The story of Saul's rise to the kingship of Israel in 1 Samuel provides an excellent discussion on leadership that is tremendously relevant in the church today

Judge vs. King: What's the Difference?

In order to adequately discuss the differences between the roles of judge and king, we must have a better understanding of what the biblical role of judge actually entailed. To us, this term "judge" carries with it the basic connotation of deciding legal matters, but the actual role of the judges was broader than that. The Hebrew word in question is spt (shaphat, pronounced shaw-fat').

The verb spt describes a range of actions that restore or preserve order in society, so that justice, especially social justice, is guaranteed. ... as a continuous activity it can be translated as rule, govern; as a specific activity it can be translated as deliver, rescue or judge.

(a) To establish or maintain justice
(b) To pass judgment on or to punish
(c) To judge, settle legal disputes among the people
(d) To rule, govern

As a verbal nom., ruler or judge
(a) An office in Israel
(b) The Judges in the book of Judges
(c) Rulers, e.g. of kings in general and in Israel

(Richard Schultz, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, Willem A. Van Gemeren, General Editor, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mi. 1997. Vol 4, pp. 214-17)

After the Israelites entered into the Promised Land under Joshua, the leaders of Israel were known as judges. These include men such as Joshua, Gideon, Samson and others. In Israel, the judges functioned as leaders. They were particularly gifted and raised up specially by God for a particular purpose or need (ref. Judges 2:16, 18, 3:10, 15, 6:12, 11:29, 13:25). When Samuel's sons were not able to effectively serve as godly leaders in the place of their aging father, the elders of Israel asked for a king.

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, "You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have."

But when they said, "Give us a king to lead us," this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: "Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do." (1 Samuel 8:4-9)

It may be evident that God was displeased with Israel asking for a king, but it may not be clear on the difference between a king and a judge or why this was so bad. The text answers the question: The Israelites wanted a king to lead them, like all the other nations. They wanted a royal, worldly leader like the other nations. God was not good enough for them anymore.

Furthermore, this was a continuation of a pattern of bad behavior on the part of the Israelites-- forsaking God and serving other gods. God did not command them to have a king, and if they were to have a king, it was not to be in such a worldly manner.

However, from the earliest days it was recognized that ultimately God himself was King (Exodus 15:18, Numbers 23:21, Deuteronomy 33:5); he alone possessed absolute power and authority (Exodus 15:6, 11; Judges 5:3-5, cf. also Judges 8:22-23). Any king of Israel would have to appreciate from the outset that he was to rule over Israel under God. Only on this basis of this fundamental theological premise can the narratives of the advent of monarchy in Israel be properly understood. Those narratives consist of the accounts of the rise (8:1-12:25) and decline (13:1-15:35) of Saul, Israel's first king. (Ronald F. Youngblood, 1 Samuel, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992. Volume 3, p. 610).

The Law of Moses provided stipulations for a king in Israel. Notice the role defined by Moses:

14 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, "Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us," 15 be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite. 16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, "You are not to go back that way again." 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

Samuel went on to identify the characteristics of the king they were asking for (the format of this passage highlights the enumeration of these items).

11 He said, "This is what the king who will reign over you will do:
He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots
12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots
13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers
14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants
15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants
16 Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use
17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. (1 Samuel 8:11-17)

We might summarize these characteristics as the following:

The Lord's instructions to Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 demonstrate that some of these requirements from the Law weren't going to be followed.Nevertheless, the Israelites were about to put their security in the king. While the Israelites might have enjoyed boasting in their king and his splendor, and they probably hoped that his army would be intimidating against the Ammonites, there were some dangerous shifts taking place.

Israel Begins Royal Leadership

Samuel was directed by God to find and appoint a king. Saul was from a family "of standing," "impressive" and a head taller than his peers. While we would be correct in saying these traits are all somewhat worldly in nature, we should be careful not to infer that he was unspiritual at this time. In due time, his spiritual character would become evident.

There was a Benjamite, a man of standing, whose name was Kish son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiah of Benjamin. 2 He had a son named Saul, an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites--a head taller than any of the others. (1 Samuel 9:1-2)

So when Samuel conveyed the Lord's anointing to Saul, notice that Samuel referred to him as "leader" and not "king." Samuel knew what type of leadership was needed in spite of the calls for royalty among the people.

Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on Saul's head and kissed him, saying, "Has not the Lord anointed you leader over his inheritance? (1 Samuel 10:1)

Though God did not want the Israelites to have a king, out of his kindness to his people he put his Spirit on that king anyway.

