This is a series of articles that have been written for COMPASS magazine,
a publication published in Singapore and circulated worldwide.
Bill Lawrence is a regular contributor.
He was a twenty-something seminarian full of excitement and innocence. The God of the universe had called him—him—to lead His people. Now he had the greatest opportunity ever. He was working his way through seminary doing tutoring when he was asked to help the children of a well-known leader. Now he would be in this leader’s home regularly, maybe two or three times a week, getting to know his wife and children, seeing this leader with his family, learning how to lead at home and in life. What a godsend! Getting to know a great leader up close and personal. Yes, up close and personal—too up close and personal as it turned out.
Now he was sitting in my office, disillusioned, struggling with what he had seen in the leader’s home. “What can I do, Dr. Lawrence? No matter when I‘m there—late afternoon, dinner time, in the evening, on the week-end—he’s never home. His wife and children are suffering and I have no idea what to do.”
What could a twenty-something seminarian do about a late-forties famous leader? He didn’t know it, but he had just met his first Christian power leader.
Then came the adulteries, serial adulteries that the leader’s board knew about but never acted on. How could a twenty-something seminarian go up against a fifty-something board? This leader was too successful to be held accountable, too important to the ministry’s success to be removed. So thought his board. So think many boards around the globe.
Nothing about this event should surprise us. Wherever you go in the world you find Christian power leaders who disguise themselves as humble servants of the Lord. They claim they are committed to lead for God and make a difference for Him, and many do—for a while. Not all become involved in immorality, but all pursue personal power, success, and control. None invite accountability.
All of them talk biblically, but lead culturally. They look like the other leaders around them except they lead in the name of Jesus. Whether they lead in church, business, politics or education, they measure themselves exactly the same way other leaders do: by the numbers. In business they keep score by how much money they make. In church they also keep score, except it’s not the amount of money that counts, but the number of people who come to hear them preach. Either way, they are culturally conformed leaders who claim to be Christ committed.
They are driven by a desire for power as well as the fear that they will never gain the power they desperately seek—or that they will lose what power they have. Not to have power is death for all power leaders—and there’s a lot more power leaders than we are willing to admit. So they struggle to fight off death and do everything they can to be in control. This makes them invulnerable, unapproachable idolaters. Why are they idolaters? Because when they use power to take control they put themselves in God’s place as the sovereign rulers of their own little universe. That’s idolatry.
Power leaders have a terrible dread of failure because nothing is more frightening to a power leader than the thought of failing. They’re driven because they think what they are accomplishing is going to make them the somebody they’ve always longed to be. This is how they will secure the power they so desperately seek. They do everything they can to get it right: they go to leadership conferences, work on their leadership skills, develop their vision—they do it all, and this is all good. But they have a problem. It’s not working. Oh, it’s worked some, but it’s not doing what they expected it to do.
So every Christian power leader ends up confused. They’re building their leadership on biblical principles: they’re honest, they’re praying, they’re giving money to Christian causes, they’re preaching God’s Word, yet none of it is working. They are still as powerless and fearful as ever and they seek control more than ever because they feel so out of control. What more can they do? They turn to leaders they admire and pursue their formulas, formulas that always call for power and control. So they strive to be in control with all their might. That’s the fatal flaw in their thinking. They equate life with success, significance with power, and power with control, and control can only produce death.
Henri Nouwen asks why power is always such a temptation for leaders. His answer is this: it’s easier to be God than to love God, to control people than to love people.1 No doubt. And, since they are God, they do the same thing with their power that He does with His: they use their followers for their glory. Of course, there’s a difference between them and God. When God uses His followers for His glory, He loves them, builds them up, and releases them to be themselves. When power leaders use their followers for their glory, they just use them. Maybe that’s why getting power and control doesn’t work.
The problem with every power leader in the world—businessman or woman, politician, pastor, para-church leader, or missionary—is their starting point. They start with the outside and cover up the inside. That’s exactly what leadership is for them: a way to cover up the inside by decorating the outside with self-affirming accomplishments. Christ starts in exactly the opposite place: on the inside. Christ’s kind of leadership is inside out, and that’s the most frightening kind there is. Our fears will come true if we start where He starts. We will have to give up control. We will have to become powerless. We will have to become vulnerable. We will have to take up our cross. We will have to deny self. We will have to die. We will have to turn from idolatry. He meant every word He said when He called us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.
As C. S. Lewis observes2 before we became Christians our starting point was our “ordinary self” and we were “… hoping that when all the demands have been met, the poor natural self will still have some chance … to get on with its own life and do what it likes.” And, I add, get what it wants: security, safety, and success on its terms. When this does not work the natural self gets angrier and angrier. This doesn’t change after we become believers. The natural self—the flesh—is the starting point for all power leaders, and it doesn’t work any better after we become believers than it did before we put our faith in Christ. This explains why virtually all Christian power leaders are angry men and women. Christ does not work through the natural self. He calls for us to deny the natural self and give up all to Him, not just some part of ourselves. As Lewis puts it, Christ says, “I want you. I did not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it… . I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself …”
Christian power leaders struggle with this. Lewis observes, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ.” What we try to do “… is to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.” But Christ is not pleased. “When He said, ‘Be perfect,’ He meant it.” One way Jesus summarized the Sermon on the Mount was by saying, “You are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48, NASB).” And He meant exactly what He said. Be perfect! That’s what all Christian power leaders are seeking to do: be perfect on their terms. And that’s why all their efforts are not working.
