I recently was reflecting on David’s heart and behavior towards Saul. David admired and honored Saul. He was like a father to him. He was, in fact, his Father-in-Law. And he was his BFF’s dad.
And yet, Saul betrayed David multiple times. He turned against him. He lied to him. He lied about him. He betrayed him. He turned people against him. He assassinated his reputation. He hunted him. He functionally exiled him. He controlled him. He back-stabbed him. He tried to cut off God’s plan for him. He tried to kill him…several times. And he engaged in what must have felt like emotional abuse (there were times Saul changed how he thought, saw things for what they really were, and was kind to David, but then he’d revert right back to the cruel and abusive treatment).
Saul epitomized a dysfunctional leader.
The way David functioned under Saul’s authority takes up a LOT of real estate in the Bible. Though David was at times heart broken, devastated, infuriated, confused, or depressed (see Psalms), he filtered his reactions and treatment of Saul through his relationship and regard for the Lord.
David honored Saul’s authority, including tolerating Saul’s treatment of him, because He recognized God sets leaders in place. (Daniel 2:21, Romans 13:1). In other words, David’s respect for/honor of/and submission to God enabled him to do the same to Saul.
God honors our submission to leaders even when they’re dysfunctional.
This is a hard truth. Now, before you might be tempted to say “even Hitler?!” (we often pull the Hitler card as an extreme example for argument’s sake), can we please acknowledge that there’s a spectrum of leaders? A spectrum from ideal (Jesus) to evil (Satan) with a whole range of healthy/functional and unhealthy/dysfunctional in between? At this point, I’m not addressing a believer’s response to leaders in the Hitler/Satan “evil” part of the spectrum. But I am addressing those leaders in the “dysfunctional to intolerable” part of the spectrum. Those leaders we just can’t believe God wants us to respect, honor, and submit to.
Like slave owners. But God says “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5). This verse doesn’t condone slavery; it promotes obedience. It might be read like, “Even if you’re a slave, you honor God when you obey your master—like Joseph obeyed Potiphar.” I also see how Jesus demonstrated respect, honor, and submission to Caiaphas, the High Priest, and Pilate, Roman prefect of Judea, even unto His death. As a prisoner/slave, He obeyed them just as he would obey God. (After all, it was God who was behind them, wasn’t it? (John 19:11))
I see the same principle of honor/respect/submission to authorities in verses about marriage. “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22) Again, the way she submits to him reflects the way she submits to the Lord. And submission does not mean to be a doormat or be physically abused, but it does mean respecting and honoring (not merely tolerating) his leadership…even when it’s dysfunctional. Take, for example, “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives” (1 Peter 3:1) Here God tells Christian women to stay married to unchristian husbands. And when we read these two sections together, the Bible is saying that wives honor God by submitting to their husbands even when they’re not Christians (which arguably makes them “dysfunctional” as the spiritual head of a Christian wife).
I remember reading a book on submission early in my marriage and was particularly struck by this principle: even if the wife doesn’t trust her husband, even if the husband is an unbeliever, and even if he’s wrong about a particular decision, the wife demonstrates her trust in God when she honors, respects, and submits to her husband. Her respect of and deference to him not only directly reflects her respect of and deference to Jesus but also makes room for Jesus to move through and lead her husband. After all, if we believe Christ appoints authorities, then we believe He has a vested interest in leading them.
I believe that when we honor, respect, and submit to (even dysfunctional) leaders, it is an act of faith in God that opens the doors for miracles to happen. (Matthew 13:58) I’m not saying be co-dependent, sycophantic, voice-less, or tolerant of abuse. But I am saying this might look like not getting angry or offended about decisions they make, speaking about them with love and honor, and consistently making choices you know would make them happy even if you disagree with them. For example, I honor my leader when I share with her why I disagree with a decision and offer her an alternative. But if she maintains the decision, I honor her by implementing it with a respectful attitude and without maligning her or the decision to others.
When you’re serving under a dysfunctional leader, it may be that the Lord is challenging you to grow in your faith and trust in Him. It may be the Lord is looking to add something to you. I think it might just be true when the Bible says, “the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Through this challenge, for example, you may have the opportunity to learn, through experience, what David learned. His character was formed in the caves. And your character will be formed through this.
If you quit or end your relationship with bad leaders before you are at a place of peace and reconciliation where you can “go out with joy and be led forth with peace,” then you’ll miss the benefits that come from honoring/respecting/submitting to them, you’ll miss an incredible opportunity to open the door/make a way for God to move into their lives and change them, and you’ll miss out on deepening your honor and submission to God.
Getting to where David was with Saul, Joseph was with Potiphar, or Jesus was with Caiaphas takes a new perspective. It also takes some deep healing from particularly painful experiences with dysfunctional leaders in the past. It takes a lot of courage and perseverance. But I read somewhere that perseverance produces character and character produces hope. (Rom. 5:3-4) Learning to honor dysfunctional leaders means excavating new levels of character and hope.
From my experience, it’s deeply painful, but it brings a new depth of contentment, peace, and joy to any assignment. It has deepened my faith and my ability to weather all kinds of dysfunctional leaders (every leader has areas, seasons, or episodes of dysfunction, including me). But in choosing to persevere through this process, you will become rooted more deeply in trust of the Lord rather than trust of leaders. And you will open the door for the Lord to come in and move in the leaders’ lives in an unprecedented and miraculous way.