As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul's heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day. When they arrived at Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he joined in their prophesying. When all those who had formerly known him saw him prophesying with the prophets, they asked each other, "What is this that has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?" (1 Samuel 10:9-11)

The people received their new king eagerly and with great pride.

Samuel said to all the people, "Do you see the man the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people." Then the people shouted, "Long live the king!" (1 Samuel 10:24)

The impending Ammonite threat was the first major event for the new king. So when the Ammonites approached to attack Israel, Israel's new royal leader was used by God to bring about a great victory.

11 The next day Saul separated his men into three divisions; during the last watch of the night they broke into the camp of the Ammonites and slaughtered them until the heat of the day. Those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together.

12 The people then said to Samuel, "Who was it that asked, 'Shall Saul reign over us?' Bring these men to us and we will put them to death." 13 But Saul said, "No one shall be put to death today, for this day the Lord has rescued Israel." 14 Then Samuel said to the people, "Come, let us go to Gilgal and there reaffirm the kingship." 15 So all the people went to Gilgal and confirmed Saul as king in the presence of the Lord. There they sacrificed fellowship offerings before the Lord, and Saul and all the Israelites held a great celebration. (1 Samuel 11:11-15)

After the victory, the happy royal subjects wanted to celebrate the victory-- not by praising God but by slaughtering their brothers who did not want a king! This illustrates the highly partisan and divisive dynamic that comes with royal leadership. Thankfully, Saul credited the Lord for the victory and rejected the request.

Royal Leadership in the Church Today

People in churches tend to identify with their leaders. Depending upon the group, there is usually a monarchical (one-man) leader in a church. He may have the title reflecting this primacy, such as "lead evangelist," "senior pastor" or the like. Even without a title of primacy, pretty much everybody knows who this person is. For good or bad, he is the face and heart of the church, the primary influence of the church.

This has a natural appeal, especially to guests and casual members in our culture. Such a style of leadership is attractive in many ways. Churches need leaders, and a gifted leader can control all aspects of the church and build a church system that runs efficiently and smoothly.

However, such a leader and leadership structure can become "royal" very quickly. This might happen through the people relying too much upon him instead of rising up and becoming mature. Or it can happen from the leader succumbing to pride. Leaders that are naturally gifted are likely to be comfortable acting as a monarch, but they may not be aware that this is not healthy for the church in the long run. Even if there are elders or a board for this leader to answer to, they may not have the ability to prevent the royal leadership dynamic from becoming reality. When that happens, royal leadership brings about numerous unhealthy dynamics that may not be readily apparent.

Preventing Royal Leadership

Ideally, the best way to address this royal leadership dynamic is to prevent it from taking hold. This means that church leaders must absolutely refuse to become monarchs-- constantly working to build a team of leaders, involving the most mature members of the congregation in decision-making, and submitting to a board of elders who are more than just a rubber-stamp on their leadership. This also mitigates against the inevitable shortcomings and sins of leaders, who cannot be as perfect as the ideal of the royal leader that is expected by followers.

In churches where the leader planted the congregation or has been there for a long time, preventing royal leadership from becoming entrenched can be quite difficult. In such circumstances, the leader may need to resign and move away so that the church can mature out of that leader's shadow. Otherwise, royal leadership will become a part of the congregation's identity and culture.

Once royal leadership is in place, there are simply two basic ways to respond to it-- it can be embraced or rejected. There is no middle ground. Let's consider the Scriptural support and conditions for each position from the story of Saul.

Embracing Royal Leadership

Those who are eager to have a royal leader are quite happy when they have one. They are eager to give him full reign and do as he says. They receive a great deal of security from that leader being in place.

However, what really matters is the people obeying God, not whether they have a royal leader and fit nicely into that structure. Samuel's response to the Israelites gives us a model of how those under a royal leader ought to act if they are truly interested in pleasing God.

6 Then Samuel said to the people, "It is the LORD who appointed Moses and Aaron and brought your forefathers up out of Egypt. 7 Now then, stand here, because I am going to confront you with evidence before the LORD as to all the righteous acts performed by the LORD for you and your fathers.

8 "After Jacob entered Egypt, they cried to the LORD for help, and the LORD sent Moses and Aaron, who brought your forefathers out of Egypt and settled them in this place.

9 "But they forgot the LORD their God; so he sold them into the hand of Sisera, the commander of the army of Hazor, and into the hands of the Philistines and the king of Moab, who fought against them. 10 They cried out to the LORD and said, `We have sinned; we have forsaken the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtoreths. But now deliver us from the hands of our enemies, and we will serve you.' 11 Then the LORD sent Jerub-Baal, Barak, Jephthah and Samuel, and he delivered you from the hands of your enemies on every side, so that you lived securely.

