America's Role Model

The first President of the United States was George Washington, ever regarded as the father of his country. When asked to rank the greatest Presidents, modern scholars have consistently placed Washington among the top three, seldom if ever lower than fourth.

We have no direct evidence that Washington was a Christian in the sense of consciously depending on Jesus alone for salvation, but certainly he was a professing Christian, and he viewed religion as one foundation of an orderly and prosperous society. In his farewell address, he said, "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." In other words, religion is the basis of morality. He said further that "virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government." That is, government resting on the will of the people will never succeed unless the people are guided by a strong moral conscience.

In his leadership style Washington exhibited many traits of godly leadership. The most notable was a servant's heart. At every turn of his career he sought what was good for the nation rather than what was good for himself. After leading the colonies to final victory over the British in the Revolutionary War, he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief, exactly when he was positioned to make himself the king of a new country. Amazement swept through the halls of power in Europe. This self-effacing decision so impressed King George III that he lauded Washington, saying that if he kept his word, he would be "the greatest man in the world." Later, Washington was elected the first President, but repeatedly he shunned any greater power that would have undermined his vision of America's future as a true republic. He strengthened Congress's role in making decisions, and he created cabinet secretaries to assist him in his executive office. After two terms he stepped down rather than serve as President for life, as many thought he should.

Another of Washington's outstanding traits as a leader was his willingness to stand as a positive role model for the whole nation. After his death, his comrade in the Revolutionary War, Henry Lee, composed a eulogy that still lodges in the hearts of all patriotic Americans.

First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and enduring scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. To his equals he was condescending, to his inferiors kind, and to the dear object of his affections exemplarily tender; correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. His last scene comported with the whole tenor of his life—although in extreme pain, not a sigh, not a groan escaped him; and with undisturbed serenity he closed his well-spent life. Such was the man America has lost—such was the man for whom our nation mourns.

Principles of Leadership in the Book of Joshua

The events following Joshua’s installation as the new leader of Israel model proper relationships within an organization. To be truly successful, an organization must meet four requirements.

1. There is delegated authority.

Originally, when Moses led Israel out of Egypt, he and Aaron tried to rule the whole congregation by themselves. But God soon gave them assistance by creating a variety of subordinate officials.

First were the judges. When Moses’ father-in-law Jethro visited the camp, he discovered that all disputes seeking a judge came directly to Moses himself. Jethro suggested that Moses create a middle tier of judges to try most cases, sparing Moses for the hardest (Exod. 18:13-26).

Later, the burden of leadership was still too great for Moses, because the people blamed him for every inconvenience connected with living in the wilderness. They especially resented the manna, and wherever Moses went, he heard their complaints (Num. 11:4-15). The Lord decided to appoint another group of leaders to serve as a buffer between Moses and the people—a group of elders, seventy men who were filled with the Spirit of God. After the Jews returned from exile in Persia, they adopted a similar form of government. They reinstituted the office of elder and gave ruling authority to the Sanhedrin, a council comprising seventy elders under one leader.

Still later, Moses set up captains over thousands and hundreds (Deut. 1:15). Presumably these were the "officers of the people" (Josh. 1:10) who prepared the nation to cross over Jordan. Joshua's use of the term "officers" shows that they were distinct from the elders and judges (Josh. 8:33; 23:2). The word itself means "someone who writes, a scribe." Yet the context makes it clear that these officers were military commanders. Evidently, the ability to write was viewed as an essential qualification for someone entrusted with enrolling and organizing men in an army.

Likewise in any organization today, it is good to have a well-defined hierarchy of leadership. God wants churches, for example, to have deacons serving under the pastor. The value in middle layers of authority is primarily threefold.

  1. It relieves top leaders of excessive responsibility (Acts 6:1-7). Moses could not carry the whole burden of leadership. Neither can a pastor. He needs to concentrate on his spiritual duties. Except in a very small church, he should not count the money, or look at financial records to see what people are giving, or micromanage the budget, or supervise Sunday School classes, or direct the choir, or organize youth activities. These tasks belong to others.
  2. It allows other men to develop and exercise their gifts for the benefit of the whole organization. An organization under a dictator cannot run faster than he can run or climb higher than he can climb. Where many men serve as leaders, the strengths of one complement the strengths of another and free the organization from the limitations of one man. Thus, in the nation of Israel, Moses did not presume to oversee the building of the Tabernacle, but designated Bezaleel to lead the work (Exod. 31:1-6). Bezaleel and Aholiab were the master craftsmen, not Moses. Likewise, the operation of a church involves many tasks that are best performed by especially skilled individuals (1 Cor. 12:12-31). I once had a pastor who said that he wished he could clone himself to do all the jobs in the church, but since he could not, he needed helpers. I always thought this statement a bit conceited. As choir director, I could not refrain from anticipating what would happen if he cloned himself to replace me. The result would have been a choir director unable to carry a tune.
  3. It prepares men to step into even higher callings. Steven and Philip began as deacons, but soon distinguished themselves as preachers and evangelists.

