Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Public Life of Jesus - Lesson 4


Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

This article is the seventh in a series by Preston Manning on leadership lessons from the public life of Jesus. A member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, founder of two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Allianceand the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000, Preston works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy.

The Great Guideline: Wise as Serpents and Gracious as Doves

During the first year of Jesus’ three-year public life it would appear that the main role of his small band of followers was simply to follow, listen, and observe the master at work. But there came a day when this initial apprenticeship was over and he began to send them out to do “public work” —to speak and act publicly on their own in his name.

Jesus’ instructions on that day were well remembered by one who was there—Matthew, the former tax collector. He later recorded, in the tenth chapter of his gospel, Jesus’ instructions to them. Paramount among those is what I call “the great guideline” for believers called to exercise their faith in public. Jesus says to them:  “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”[1]

Wise as Serpents, Gracious as Doves

The analogies Jesus employs here are striking, particularly to those familiar with the Judeo Christian Scriptures. In those Scriptures the serpent is the symbol of the devil—evil personified, the antithesis of God, the “wise and dread Spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence”[2] as Dostoyevsky called him. So in essence Jesus is saying to his followers, “In your public lives, be as shrewd as the devil”.

Likewise in the New Testament, the dove is the symbol of the Spirit of God. So in essence Jesus is saying to his followers, “In your public lives, be as gracious as the Spirit of God.”

Note further what Jesus did not say in sending out his followers to do public work. He did not say, “Be vicious as snakes and stupid as pigeons” although, sadly, it must be acknowledged that sometimes we believers act as if this is the perverse guideline governing our public conduct.

Foolishness in the Name of God

As believers we must acknowledge that we are quite capable of acting foolishly in the name of God, especially at the interface of faith and politics, and need to be constantly cautioned against doing so.

The Old Testament prophet Samuel was obliged to say to Saul, Israel’s first king, “You have done a foolish thing”[3] when as a political leader he expropriated functions that were the domain of the priests. David, “a man after God’s own heart” nevertheless had to confess “I have done a very foolish thing” after he conducted an ill advised census of the Israeli army.[4] In addition, the Book of Proverbs contains dozens of admonitions, attributed to wise king Solomon, to avoid “foolishness”. 

In our time, one of the great but often ignored services to the Christian community by the American evangelist Billy Graham is his confession of “acting foolishly” on his very first excursion into the political world and the lessons he learned from it.

This incident, recorded in the introduction to his autobiography[5], occurred just after he and his evangelistic team had received national media attention as a result of very large evangelistic crusades in Los Angles, Boston, and throughout New England. As a new-born celebrity it was arranged for him and his team to visit the White House to meet President Truman, an intersection of faith and politics. Graham ruefully describes what happened in the following words:

I was just a tanned, lanky thirty-one-year-old, crowned by a heavy thatch of wavy blond hair, wearing what Time magazine would later describe as a “pistachio-green” suit … with rust-colored socks and a hand-painted tie. My three colleagues [Jerry Beavan, Grady Wilson, and Cliff Barrows] were similarly attired. …

We had seen a picture of the President on vacation in Florida, wearing white buck shoes. That was it! Grady already had a pair. I sent him to the nearest Florsheim store to buy white bucks for Cliff and me. So how could we go wrong? …

Promptly at noon, we were ushered into the Oval Office. From the look on President Truman’s face, the chief executive of our nation must have thought he was receiving a traveling vaudeville team. … I told him about Los Angeles, … Boston, … and my extensive New England tour in the early months of 1950. … I had publicly called on the President of the United States to proclaim a day of national repentance and prayer for peace. Mr. Truman nodded as though he remembered the incident. …

Our allotted time was quickly running out, and what I really wanted to talk to him about was faith. I did not know how to begin.

“Mr. President,” I blurted out, “tell me about your religious background and leanings.”

“Well,” he replied in his Missouri accent, “I try to live by the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule.”

“It takes more than that, Mr. President. It’s faith in Christ and His death on the Cross that you need.”

The President stood up. Apparently, our twenty minutes were up. We stood up too.

“Mr. President, could we have prayer?”