12 "But when you saw that Nahash king of the Ammonites was moving against you, you said to me, `No, we want a king to rule over us'--even though the LORD your God was your king. 13 Now here is the king you have chosen, the one you asked for; see, the LORD has set a king over you. 14 If you fear the LORD and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God--good! 15 But if you do not obey the LORD, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your fathers.

16 "Now then, stand still and see this great thing the LORD is about to do before your eyes! 17 Is it not wheat harvest now? I will call upon the LORD to send thunder and rain. And you will realize what an evil thing you did in the eyes of the LORD when you asked for a king."

18 Then Samuel called upon the LORD, and that same day the LORD sent thunder and rain. So all the people stood in awe of the LORD and of Samuel.

19 The people all said to Samuel, "Pray to the LORD your God for your servants so that we will not die, for we have added to all our other sins the evil of asking for a king."

20 "Do not be afraid," Samuel replied. "You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. 21 Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless. 22 For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own. 23 As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right. 24 But be sure to fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. 25 Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away." (1 Samuel 12:6-25)

From this passage, here are some things people under a royal leader should keep in mind:

Rejecting Royal Leadership

It is evident from this passage that not all of God's people will go along with royal leadership. Though probably unpopular, they will object to it as a matter of faith and conscience just as Samuel and others did.

Today more and more Christians have a "been there, done that" attitude after having been a part of royal leadership systems, and they are looking for something more spiritual and authentic. They are looking for church structures and dynamics where the maturity of the body matters more than the "royal splendor," and they will be as troubled and grieved as Samuel when royal leadership becomes apparent. There are some lessons from Samuel's talk above that give these people some direction in addressing those under royal leadership.

However, Samuel's further dealings with Saul instruct can give us further instructions on how to deal with royal leadership itself when it fails morally (as it inevitably will):

10 Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel: 11 "I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions." Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the LORD all that night.

12 Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, "Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal."

13 When Samuel reached him, Saul said, "The LORD bless you! I have carried out the LORD's instructions."

14 But Samuel said, "What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?"

15 Saul answered, "The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest."

16 "Stop!" Samuel said to Saul. "Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night."

"Tell me," Saul replied.

17 Samuel said, "Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel. 18 And he sent you on a mission, saying, `Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out.' 19 Why did you not obey the LORD? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the LORD?"

20 "But I did obey the LORD," Saul said. "I went on the mission the LORD assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. 21 The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal."

22 But Samuel replied.
"Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has rejected you as king."

24 Then Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned. I violated the LORD's command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them. 25 Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD."

26 But Samuel said to him, "I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!"

27 As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. 28 Samuel said to him, "The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors--to one better than you. 29 He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind."

30 Saul replied, "I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD your God." 31 So Samuel went back with Saul, and Saul worshiped the LORD.

32 Then Samuel said, "Bring me Agag king of the Amalekites."

Agag came to him confidently, thinking, "Surely the bitterness of death is past."

33 But Samuel said,
"As your sword has made women childless,
so will your mother be childless among women."

And Samuel put Agag to death before the LORD at Gilgal.

34 Then Samuel left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the LORD was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel. (1 Samuel 15:15-35)

In our day and age, "failed leadership" is practically a euphemism for a leader committing some sexual sin or financial impropriety, and any sin besides these are often excused as mere "weaknesses" or "shortcomings." But Saul's moral failure consisted of rebellion and arrogance (1 Samuel 15:23), and these are just as serious as any idolatry or sexual sin. Unfortunately, these are often accepted and excused as the "down side" of gifted or visionary leaders. Royal leadership encourages this arrogance, and arrogance will doom any leadership in the eyes of the Lord, no matter how gifted or visionary it might be.

In dealing with a royal leadership that fails, these directives and instructions follow from this text:

Royal leadership in the church puts these mature Christians in a predicament. They want to rejoice in victories God brings through a royal leadership, but they hate to see these tainted over and over again because of the worldliness involved. They don't want to be rooting against God's people, but they don't want to see worldliness or the destruction that comes from it in the church either.

Hopefully, leaders that have acted as royal leaders can see how unhealthy, divisive and destructive this sort of leadership is and can change. They could tear down royal structures or even resign and move on to force a congregation to mature and put more healthy leadership structures in place. But if not, they must bear the responsibility for the impact of their sins and failings.

