During the 2016 presidential election cycle, with the rise of political figures like Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Gary Johnson, the question has been raised as to what qualities would make a good president for the United States.
We live in a culture that fixates on celebrities. These celebrities become famous for one thing or another, but many people will listen to everything they say and follow their every move on social media. Sometimes people become so enamored with the fact that they are famous, that they will believe anything they say or adopt their opinions on certain issues even though they have no expertise in those areas. Much of this has carried over into politics today. As politics becomes more and more dominated by social media and the celebrity culture, people’s political preferences have tended to gravitate more towards a person based on their personality rather than based on what they believe. They will support someone based on whether they like them or whether their friends like them rather than based on that person’s character.
When deciding what kind of person should be put into a position of governorship or being a ruler, we as Christians need to look beyond superficial qualities and evaluate that person’s worldview and character. Those qualities will have a much greater bearing on their ability to govern morally and effectively than whether they look the part or are well liked by others.
The Bible lists several qualities that a ruler should have. I have summarized it into 5 major categories. As you read through this, you will notice there might be a little overlap between them, but each is distinctly important and indispensable for a godly ruler to have.
To summarize, they are:
- Godly rulers fear God. This leads to humility and reverence for God’s laws, ultimately knowing that they will be held accountable before God for their actions.
- Godly rulers uphold justice through their integrity, impartiality, and compassion.
- Godly rulers have wisdom and understanding to make sound and moral decisions. They speak deliberately and listen intently.
- Godly rulers are truthful, not only in their knowledge and presentation of the facts, but in their faithfulness and obedience to God’s law. A ruler who is truthful surrounds himself with advisers who are also truthful.
- Godly rulers have self-control. Having mastery over their physical and emotional desires gives them better judgment and makes them less susceptible to outside manipulation and abuse of power.
1. Godly Rulers Fear God (Exodus 18:21, Deuteronomy 17:19, 1 Samuel 13:14, 2 Samuel 23:2-4, 2 Chronicles 19:7, Psalms 2:10-12)
The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth. (2 Samuel 23:3-4)
Probably the most important characteristic for a ruler to have is that they fear God. This term, however, is not always well understood. Fearing God means to have a moral reverence or awe of God, similar to what you would have if you were talking with a very powerful person like a President or someone famous that you deeply admire. It does not mean to have anxiety, dread, alarm, or terror about God, but rather to have reverence and awe that comes from the recognition of God’s greatness and perfection when compared to your finitude and sinfulness.
Why is it important that a ruler fears God? The fear of God plays a large role in whether someone has humility. When someone is given a great deal of power (such as being elected President of the United States), it is extremely important that they know their place in the grand scheme of things. They need to know that all power and authority first and foremost belong to God (Psalms 62:11) and that rulers and those in authority are in that position under God’s permissive will (Romans 13:1, John 19:11). This is important because rulers who know this also understand that they will be held accountable for their actions by God and that they don’t have unlimited leeway to do whatever they want to their people.
A ruler who fears God will also have reverence for God’s law, namely what is right and wrong. He would uphold laws that promote what is good, and strive against bad laws that would bring about evil in the country. Deuteronomy 17:18-20 talks about how a king in Israel needed to write a copy of the law for himself and read it all the days of his life so that … “he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.” It’s interesting to see that in verse 20, it points out that the ruler should be reading and keeping a copy of the law “that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers.” One reason this is true is found in Romans.
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)
Everyone who understands God’s law also understands that they aren’t perfect and are in need of God’s mercy and grace. This serves to deepen a person’s humility and ability to extend grace and mercy to the citizens he rules over.