“It can’t do any harm,” he said—or something similar.

I put my arm around the shoulders of the President of the United States of America and prayed. …

When we stepped outside the White House, reporters and photographers from the press corps pounced on us.

“What did the President say?”

I told them everything I could remember.

“What did you say?”

Again I told them everything I could remember.

“Did you pray with the President?”

“Yes, we prayed with the President.”

“What did he think about that?” someone called out.

Before I could respond, an enterprising photographer asked us to kneel on the lawn and reenact the prayer. The press corps roared its approval. …

The four of us bent one knee of our pastel summer suits, and I led the prayer of thanksgiving as sincerely as I could, impervious to the popping flashbulbs and scribbling pencils.

It began to dawn on me a few days later how we had abused the privilege of seeing the President. National coverage of our visit was definitely not to our advantage. The President was offended…. Mr. Truman never asked me to come back.

A White House staff memorandum in late 1951 stated it bluntly: “At Key West the President said very decisively that he did not wish to endorse Billy Graham’s Washington revival meeting and particularly he said he did not want to receive him at the White House. You remember what a show of himself Billy Graham made the last time he was here. The President does not want it repeated.”

I did visit Mr. Truman many years later at his home in Independence, Missouri. I recalled the incident and apologized profusely for our ignorance and naiveté.

“Don’t worry about it,” he replied graciously. “I realized you hadn’t been properly briefed.”

After our gaffe, I vowed to myself it would never happen again if I ever was given access to a person of rank or influence.

Other instances of un-wisdom by the Christian community can be more serious. In Canada, the actions of a vocal portion of the Christian community in relation to the decriminalization of abortion and the Mulroney government’s attempt to establish a regulatory regime might be cited as yet another example of well intended believers nevertheless failing to act wisely at the interface of faith and politics.

In 1968-69 abortion in Canada was made legal by the administration of Pierre Eliot Trudeau, provided a committee of doctors affirmed that it was necessary for the mental or physical well being of the mother.[6] But in 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down this criminal code amendment and it fell to the new Progressive Conservative administration of Brian Mulroney to propose a new law governing abortion.[7]

The Mulroney government’s first attempt was a compromise that provided easy access to abortion in the early stages of pregnancy and criminalized late term ones but it was defeated in a free vote in the House of Commons.[8] In 1989, the government introduced a much stricter bill which, if enacted, would ban all abortions unless a doctor ruled the woman's life or health was threatened.[9] This bill passed narrowly in the House but was defeated by a tie vote in the Senate where the rules interpret a tie vote on a bill as a defeat.

Under normal circumstances, the rare defeat in the unelected Senate of a bill already passed by the democratically elected House of Commons would bring about a negative public reaction and increase support for the bill in both Houses. But in this case, the issue was proving so divisive and unmanageable for the Mulroney government that it decided not to re-introduce the legislation. Since then, no federal government has introduced any legislation on this subject and Canada remains one of only a few nations in the world with no legal restrictions on abortion.

Throughout this whole debate much of the pro-life Christian community took an “all or nothing approach—rejecting compromises and often attacking as perceived “weakness” the compromise positions of the pro-life members within the cabinet and parliamentary caucuses even more vigorously than those positions were attacked by their pro-choice opponents. The end result therefore was not a regulatory regime that would at least have provided a “place to stand” in order to advocate for more pro-life regulation over time, but “nothing”, no legal restrictions in Canada on abortion whatsoever.

The Wisdom of the Serpent Demonstrated

Jesus not only instructed his disciples to be wise as serpents in their public conduct; he demonstrated this wisdom in his own public conduct and addresses.

This wisdom was most often displayed on the numerous occasions when Jesus’ opponents would ask him questions in public for the sole purpose of “getting him into trouble”. This is often the situation when one is asked questions in public by the media or one’s adversaries, be they religious or political. On these occasions the questions are rarely asked in an honest desire for information but are usually intended to publicly embarrass or discredit the answerer no matter how she or he responds.

