22 February 2007

How to be a pathetic leader

by Dan Phillips

There are many layers to the pivotal narrative of Exodus 32. The chapter starts out, "When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, 'Up, make us gods...'" I've often thought that this reflected early church history. When Jesus did not return immediately, the church headed off to the idol-worship in which we now see Rome firmly embedded.

But let us focus on Aaron's response to the situation. As Moses' second-in-command and designated High Priest, it fell to him to lead the people in Moses' absence. He is faced with a crisis. He must respond; and respond he does. In so doing, Aaron gives us a virtual How-to manual in bad leadership.

So if you want to lead like Aaron led — well, God help you, and God help those you lead. But here's how to do it:
  1. Give the people what they want, regardless (vv. 2ff.). Or, we could word it this way: "Allow your leadership to be driven by the people's felt needs." Now, as we discussed earlier over at my blog, Aaron had already seen that the masses could be flat-out dead wrong. He knew they'd already been as fickle as a presidential candidate. But they were there, visible, loud, and right in front of him. At the moment, God was none of those things. So Aaron went with the loud and visible.
  2. Give yourself "cover" (v. 4). Aaron is slicker than a pig in a Vaseline factory here. Translators and interpreters ever since have puzzled over whether they said "These are your gods" (ESV), meaning the golden calf; or "this is your God" (CSB, NAS), meaning that Yahweh was riding invisibly upon the calf. Because of the regular use of the plural-form 'elohim to indicate God, 'elleh 'eloheyka could equally mean "These are your gods," or "This is your God."

    And who's to say that Aaron didn't embrace the ambiguity? It all depends on what the meaning of 'elohim is. Given the cowardice Aaron shows throughout, isn't that even more natural? He doesn't argue with them, per se. He may well have thought, "Well, I'm not saying this calf is a god. I know God is invisible. I can't help it if they do something wicked with this." And if they plunge themselves into spiritual ruin (as a result of his caving in)—what of it? That's on them, right? Aaronic thinking.

  3. Par-tay (v. 5)! Aaron has just caved in to the people's idolatrous cravings... and now he proclaims a feast to Yahweh! Had Yahweh authorized this feast? In no way. (I wonder: is this where Nadab and Abihu got the idea that it's okay to "make it up as we go along" [Leviticus 10] in worshiping Yahweh?) Everyone likes a party. Plus, this further mollifies Aaron's conscience ("See? I never said idolatry was okay. I called for a feast to Yahweh!")
  4. When it goes bad, blame everyone and everything but yourself (vv. 22-24). This little speech of Aaron's has to go right up there with Adam hiding behind a bush from the Creator of the bush, and the blame-shifting that followed ("It was the woman You gave me!" — "It was the snake!"). First, Aaron blames the people (v. 22). Yes, that would be the people whose lead he, the leader, just followed. It's their fault. Second, Aaron implicitly blames Moses for staying away so long—and, in so doing, blames the people for blaming Moses (v. 23)! Got to give him this: the guy's slick.
    "I did not have idolatry with those people, the nation of Israel. I never told anyone to commit idolatry, not a single time, never. These allegations are false and I need to go back to work for the Israelite people."
    Hmm.... Well, anyway, Third, Aaron blames the calf (24)! Well, he blames the calf, the fire, the gold; it's hard to tell. "I threw it in the fire, and, darnedest thing, out came this calf. Shazam."
  5. Overall, give a selective narrative (v. 24). "Out came this calf." In a sense, that's true. A very, very tortured sense. Moses obviously wasn't buying, since his history had already observed that Aaron "received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf" (v. 4). Oopsie. Aaron left that part out. "But I didn't deny it!" he might have said, when confronted. (Slick.)
Does any single thread tie all these lamentable strands together? Certainly: the lack of faith in the sufficiency of God's Word. If Aaron believed that Yahweh had told him enough at that point, he would simply have stood on it. What's more, he would have directed the people to do the same. He would have had no part in any defection, and in fact would have stood foursquare against it.

