Rehoboam stood before the people at Shechem. They had come to make him king. The people who once looked to his father, Solomon, now looked to Rehoboam. Though he suffered decline at the end of his reign, Solomon led the kingdom to heights it had never seen, and Rehoboam now felt the weight of that scepter.
As the kingdom passed to him, the young ruler had a question to answer: What will characterize my leadership? Would he lead like his father and grandfather, or would he blaze a new trail?
While the story of 1 Kings 12 plays a specific role in the history of Israel, it also touches on an issue that every leader encounters. Pastors and church planters, in particular, must wrestle with the very question Rehoboam faced. As those called to oversee an established church or to plant a church, leaders must decide how they will wield the authority entrusted to them.
Recent months and years have demonstrated the destructive effects of pastors using authority to create a toxic culture within a church or organization. Therefore, we would do well to learn from this tragic story of Rehoboam’s failed leadership.
Seek Wise Counselors, Not Foolish Friends
The older is often seen as stale and out-of-touch, whether it’s an older approach to education or even an older cultural norm, such as the traditional view of marriage. This is true of our society in general, but it is also demonstrated within Christianity. Young church leaders often chase after the cutting edge of outreach and seek innovation when it comes to church life, all the while traditional methods of outreach and pastoral ministry are discarded like antiquated machinery. For example, expositional sermons are replaced with Ted Talks informed more by broader culture than the Bible.
Rehoboam “took counsel with the old men,” but it was ultimately “the young men who had grown up with him” who had the king’s ear. Brashness won over temperance. Pride over humility. Worldly foolishness over biblical wisdom. The young ruler allowed youthful arrogance to guide his leadership.
Church leaders, including those in my own Reformed circles, may read some old books and even have a Puritan quote tattooed on their forearm, all the while their leadership is more characterized by youthful zeal than biblical wisdom. How many churches and relationships have been damaged due to a leader refusing to heed the counsel of older, wiser saints?
If we are only, or even primarily, taking our ministry cues from pastors who look like us and are from our own generation, then we are foolishly going the way of Rehoboam.
I am still a relatively young pastor, and I can feel the pull of my own pride. Earlier in life, I was much more critical of older pastors and their ministries. After having felt the pressures of pastoral ministry and having seen the number of pastors who have disqualified themselves because of sin, I am much more likely to seek the counsel of men who have faithfully labored for decades.
Seasoned leaders are a treasure of wisdom and instruction, not a threat or nuisance to be discarded. As young leaders, we would be wise to heed the caution of Rehoboam’s mistakes. Otherwise, we may only learn the lesson once our ministry is dashed upon the rocks of foolishness.
Be a Servant, not a Tyrant
Rehoboam had a choice to be a servant leader or a harsh tyrant. The old counselors exhorted him to be a servant to the people, and “they will be your servants forever.” The old sages knew the captivating power of a leader who is willing to stoop down and serve those who are under him.
Rehoboam’s friends, on the other hand, pressed the king to show bravado. Rather than service, the foolish counselors valued power. They wanted the people to follow him out of fear, not love. His friends told him to warn the people of Israel, “My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs.” The message is clear: Rehoboam is tougher than Solomon, so don’t question his leadership.
So often, youthful leadership is marked by insecurity. Authority is less a means of service, and more a power to protect at all costs. Any whiff of dissension, disagreement, or even questioning is crushed. We refuse to put certain individuals in leadership, not because they are unqualified, but because they will not toe the line of our agenda.
Sadly, this has been one of the common mistakes in young church leaders. A domineering approach to leadership may allow a pastor to get things done at the church, but recent history has shown that its fruit will eventually be division and relational wreckage. The recent example of James MacDonald shows that this leadership error is not limited to only the younger, less experienced leaders.
All Christian leaders, and especially church leaders, should be marked by a humility that expresses itself in service. Resist the sinful lie that you must protect your leadership and authority at all costs. Instead, we pray that Christ would root out our sinful pride and replace it with his cross-bearing, servant-minded Spirit.
Give Them Grace, not Harsh Judgment
The old counselors told Rehoboam to speak “good words” to the people. They had a burden, and Rehoboam needed to help ease the burden. The people needed words of comfort in this season, but Solomon’s son would not heed the wise words of his father’s counselors.
Instead, he chose the path of harsh judgment. Following the advice of his friends, Rehoboam warned the people, “My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” His reign promised nothing but a heavier burden. His leadership was not concerned with the needs of the people, but with the needs of his own glory.
Church leaders can become so driven to build their own kingdom that they neglect the needs of their people. Less time is given to the slow, painstaking work of nourishing the flock, and more time is allotted to the flashy side of ministry that yields higher attendance, a greater budget, or a larger platform. This can all be done under the guise of kingdom work, but it is simply building the kingdom of self, not the kingdom of Christ.
The story in 1 Kings 12 closes with the result that the kingdom of Israel is split into two. There is a division that plays out for hundreds of years. The sin of leaders has massive ripple effects that can be seen across generations, and it is no different today. The sinful and selfish leadership of one leader can destroy not only churches, but also whole organizations.
Leadership is a gift to be stewarded, not a title to be ruthlessly guarded. Pastors are not kings in the Kingdom, but we are overseers and shepherds of Christ’s flock. With that role comes incredible responsibility, a responsibility that is too great for a mere sinner. Therefore, brothers, we look to Christ to guard us against going the way of Rehoboam.