Leadership and Vision (Amended)

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18)

Here is a scripture that is commonly cited to support the idea that the Christian leader is to have a vision for the church – a clear concept of how it should function and be structured – and also have the ability to inspire and mobilise the church to fulfil that vision. The only problem is that Proverbs 29:18 isn’t talking about that kind of vision at all! This common misinterpretation of this verse makes two fundamental hermeneutical (interpretive) mistakes: lexical and contextual.

LEXICAL CONSIDERATIONS

The word ‘lexical’ refers to the true meaning of words. In the case of Proverbs 29:18, there are two key words that are commonly misinterpreted or misunderstood:

“Perish”: The Hebrew word used here is יִפָּ֣רַֽע (yip·pā·ra‘) which means to go their own way, to cast off restraint, to take the lead themselves, to become self-directed rather than directed by God. There is not even a hint of the concept of ‘perishing’ in this word and no reliable Bible translations render it as “perish”.  The NIV, NKJV, NLT, ESV, NASB and ESV translations all translate “yip·pā·ra‘” as “cast off restraint” or similar. The mistranslation of “yip·pā·ra‘” as “perish” was originally made by the King James Version and has now been corrected in the NKJV as a result of modern scholarship. In fact, this is one of hundreds of examples of how the late 16th century and early 17th century scholarship of the KJV is now proving to be inadequate due to our improved lexical understanding of the ancient Hebrew and Greek languages, based upon four centuries of further study.

“Vision”: This is the Hebrew word, חָ֭זוֹן (ḥā·zō·wn) which, in every instance of its biblical use, refers to  divine revelation or prophetic vision from God. It has the concept of a very direct and specific message or set of instructions from God. It never (repeat, never!) refers to one person’s idealised dream or imagining of how something should be or their own carefully constructed plan of what needs to happen. It is a very different kind of vision from the one that is commonly appealed to when this verse is often quoted. This is made even clearer when we consider the immediate literary context.

CONTEXTUAL CONSIDERATIONS

Almost always, it is only the first half of Proverbs 29:18 that is quoted, or should I say ‘misquoted’: “Where there is no vision the people perish (which should actually be ‘cast off restraint’)”. But the whole book of Proverbs is written in a style known as parallelism. Each of the individual proverbs is in two parts: an initial statement followed by an echo. The echo is often in the form of a contrast: a statement which makes the first half of the verse clearer by stating its opposite as a way of contrasting. In the case of Proverbs 29:18, the subsequent contrastive statement makes it abundantly clear what kind of “vision” or “revelation” is being referred to in the first statement. Here, then, is the whole of Proverbs 29:18 in five different translations:

“When there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but the one who keeps the law, blessed is he.” (ESV).

“Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, but happy is he who keeps the law.” (NASB).

“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint, but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.” (NIV).

“Where there is no understanding of the Word of the Lord, the people do whatever they want to, but happy is he who keeps the law.” (NLT).

“Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but happy is he who keeps the law.” (NKJV).

The key phrase in the second half of Proverbs 29:18 is “תּוֹרָ֣ה וְשֹׁמֵ֖ר” (literally, “who keeps the law”). Four of the five above-quoted translations opt for a literal translation of this phrase as “one who keeps the law” (or similar), while the NIV chooses the slightly looser translation of “who heeds wisdom’s instruction”. But in all of these translations, what is being described is obedience to God’s specific instructions or laws. It is not referring to some kind of esoteric, creative formulation of strategies and plans that may be dreamed up by an individual. “One who keeps the law” is a clear description of the person who obeys God’s specific commands and instructions, given to his people through divine revelation. In its Old Testament context, Proverbs 29:18 is referring to the covenantal body of the Law, the specific set of instructions given to the Israelites through Moses on Mount Sinai and codified in the Pentateuch. It is saying that when people follow God’s instructions, they are “blessed” (ESV and NIV) or “happy” (NASB, NLT and NKJV), but “when there is no revelation” (in other words, when people are not aware of God’s laws or reminded of his instructions – when they no longer retain any knowledge of them) the people “cast off restraint” and do whatever they like.

Of the five translations above, the NLT is perhaps the most helpful and closest in meaning to the original text:

“Where there is no understanding of the Word of the Lord, the people do whatever they want to, but happy is he who keeps the law.” (NLT).

This truth fits easily into our New Testament context. When God’s Word is taught clearly and obeyed faithfully, his people are blessed. But when God’s Word (the Bible) is not clearly and faithfully taught, when its precepts are watered down or altogether ignored, when the people in the pews are ignorant or unaware of the truth because of the absence of faithful biblical preaching, God’s people go astray. They follow their own desires and ignore the commands of God. They wander off the path of truth into the wilderness of sin and theological error.

Proverbs 29:18, therefore, is simply a plea for God’s people to abide by God’s Word and for preachers to proclaim it faithfully. It is not a mandate for leaders to concoct their own creative, unilateral plans. The common use of Proverbs 29:18 as a proof text for this kind of esoteric leadership vision is lexically and contextually unsound.

In saying this, I am not denying the helpfulness or importance of church leaders exercising ‘visionary leadership’. The faithful preaching of God’s Word does not happen in a vacuum. Godly leaders need to not only faithfully teach God’s Word, but they also need to have the perspicacity and insight to see what needs to happen in order to help the church more effectively put God’s Word into practice. For example, wise leaders need to not only preach about the God-given mission of the church on earth, but also to offer practical guidance and propose clear strategies to help the church become more effective in implementing that mission. They need to be able to assess what is currently happening, see how it can be improved and suggest practical steps for bringing about those improvements. In this sense, the godly leader is to have a clear “vision”.

But this kind of practical or strategic vision must always be secondary to the primary task of keeping the vision or understanding of God’s Word foremost in their preaching and foremost in the minds of God’s people. The vision of how the church needs to change or modify its strategies and practices must always flow directly from a clear vision or understanding of God’s Word. It is not the other way around. The faithful visionary leader does not concoct a dream of what he or she wants to see happen and then go searching in the Bible for proof texts and passages to give that vision credibility.

Practical and strategic vision flows directly from a clear vision of God’s Word.  It also should conform to the incidence and importance of biblical themes. The main emphases in the Bible ought to be the main emphases of a church’s strategic plan. Any practical and strategic vision for the church ought to “keep the main thing the main thing” and not drift into accentuating hobby horses or elevating side issues to become the central focus. A clear ‘vision’ and understanding of the Bible will result in a strategic ‘vision’ that is balanced and biblical.

Furthermore, a strategic vision that is formed through consultation and collaboration with a wider group of wise leaders rather than from the deliberations of just one person will have the greatest chance of being balanced, wise and effective. Having a vision for what needs to happen in a church is not the sole prerogative of just one person, but, according to the New Testament, is the responsibility of a wider team of leaders (see Acts 13:1-3).

But foremost in all of this is the importance of faithful, biblical teaching. That is what Proverbs 29:18 is talking about and that is what the modern church most desperately needs. We do not need more leaders to come into the church with clever new strategies drawn from the business world or with programs and policies concocted primarily from their own imaginations. What today’s church desperately needs is leaders who are committed, first and foremost, to preaching God’s Word faithfully and clearly, and then – flowing directly from that ­– to collaboratively and prayerfully formulate a wise plan for helping the church understand and implement God’s Word.

“Where there is no understanding of the Word of the Lord, the people do whatever they want to, but happy is he who keeps the law.” (Proverbs 29:18, NLT).

Comment