Ultimately, Christians who confront royal leadership but find it entrenched and immovable can follow Samuel's example and have nothing to do with it. This doesn't mean that everybody embracing royal leadership has fallen away from the Lord, but that mature Christians need not be bound by such immature leadership.

The Widespread Modern Attraction to Royalty

We live in a time where people look for royal leaders in many areas. They are called celebrities. Recently, I was sitting in the waiting room of an auto repair shop. There was a TV on in the waiting room and the news was on. Most people were reading magazines or papers, ignoring the news. But then there was a story about Tom Cruise, and next thing you know everybody was watching. Americans are hooked on the celebrity culture. Check the covers of the magazines readily available the next time you're in the check-out line at the grocery store.

Politicians, athletes, actors, musicians, entertainers, and even some church leaders aspire to such fame. When they "arrive," they are treated like royalty and act like royalty. These celebrities may have an entourage, and cameras may follow them everywhere they go. They have benefits and perks that most people cannot even imagine. They are treated this way because for some reason people have a need to have human heroes and to somehow align themselves with them.

Looking at this phenomenon, it is easy to blame those aspiring to celebrity for acting and being treated like royalty. But this is a symbiotic phenomenon, and as in the case of Israel looking for a king, much of the fault lies with the people. The next time we complain about some entertainer making millions of dollars or some celebrity hiring people to tie their shoes in public (so the celebrity won't be seen bending down), we should consider that our purchases of movie tickets, CD's, sports tickets and the like are what enables the whole system. The demand for entertainment and hero-worship, backed by money paid to satisfy it, makes the whole system go.

Even in the Christian realm, Christians, preachers and leaders look for recognition as a means of being able to influence others:

In today's celebrity culture, even the most well-known ministers remain relatively obscure. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Rick Warren. Pastor of a megachurch in southern California and author of the bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life, he has appeared on countless radio and television programs and on the cover of numerous magazines in the past several years. His book, with sales exceeding 25 million copies, is reportedly the biggest selling non-fiction book in U.S. history (with the exception, ironically, of the Bible). Yet, despite such accomplishments, Mr. Warren remains unknown to most adults in this country. Three of out every four adults (72%) say they have never heard of him, including two out of every three born again Christians (63%).

For actors and artists, awareness facilitates potential sales. For ministers, awareness fosters influence on lives. A favorable image provides access to people's minds and hearts more readily.

George Barna, who directed the research study, commented that the low awareness of the Christian leaders evaluated coincides with other recent studies showing that Christianity is losing its grip on American culture. "You cannot make a difference in someones life if you do not have entree in that life. In our society, even clergy compete for people's attention and acceptance. One of the reasons that the Christian faith is struggling to retain a toehold in people's lives is because even the highest-profile leaders of the faith community have limited resonance with the population." (. Major Christian Leaders Are Widely Unknown, Even Among Christians, The Barna Group, 2006)

I'm not against Christians having influence in the world. But as long as Christians are inclined to treat their leaders in a worldly way, thinking there will be a spiritual benefit to it, there will always be a market for royal leadership in churches. And there will always be royal leaders who want to accomplish some "great thing for God" by using these worldly methods.


Just as Israel and the church are different, so too leadership in Israel and the church are different. The contrasts between kings and judges discussed here shouldn't send us on some hunt for the "one true leadership structure" nor some attempt to correlate the various New Testament leadership roles with the various Old Testament leadership roles. Such an effort is beyond the scope of this article anyway.

These lessons from the rise of royal leadership in Israel should instruct us about what kind of leadership God likes and doesn't like for his people.

The absence of royal leadership patterns in the New Testament church should be clearly evident. The apostles and other church planters in the Bible never stayed in one place long enough to become "royal leaders" but instead raised up a plurality of local elders to lead in their place and to guard against this sort of thing happening (ref. Acts 20:30). They would never allow anything to discredit their ministries (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:3). But when Christians start using Old Testament models of leadership instead of New Testament models of leadership, they are missing the point of the gospel and are close to negating the Messianic ministry of Christ itself.

Everybody should know that while royal leadership brings some benefits, it also has significant drawbacks- it thwarts maturity, brings worldliness and damages people. Where there is royal leadership, there will also be a need for confronting its failings and cleaning up the messes it makes. There will also be a need to establish healthier churches and leadership structures for those who have seen enough of royal leadership to know there is something better.

Those who put God in his rightful place can also put their leaders in their rightful place. Christian leaders can be respected, loved, learned from, appreciated and encouraged. But they should never be treated as royalty.