The Critical Nature of Leadership

Layton Talbert

The storyline is all too familiar. A well-known leader of God’s people — popular, well intentioned, and godly — forges an alliance with a notorious enemy of Biblical truth. Why? In the interest of unity, he says. An act of magnanimity and compassion — of “getting along” — no doubt. He even sought the advice of a godly advisor yet, in the end, ignored his warnings.

It may surprise you to discover that this episode was not reported in a Fundamentalist newsletter or Christian magazine. It is recorded in your Old Testament, and the man’s name was Jehoshaphat.

New Evangelicalism Is Not New

New Evangelicalism is not new. Its mindset, its most distinctive traits and guiding philosophies, can be traced back to examples in both the New and Old Testaments. Jehoshaphat was the “New Evangelical” of his day. His defining flaw was his habitual alliances with the enemies of God’s Word, alliances that he forged and defended in the interest of unity (2 Chron. 18:3; 2 Kings 3:7). But they were alliances that had a devastating impact.

Nevertheless, despite his foolish and disobedient alliances, Jehoshaphat was a good, sincere, and godly man. God’s own inspired account makes that abundantly clear. How can this be? It seems to undermine every Fundamentalist instinct and argument. To understand, we need to look closely at God’s Word and allow it to govern our instincts and arguments. One of the clearest and most instructive patterns to be found in the pages of Scripture is the example of Jehoshaphat.

Establishing the Pattern

If any of this is to be convincing, we must first fix the Biblical facts of Jehoshaphat firmly in our minds. The authority for the statements and conclusions below rests solely on observations from the Biblical record. To appreciate the correlation fully, we need to read the account for ourselves (2 Chron. 17–22).

In summary, Jehoshaphat was one of only eight godly kings in Judah, and one of only three kings compared to David. He walked in the ways of David, took delight in the ways of the Lord, and appointed leaders to teach God’s law throughout Judah. His positive acts of godliness are further described in 2 Chronicles 19–20, and God’s concluding assessment of Jehoshaphat is almost entirely positive (2 Chron. 20:31, 32).

However, for our instruction God’s record of Jehoshaphat includes his alliances: (1) first a marriage alliance between his son and Ahab’s daughter, Athaliah (2 Chron. 18). That “family tie” led very naturally into (2) a military alliance with Ahab (2 Chron. 18); (3) a mercantile alliance with Ahab’s son, Ahaziah (2 Chron. 20), and finally (4) another military alliance with Ahab’s other son, Jehoram (2 Kings 3). In every case, God’s prophets directly or indirectly rebuked Jehoshaphat. And in each case, godly Jehoshaphat seems to have ignored or rationalized away God’s warnings. Again, how could this be?

Confronting the Paradox

How can a godly man compromise so blatantly and so continually? Does compromise actually prove that his godliness is only in appearance? The most striking aspect of Jehoshaphat’s life is this odd incongruity between his godly character and his damaging alliances. Fundamentalists often wrestle with this same incongruity as it is personified by today’s Evangelicals. What is a Biblical assessment of such men? Second Chronicles 19:1–3 addresses and resolves much of the enigma of Evangelicalism.

After his joint military venture with Ahab, Jehoshaphat “returned to his house in peace.” Aprophet named Jehu— whose prophet-father, Hanani, had been imprisoned by Jehoshaphat’s father, the godly King Asa (2 Chron. 16:7–10)—went out to meet King Jehoshaphat. The prophet minced no words. Yet his message and spirit are refreshingly even-handed:

Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord? Therefore is wrath upon thee from before the Lord. Nevertheless, there are good things found in thee, in that thou hast taken away the [idol] groves out of the land, and hast prepared thine heart to seek God.

Fundamentalists are convinced on Biblical principle that many Evangelical practices and alliances are wrong. Yet they write such good books. They often preach powerfully and Biblically. Their ministries seem strong and successful. And they appear to be godly and sincere. How can they ally with those who reject fundamental Biblical truth? Or how can they share platforms with other men who do such things? How can they sustain relationships with those who make these kinds of alliances without rebuking them for it?

These are hard questions to answer. That is why some (usually younger) Fundamentalists are tempted to focus only on the positive elements of Evangelicalism—positive features which, they argue, make Fundamentalism appear by contrast to be weak and petty. That preoccupation with the appealing elements of Evangelicalism leads some to conclude, “These Evangelicals can’t be so bad— certainly not the evil men some Fundamentalists make them out to be.”

And quite often, they’re not! They’re Jehoshaphats! Their gifts and godliness are precisely what make them appealing. They may, like Jehoshaphat, be good men. But they are men whose alliances contradict and undermine the very truth they believe. And like Jehoshaphat’s alliances, their own alliances dilute the distinction between truth and error, blur the discernment of God’s people, and damage the cause and testimony of the Lord.