2. Godly Rulers Uphold Justice (Exodus 23:6-8; Deuteronomy 1:13-17, 16:18-20; 1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Kings 10:9 (pp 2 Chronicles 9:8); Psalms 72:1-4, 12-14, 82:1-4; Proverbs 29:4, 14; Jeremiah 22:1-3, Zechariah 7:8-10; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11; James 2:1-4)
By justice a king builds up the land… (Proverbs 29:4)
One of the most frequently listed qualities for a godly ruler in Scripture is that they uphold justice. However, Justice can mean vastly different things depending on who you ask. So how does the Bible define justice? The Bible mentions the word justice dozens of times, but doesn’t explicitly say what justice is. If I had to summarize a definition from all those verses, I would define justice as “the outworking of righteous judgment.” Biblical justice cannot be separated from the concept of righteousness, and these words are frequently mentioned together in Scripture (See Genesis 18:19, 1 Kings 10:9, Psalm 33:5, 72:1). In fact, in the ESV translation of the Bible, justice and righteousness are mentioned in the same verse 44 times! This is because righteousness is the foundation upon which justice rests. Without being able to know right from wrong – without that moral law to serve as an objective reference, you cannot render judgment, let alone a just judgment. Otherwise the question will always be asked, “Whose standard of justice are you upholding?”
Now when it comes to how rulers are supposed to uphold justice, there are 3 specific areas the Bible will frequently mention as a way this gets accomplished:
1) A just ruler hates or abhors bribes (integrity)
2) A just ruler does not show partiality (impartiality)
3) A just ruler defends the rights of the poor and needy (compassion)
In this context, integrity refers to the ability of a person to hold to a standard of values, especially when given the opportunity to do the opposite and get away with it. Political power, if nothing else, will test a person’s integrity. Pretend a lobbyist comes into your office and says that they will donate to your reelection campaign if you vote for a bill that goes against your principles. Your coffers are running pretty low, and you will be running against a strong challenger to your elected office. You have been consistently voting based on Christian values and your challenger would not. This lobbyist’s money would give you just the edge you need to be reelected and continue voting in accordance with Christian values. How do you vote? Do you compromise your integrity on one vote in order to be reelected and continue voting those values on many other bills? The right answer is no. Proverbs 10:9 states, “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out.” We need elected officials who will stand on principle even when it’s politically inconvenient to do so – people who do not have an “ends justify the means” attitude. This has allowed corruption to flourish in the highest offices of the land and for justice to be impaired.
Impartiality is another important characteristic of rulers. Impartiality speaks to the ability to render justice without prejudice. There are several human characteristics God does not take into consideration when he renders judgment. These include social status, wealth, race, gender, nationality, or physical appearance (See Deuteronomy 1:16-17, 1 Samuel 16:7, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, James 2:1-4). This concept is especially applicable to judges, who are often given some leeway on how much punishment someone receives when found guilty of breaking a law. If a judge were to give harsher sentences to a particular class or group of people simply on the basis that they belonged to that group, then partiality is being shown and justice is being perverted. Another way justice is perverted is through selective enforcement of the law. Laws cannot be arbitrarily enforced on certain groups of people or completely ignored with other groups. We need elected officials who understand that all people are created in God’s image and deserve to have the law applied fairly to them and that no one is above the law. For as God himself will show no partiality in his judgment (Romans 2:11-12), our elected officials should show no partiality in the creation, enforcement, or interpretation of the law.
Lastly, a ruler should have compassion. Compassion means the ability to see a need, to sympathize with the person suffering, and, if appropriate, act to remedy it. We see this as the primary model given by Jesus himself when he had compassion on others (Matthew 9:35-36, 14:14, 15:32, Luke 7:13). There are several groups of people mentioned in the Bible who are given special attention of needing compassion, including the poor, the needy, the fatherless, the widow, and the foreigner. These groups of people were (and sometimes still are) often the most susceptible to be taken advantage of in society or even in the courts. Thus, a ruler needs to be very mindful of these people to ensure that their rights are protected and that justice is ensured for them. This not only would include working to repeal laws that put these people at a disadvantage but also creating laws in such a way that their rights are protected.
However, this is not to say that rulers should show partiality or favoritism towards these disadvantaged groups (See Exodus 23:2-3). This would violate the former principle of being impartial. Thus, the political applications of compassion can get rather tricky. Compassion should not lead to elevating certain groups of people at the expense of others. Rather, it should lead to equal treatment of everyone under the law.
