The Evil That Passes for Good in Christian Leadership

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As you’ve noticed—as everyone’s noticed—there seems to be something rotten in the Denmark of Christian leadership.

Every time you think there can’t be another megachurch pastor who fails, well, there’s another megachurch pastor who fails.

And those are the stories that make the news. For every story that makes the headlines, though, there are dozens that never do simply because the church wasn’t large enough or prominent enough to make the news. And yet, dozens (or even hundreds )of people are left devastated, and may often lose faith as a result.

So, what gives? What’s wrong with the church? Why is this so widespread?

And it’s easy to play armchair critic whenever yet another mega-church pastor or Christian in leadership fails and think to ourselves “Well, I would never do that.” And perhaps that’s true.

What’s especially difficult, though, is spotting the evil in the moment.

What’s even more difficult, is when the evil that’s causing the downfall often passes for good.

Which is why I’m writing this post.

As you’ve noticed—as everyone’s noticed—there seems to be something rotten in the Denmark of Christian leadership.

In a conflicted, divided, cynical world, the evils that pass for good are qualities that Christians sometimes celebrate in leaders. And qualities that get celebrated also get emulated.

And when we tolerate or celebrate evil that passes for good in the church, we shoot Chrisitan leadership in the foot, and perhaps sometimes in the head.

Here are four evils that pass too often for good in Christian leadership. There are nuances to each, which is why the best lens through which to read this post is not to start judging other leaders, but to look inside and wonder if you’ve been guilty of some of it too.

I know in different seasons of my life, I’ve been more than capable of all of it.

When we tolerate or celebrate evil that passes for good in the church, we shoot Chrisitan leadership in the foot, and perhaps sometimes in the head. Click To Tweet

1. Cruel Certitude

At your moments of greatest certainty, you have the propensity to be the cruelest—the most dismissive, rude, inhuman and, yes, cruel.

The Christian faith is a curious thing.

On the one hand, you carry a conviction about who Jesus is and an affinity for core beliefs that Christians have had in common for centuries.

On the other hand, Christianity is a belief system.

As Tim Keller points out in his very thoughtful Questioning Christianity podcast series, both belief and unbelief require, well, belief. Everything is a faith system, and no one can be 100% certain about everything or it would not require faith. God, it seems, actually requires trust from his creation.

This is true of all faith and religious belief systems, including atheism and agnosticism. Because, yes, even atheism and agnosticism are belief systems that require trust.

Everything is a faith system, and no one can be 100% certain about everything or it would not require faith. God, it seems, actually requires trust from his creation. Click To Tweet

Where Christians begin to veer into dangerous territory, is when we overstate our certainty to the point where it becomes hard, closed, and cruel.

Brian Zahnd notes that “Certitude can be an incubator for cruelty. Perceived infallibility can lead to brutality.”

When I read that, I stopped dead in my tracks. Not only is that exceptionally clarifying about the current dialogue in much of Christianity, but it also convicted me.

At your moments of greatest certainty, you have the propensity to be the cruelest—the most dismissive, rude, inhuman, and, yes, cruel.

And yet that’s exactly what a meaningful subset of Christians seems to applaud these days. The more certain you are, the angrier you are, the crueler you are, and the more your stock increases among certain Christians.

It’s a great way to attract followers in a cruel culture, but it’s not reflective of authentic Christianity.

The damage that cruelty has done to Christianity in this era is staggering.

And we wonder why a generation is walking away.

At your moments of greatest certainty, you have the propensity to be the cruelest—the most dismissive, rude, inhuman, and, yes, cruel. Click To Tweet

2. The Burning of Enemies At the (Figurative) Stake

Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies wasn’t just a teaching, it was perfectly embodied on the cross. The very people who crucified him were the people he loved enough to save through the act of crucifixion.

Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies wasn’t just a teaching, it was perfectly embodied on the cross. The very people who crucified him were the people he loved enough to save through the act of crucifixion.

And yet despite the greatest act of enemy love imaginable, Christians have had a field day over the centuries not just hating their opponents, but destroying them.

I have benefited so much from John Calvin’s teachings and writings over the year and remain grateful for much of my Reformed background. But he, like almost every one of his era, destroyed enemies rather than embraced them.

Calvin, for example, had Michael Servetus burned at the stake. As much as that might shock modern people, these days Christians instead torch their opponents on Twitter.

Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake. As much as that might shock modern people, these days Christians instead torch their opponents on Twitter. Click To Tweet

If you want to see evidence of hating enemies, look no further than the current partisan divide in the West where people on the opposite sides of the political spectrum demonize each other, or watch as the Roe v. Wade debate rages, where each side demonizes the other, and too many Christians jump in with surprising hatred.

So, what’s the alternative?

Maybe start here: You can carry your convictions without destroying your opponents.

Disagreeing with another person never justifies destroying another person.

The impulse to inflict harm on someone may never disappear. I still feel the urge too. But our faith should stop us from ever acting on it.

You can carry your convictions without destroying your opponents. Disagreeing with another person never justifies destroying another person. Click To Tweet

Get Answers To Your Toughest Pastoral Succession Questions

5 years from now, what would it feel like to look back and know…

  • That you asked the right questions before and it prepared you for what came after?
  • That you made tough but necessary decisions to prepare for a brighter future?
  • That you were confident each step of the way?

You can hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

3. Self-Righteousness

Humility is a much more effective evangelism strategy than self-righteousness.

After reading this far, my guess is your hackles are up and you’re feeling a little indignant.

Surely I’m not that bad, you might be saying to yourself.

I get it. I feel that too. And that phenomenon is also called self-righteousness.

It disappoints me to realize that decades into my adult Christian journey, I am still much like the man who met Jesus who wanted to justify himself.

I did a one-year daily Bible study on Proverbs with a friend recently, and as we wrapped up we asked each other what our biggest takeaway was.

Mine?

I am still so stubbornly self-righteous.

You can see that in leaders who refuse to apologize or repent (or simply read carefully crafted statements that shift blame elsewhere).

What’s missing in the self-righteous is humility.

Humility is a much more effective evangelism strategy than self-righteousness.

Self-righteousness is like pride—it only looks good to the self-righteous. Everyone else is revulsed by it.

Humility is a much more effective evangelism strategy than self-righteousness. Click To Tweet

4. Entitlement

The Supreme Court owes the church nothing.
The White House owes the church nothing.
Culture owes Christianity nothing.

Somewhere along the way, entitlement crept in church leaders.

Entitlement shows up in leaders who let the benefits and perks of leadership flow to them and not to the team or congregation.

It also shows up in the culture wars, where too many on the Right and Left ‘expect’ the state to uphold Christian values, as though it was some kind of obligation the state owes to the church.

You might trace entitlement back to the 4th century AD when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Prior to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, it would have been inconceivable for any church leader to expect anything from the state other than persecution or marginalization.

Being a leader in the early church carried hardly any privilege with it. Instead, leadership was sacrifice.

Today, entitlement seems to be an ugly underbelly in too much of church leadership.

Jesus never looked to Rome as the solution, nor did Paul. The state was a regime that belonged to one Kingdom. The church belonged to another.

  • The Supreme Court owes the church nothing.
  • The White House owes the church nothing.
  • Culture owes Christianity nothing.

And the congregation? Well, healthy cultures feature people who treat each other with respect and kindness, but that has to flow both ways for the culture to be healthy.

Humility, service, and grace should characterize Christian leadership.

And yes, of course, Christianity is anchored in truth as well. But when truth isn’t fused with grace, it isn’t Christian truth.

The Supreme Court owes the church nothing. The White House owes the church nothing.Culture owes Christianity nothing. Click To Tweet

Where Do We Go?

The path ahead isn’t easy no matter what Christians decide to embrace.

But repenting of cruelty, enemy hate, self-righteousness, and entitlement is a good start. It would be shocking to ancient Christians to realize that those are characteristics that get ignored, applauded, or justified in Christian culture today.

Embracing a more humble, gracious, servant approach to the people outside and inside the walls of the church is only going to move the mission forward.

It’s also far more reflective of the God we serve and the God the church is introducing people to.

Secure Your Church’s Future with a Proven Pastoral Succession Plan.

If you’ve ever wondered:

  • How do I lead this church with a vision I didn’t create and a staff I didn’t hire?
  • Am I even equipped to be a lead pastor? And to lead our church through a healthy transition? 
  • How can I honor the outgoing pastor throughout the transition?

Then it might be time to make a plan for your future.

So much rides on healthy pastoral succession. A bad one can ruin a great legacy, harm a church, and make the new lead pastor a sacrificial lamb.

Or, it can go exceedingly well. 

How do you not mess it up when there's so much at stake?

The Art of Pastoral Succession helps you hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.