Formulating Biblical Conclusions

The Scripture emphatically colors our assessment of Jehoshaphat by insisting that throughout his life and reign, “he did right in the sight of the Lord.” But after surveying the course of the kingdom under his son and grandson, how can anyone conclude that the alliances of the leaders of God’s people have no lasting influence on God’s people? Can anyone who carefully considers this historical record still argue that all this emphasis on “separation” is an overblown exaggeration of a few isolated verses by pugnacious hypermilitants?

The parallel between Jehoshaphat and a number of household names within modern Evangelicalism seems inescapable. There is some heated dispute whether Billy Graham or others like him are, in fact, good, godly, or even sincere men. But it is a moot point. In the final analysis, we have no infallible guide to their hearts. Besides, that debate misses the whole point. We are not to judge hearts; we are to rebuke improper actions. We do, however, have an infallible guide to Jehoshaphat’s heart, and according to Scripture, he was a good, godly and sincere man. But the impact of his disobedient alliances on the people of God was still devastating.

The example of Jehoshaphat alone argues that it is entirely possible—indeed, probable—that an Evangelical may well be good and godly and sincere. Fundamentalists ought to offer no contest on that point. That is not the issue; it is a rabbit trail that undermines the Biblical argument. The issue is that the Evangelical often undermines the cause of Christ through unbiblical alliances. Whether those alliances arise out of gullibility, or good intentions, or misplaced priorities is inconsequential. Jehoshaphat’s alliances certainly seem to suggest a degree of gullibility and naiveté. His own words indicate that he was motivated by good intentions: a desire to see all of God’s people, Israel, unified. But what is most clear is that his alliances demonstrated his misplaced priorities: he valued “getting along” over genuine allegiance to the Lord and external unity over faith in God’s Word as the criteria for determining his alliances.

But the Jehoshaphat narrative shows both sides of the coin. Granted, an Evangelical may be good, godly, sincere, and successful. But that does not excuse him from rebuke when his alliances undercut the truth and purity of God’s Word. God’s view of Evangelicalism, ancient or modern, is always the same: Should you help the wicked and love them that hate the Lord? Therefore the wrath of the Lord is upon you … even though good things may be found in you.

Interestingly, we read of no visible manifestation of that “wrath of the Lord” in Jehoshaphat’s lifetime. Likewise, we do not know what form God’s wrath may take against the compromising alliances of His people. It may be internal, personal, spiritual, unseen by us. But we cannot doubt that such alliances deeply stir God’s displeasure, not only with the deed but also with the person. We have His own word on it.

Final Thoughts

God’s rebuke of Jehoshaphat through the prophet Jehu is remarkably applicable to our day. The fact that a man, like Jehoshaphat, is good and godly (1) does not mean that all his actions are correct (19:2); (2) does not mean that his wrong actions should be overlooked or unrebuked (19:2); (3) does not mean that there is not “wrath on him from the Lord” for his alliances (19:2); and (4) does not mean that his wrong actions necessarily nullify his good, godly, and sincere character (19:3).

That’s why it is inappropriate for us, as Fundamentalists, to castigate such men with verbal abuse. When we go beyond an accurate application of Scriptural terminology to the error of such men, we ignore Paul’s insistence that we treat the erring and compromising believer “not as an enemy but as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:13–15). But if we fail to warn them and others of the error and danger of such alliances, we ignore the Biblical force of Jehu’s inspired example. The sincerity of brethren in Christ does not exempt them from rebuke. In fact, it obligates us to that very responsibility, rightly exercised (Lev. 19:16–18).

Jehu, Micaiah, Eliezer, Elisha— these prophets who confronted the godly but compromising Jehoshaphat were the Fundamentalists of his day. If that is the case, and we would be like them, then we must take our cues from them and pattern our speech after them. For our criticism of unbiblical alliances to carry credibility, we must be willing to acknowledge the positive features of modern-day Jehoshaphats. But for our emphasis on the positive to be Biblically balanced, we cannot ignore unbiblical alliances. To focus on either without the other is skewed, even dishonest. In 2 Chronicles 19:2, 3, the rebuke and the “nevertheless” go hand-in-hand.

The question is, with whom in the narrative would you most desire to be identified? The wicked Ahab and Ahaziah and Jehoram? The genuinely godly but consistently compromising Jehoshaphat? Or those “negative”—but honest— prophets? Who is most clearly and consistently on the Lord’s side? After all, isn’t that what matters most?

Dr. Layton Talbert is a Contributing Editor and Professor of Theology and Bible Exposition at Bob Jones University & Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)