A thin, impoverished-looking man walked inside an airport with his suitcase. Wherever he went, people looked at him in a put-down manner, trying to avoid sitting near him. When he approached a seat, the person sitting nearby got up and walked away in disgust. The man then walked to a large, open area where a grand piano stood. He sat on the piano stool, remaining motionless for a while. Passersby looked at him suspiciously and scornfully. They could not imagine what he was about to do.
The man began to play a well-known piece by Beethoven. He played so beautifully that the passersby stopped and gave full attention to him. Many began taking videos of him on their cell phones. People who had paid no attention before looked at each other in disbelief and now moved toward the one whom they had moved away from just a few minutes before. That man was there on purpose. He was a part of a social experiment on people’s perceptions of others.
Research shows that we tend to believe what we see and run with our first impressions.1 David Williams, Harvard University sociologist and health ministries associate for the Seventh-day Adventist global church states, “Stereotype-linked bias is an automatic and unconscious process. It occurs even among persons who are not prejudiced.”2 Unlike the pianist—able to assert his remarkable skill, regardless of his appearance—many are not given the time or opportunity to prove themselves.
With limited comprehension, we often use our feelings and perceptions to stereotype people instead of waiting for the promptings of the Holy Spirit to develop a more proper understanding. How do we counter such biases? The story of Saul and David is instructive for our purposes. Israel’s experience of demanding a leader made in their own image is one of those biblical accounts that “happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).3
God had chosen a new leader to replace Saul, king of Israel. Sensing Samuel’s sympathy toward Saul, God spoke directly to Samuel: “ ‘How long will you mourn for Saul since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king’ ” (1 Samuel 16:1). Author Ellen White states, “In every age there is a new development of truth, a message of God to the people of that generation.”4 New wine is placed in new wineskins. Leadership transitions are seldom smooth, but always necessary.
God knew that, when the nation of Israel had looked over Saul, they would readily accept him as king. They assessed Saul on what he might contribute to his people. Dan Lioy, professor at the South African Theological Seminary, says, “Saul’s impressive height and good looks would make him appear to be a suitable candidate. . . . Saul fit the description of the sort of ruler the Israelites wanted. His striking appearance suggested that he would make a great monarch.”5 Saul was assessed based on his potential.
When God looked over David, He knew what he had contributed to his people. Ellen White states, “Even before he was summoned to the court of Saul, David had distinguished himself by deeds of valor. The officer who brought him to the notice of the king declared him to be ‘a mighty valiant man, and a man of war, and prudent in matters,’ and he said, ‘The Lord is with him.’ ”6 David was assessed based on his performance.
Performance bias asserts that the “in” group is judged on potential, but the “out” group is judged on performance. Those we prefer are given a competence pass and the opportunity to “grow” into the position. For those whom we hold at arms length, superior accomplishments are often required but rarely relished. Minds are already set, and decisions are already made.
In the story of Saul and David, competence-based hiring holds greater long-term satisfaction than potential-based hiring. Consultant Cameron Herold states, “The old adage of ‘hire for attitude, train for skill’ doesn’t work anymore, if it even ever did. A good attitude can’t overcome a lack of skills no matter how upbeat and charismatic they are.”7
God had told Samuel that the next king would be one of Jesse’s eight sons. When it was time for choosing, all of David’s brothers were brought before Samuel—but David was not. Samuel was immediately drawn to one son. “When they arrived, Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought, ‘Surely this is the man the Lord has chosen!’ ” (1 Sam. 16:6, TLB). While Samuel was preoccupied with himself choosing a leader for Israel, God was prioritizing a lesson for Samuel. “ ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’ ” (v. 7). It was not for Samuel to impose on God his selection; it was for God to impress on Samuel His volition.
Why was Samuel drawn to Eliab? Eliab seemed the best fit for the next king of Israel because, in the East, a tall stature was greatly valued in a king. Bible commentator Charles Ellicott says, “There was something in the tall and stately presence of the eldest born of Jesse which reminded the old man of the splendid youth of Saul.”8 Ellen White states, “Eliab was the eldest, and more nearly resembled Saul for stature and beauty than the others.”9
Samuel made his choice based on custom and comfort. That is affinity bias. Affinity bias maintains that we tend to select people who are most like us. Psychologist Jeffrey Davis states, “While this implicit prejudice is a complex issue to unpack, the root of the problem is the simple fact that affinity bias narrows our vision and limits our possibilities. Research has shown that our preference for the safety of the familiar can curb creativity, undermine collaboration, and close our minds to novel ideas and new perspectives.”10
Looking favorably at Eliab because of his stature showed that Samuel had not learned his earlier lesson with the selection of Saul, who “was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward” (1 Sam. 10:23, NKJV). This is evidence that affinity bias is both difficult to acknowledge and tough to shake.
