How Can We Respond to Failed Church Leaders? Embrace Discernment.
When those in power fail us, Jesus is still there.
It doesn’t take much effort to look around and find destruction left in the wake of another faith leader. Whether it’s a brash megachurch pastor or the leader of a peacemaking organization who’s lost sight of their own mission, we continue to be dismayed by Christian leaders who look very little like Christ.
So what do we do in this crisis of failed leadership? I think it’s time we examine our understanding of power and authority.
Years ago, I heard Mark Charles – Native writer, speaker, and activist – talk about the difference between power and authority. He said, “Power is the ability to act. Authority is the right of jurisdiction (the permission to act)…For power to be effective it must be demonstrated. Authority is inherent and requires no demonstration.” It’s a slight nuance, but I wonder if that small shift in understanding could actually have big impacts on the way we view leadership and the leaders we choose to follow.
In our world, power is often determined by finite characteristics that are easily observed and measured. Those who have the biggest platform, the highest profit, the respected credentials, the right race or gender are the ones with the greatest ability to act and achieve their purposes. Those at the top set the standards and create the systems that determine who moves up and down the power structure. This type of power is tempting to chase after because we believe that as long as we play the game right, we can affect change. But power is elusive. It can be lost just as quickly as it is gained so there is a need to protect power, to exert power, to use power to gain more.
Even in the church, we are tempted to chase after worldly power. We see it when we begin to measure our success by the size of our audience, the amount of money we bring in, the number of hits on our website, or the recognition we receive. Though the markers may change with the times, it’s the same fruit that humanity has been chasing after since the beginning. We all fall prey to the temptation to reach out and grab the shiny fruit from the wrong tree. We all try to grasp for power and glory rather than the trusting in the authority of God, and when we follow that path, we’ll find ourselves far off course with a trail of harm behind us.
But Jesus showed us a different way.
But Jesus showed us a different way. He didn’t arrive with any of the markers of worldly power. Poor and vulnerable, he came as a baby. He was the son of a carpenter and a resident of a despised town. He spent most of his time among the marginalized and oppressed. He resisted the temptation to grasp for power and restrained his divine strength. He relied not on worldly power but on spiritual authority, and the people around him could sense the difference. Some were drawn to it, and some were afraid of it, but Jesus was unwavering in his purpose and his practice no matter the response.
Jesus didn’t grasp for power because he was grounded in his spiritual authority. He didn’t chase his own glory because he was focused on the kingdom of God. He wasn’t forcing his own way because he was humbling himself. And he wasn’t causing harm to those around him because he was always embodying love.
Shouldn’t we be following leaders who look like Jesus, leaders who don’t grasp for worldly power but understand that their authority comes from the Spirit? In the words of Paul, the Spirit gives us power, love, and self-discipline (2 Tim. 1:7), just like we saw modeled in Jesus’ life. This is what true authority looks like. It is the permission and ability to act that comes from abiding in the Spirit, and it is always co-mingled with love and discipline. Authority requires the discipline to know when to leverage power and when to lay it down, and it is always rooted in love rather than selfish ambition.
Jesus tells us to use discernment as we decide whom to follow. He warns that there are those who will claim his name and may even believe that they are serving God, but they will leave pain and destruction in their path. He says that we will recognize them by their fruit (Matt. 7:16). Do not be deceived. Good fruit won’t be found in the numbers. It won’t be measured in dollar signs and followers. The fruit of the Spirit is much sweeter and longer lasting than the rise and fall of metrics, and it’s embodied in love.
The Better Samaritan blog is produced by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, which offers a M.A. in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership and a Trauma Certificate. To learn more and apply, visit our website.
Vanessa Stricker is a Jesus follower, a peacemaker, and a recovering perfectionist, who is learning what it means to live on the side of grace. Vanessa works as Pastor of Peacemaking & Justice at One Life City Church and writes a blog at www.onthesideofgrace.com.