Is Christian Leadership in Crisis?

Earlier this year, Christianity Today reported that, “a cynicism about leadership and authority is spreading in the church.” Scandalous behavior has been rampant, and heightened our distrust of Christian leaders. Earlier this month, an article suggested that the crisis in Christian leadership is largely due to a lack of training. I do not wholeheartedly agree. While formal training can provide a robust academic foundation, it can never substitute for the personal depth of faith required for effective Christian leadership (1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1). Neither should any training program take it for granted that prospective leaders are personally “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17). Unless our understanding of leadership goes beyond theory, cultural thought may develop a narrative that suggests evangelical leadership cannot realistically offer anything exceptional. If Christian leadership is to continue on with integrity, earning respect, and making fruitful contributions in a community, each leader must prioritize the personal meaning of Christian.

Literature on Christian leadership is plentiful. It’s replete with teachings on humility, self-sacrifice, Christ-centeredness, teachability, leading by example, and casting vision. Learning how the Lord Jesus grips a leader personally, to “know Him and the power of His resurrection” (Philip. 3:10), is what requires a fresh comprehension in our teachings. We must acknowledge that Christ’s power in us is not merely a belief in the right praxis, but an actual dynamic that provides the sole foundation for Christian leadership. When Jesus said, “for apart from me you can do nothing,” (Jn. 15:5), He was directing us towards real freedom from our natural self-centered propensities. With the authority and prestige that leadership roles offer in a community of faith, it’s not easy to overcome our natural tendency to manage selfishly. The hallmark of Christian leadership is discipling others to become all that God has for them.

Effective leadership grows in personal love for the Truth, with a profound appreciation for the grace of God, and knows deep down what it means that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). The event of Calvary for me, for my sins, should remain a seminal reality in the making of great Christian leadership. John Wesley became one of the greatest leaders England ever produced, and it all began one evening at a Bible study that continues to be commemorated. Wesley wrote of that event, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. . . . And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Immediately afterwards, Wesley began developing countless preachers, pastors, founded benevolent societies, and produced copious literature that built upon a personal knowingness of God’s grace. Even the great Apostle Paul’s successes as a church planter, evangelist, theologian, and mentor, remained personally cognizant of Calvary. Paul said, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). They also emphasized the Spirit’s fruit of “joy.” As Paul stated authoritatively, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philip. 4:4).

Every leader will nevertheless continue to experience doubts, struggles, discouragements, failures, and continual temptations. Wesley had them. Paul’s letters reveal them. Christian leaders are called to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). An effective leader is thus one who perseveres in love for the Truth and grows in the personal fulfillment it reveals. An inward decline in passion for the Truth, and a severe loss of the “abundant life” (Jn. 10:10), can seriously weaken a Christian leader and aggravate temptations towards selfishness.

Recently, I watched a video: Observations About the Ravi Zacharias Scandal One Year Later. I am profoundly sad for what happened to the victims under the abusive leadership of Zacharias. The pain and injustices that were caused by him continue to make me teary eyed. I pledge to exercise vigilance and advocacy for victims whenever I have opportunity, and will encourage others to do so as well. In the video, J. Warner Wallace comments that the motives of Zacharias to commit such transgressions were his access to “power, money, and sexual desire” (22:25). I do not totally agree with Wallace’s view as it applies to Zacharias. There are many Christian leaders who have access to power, money, and probably face sexual temptations, yet do not betray their God given responsibilities. For Zacharias, my analyses are that his personal love of the Truth had waned, and his personal appreciation for Calvary became merely theoretical. Even so, the joy of the Lord was no longer a strength. Ministry became strictly a professional exercise as his personal relationship with the Lord weakened. Even with his access to “power and money,” had he kept up with “fighting a good fight of faith,” he probably would not have engaged in sexual sins. I also surmise that if we were to ask fallen Christian leaders if their devotional lives deteriorated, they would answer in the affirmative.

A major stumbling block is that evangelicalism inadvertently encourages a cult of personality. We measure success by a leader’s numerical achievements. Growing numbers translate into a larger branding of a leader in evangelicalism, and somehow a lessening accountability. We should be establishing a culture of multi-layered leadership: “Where there is no guidance, a people fall, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). Everyone must remain accountable and an assumed celebrity “status” cannot rise above direct accountability. The early church was discouraged from developing cult personalities, as the Apostle Paul admonished it from saying and practicing, “’I follow Paul’, or ‘I follow Apollos’, or ‘I follow Cephas’” (1 Cor. 1:12).

Let’s conclude with a notable take away from the pioneers of Christian leadership who led in a milieu of religious and political intolerance towards Christianity. What distinguished them was their growing inward spiritual transformation, which was irresistibly recognizable and effective in Christian ministry. In Acts, “when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (4:13). Today, we have the same Spirit. Now education is certainly integral for effective Christian leadership in our world of unprecedented complexity. Nevertheless a fruitful leader must continually be in the school of Jesus and personally learn to build on His grace and power of redemption, within structures of accountability. Otherwise, the right theories alone cannot produce the required Christian leaders for a time like ours.

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About the author

Marlon De Blasio, Ph.D. is a Christian thinker, cultural apologist, and author of Discerning Culture. He lives in Toronto with his family. Follow him at @MarlonDeBlasio on Twitter.