On one such occasion, for example, Jesus is asked, by his opponents, after a flattering preamble, “Is it right (lawful) to pay taxes to Caesar?”[10] It is both a political question (about paying taxes) and a moral or religious question (is it right?), and it is purposely designed to get Jesus into difficulty with either the public, the authorities, or both.

If Jesus answers “yes” he will be in trouble with the crowd, including his own followers, since the Jews hated the Romans and particularly loathed those Jews who cooperated with them in the collection of taxes. But if he answers “no” he could well be charged with treason for advocating disobedience to Roman law and authority. So what is he to do? How is he to respond?

Note first of all that Jesus, knowing the motives of the questioners, does not answer immediately. This is not because he doesn’t know what to say because it becomes clear that he knew perfectly well what he was going to say. Rather I suspect that he is teaching his on-looking disciples one of the most basic lessons in responding to public questions from opponents: “If you don’t know what to say, shut up until you do?” Better to remain silent and appear contemplative or uncooperative than to make a hurried, ill considered, and foolish reply.

Next, perhaps again to show his disciples how to bide for time, he asks several questions of his own. (Responding to a nasty, loaded question by asking some of your own is not a bad tactic in itself.) He asks to be shown the coin used for paying the tax. Someone in the crowd, perhaps one of his interrogators, fishes around in his purse and produces a coin, likely a Roman denarius. He looks at it, and, pointing to the coin, asks two more questions, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” Someone answers, “Caesar’s”.

Then comes the zinger, his reply to the original question, a reply displaying the wisdom of the serpent, the shrewdness of the devil. So “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Less than fifteen words spoken in less than ten seconds. A wise reply, a brilliant reply—the perfect sound clip. A reply that would have made the evening television news had the cameras been rolling and a graphic demonstration to his followers of what it means to be “wise as a serpent” in one’s public acts and utterances.

Would God that as followers of Christ today we could, in our time and circumstances, respond to questions designed to embarrass or discredit the Christian faith at the interface of faith and politics, with such wisdom.

Viciousness in the Name of God

As believers we must also acknowledge that, not only are we quite capable of acting foolishly in the name of God, especially at the interface of faith and politics, but we are also quite capable of acting viciously. Again there is need to be constantly cautioned against doing so.

In the case of Jesus’ early disciples, for example, while they and their master were on their way to Jerusalem for the last time, they passed through a Samaritan village where he was not welcome.[11] This hostility toward Jesus obviously irked the disciples and two of the most spiritual of them, James and John, suggested that they burn the place down. They did propose holding a prayer meeting first: “Lord, shall we order fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But their intent was quite clear, destroy the enemies of Christ.

How Jesus’ heart must have sunk when he witnessed this display of visciousness. He has had this gang of twelve under his tutelage for three years. He has ceaselessly taught them by word and example that the distinguishing characteristic of their lives and service is to be self-sacrificial love. He is on his way to Jerusalem to demonstrate how far he himself was prepared to practice that teaching by sacrificing himself for the sins of mankind on the cross. Yet here they are wanting God to destroy a whole village of Samaritans—men, women and children—not simply because of their hostility toward Jesus but out of the disciples’ own deeply ingrained prejudices toward Samaritans.

When Jesus picked these men he knew very well that they were perfectly capable of such prejudice and viciousness. That is why on the very first day that he commissioned them for public work and told them to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, he also specifically told them “Do not go among the Gentiles, or enter any town of the Samaritans.”[12] He knew then, as became evident later, that they were not yet ready to communicate with, let alone minister to. the Samaritans against whom they held longstanding racial, religious, and cultural prejudices. There would come a day, of course, when he would send them out again, this time saying, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[13] But that day would not come until a change of hearts had occurred—a change not in the hearts of the Samaritans, but in the hearts of his followers as a result of the work of the Spirit of God.

On this occasion, however, when visciousness in the name of God so readily reared its ugly head among his followers, Jesus strongly rebuked them. “You know not what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man is not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” [14]Then they went on to another village.

The Graciousness of the Dove Demonstrated

Jesus not only instructed his disciples to be gracious in their public conduct, rebuking them when they failed to be so, he also demonstrated this graciousness in his own public conduct and addresses.