2. There is a shared commitment to honor and obey God.

In commanding the people to prepare to cross the Jordan, Joshua was carrying out the task God had given him. God had not specified three days, but had left this detail to Joshua’s own good judgment, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. We have the same experience as Christians. We derive broad principles of guidance from the Bible and apply them as the Spirit leads.

The nation responded to Joshua’s direction with whole-hearted cooperation (Josh. 1:16-18). It is unclear in verse 16 whether "they" refers to the two-and-a-half tribes mentioned in the previous verses or to the whole nation. Likely it is the whole nation responding to Joshua’s assertion of authority as their new leader. They say, in essence, that they will accept his leadership and comply with all his commands. Moreover, they will enforce his commands by severely punishing any rebels. Yet their submission to Joshua is conditional. In recognition that God is the supreme leader of Israel, they will follow Joshua only if he himself is following God.

Their example teaches us the proper obligations of both leaders and followers. It is a leader’s duty to do right according to God’s will, and it is a follower’s duty to accept leadership in line with God’s will. In a fallen world, we sometimes find ourselves subordinate to ungodly people—perhaps to parents or bosses who are antagonistic to the things of God, perhaps even to unsaved military commanders, judges, or rulers. Yet we must view all legally constituted authorities as ministers of God (Rom. 13:1-2). Even so, however, they lose the right to our obedience if they dictate anything contrary to God's Word—that is, if they require us to do anything offensive to the conscience of a Christian.

3. Everyone recognizes that it is in the organization’s best interest to have a strong leader.

After hearing the Lord’s charge to be strong, Joshua took decisive action. He told the whole nation that he wanted them ready to move within three days. The whole nation responded by urging him, "Only be strong and of a good courage" (Josh. 1:18). Why was this their desire? They remembered the past. Throughout the early years of wandering in the wilderness, the nation had suffered constant turmoil stirred up by conflict between Moses and multitudes of disgruntled followers. At each point of crisis, Moses stood firm as God’s representative. When pressed by a demand contrary to God’s will, he never yielded or compromised. As a result, God never withdrew His presence from the nation, and Moses kept God's backing as their leader until they reached the verge of the Promised Land.

It is evident why the godly elements in the tribes wanted Joshua to be strong. To manage a large nation of strong-willed people, he could not be weak, especially in dealing with rebellion. For that reason, the tribes particularly admonished him to maintain discipline, and they promised to enforce it. Without discipline, the nation would fracture into tribes that would go their separate ways, never realizing God’s plan to become a single nation under His direction.

4. All dealings are conducted with personal integrity.

Some time before, after the nation had utterly destroyed the Amorites on the east side of the river, the tribes of Gad and Reuben together with the half tribe of Manasseh looked at the vast territory now vacant and desired it for themselves (Num. 32). The people of these two-and-a-half tribes had great flocks and herds, and the land where the Amorites had dwelt, the land of Gilead, was ideal for grazing. They therefore came to Moses with the request that this land east of Jordan be given to them as their portion among the tribes.

Moses’ first reaction was anger. He thought they were proposing to stay behind while the remainder of Israel crossed Jordan and confronted the Canaanites. He warned them that their defection from the army would demoralize the other tribes and discourage them from attempting the invasion, with the result that they would again incur the Lord’s wrath. Instead of taking them into the land, He would leave them in the wilderness. The two-and-a-half tribes replied that they were willing to help in the military campaign. After building shelters for their families and folds for their flocks, the men of war would leave their homes behind and cross fully armed into Canaan with the rest of the nation, and they would not go back until the war of conquest was over. Moses accepted their proposal, cautioning them that failure to keep their promise would be a grave sin against the Lord (Num. 32:23).

In hindsight, we suspect that the two-and-a-half tribes were wrong in their choice of territory. By taking land outside of Canaan on the east side of Jordan, they were settling for second best. They put themselves on Israel’s exposed flank, where in later years they found it difficult to hold off invaders. The best lot fell to Judah, the tribe that would produce the Messiah. Judah was centrally located with protective shields on two sides: desert to the south and the Dead Sea on the east.