C. S. Lewis declares, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” That’s the problem with Christian power leaders: they’re not being hatched, they’re just going bad. They’re trying to fly like birds while still being eggs. No wonder nothing’s working for them.
The real issue with Christian power leaders is that they have missed one of the most important words in the Sermon on the Mount: unless. Because they have missed this word, they turn the Bible into a self-help book, exactly the opposite of what it is. The Bible is not a self-help book; it is a self-death book. That’s what Jesus meant when He summarized the Sermon on the Mount a second time by declaring, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 5:20, NASB).” The scribes and the Pharisees treated the Law as a self-help standard they could reduce into doable practices guaranteeing success with God and man. That’s exactly how many Christian power leaders approach the Bible: as a series of steps for success rather than as a supernatural standard only Christ accomplish through them. That’s why what they’re doing doesn’t work anymore than what the scribes and Pharisees did. The Bible doesn’t help self; the Bible crucifies self. And that’s painful—the very pain power leaders strive to avoid. That’s also why their pain is getting worse. Pain avoided is pain accelerated. The success formulas only bring deeper and deeper failure, no matter what the numbers say.
So how do Christian power leaders gain a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees? By humbling themselves, giving up all power and independence and becoming dependent Christian leaders.
Of course Christian power leaders gained the righteousness they need for eternal life by putting their faith in Christ, so they are in the Kingdom of Heaven. However, they don’t lead the way leaders in the Kingdom of Heaven do because they are not leading the King’s way. They are not leading from the inside out. Certainly they are not leading as Christ led when He pursued no agenda of His own, only His Father’s. They lead according to their culture—seeking for power, struggling with fear, striving for control. To lead from the inside out they must join Paul in turning from all confidence in the flesh so they can be found with a righteousness through faith, not one gained through the laws of leadership. With Paul, they become dependent leaders when they regard everything but knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection as refuse. How can we possibly seek our own power—the power of death—when we already have Christ’s power—the power of resurrection?
Power leaders must humble themselves and become desperately dependent on Christ so they seek Christ’s exaltation, not their own. They must abandon all self-protection and self-promotion, all hope of being in control of life, and take the most fearful step imaginable—give up all to Jesus who gave up all for them. This means they must stop thinking of the Bible as a self-help book and understand it as a self-crucifying book that calls them to turn from self-focus to others-focus, to the radical and total sacrifice of self for the sake of others. Jesus was a Leader for others. Can we be any other kind of leaders?
We must understand that the commands of the Bible are not given to advance ourselves or solely to tell us what to do, but to tell us what to do to love God and man. Since biblical love is supernatural, its commands not only teach us how to behave, but also us how desperately we must depend on Christ to love and lead as He does. Biblical leaders, unlike cultural leaders, love or they don’t lead, no matter what they accomplish. The flaw in measuring ourselves by the numbers is this: numbers don’t matter, love does. Now numbers do count as we see from the book of Acts, but numbers without love are empty. If we achieve numbers without forming followers into Christ’s kind of leaders through love, our numbers become fruitless leaves on a barren fig tree. Numbers without love equal a lot of nothing. Numbers alone make us hollow leaders.
Unless we turn from the righteousness gained through the laws of leadership to the righteousness of dependence on Christ, we will fail, no matter how greatly we are acclaimed.
Unless we turn from self-protection and self-promotion, we will be revealed for the hypocrites we are and brought to ruin by the God who resists the proud.
Unless we humble ourselves despite the pain and shame that self-humbling brings, we will never know the grace of healing and health that God has for those who love and lead according to His ways.
Unless we cast ourselves in desperate dependence on Christ who is in us, we will lose all hope of glory.
Unless we become the greatest by becoming the least, the first by becoming the last, the freest of all by becoming the slave of all, we will never lead as Christ who came to offer His life a sacrifice for many.
Unless we seek to lead from the inside and let Christ take care of the outside, we will be hollow leaders, empty and powerless, no matter how much power and control we gain.
Unless we deny ourselves and bend our backs to take up the cross, we will never know Him and the power of His resurrection. Instead we will be empty numbers, a lot of nothing, cultural power leaders who talk the Bible but live the flesh, all in the name of Jesus.
This is exactly what happened to that power leader who became an unchallenged serial adulterer. He was finally forced out of his ministry, so he started another one that failed. A few years later he died, still a young man, his greatness lost, his life in turmoil, a hollow leader. All because he missed one word in the Sermon on the Mount. .
1 Nouwen, Henri. In the Name of Jesus (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1993), p. 59.
2 Lewis, C. S., “Giving all to Christ,” Devotional Classics, Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith, eds. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), pp. 8-9.