One such occasion is recorded in John’s gospel and involved “a woman taken in adultery” by the Pharisees and teachers of the law.[15] They drag the poor woman (significantly, the woman but not the man involved) into the presence of Jesus and again publicly pose a difficult question.

This time the question is about sexual morality. In that day, to raise such a question in pubic was nothing short of scandalous, and even today this is the most difficult type of question for the believer to handle in the public arena. Once again the sole intent of the questioners is to trap Jesus and get him into trouble.

“Teacher”, ask the legalists in the presence of a crowd of onlookers, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

If he says, “Spare her,” he is publicly advocating a violation of the Law of Moses and guilty of heresy; if he says, “Stone her,” he violates all his own teaching on love, mercy, and forgiveness. So what is he to say and do?

Once again, he doesn’t respond right away. He doesn’t “rush to judgement” as so many of us are inclined to do when confronted with a question on morality. Instead John (who was present) records that he bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. This prompts his interrogators to question him again until suddenly he straightens up and delivers the perfect answer—wise as a serpent but above all, gracious as a dove.

“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

An answer as gracious as it is shrewd—less than twenty words, the perfect sound bite, eminently quotable, again sure to make the evening television news if the cameras had been rolling. What can his interrogators say or do in reply? None of them is spotlessly clean when it comes to sexual morality. Jesus knows it and perhaps some of their friends and neighbours in the crowd know it. They are left speechless and gradually slink away leaving Jesus and his disciples alone with the woman who is about to experience the full extent of his graciousness.

He asks her, “Woman, where are they (your accusers)? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir”, she replies.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now, and leave your life of sin.”

In this reply Jesus makes clear that he does not condone adultery. But confronted with the sin of adultery—literally, a “missing of the mark” with respect to God’s intention for sexual relations between married people—he is not condemnatory. “Neither do I condemn you.” How many of us would have said that in that situation? Instead Jesus demonstrates to the woman involved the graciousness of the Spirit of God that loves and forgives her notwithstanding her conduct.

Would God that as followers of Christ today we could, in our time and circumstances, respond with such wisdom and graciousness to loaded questions on sexual morality designed to embarrass or discredit the Christian faith at the interface of faith and politics.

Implications for Us

  1. The need for instruction
    Jesus did not entrust his followers with public work in his name nor did he send them out into the public arena without giving them specific instruction on how to speak and act in that capacity in public. Is it not imperative therefore that we follow his example in this regard?  That Christian seminaries, schools, churches, and para-church organizations provide specific instruction and training for those who will represent the Christian faith in the public arena so that they will do so with the wisdom and graciousness that Jesus himself modelled?

    Is this not especially important for Christian members and candidates of political parties, operating in a secular political arena hostile to faith and increasingly dominated by the social media?[16]

  2. The prayer for wisdom
    There is such a thing as “the prayer for wisdom” and surely it is a prayer that those of us operating at the interface of faith and politics should pray more often and more fervently.

    Perhaps the most famous of such prayers by a man about to step into the public arena as a political figure is that prayed by Solomon, the son of David and Israel’s third king: “Give me wisdom and knowledge that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours.”[17] To which God then replies, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honour, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, possessions and honour such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.”[18]

    The importance of praying for wisdom was also later emphasized by one of “the twelve” who first heard Jesus’ instruction to be “wise as serpents.” Accordingly, the disciple James, who later became one of the principal leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem, wrote to his fellow believers, “If any of you lacks wisdom you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”[19] James also seemed to be particularly aware that it was not enough to simply pray for wisdom or even to receive it; one had to act on it to be effective in God’s service. “Do not merely listen to the word (wisdom received), and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”[20]
  3. Avoiding foolishness in the name of God
    Fortunately for us, the grace of God is such that he can redeem the situations in which we Christians have spoken and acted foolishly in his name and convert them into sources of future wisdom through lessons learned.