One of Joshua’s first acts after assuming command of the nation was to remind the two-and-a-half tribes of their promises to Moses (Josh. 1:12-15). At the same time he reiterated Moses’ assurance that if they fulfilled their commitment, the nation would recognize their title to the land east of Jordan. Since they responded by joining in a pledge of cooperation (Josh. 1:16–18), we see that they did not argue with their duty. Nor did they shrink from performing it. When the moment finally came to cross the Jordan, the first in procession were 40,000 armed men of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh (Josh. 4:12-13). Joshua’s purpose in placing them first may have been to guarantee that they would not melt away from the rear, leaving the other tribes to fend for themselves.

The incident illustrates integrity on both sides. Although leadership had changed hands, the two-and-a-half tribes kept their word. They did not view the passing of Moses as an occasion for renegotiating their obligations or as an excuse for shirking their obligations. They might have thought that they could take advantage of a new man who had not yet consolidated his power. Instead, they chose to please the Lord by honoring their commitments. Likewise, having inherited Moses’ agreement with these tribes, Joshua did not try to change the terms. He let the agreement stand unchanged. He too took the path of integrity.

The Ticket to Greatness

In Matthew 18 we come to one of Jesus' longest and most significant discourses, the one we might entitle, "Church Ethics." Perhaps a week or two earlier, He had for the first time announced His intention to found a new religious body called the church. Now it was therefore appropriate for Him to enlarge upon the new concept, giving His disciples fuller knowledge of what the church would be and how it would operate. In particular, He wanted to lay down principles of conduct within the church. In the Sermon on the Mount, He had already provided a far-ranging discussion of moral principles, but now He wanted to apply these more general principles to relations between believers.

For example, in the Beatitudes prefacing the Sermon on the Mount, He had taught that the way up is down. In other words, the way up for self in the long run is the way down for self in the short run. To gain the kingdom requires poverty of spirit instead of a prideful spirit (Matt. 5:3). To win comfort requires mourning—that is, a realization that our selfish dreams are impossible to fulfill (Matt. 5:4). To inherit everything requires not self-promotion, but its opposite, which is meekness (Matt. 5:5). To be filled with the best, which is righteousness, requires an appetite for righteousness (Matt. 5:6), but righteousness is the fruit of self-denial. So, it is no coincidence that Jesus began His discourse on church ethics by addressing the problem of self.

In Mark's account, we learn that the setting was a house in Capernaum, perhaps Peter's house (Mark 9:33-37), which they had all just entered after arriving in the city. To get the disciples’ attention, Jesus asked them what they had been discussing along the road, perhaps under the delusion that He could not hear them. The only answer they gave was silence, for they were embarrassed to tell the truth. They knew Jesus would not approve. They had let themselves get embroiled in a foolish disagreement over who would be greatest in Christ’s kingdom. Each one had vented selfish ambition, the exact opposite of the meekness that Jesus had taught them to cultivate.

Jesus started by articulating the general principle He intended to discuss. He was, in essence, announcing His subject. Or we might say that He was giving the title of the lesson. He said, "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all" (Mark 9:35). He meant that the greatness of those who are first in power or wealth or beauty or achievement is not true greatness. Rather, true greatness is the result of self-denial for the sake of others.

To make this pivotal truth more concrete, Jesus told a child to come forward, and He set the little one in their midst so that everyone could look at him. Then He took the child in His arms (Mark 9:36). Why?

In the disciples’ dispute over who would be greatest in the Kingdom, they had fallen into bad thinking, and Jesus decided that the best way to correct them was to teach them a new idea (Matt. 18:3). He said that the disciples did not even meet the first prerequisite for admission to the Kingdom. Just to get in, a person had to stoop low and remake himself as a child. Jesus was telling them to seek humility, a virtue diametrically opposed to all the pride on display when they staked out claims to high positions in the Kingdom. The application was obvious. They should stop worrying about who would be first and start worrying about whether they would get in.

Then Jesus went on to explain that childlike humility is important for another reason. It is required not only for salvation, but also for a proper relationship with others (Matt. 18:4). What sort of humility does a child have? A little child lives in a world where everyone around him is more skilled that he is, and where others are constantly correcting his faults. The thought that he is better than others never crosses his mind. So it should be with us. We should never fool ourselves that we are better than others and deserve a higher place (Phil. 2:3). Yet it is human nature to look down on other people, is it not? But why?

