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Too nice to win?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Is your candidate mean enough to be president of the United States?

The Sept. 3 edition of Newsweek magazine looks at the presidential prospects of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and concludes his primary problem is that he seems, well, “too nice” to turn aside a whole field of hard-knuckle Republicans and then Hillary Clinton on the way to the White House.

Whether one supports Huckabee or someone else or (like most Americans) no one yet at all, Newsweek’s question is a good one, and one as old as Christianity. Take Huckabee off the table, along with the question of whether his perceived “niceness” is the fruit of the Spirit or small-town southern manners or his own niche political strategy. I know what Newsweek means: personal character isn’t enough to swim through the piranha waters of American politics. “Niceness” is just shorthand for Newsweek that Huckabee doesn’t seem, to them, to have the consuming ambition needed to go all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s why, in the article, some wise voices turned the question away from niceness to fundraising benchmarks and “fire in the belly.”

Still, it is interesting that Newsweek asked the question this way, and their curiosity about a nice-guy Baptist preacher/governor leads to a bigger question: Does the life of the Spirit, summed up in the Beatitudes of Jesus, rob one of the ability to lead effectively in a fallen world?

This isn’t just a question for those running for president of the United States. Believers in the corporate world face this all the time, especially when they read leadership manuals whose subtext is Charles Darwin, not Christ Jesus. It is also a question, increasingly, for pastors who are told all the time by the books they read and the seminars they attend that the way to lead a church is to drop the basin and the towel, and to do it the Gentile way (Luke 22:25-30).

In one sense, the Bible clearly tells us that Newsweek is right: It is possible to be “too nice” to be president or, more importantly, to be pastor. A ruler who is unwilling to “bear the sword” against evildoers (Romans 13:1-7) is unqualified to represent God in protecting the people. A pastor who smiles in the faces of false teachers is unqualified to shepherd the flock of God. A pastor, or a president, must be someone who understands that we live in an era of evil. A utopian view of human nature will quickly lead him to ruin, in a church business meeting or in a general session of the United Nations.

Still, at the same time, Jesus is constantly pointing us as believers to a gravity-defying style of leadership. This way is a leadership style that, yes, takes into account the fallenness of the people around us. But it also prepares us for leadership in another realm, in the kingdom of Christ. This is why Jesus doesn’t simply reject without comment the pagan models of leadership, grasping for position and running over “little people”, that he sees in his disciples.

He points them to the necessity of ruling in a coming Kingdom, one more permanent than the Gentile empires for which they lust. Jesus tells them the first must be last, and the leader the servant of all, but he also tells them why: “That you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30).

That’s counter-intuitive to the point of insanity, it seems. The Apostle Peter wants to fight the anti-christ crucifixion forces, a perfectly reasonable option. The “sons of thunder” want to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan villages, and seem to shake their heads in disbelief when He won’t. They seem to throw up their hands in frustration, “Who would Jesus bomb?”

When the Corinthian church turns to the lawcourts to settle their disputes, it makes perfect sense from almost any leadership profile. But Paul shows them they are actually training themselves to lose in the arena of the future Empire of Christ. “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” he asks. “… Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:3,7).

When the churches of the Dispersion wish to maximize their influence by recognizing the power-brokers in their midst, that makes sense. If the wealthier members of society convert to Christianity, think of the influence they can have for the advance of the Great Commission! A “trickle-down ecclesiology” would seem strategic. And yet, James tells them they are politically naive, not recognizing that God has “chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5).

I haven’t chosen a candidate for president yet, and I doubt I will do so on the basis of who is the nicest or the meanest. But the question haunts me: not about Mike Huckabee but about me. How often are the Gentile patterns showing up in my own life? How often is decisiveness and toughmindedness in my own leadership style really just the works of the flesh? How often is what I perceive to be a “wasted time” that could be spent calling a meeting or writing a book actually God’s way of putting me through a leadership seminar for the eschaton? The real question for me isn’t what it takes to be president, but what it takes to be a servant ruler in the new creation.

Following Jesus is not as simple as looking at a wristband. Jesus tells us the meek shall inherit the earth. And when the Meek One appears He is drenched in blood and carrying a sword (Revelation 11-16). But He reminds us even yet that the blood is His own, and the only sword we have is the sword of the Spirit, a sword to be turned most often on ourselves.

We turn from our leadership manuals and look to the Eastern sky as we wait for the executive positions only He assigns in a kingdom that smashes all the other kingdoms, even those of the efficient Gentiles. And as we stand with the Galilean in glory, no one will dare ask Him if He’s too nice to be King.
Russell D. Moore is dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

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  • Russell D. Moore