Like ripples from a rock dropped into a pond, the destructive effects of a church leader’s sin may be far reaching; ripples of trauma may go through a whole church and community for years.
We cannot underestimate the damage from an abusive ministry, and wounds may be so deep that full healing will only be known in heaven. Whether it is the misuse of power by a group of leaders or an individual, whether we call it spiritual abuse, pastoral malpractice or whatever; it is always evil. Jesus spoke powerfully against this: ‘It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin’ (Luke 17:2).
Jesus immediately followed this with, ‘So watch yourself’ (Luke 17:3). Whenever an abusive ministry is exposed, it is a reminder for leaders to examine themselves. No ministry is immune from the temptation to sin and abuse, or as Jesus puts it, ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come’ (Luke 17:1).
There is much written for church leaders today on Christian leadership, but whatever benefit may come from common grace wisdom on this subject from secular sources, it must not eclipse the priority of the Bible’s teaching. Christian leadership, by definition, is to be distinct and unique. It is the opportunity for the gospel to be modelled, and to mould the church into a credible and compelling challenge to the unbelieving world.
So, what are the roots of faithful godly ministry?
Using power for good
John chapter 13 probably contains all we need to know for leadership to be distinctively Christian. Here, Jesus talks to his disciples in the short hours before his betrayal, knowing that these men will soon be the apostles to the early church; men of great influence, unique gifting and importance. So, it is little surprise that he begins by talking about the right use of power; by definition, Christian leaders have power that may be used for good or evil.
Power may be used rightly, as the true shepherds who were after God’s ‘own heart’ in Jeremiah 3:15, or it can be misused as the false shepherds in Ezekiel 34:2 did by ‘only taking care of themselves’. If you are a church leader you may find the idea that you have power surprising; after all, much of your time may be spent explaining yourself; but you do have power, and this power comes with your office.
John chapter 13 begins with one of the clearest statements anywhere in Scripture about the power Jesus has: ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God’ (John 13:3). You name it – nature, evil, hearts, minds, the Roman Empire – everything is under the power of Jesus, for he is God. However, from this position of absolute power, we next read, ‘so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet’ (John 13:4-5). The first thing Jesus wants every church leader to recognise is how the power they have is to be used:
I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him (John 13:15-16).
His example is about self-sacrifice and the embrace of humiliation: power used for the comfort, care and good of others is the foundation for all Christian leadership. The stronger Christian leadership is, the lower it ought to stoop in the service of others.
Power regulated by love
In John chapter 10, Jesus identified himself as the Good Shepherd, the true shepherd of Ezekiel chapter 34 verses 11-16. However, Jesus is the shepherd that is characterised by his sacrifice for his flock: ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). Ultimately, Jesus will show what it is to unleash his power as a leader in the embrace of Calvary.
All of this is driven by his love for his people, for it is love that regulates the control of this power. ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love’ (John 10:1), and the ‘full extent of his love’ begins with his hands washing their feet and progresses to his own hands and feet being nailed to the cross. It is love in action that hallmarks the practice of Christian leadership. This is where John chapter 13 ultimately takes us:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).
What does it look like in the church for power to be used for the good of others and regulated by self-sacrificial love?
A humble heart
In Acts chapter 6, there was a potentially catastrophic challenge to the unity and future of the Jerusalem church. It involved some of the neediest people in the church and was laced with high ethnic tension. The Apostles’ solution was to ask the church to choose seven men who were ‘known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (Acts 6:3) to resolve this. This delegated responsibility from the Apostles demonstrates trust and confidence in the church by allowing them to make that choice. It is a great example of what Peter will later describe as, ‘not lording it over those entrusted to you’ (1 Pet. 5:3). Central to this delegation of power is a commitment to preserve the priority of godly leadership: ‘we…will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4). Christian leadership is uniquely hallmarked by love in action for the good of others and commitment to word ministry and prayer.
Christian leadership is ultimately about bringing the word of God to the people of God for their good, confident in the power of God, for the glory of God alone, where the dominant personality is Christ himself. Christian leaders show their love through the hidden labour of prayer and preparation, and in the work they do to free up fellow leaders in order to stay focused upon these things. None of this is possible without a humble heart before God. There is a mysterious relationship between brokenness in a leader and their usefulness. It was only when Jesus restored Peter, shattered by his bold denials and covered in shame, that he told him to take care of and feed his sheep.
The Jerusalem church at the close of Acts 2 presented a compelling missional apologetic to the city; they were ‘enjoying the favour of all the people’ (Acts 2:47). Your local community needs to see your church community in a similar way, and possibly now more than ever. Like Jerusalem, this will be rooted in humble Christlike leadership.
Pray for Christian leaders today, for their personal integrity and godliness, and if you are a leader may God keep you humble and content in his service.