3. Godly Rulers have Wisdom and Understanding (Genesis 41:33; Deuteronomy 1:13; 1 Kings 3:9, Proverbs 8:12-16, 28:2, 28:16)
Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads. (Deuteronomy 1:13)
Similar to how justice and righteousness are inseparable concepts, wisdom and understanding are also closely related. They are mentioned together in Scripture 41 times! (See Deuteronomy 4:6, Job 28:28, Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 24:3, James 3:13). Wisdom and understanding encompass a ruler’s knowledge, comprehension, and the ability to correctly and morally apply that knowledge in making decisions.
In Scripture, the concept of wisdom can be used to describe many aspects of a person, including someone who is skilled in a trade or has a lot of life experience. It can also encompass a person’s craftiness, cleverness, and the ability to see things as they really are. But ultimately, true wisdom (the kind that matters in this context) is found in the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10) and obedience to his precepts (Proverbs 2). In the book of James, several qualities are listed as being a fruit of wisdom.
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:13-17)
That last verse gives incredible insight into the type of person in whom dwells the quality of wisdom – someone who is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy, bears good fruits, impartial, and sincere. It’s interesting to note that jealousy, selfish ambition, boastfulness, and lying are listed as qualities of a person who is not wise. This passage in James 3 is set in the context of the importance of our words and the impact they have. Someone who is wise will be careful with their words and will be deliberate in how they speak (Also see James 1:19). Proverbs 16:23 also echoes this sentiment when it says. “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.”
Understanding is very similar to wisdom. However, it tends to focus more on the ability to comprehend and perceive knowledge, whereas wisdom tends more to focus more on the application of knowledge. I love this verse in Proverbs 18:2, which says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” That seems so applicable to politics today! A godly ruler who has understanding is someone who wants to listen and to learn and isn’t only interested in sharing their own opinion.
Wisdom and Understanding are important for a ruler to have in order to be able to uphold justice and make good decisions (see 1 Kings 3:28). Practically speaking, decision making can incorporate anything that a leader has to do. This can include things like trade, taxes, whether to go to war, whether to uphold certain laws or strike down others, etc.
The best example of a ruler in Scripture with wisdom and understanding is Solomon. In 2 Chronicles 1:7-12 (pp. 1 Kings 3:5-14), Solomon goes before the tabernacle to seek the Lord. God tells Solomon, “Ask what I shall give you.” Solomon asks for the wisdom, understanding, and knowledge to discern right from wrong and to be able to govern Israel. This pleases God; so he grants him that request and also gave him great prosperity as a result (see 1 Kings 3:13, 10:23-29, 2 Chronicles 1:12). Solomon’s reign was known as one of the most prosperous in Israel’s history. Kings and queens from distant lands sought out the wisdom that God had given Solomon, and with them they brought many gifts of gold, silver, spices, choice woods, etc.
However, we also see that knowledge and wisdom alone will not lead to prosperity or good decision making if not rooted in the fear of the Lord. In 1 Kings 11, we see that Solomon disobeyed God by taking and marrying many foreign women who led his heart astray after other gods. As a result, God said he would take away the kingdom from Solomon, which eventually led to the division of Israel into two kingdoms – Israel and Judah. This is a reminder to us that simply having knowledge or comprehension of the facts will not necessarily lead to good decision making. Someone may know the right thing to do, but unless he or she has a desire to do what is right, then it won’t matter. A ruler’s heart must be centered on the fear of the Lord before wisdom and understanding can have their full effect (Psalms 90:11-12).
4. Godly Rulers are Truthful (Proverbs 16:12-13, 17:7, 25:2-5, 29:12; Isaiah 5:18-23)
It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness. Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves him who speaks what is right. (Proverbs 16:12-13)
“What is truth?” That is the question the ruler Pontius Pilate asked Jesus when he questioned him prior to his crucifixion (John 18:36-38). Truth is used in many different senses in Scripture. When the Bible talks about truth, it not only encompasses the intellectual and factual, but can also refer to a person’s character. The Hebrew idea of truth was rooted in the relational characteristics of reliability and faithfulness. God is true because he is faithful to his people (Deuteronomy 7:9). The Greek idea of truth revolved more around being intellectually and factually correct. God is true because he does not lie (Number 23:19). Both uses are employed at various points in the Bible by different authors. Several verses also draw a strong connection between God’s word and truth (Psalms 119:160, Proverbs 30:5, John 8:31-32; 14:6; 17:17). The things which God has said and the laws which he has established are true, and thus ought to be obeyed.