Do you think you have greater ability than somebody else? But where did you get your ability? Not from yourself. Your genetic make-up came from your parents as the immediate source, but the ultimate source was your Creator. So, your ability is a gift, not a personal achievement. Yet as we view our lives we find many reasons to boast. We view many things as proving our superiority. A man successful in business, for instance, may take pride in being a self-made man. But he overlooks all the disadvantages that hampered others less successful. And he fails to reckon with all the chances in his favor that could have gone against him, chances ultimately under divine control.

Do you think you are morally better than others? Study closely that person you see in the mirror. Surely you know what evil lies in your own heart. What you are capable of doing has never been fully tested. You have been spared much provocation. You have been restrained by authorities watching you and holding you accountable. Doubtless you have the potential for the same wickedness you condemn in others. Any victory you have enjoyed over sin has been due solely to the grace of God.

What Jesus is teaching here boils down to the basic idea that the only way to please God is to recognize ourselves as sinners undeserving of His favor. We do not deserve salvation. Nor do we deserve distinction among the saints or elevation above them. To view ourselves so modestly requires us to be humble, with the humility of a little child. But with Jesus’ exhortation to be humble comes a highly motivating promise. True humility brings true greatness. It is one of the mystifying paradoxes in the spiritual universe that to view yourself as nobody special is the only road to becoming somebody special.

In His introductory remarks before taking the child into His arms, Jesus had presented this truth in the form He would emphasize throughout His ministry (Mark 9:35). He defined the right humility as making yourself last of all and servant of all. He would return to the same teaching frequently during the coming months. For example, on His final journey to Jerusalem, after James and John had approached Him to request a high place in His kingdom (Mark 10:35–40), He exhorted the disciples that only by living as servant of all could they become the chief of all (Mark 10:41-45). Then on the night before His death, He washed the disciples’ feet as an example of how brethren in the church should treat each other (John 13:12-17).

Why would the greatest in the church and in the heavenly congregation of saints be the least in their own eyes?

  1. The humble contribute most to the happiness of all. The opposite of humility is pride, and pride is always a source of trouble. It produces hoarding rather than giving, complaining rather than praising, hatred rather than caring. Why? Because pride, putting self first, tramples on all who get in the way of pleasing self. Always the nicest people to live with are the most humble. Therefore, the humble deserve first place in everyone’s esteem. It follows that God, who is just, affixes to the humblest the honor of being the greatest.
  2. God is determined to prevent another rebellion such as Lucifer started long ago. God hates all sin, but He has a particularly fierce hatred of pride (Jas. 4:6) because it was Lucifer's first sin, leading to all the other sin and wickedness that has since blackened the universe. The reason God refrained from preventing the first rebellion is that it served higher purposes, such as setting a stage where we His children might learn to hate evil. But to assure no further rebellion when we assume our eternal state, God will never again put anyone vulnerable to egotism in a high place, as He did Lucifer. Rather, He will give preference to those with proven humility.

But what does it mean to be greatest?

  1. Does the term refer to high authority? No. Remember that God set authority structures in this world as a check on sin. In a fallen world, we need parents and teachers and judges and kings to enforce moral law. But in a sinless heaven, law enforcement will be an outmoded function.
  2. There may be task leaders in heaven. I hope I will still have a choir. But I suspect that we will all have opportunities as task leaders. I doubt that any will be greater than others in this respect.
  3. I hope I will still share my knowledge through a ministry of teaching. Some people think that when we get to heaven, we will know everything. No, only God is omniscient. Throughout eternity we will never stop learning. Therefore, there may always be a role for teachers. But all of us will probably have subjects to teach.
  4. What then does greatness in heaven refer to? It must mean to enjoy more privileges. In heaven and also in the church, what is the chief privilege? It is to be loved. What we believers learn to be of supreme value is the love of God and the love of other saints. Jesus on one occasion alerted us that the richness of our experience in heaven will depend on how many friends we have (Luke 16:9). But we have already observed that the most lovable people are the humblest. It follows that God and the saints will always direct their loving attention especially to the humblest, and so the humblest will always be the greatest.


Because the church exists in a sinful world, it needs leaders with authority to command (Heb. 13:17). But the church should be radically different from a typical worldly organization, designed as a vertical hierarchy with power and privilege reserved mainly for people at the top. Instead, church leaders should be servants. They should not be lords using others as tools to serve their own interests (1 Pet. 5:1-4). Their authority should be exercised solely for the benefit of others.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.