But Aaron didn't. He panicked. He gave in, unctuously working out a way to see himself as not responsible, every step of the way. "I'm not the bad guy here." Did Aaron care about Yahweh? Did he care about the people? Maybe. But not nearly enough.

Now, many modern applications are jostling about in my mind. I think many of them are fairly obvious. Every church movement, every fad born primarily of "felt needs" gained by polling (i.e. the lust to be popular), rather than eternal truths and principles gained by Biblical study (i.e the passion for God and His glory), has Aaron as its forefather. I'll leave it to our very sharp readers to comment further on specific applications.

But before leaving off, let me point out something. In every type, every foreshadowing of the person and work of the Lord Jesus, there are designed connections, and designed disconnections.

For instance, consider the sacrificial system. The sacrifice was physically perfect, vicarious, and bloody; these are connections. But they were animal sacrifices, they did not purchase full forgiveness, they had to be repeated; these are disconnections. Both connections and disconnections point forward to the immeasurably greater glory of Christ.

So Aaron stands as High Priest, representing the people before God. Even while Aaron is preparing to defect so miserably, up in the mountain, God dictates to Moses a design for a garment which twice depicts the fact that he carries the people on his heart and shoulders before Yahweh (Exodus 28:9ff; 39:14). That is Aaron's priestly duty. It is a point of connection to Christ. It all points forward to the Lord Jesus, who also carries His people's names on His heart before the Father in Heaven (Hebrews 7:25).

Yet Aaron failed miserably in this office. Aaron cared about Aaron. He did not care, above all, for Yahweh and His people. He could not bear that burden himself. He was not sufficient. And in this, too, Aaron points forward to Christ, who never failed those He led by giving over to their shifting will (Matthew 16:21-23), and who did not allow the most Hellacious torment in history to drive Him from performing every last work that His priestly care for them required (John 12:27-28; 13:1; 17; Hebrews 2:14-15; etc.).

Aaron's personal example would point us one way. Christ's entire character, life and ministry would point us in the opposite direction.

Which shall we choose to emulate?

Dan Phillips's signature


James Scott Bell said...

Right. On.

I have a friend whose church has just called in "consultants" pushing a certain willowy model of church growth. Seems her church has lost confidence in the power of the Word and Spirit. In "crisis" mode, they are punting. Let's coin a new word based on your post, Dan. It's quite "Aaronic" that a church purporting to represent Christ is starting down a path that will lead to spiritual disaster.

C.T. Lillies said...

I don't think there are a whole lot of people who need a primer on how to be lousy leaders Dan but this was a good post anyway.

"...the word of God is not bound."
--2 Timothy 2:9

Daniel said...

I like the way you applied the disconnections - most people would have left that out. Nice.

donsands said...

Another fine study. I don't know why, but Charlton Heston kept popping into my mind. Strange.

Aaron was the High Priest, a type of Christ. And he was way more a type of me. Weak and in need of much grace: "slicker than a pig in a vasaline factory".

Mark B. Hanson said...

When churches or its leaders cease to believe in God or His Word, there is no moment ever when the thought arises, "Why are we a church, then?" Instead, the temporal benefits of churchiness (friends, family, feeling good about yourself - or bad, depending on your background, employment) come to the center, and the people substitute activity for God's presence by the Spirit. In the Israelites' case, they found God's presence too terrifying. In ours, too boring or crass.

There are Aarons and golden calves all over the place in the modern church, starting with the mainline but surely infecting the evangelical strain as well. We just have the sophistication to call them something other than idols and our worship something else than idolatry. Signs and wonders anyone?

DJP said...

Thanks, guys.

Wow. I thought this would be some kind of controversial... or something. Guess not!

Anonymous said...

Sorry you had to post an excellent blog today while everyone is currently fixated on yesterday's. For my part, I enjoyed what you said.
Here is the question, though: should we stay in the church where Aaron is the pastor? (tongue in cheek)

Rick Potter said...

