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Sources of Moral Authority: Charismatic Leaders


In every religious tradition there are leaders who appear to have special spiritual gifts. These gifted (“charismatic”) leaders become a source of moral authority either by example of force of their ethical teachings. Max Weber suggested that there are two types of charismatic leadership: exemplary and ethical. The exemplary leader derives his/her authority from the moral force of example.  The ethical leader derives authority not primarily from his/her life, but from the divine message entrusted to him/her.

Exemplary: Gandhi

A modern example of an outstanding moral leader whose authority came from the example of his life is Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948). Shocked and victimized by the racial policies he encountered in South Africa, Gandhi chose to fight against injustice through a commitment to non-violence, rooted in satyagraha – “the force which is born of truth and the love of nonviolence.” Gandhi chose to lead in three ways:

  • Example
  • Commitment to non-violence
  • Listening to the divine “inner voice.”

A dramatic example of his leadership was the 200 mile march to the sea where he and his followers made salt – an act prohibited by the British colonialists ruling India. His non-violent, civil disobedience based on a moral directive gave courage and motivation to hundreds of thousands in India and ultimately helped to win India’s independence from Britain.

Ethical: Amos

The second type of charismatic leadership is that of the ethical prophet of ancient Israel. An example of such a prophet was Amos who lived in the latter half of the Eighth Century B.C.E. The prophet was a charismatic leader in that he had a special spiritual gift of hearing/seeing/discerning the "Word of the Lord." The truth of his message was verified by the fulfillment of his prophecy. In Amos, we see four characteristics of the ethical prophet:

  • The prophet serves as a messenger. Often their sayings are prefaced with the phrase, “Thus says the Lord. . . .”
  • The prophet may receive his message through visions or ecstatic trances (“the word/deed of the Lord which Amos saw”) .
  • The message of the prophet addresses current injustice, usually in the social order.
  • The prophet’s message usually announces God’s judgment against those who promote or practice injustice.

 Often the prophets became sources of moral authority only after their deaths. If their prophecies were fulfilled one could conclude that they were in fact spiritually gifted leaders who spoke on behalf of God. Thus, their words were written down and transmitted from one generation to the next and ultimately became an authoritative source for ethical and moral guidance.