    Billy Graham acted foolishly as a representative of the Christian faith in his first encounter (at the interface of faith and politics) with an American president, Harry Truman. But he learned from that experience and went on to become an increasingly respected and trusted spiritual friend to a number of other presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Should we not also learn from our mistakes, especially when we have acted foolishly in his name

    Similarly, the one redeeming feature of acknowledging the un-wisdom of Canadian Christians who as a minority group took an “all or nothing” position on the abortion issue in a majoritarian political arena is that a wiser course of action may be taken by the faith community in the future. The opportunity for a “second chance” will likely come when advances in genetics, medical practice, and science based jurisprudence force a reframing of “beginning of life issues” beyond the old pro-life pro-choice paradigm and oblige future legislators to establish new policies and regulatory regimes based on that reframed understanding. Let Christians be prepared to conduct themselves wisely and graciously in that future debate.

  4. Avoiding and mitigating viciousness in the name of God
    Do not we as believers in our time and circumstances need to be strongly cautioned against acting viciously in the name of God and urged to take corrective action when such viciousness rears its ugly head?

    It is sad but true (and I speak from experience) that some of the most vicious letters received by elected officials, especially over moral issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, and euthanasia, come from people professing to represent a Christian perspective. Similarly, what are we to think of those overly zealous prolife advocates who threaten the lives of abortionists and would readily burn down abortion clinics just as the early followers of Jesus were prepared to burn down that Samaritan village that refused to receive him?

    What should those of us of the Christian community say and do when we see and hear such threats and acts of viciousness made or committed in the name of Christ? Should we remain silent and therefore appear to condone them? Or should we not be in the forefront of correcting and mitigating them after the example of Jesus himself?

    What would Jesus say to those believers today who are prepared to act viciously in his name? Would he encourage them in those attitudes and actions or would he respond in the same vain as he did to his earliest followers long ago:  “You know not what spirit you are of—certainly it is not my spirit. … I sent you forth not to be vicious as snakes but gracious as doves, gracious as the Spirit of God himself. Now conduct yourselves accordingly if you profess to be speaking and acting in my name.”

  5. Drawing closer to him who exemplified wisdom and graciousness in his public work.
    Jesus’ initial followers undoubtedly learned as much or more about what it meant to be wise and gracious in the public arena by simply drawing closer and closer to their master as they ever did from studying his explicit instruction on this subject. This should remind us yet again of the need to ever draw closer to Jesus in every aspect of our lives so that how we conduct ourselves in the public arena is not some contrived strategy but a natural outworking of our relationship to him.

    Let us also cultivate, in our time and circumstances, Christian leaders and spokespersons who not only teach and advocate the wisdom and graciousness of Jesus in the public arena but actually model that wisdom and graciousness in their own public work and conduct.


[1] Matthew 10:16 (KJV)

[2] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Signet Classics, 1986), 244-245

[3] I Samuel 13:13

[4] II Samuel 24:10

[5] Billy Graham, Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (Harper Collins Publishers, 1997), xxi-xxiv

[6] Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-69 (SC 1968-69 c.38)

[7] R v. Morgentaler (1088) 1 S.C.R. 30

[8] Stephen Bindman, “Abortion motions rejected. Govt. given little help on new law,” The Ottawa Citizen. July 29, 1988. Pg. A1.

[9] Bill C-43, An Act Respecting Abortion, 2d Sess., 34th Par]., 1989.

[10] Matthew 22:15-22

[11] Luke 9:51-55

[12] Matthew 10:5

[13] Acts 1:8

[14] Luke 9:55-56 (KJV)

[15] John 8: 1-11

[16] It is to address this need that the Manning Centre for Building Democracy ( has developed a lecture and seminar program entitled “Navigating the Faith Political Interface”

[17] II Chronicles 1:10

[18] II Chronicles 1: 11-12.  Sadly it should be noted that while Solomon prayed for wisdom and received it, he did not always act upon it. Eventually he was led away from wholehearted worship of Jehovah by the influence of his many foreign wives. In addition, his heavy taxation of his people in order to finance the building of his magnificent palaces eventually led to rebellion by the northern tribes, civil war, and the breakup of the kingdom under his son Rehoboam.

[19] James 1:5

[20] James 1:22

Source: Marketplace Institute

comments powered by Disqus