We have had a pandemic, wildfires, drought, political fights, and all manner of mahem it seems over the past six months. Add to those the almost unbearable failure of Christian leaders right and left.
Each of these leaders have portrayed toxic leadership characteristics for some time. But, in each case, they have continued to be held up as gifted and powerful Christian witnesses to the world by the evangelical church.
Gifting should not be the only standard we bear for the support of Christian leaders.
Yet, the horrific sin of these gifted leaders is often overlooked by those who follow them. And, unfortunately, as Jean Lipman-Blumen notes,
“These intriguing leaders first charm but then manipulate, mistreat, undermine, and ultimately leave their followers worse off than they found them.” 1
We are worse off in the end. No matter their gifting.
The church cannot think that all those gifts can overcome toxic, arrogant, self-centered leadership. It will all end. And, it will end in hurt. This rule of life is not established by their followers but by the God Who created His world and continues to rule it.
Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD. Behold, I will bring disaster upon you. I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. And I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, for the anger to which you have provoked me, and because you have made Israel to sin. And of Jezebel the LORD also said, The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel.’ Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat.”
1 Kings 21:20-24 (ESV)
Pretty harsh. The leaders of God’s people have a great responsibility. It is why those who desire to lead are both encouraged that it is a noble desire and instructed to be noble [1 Tim. 3:1, James 3:1, 1 Peter 5:1-4, Titus 1:7, etc].
And held to high standards.
One of the more recent failures was Jerry Falwell, Jr.. Falwell’s father has been held up as by some as a standard to which Junior did not achieve. But Cal Thomas wrote many years ago that Jerry Senior’s fundamental approach to the Moral Majority’s influence during its heyday was in wielding worldly power.2
This is the legacy that Falwell Jr. caught and bred at Liberty University.
According to Daniel Burke, “Karen Swallow Prior, a former professor at Liberty, said Falwell ruled the campus with virtually unchecked power.” Burke notes that Falwell was interested in creating an academically, financially, and athletically successful university. Not “to live a Christian life.” 3
Karen Swallow also said,
“There have been red flags for a long time…The kind of arrogance and authoritarian leadership that we experience as faculty was really just a symptom of this lifestyle that obviously was one in which he thought he could do anything and get away with it.”
It wasn’t Jerry’s job
Unfortunately for Jerry Jr., God balks at such callousness among those who claim Christ and lead His people. It matters not whether they lead a “Christian” organization or a business or non-profit entity. Those who claim Christ must also claim His life.
In the church we seem to have low standards for putting in leadership and high standards for removal from that leadership.
Many of the Christian leaders who have fallen from their lofty perches of late have been raising red flags for years. Those in their inner circles either were silenced or turned blind eyes to these leaders’ authoritarian, immoral, and arrogant leadership. Maybe, they overlooked their character while upholding their worldly giftedness.
Burke said, “Falwell Jr. likely assumed that as long as he kept Liberty rolling in money, no one would care much about his personal morality.”
When will it end? Not until Jesus returns to right every wrong and bring his broken and bruised people home. But until then, the church has the high calling of calling our leaders to account. God’s standards for leadership are very high and his standards for removal are actually quite low.
Honor professing Christian leaders who genuinely follow Christ [1 Tim. 5:17].
Take courage and remove those who do not [1 Tim. 5:20].
Book by Editor of P&S
Kelly Dehnert, Editor of Pearls and Swine, has written a book about his family’s life in Africa as missionaries. The book provides helpful insights to engaging other cultures.
What others say about the book:
Historians study something called ‘movement’ — how one people group becomes a different people group simply by moving into another people group. The Dehnert tribe is a perfect microcosm of ‘movement’ – and we are all better for it. This book would be helpful for anyone considering cross-cultural service. For everyone else, especially we ‘experts,’ this book is a helpful lesson in humility – learning again the limits of our learning!
Rev. Sam McDonald
Pastor, Faith Presbyterian – Brookhaven, Mississippi
Former Missionary to Malawi