The Jethro Principle: A Biblical Model for Appointing Leaders

In Exodus chapters 14 through 18, God provides for Moses and the people of Israel in ways that display his care and wisdom. In chapter 14 he delivers them from the Egyptian army by making a path through the Red Sea. In chapter 15, he miraculously turns bitter water into sweet water for the thirsty people to drink. Chapter 16 records His provision of “manna”, the bread from heaven. He provides water again in chapter 17, this time by unexpectedly bringing it out of a rock. In chapter 18 God provides administrative wisdom for Moses and the people he was called to lead through the wise counsel of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, a priest from the desert land of Midian. Jethro may have saved Moses from failure, and his advice – now known as “the Jethro principle” – holds great value for those who are called to lead God’s people today.

Moses served the people of Israel by being their guide to the Promised Land, by mediating between them and God, and by instructing them in the Law of God. He also served as their judge. That is, he used discernment to settle disputes between individuals. Exodus 18:13-27 describes the administrative scene and Jethro’s insightful advice:

“The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.” So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country” (Exodus 18:13–27 ESV).

“The Jethro principle” is applicable to ministry in the church today because it highlights the need for effective delegation, the value of a participatory model of leadership, and the indispensability of personal integrity for prospective leaders.

The basic problem with the way Moses was doing things was a lack of delegation. He was doing all of the work of judging disputes alone. Perhaps he and the people believed that he was the only person qualified for that task, but Jethro recognized that both Moses and the people would soon be worn out by this tedious arrangement, in which Moses sat to judge all day long while the people waited in long lines for him to hear their cases. Moses was a great man but he was finite. He had only so much time and so much energy to offer the people he led, and Jethro saw that the people’s needs exceeded what Moses had to give. Considered within the context of Exodus 14–18, this implies that delegation can be an urgent need, like food and water. God can provide people who can share in the work of leadership to meet the needs of people in the church just as certainly as he provided food and water for Israel in the wilderness.

The solution Jethro offered required Moses to delegate some of his responsibility and authority to others who would participate in the task of judging civil disputes. Moses would still hear the more difficult cases, but he would have to trust that God would provide wisdom for other judges to make decisions also. Moses could not simply push off the cases he did not like onto the other judges, nor did he burden others with his personal affairs. The primary purpose of the delegation Jethro suggested was to ensure that the people were served effectively and that Moses would not fail by being overworked as a judge. This involved getting other leaders to participate. Robert Welch (2011) observed rightly that when a responsibility is delegated, proper authority must accompany that responsibility (p. 27). This involves a move away from a centralized leadership model in which one leader makes all decisions, and a move toward a participatory model in which there is a hierarchy of authority, but leadership is voluntarily shared through delegation. Because delegation involves the serious aspects of responsibility and authority, they must also be accountable, reporting regularly to the ministry leader as well being approachable, transparent, and open to questions from those whom they serve.

Finally, it is vitally important that all leaders have personal integrity and credibility. Deuteronomy 1:9-18 sheds some light on Moses’ appointment of leaders. Moses allowed the people of Israel to identify those whom they respected and trusted as leaders. Then he officially approved, appointed, and trained those leaders to share his caseload. He did not simply choose men who liked him or whom he liked. They had to be those whom the people knew to be wise, understanding, experienced, and incorruptible by bribes or intimidation. This same pattern is seen in Acts 6:1-6, where the people select individuals who have good reputations, are filled with the Spirit, and are wise; then the leaders lay hands on them and officially appoint them and vest them with proper authority. In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul warned against appointing leaders in haste. Likewise, we should take the character aspect of Jethro’s advice seriously, knowing that delegating authority and responsibility to an immature or unreliable person will have regrettable consequences.

It would have taken great courage for Jethro to suggest that Moses—a man of such enormous stature—might fail in his leadership if he did not make changes. Similarly, in many churches and ministries today the senior pastor or executive leader is sometimes revered and expected to be the person everyone in the church goes to with all of their problems. But if a man of such greatness as Moses could see the wisdom of Jethro’s counsel, how much more should leaders today be humble enough to admit that they cannot do everything alone? Like Moses, leaders in churches today must pray for and look for people of credibility and integrity whom they can rely on to participate in leadership in order to effectively nurture and serve God’s people as they grow in Christ.

References:

Welch, R. (2011). Church administration: Creating efficiency for effective ministry. 2nd ed. Nashville, TN: B & H.

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