The Gag Reflex: How Fear Ruins an Organization

Gag Orders 02As I interview and discuss toxic leadership among Christian organization (and church) leaders, it has become apparent that head honchos that “gag” subordinates are encouraging a toxic environment.

These leaders need to be warned that they are heading down a road that will get very difficult to navigate.

There has been much attention given to the actions of Liberty University President, Jerry Falwell Jr., in relation to employees and students. I wrote [Liberty U: Slaves to Image] several months ago in response to a World Magazine article reporting Liberty U’s gag orders to their student newspaper.

Buying the Mission

Fundamental to most gag orders in Christian organizations is the argument that employees should be fully “bought into” the organization’s “Christian” philosophy, goals, and actions. And therefore, should never speak negatively about the organization publicly.

There is often a strong submission element in the stated motives as well. Employees should just submit to their leadership or get out. Romans 13 might even be quoted:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

Romans 13:1-2 (ESV)

Or maybe even the misplaced quoting of Joshua’s famous challenge to the man with the drawn sword standing between Israel and Jericho.

When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?”

Joshua 5:13 (ESV)

“Are you for us, or against us?” A bit of throwing down the gauntlet.

However, not only is quoting Joshua in this case going against the context of this passage [the Lord lays Joshua flat], but I would suggest that demanding submission based on Romans is often a thinly disguised attempt to cover the fears of organizational leadership when the “emporer has no clothes.”

It is fear that drives leaders to require employees to remain silent when finding things afoot in the ministry that do not sit right with them.

Unflinching submission from employees is what most authorities would love to have and it takes self-awareness, humility, and some significant self-differentiation (thick skin) to deal with subordinate challenges.

In 2012, Liberty University’s leadership sought to contact an employee late in the evening to order her to cease and desist from posting her frustration over a lack of parking on the campus (making it necessary for her to walk quite a distance to her office) on social media. When an article was written about the event, the employee no longer was working at Liberty.

The employee had found it necessary to complain publicly about an issue she found important and believed she was not being heard by Liberty U’s leadership.

A complaint about parking? Is a gag order really necessary?


When a leader is more concerned about being agreed with and obeyed than the growth of his leadership skill or organization’s quality, he is forgetting the call Jesus Christ gave to His flock to do unto others [His image-bearers] as they would want to be done to. [loose translation of Luke 6:30-31]

In a lecture for the AACC National Conference in Dallas, Diane Langberg said regarding the church’s poor response to abuse in its midst,

Much of Christendom today is in turmoil, trying deparately to protect her name and reputation and institutions. Such things are not the call of God in our lives. The call of God is in the voice of the little ones. Little in size, age, position, and power. We are called to listen to the voices of the abused. We are called to go to places where souls are damaged.  To go to places where we need to bend, to go slowly, to become little so as to not overwhelm. To have patience as souls who have been chained in dark places adjust to some light for the very first time. And in doing so, we will demonstrate before a power-grabbing, watching world the true nature of our great God who became little on our behalf.

She is challenging Christian leaders to go “small” like Jesus did in becoming flesh and dwelling among crazy humans in weakness. Look out for the little ones, not our own reputation and image. We need to quit “trying desparately to protect” our organizations’ and churches’ reputations.

Missing the Jesus Boat

Christian leaders who rely on gag orders to control their employees are missing the Jesus boat. They are abusing the authority God has given them. They are seeking to create a fortress around their reputations and image.

Unfortunately, many leaders, who at least border on being toxic, fail to realize the damage they actually do to their image and credibility when demanding submission. Rather than protecting their reputation, they are saying to the watching world, “Me and my goals are unchallengeable and righteous.” Rather than welcoming the sometimes, God-given and uncomfortable exhortations to becoming better as a leader or organization, they crush those they consider opponents.

We have watched over and over again the attempted salvaging of company, political, or organizational image at the expense of truth-telling following a moral failure. And we have become jaded and cynical to the marketing machines that have become all-too common seeking to cover up the failings of leadership.

We know instinctively what is going to be said and done by the organization to shift the blame, deny, and be obscurantic.

Consider, for instance, Michigan State University as it continues to squash taking responsibility for its horrifying failure to protect young women athletes from sexual predators in their sports programs. I encourage you to read Rachael Denhollander’s new book, “What Is a Girl Worth?”

As Christian leaders, we are called to much better responses. Again, hear the wisdom of Diane Langberg:

“We have seen it in the church, in missions, in Christian organizations, or communities around the world. There is the cancer of immorality, theft, corruption, or sexual abuse, and all the energy of that system goes to maintaining itself and a good appearance while ignoring the disease. Thinking they are preserving the system they call God’s, they fail to see and deal with the disease hidden within. They actually think that if they acknowledge the presence of disease and work to stop it, they will in fact, destroy the work of God. However, it is not a step toward the recovery of a sickly system to disguise the worst symptoms of that system to itself.”

Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores by Diane Langberg

“Sickly systems” need to be healed. The failures of our organizations need to be brought to light to be healed. We need to hear those complaints about our organizations…even in social media.

Then we need to respond by “getting small” and helping our employees have a voice, not gagging them.

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