Three days had passed, and he was still replaying the scene in his mind. In fact, he was just as affronted by the remarks on this day as he was when he first heard the man utter the slanderous words. Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina was stewing over Senator Charles Sumner’s “Crimes against Kansas” speech on the senate floor in which the latter railed against the senator from Illinois and also the senator from South Carolina. Senator Sumner’s inflammatory speech mocked the senator from South Carolina as a man of chivalry and accused him of taking “a mistress . . . the harlot, Slavery.”
It was May 1856, and the country was on a collision course with a tumultuous civil war. The issue of slavery was rearing its ugly head once again, this time over the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a free state or as a slave state. Senator Sumner was adamant that slavery was an abomination, hence his speech on the senate floor just three days prior.
Now, on May 22, even though Representative Brooks was not personally attacked by Sumner in his speech, his South Carolinian kinsman was. And that was enough for Brooks to take action. He set out for the Senate and entered the old chamber, where he found Sumner working busily on attaching a hand stamp to copies of his speech. Brooks approached the unsuspecting senator, metal-topped cane in hand, and, in a moment of anger, slammed his weapon of choice repeatedly into the head of his political foe. Stunned onlookers were paralyzed by the scene. The wounded senator, bleeding profusely from the repeated blows, staggered about, blindly lurching about the chamber and failing to protect himself. After a minute of rage, Representative Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber, an instant hero to many in the South.
Witnessing a scene like this unfold in our day would be almost unheard of, though the verbal assaults from our politicians are at times no less venomous or hate-filled. When we elect folks to office, we generally expect a greater sense of conduct of character. Character truly does matter. Our elected representatives are supposed to be held to a higher standard to prevent such reckless and unbridled attacks as the one that transpired on the floor of the Senate chamber. It would be nice to think they are all people of unimpeachable character and that something like the assault on Senator Sumner would never happen.
But that’s not reality.
Bad people run for elected office all the time. Sometimes they get elected; sometimes they don’t. It is part of our responsibility to investigate who these people are, make ourselves informed voters, and vote responsibility for the right person for the job. Granted, there are countless ways to determine if someone is a suitable fit for the position, but one of the surest signs is to see how the candidate matches up using the Bible as a source to determine the nature of leaders.
The apostles were chiefly concerned with local churches determining leaders for each of their churches if the individuals met certain criteria. I believe if Christians were to follow the same pattern the New Testament churches used in determining their leaders, they would almost always vote for the right person for the job. Following are a few characteristics the Bible required of church leaders. They are solid character traits that should define every politician if he or she desires to rule in government over others. That is, every candidate seeking the vote of a Christian should be able, I submit, to pass an “elder test,” a basic list of characteristics the early church used to ensure a candidate was suitable to lead.
Bible leaders are to be servants (2 Tim 2:24). It is easy to rise to a position of prominence and get a sense certain work is beneath an individual. Jesus, however, showed us the true model when he washed the feet of his disciples. He did not lord his position over others but became a servant to humanity. Likewise, our elected leaders should be people to recognize the fundamental distinction between a representative of the people versus a representative over the people. Far too many fall into the latter category.
Biblical leaders are shepherds (Acts 20:28). Part and parcel of the shepherd’s responsibility is to care for, feed, and nurture the flock. A shepherd protects the innocent and vulnerable sheep from ravenous beasts and leads the flock to green pastures, ensuring they are adequately fed. Our leaders must protect us from the evils of this world and implement policies that ensure innocent life is protected and preserved at all stages of life. This includes protecting the unborn, all citizens against domestic and foreign attacks, and the elderly against so-called assisted suicides or euthanasia.
Biblical leaders are teachers (1 Tim 3:2). Just as an elder in a church is required to be able to communicate rational, biblical truths to others, civil servants in office must also demonstrate the ability to present a coherent, biblically supported agenda for its citizens. Leadership includes understanding the basics and presenting that to the people so they can clearly rally behind that person who seeks to pursue wholesome agendas.
Biblical leaders are to be good stewards (Titus 1:7a).Stewardship refers to the administration of duties or goods in a person’s care. As created beings of God, we are obliged to be stewards of all aspects of life that have been entrusted to us for our use. We are not owners but trustees, managing God’s goods and estates, since he is the one and original owner of all things. In the execution of stewardship, Scripture teaches us that we are to be faithful and wise, not turning entrustments into self-indulgent pursuits. Likewise, elected officials, those who are entrusted with our taxes are to use them wisely for the good of all society, are not to use the money foolishly and perversely. Worthy leaders recognize voting for fanciful schemes and creating a sea of debt for the sake of social programs to buy votes or to pander to a certain segment of society is the height of folly.
Biblical leaders are not to be greedy for gain (Titus 1:7b). Along with being faithful with other people’s money is the idea that one does not have an unhealthy pursuit of personal, selfish gain. Leaders are not installed for their own private benefit but to ensure the benefit of all society. What’s more, a leader whose chief desire is personal gain will compromise his or her principles in that selfish pursuit of gaining more.
Biblical leaders discipline when necessary (Acts 5:3; Titus 1:13). Leaders must have the courage to confront evil when necessary, wherever they may find it. All too often politicians cover for each other if misconduct is discovered within their own ranks. They make excuses for bad behavior. True leadership, however, speaks up. A true leader confronts evil in his or her one political party, domestically, or abroad and seeks to correct it.
Biblical leaders imitate Christ (1 Cor 11:1). One does not have be a Christian to appreciate the flawlessness of Jesus’s life and testimony. Christ was a man who preached grace, love, mercy, kindness, charity, selflessness, hospitality, equality, obedience, and virtue—characteristics that all humanity deems good. Leaders will never get the entirety of these qualities perfect as Jesus did, but they must continually strive to imitate Christ.
Scripture understands why leaders must possess these essential godly characteristics. The reason for such requirements—and the same reason Christians should insist upon them in their candidates—is that bad roots always corrupt the tree and yields bad fruit (Matt 7:15–20; Luke 6:43–45). American founding father Samuel Adams argued nothing is more essential to the proper functioning of government than entrusting power to individuals of exceptional character. He argued that a politician’s private life directly influences the public.
It’s not that difficult to find examples of egregious laws or practices that came about as the consequence of political leadership’s deficiency in character. Whether we look to examples in foreign governments of engaging in pogroms against European Jews and banishing Christians to the gulags or to the domestic policies of politicians who actively seeking to normalize non-traditional marriages, we are confronted with the natural outworking of putting people in a position of power who have no scriptural moorings. The ancient Proverb rings true: “When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan” (Prov. 29:2).
America must be a nation whose leaders fear the Lord and obey his commands. For the Christian voter, there is no choice about it—character matters, both private and public. The one who strives to live his or her life in accordance with biblical precepts is the one who merits our vote, because morality is essential for leaders to ensure they are more likely to do the right thing when confronted with overwhelming opportunities daily to act contrary to divine laws.