Israel knew what the right leader looked like. They had seen the model in the other nations. All of their thinking was not without merit. They asked for “ ‘a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles’ ” (1 Sam. 8:20). They forgot that in Yahweh, they already had a King.
“ ‘For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory’ ” (Deut. 20:4).
Cultural factors and personal experiences had shaped their perceptions. The problem was not that they accepted wrong perspectives and dismissed right ones; it was that they embraced inappropriate persons and excluded appropriate ones. They were readily accepting information that matched their mindset. They were actively seeking evidence that supported their assumption. This is confirmation bias.
Church consultant Charles Stone states that confirmation bias is “a thinking bias that looks for information that supports our preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions. As a result, we spotlight only the information that supports the decision we want to make, to the neglect of other information we need in order to make the best decision. With Google, we can easily search out and find information that confirms almost any belief or decision. And, research tells us that the confirmation bias is strongest in the religious arena.”11
Although a prophet himself, Samuel’s perspectives were not exempt from influence by environment and human nature. While Christian leaders may be guilty of the worst activity, the good news is that we possess the best remedy. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Our only recourse is to repent. “ ‘If we have set up distinctions within our hearts and minds about one another, even without intending to, God calls us to make it right.’ This quote by Debbie McDaniel speaks volumes to the human condition we know as implicit bias. Ask yourself, ‘Have my hidden biases ever unfairly judged another?’ ”12
It is sad to see God’s chosen leaders sometimes fall into the temptations of jealousy, rivalry, and earthly demands. Face value, unfortunately, is often what many care about. Forbes consultant Susan Taylor states, “Although most of us as leaders recognize we have biases, some biases are buried so deep and have been with us for so long, we don’t even realize they’re there. . . . When we are influenced by a bias we don’t even know we have, we can make the wrong decisions.
“Those decisions could result in not hiring or promoting the best people, simply because they don’t fit our perception of an effective leader. We could end up with a department of similar people with similar worldviews who don’t provide the different perspectives needed for innovation. We could make an uninformed business decision because the only research we conducted reinforced things that confirm our preconceptions.”13
God calls every single individual to be part of His gospel commission. If He could call you and me, He can call anyone to serve in the same capacities and responsibilities that we are in right now. Any leadership position and field we find ourselves in, we should directly point to God as our Source of blessings, grace, and mercy as He involves us in this divine partnership to carry out the mission of His church. While He calls us according to what is needed at a particular time, God could have executed His mission successfully without us. Veteran pastor Henry Wright asserts that our qualification for ministry is not our gifts, it is our need. God calls us into ministry not just to save others but to save us.14
When God asked Samuel, “How long are you going to mourn over Saul?” He wanted Samuel to move beyond his own feelings and perceptions in his search for the next king for Israel. God wishes church leadership selections and transitions to be conducted in a humble spirit that honors Him. In our ministry leadership positions, we are subject to replacement. We may have been obedient in doing God’s will; however, when God needs someone to contribute something new to the ministry, He will have to replace us. In any responsibility, given or taken away, may we adopt the servant attitude of Christ and pray for the Holy Spirit to dwell in us so that we can readily say, “I will go.”
- Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (New York, NY: Delacorte Press, 2013).
- David R. Williams, “Healing My Implicit Bias.” https://www.campmeeting.com/race-unity-and-the-church/. Listen at 4 min.
- Unless otherwise noted, Scripture is from the New International Version.
- Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), 127.
- Dan Lioy, “Saul, a Leader of Squandered Potential,” Impact (blog) Bible.Org, January 7, 2021, https://blogs.bible.org/saul-a-leader-of-squandered-potential/.
- Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1898), 644.
- Cameron Herold, “Why You Shouldn’t Hire for Attitude and Train for Skill,” Cameron Herold (blog), July 2, 2021, https://cameronherold.com/hiring/why-you-shouldnt-hire-for-attitude-and-train-for-skill/.
- Charles John Ellicott, “1 Samuel,” Deuteronomy to 2 Samuel, Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1959) n.p. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_samuel/16-6.htm.
- White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 638.
- Jeffrey Davis, “The Bias Against Difference: And How It Gets in the way of Creativity and Collaboration,” Psychology Today, June 25, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tracking-wonder/202006/the-bias-against-difference.
- Charles Stone, “The Hidden Bias That Trips Up Leaders,” Charles Stone (blog), November 26, 2020, https://charlesstone.com/the-bias-that-often-trips-up-a-leader/.
- Association of United Church Educators, “Be the Change,” https://www.auce-ucc.org/anti-racism-resources.
- Susan Taylor, “The Three Most Important Truths to Know About Unconscious Bias,” Forbes, December 19, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/12/19/the-three-most-important-truths-to-know-about-unconscious-bias/?sh=7fd955b07566.
- Henry Wright, “War Stories,” Pastoral Leadership and Evangelism Council, Oakwood University, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=397211611692551. Listen at 12 min, 40 sec.