hostility; it would have been understandable if he had quit his position and relocated with his family. Instead, we see in Moses a picture of Spirit-led leadership rarely seen today but desperately needed.

Prophets vs. Pimps

Moses once said to his protégé and friend Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Num. 11:29).

As it concerns our efforts to lead in the Spirit, one unique struggle that we will face is between two competing paradigms: prophets and pimps. Although jarring, the word “pimp” is appropriate because it emphasizes the dark side of power and influence as well as the use of people in insidiously destructive ways.

Most leaders and congregants would never refer to themselves as pimps, especially since close ties between pimps and human trafficking makes the word repulsive to many and traumatic to some. Yet, we act as pimps more often than we care to admit. The ease with which we can point others to Jesus yet unwaveringly follow the money; our tendency in ministry to use people for their gifts and talents yet fail to care for their well-being; or if you are like my father, being a good preacher on Sundays but an abusive husband and father Monday to Saturday—all of these examples depict the pastor as a pimp.

While they are not often contrasted with one another, prophets and pimps are mirror opposites, particularly in today’s context. In modern-day terms, prophets [in the tradition of the Old Testament] are radical servants of God for the sake of obedience to God; pimps are extreme manipulators of people and systems for the sake of power and control. In Numbers 11, we see these two paradigms unfold: the paradigm of the prophet as exemplified by Moses; the paradigm of the pimp as exemplified by the masses.

On the one hand, the people of God were experiencing real hardships. Survival was a daily battle. They were a people of leaders and laymen, all looking for comfort and stability for themselves and their families. As such, they had legitimate concerns about surviving in the desert, managing the logistics of constant relocations, and handling the lack of resources. Each day they had two options: do whatever they could to control the situation and limit their hardship, or stay alert to the movement of God and trust him.

We see in Moses a picture of Spirit-led leadership rarely seen but desperately needed. Click To Tweet

Their words and deeds made clear their decision. They frequently chose to reject God, to operate out of fear, and to indulge their passions (in this case, food). To state it differently, their tendency was to subjugate others to their passions, including God, and to look anywhere but to God in times of conflict and hardship. They embodied and modeled a paradigm that sought to control the situation and to resist the Spirit of God.

On the other hand, Moses, filled with and attentive to the Spirit, embodied and modeled something different. He acknowledged his weaknesses and inabilities before God and the people. He lamented to God, not as an occasional act, but as a lifestyle. He willingly gave his life away though some sought to forcefully take it. And his greatest desire was for the people to seek after God and keep in step with the Holy Spirit regardless of the circumstances. To state it differently, Moses desired that all the people of God were prophets, seeking the heart of God in all areas of life. He embodied and modeled a paradigm that sought to submit to the Spirit of God.

How These Paradigms Manifest Themselves Today

The ministry and work of prophets is a supernatural work; the work of pimps, in the sense of controlling people and outcomes, is our natural default.

This is not to say that there are not many church leaders and congregants faithfully trying to love and serve others well (there are!), but we often underestimate our need for the Holy Spirit and overestimate our ability to lead people after God.

When the paradigm of prophets is on display, we will tend to see Christian leaders make effort to humble themselves before God and others in word and deed; we will see them boldly and courageously speak out against injustice; we will see them lament as a way of life; we will see them clinging desperately to the gospel of God.

We often underestimate our need for the Holy Spirit and overestimate our ability to lead people after God. Click To Tweet

In contrast, when the paradigm of pimps is on display, we will tend to see Christian leaders abuse their power and influence. They will remain silent and stifle the voices of the hurting; neglect lament and emphasize triumphant worship; subjugate others to their idols, and ultimately exemplify no difference between life in the gospel and life outside of it.

When the paradigm of prophets is on display, we will tend to see Christian leaders give opportunities to the next generation of leaders to succeed and to fail; model godliness in private and public, and make themselves vulnerable, transparent, and accessible to those they lead.

In contrast, when the paradigm of pimps is on display, we will see Christian leaders hoard their power and influence, often with no accountability; we will see them model dishonesty and deception, living one way in public and another in private, and we will see them close-minded, refusing to listen to the wisdom of godly men and women inside and outside their tribe.

Moses’ words to Joshua in Num.11:29, as well as his charge to him in Deut. 31:7-8, are a fitting end to Moses’ legacy. In both accounts, Moses does not emphasize leading but following. His challenge to Joshua is less about Joshua being the perfect leader and more about persevering in seeking after God, that as the people followed Joshua, they might also pursue God. The paradigm of prophets is a life of being filled with and following in the footsteps of the Spirit of God. The paradigm of pimps is a life of resisting the movement and activities of the Spirit of God.

Although the Holy Spirit inhabits every follower of Christ (John 14-17), we still need to yield to the Holy Spirit, lest we subjugate others to our default. This is challenging work, but it is the greatest gift we can give those we lead.

 

 

 

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Life of Moses: God’s First Deliverer of Israel (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2016), 3.

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