As I read your post my thoughts kept going back to something I was reading last night from Francis Schaeffer:

"The second thing is that Means uses these religious words (moral for pragmatic) over and over again as religious connotation words for the purpose of motivation. He is also using the word pantheism as a motivation word. This is something we must always be careful of. Words have two meanings, the definition and the connotation. The connotation goes on no matter what you do with the definition. Modern man destroys the definition of religious words, but nevertheless likes to cash in on their connotation/ motivation force. This is precisely what Means was doing. By using these words, he hoped (even though he has indicated in his definition that moral equals pragmatic) that people would treat nature a little better because of the religious connotations of the words. It is one more illustration of a type of manipulation that is all about us."
Schaeffer, F. A. (1996, c1982). "POLLUTION AND THE DEATH OF MAN",
The complete works of Francis A. Schaeffer : A Christian worldview. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books.

I struggle sometimes as a teacher (SS) that my people are getting the "definition" (read truth) rather than just carrying the "connotation" forward in their worldview. When you talk about the "disconnections", it seems to me that maybe Aaron (like so many modern day leaders) forget how dangerous the after effects of connotative manipulation can be, to say nothing of the outright disobedience.

Aside: For some reason I kept expecting to see a guillotine with a Pyro decal on it somewhere in your post! How weird is that?

Tyler said...

Nice. I think that Aaron intended the golden calf to represent Yahweh, as in v.5 as you pointed out, he proclaims a feast to Yahweh. I had always glazed over that fact, assuming that Aaron had simply recreated an Egyptian deity for the Israelites to worship.
It wasn't until I read Packer's Knowing God, it hit me that the idol created was supposed to represent Yahweh, which, for me, underscored the vanity of graven images used in worship of our God.
We typically don't mine the pentateuch for examples of 'how not to lead,' I enjoyed this.

Dennis Elslager said...

I have recently been meditating on this area of Scripture. I am usually very serious and contemplative as I listen to the Word. But when Aaron said:

“And I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them break it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out.”

It strikes my funny bone and I start laughing every time I hear it. We sinful and helpless humans are pathetically funny when it comes to our desire to hide our guilt. Aaron knew of the Holiness and Jealousy of God as he committed this act of yielding to what man wanted over what God set for man. He was obviously in denial as he spoke to Moses.

All of this is a great reminder that we must never put our confidence in man. Even those who seem to know so much truth in Scripture. They can be respected for this and we should glean from their gifted insight only as we acknowledge that --in every case-- any one of them except for our Lord Jesus Christ will fail some way or another. And the goodness and insight men do have is all to the glory of our Lord as He alone supplies all of this and can remove it as well. Our God is to be feared above all.

For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever. Heb 7:26-28

It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes. Ps 118:8-9

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

We need to remember here where we actually fit in. We are not Moses - we are not even Aaron. We are the people of Israel.

In Proverbs 29.18 we read about those who are not exposed to prophetic vision "Cast off restraint". The picture here is of willingly running wild and suffering because of it. The same word is used to describe Israel's anarchy when Moses finally came down from the mountain.

We have two choices - we can refuse to listen to the law of God, or we can be faithful like the Levites, whose reward for their faithfulness was to become priests in th ehouse of God.

coldwell said...

"And they said, These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!"

Probably, 'they' includes Aaron, but the plural ssems to refer to others besides Aaron.

Doesn't alter the validity of the essay, though.

Buckley said...

my sermon notes on that very text

DJP said...

Coldwell—very good point. I've now edited for accuracy. Thank you.

Cameron said...

"Wow. I thought this would be some kind of controversial... or something. Guess not!"

Controversial? This was a nice and easy softball, straight over the plate. I think 99% of your regular readers will agree. You must be going soft, DJP!

DJP said...

Or I was too subtle.


Rileysowner said...

Excellent post.

Stefan Ewing said...

Regarding item 2, couldn't it have been that the Israelites were blasphemously saying, "Here is your 'God,'" referring to the golden calf as Elohim in the "divine plural" (or whatever it's called) sense, meaning a unique, unitary God (but of course, properly meaning the unique, unitary God, and not just any old so-called "god")?

Not that any of this excuses Aaron's behaviour, mind you, and that "more slippery than a pig in a Vaseline factory" is a gem!

Stefan Ewing said...

Sorry, "slicker." Sounds even better!