Truthfulness is an important characteristic that a godly ruler must have. Scripture warns of rulers who lie and blur the lines between right and wrong (Proverbs 16:13, 17:7, Isaiah 5:20), but a ruler who both knows the truth and acts truthfully (faithfully) will scarcely falter (Psalms 26:1, Proverbs 16:12, 20:28). A ruler who believes in a lie, even with good intentions, could take a country to war unnecessarily, could put forth bad policies that would impoverish his people, or could deprive the innocent of justice (like Pilate and Christ). A ruler who knows what is true but is unreliable, unfaithful, or disingenuous will be prone to corruption and moral degradation. The people under such leadership will often follow suit, and the moral culture of a nation can erode.
One of the ways the Bible specifically says we can ascertain the truthfulness of a ruler is by looking at the people he surrounds himself with. Proverbs 29:12 says, “If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked.” Proverbs 25:5 says, “Take away the wicked from the presence of the king, and his throne will be established in righteousness.” The image that always comes to mind when I hear these Scriptures is from The Lord of the Rings, where we have the evil influence of Wormtongue on king Theoden in the kingdom of Rohan. In the story, through the telling of many lies and deceptions, Theoden’s mind and body had degraded to the point where Wormtongue could manipulate him to do almost anything he wanted. But after Gandalf arrived and broke Wormtongue’s hold over Theoden, then he was able to rule his kingdom well again. The same can be true today. Human rulers are not all-knowing and will depend on the information and advice given to them by their advisors and officials. If a ruler is surrounding himself with people who are known for or connected with corruption, then there’s a good chance the ruler himself is also corrupt or already trusts someone who is giving him bad advice.
Our call, as Christians, is to find, support, and elect people who are truthful.
5. Godly Rulers have Self-Control (Deuteronomy 17:16-17; Proverbs 31:4-5; Ecclesiastes 10:16-17)
It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. (Proverbs 31:4-5)
The last major quality we will look at in connection to godly rulership is self-control. Self-Control means to have mastery over your physical and emotional desires. Scripture makes reference to having self-control over several things, primarily anger, sexual desire, and drunkenness, but can also include things like gluttony and greed as well. Self-Control not only gives you the ability to say no to temptation (See 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8), but can also help with self-discipline towards achieving a goal like training for an athletic event (See 1 Corinthians 9:25).
Why is it important for a ruler to have self-control? Proverbs 25:28 says, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” A city without walls was considerably easier to invade, capture, or pillage than a city with walls. A very small number of people could defend a city with walls against a much larger army. Similarly, a ruler without self-control is going to be vulnerable to temptation. A ruler’s self-control will be tested because he will be given much more power than he has previously held before. Unless he has the character to withstand the temptations to abuse that power, then you can unintentionally elect a tyrant who will deprive people of their rights to increase his own power.
But self-control isn’t limited only to resisting temptation, but can speak to a different aspect of their character as well. Proverbs 29:11 states, “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” This harkens back to what was stated earlier concerning wisdom and being deliberate with your words. Someone who has the self-control to not always say what first comes to mind but to think through what they say will be greatly aided in the tasks they perform as a ruler. This is especially true in the art of diplomacy. Proverbs 15:18 says, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” If you are in a room with your enemy, and your enemy can unsettle you simply by insulting you, you are then perceived to be weak and prone to manipulation.
Having self-control over one’s physical and emotional desires speaks volumes concerning that person’s character and their ability to govern well.
A godly ruler fears God, upholds justice, is wise and understanding, is truthful, and has self-control. Each of these qualities is indispensable to good governance and should be qualities that we look for in candidates when we vote.