What does a bad Christian leader look like? Unfortunately, some of us know too well because we’ve come face to face with them in the church or in Christian institutions and organizations. Sometimes they are pastors. So many people have been hurt by leaders in the church who are, to a great degree, supposed to be icons of Jesus. But some weasel their way into leadership-running people over to attain the status they seek. They abuse power.
So in an effort to recognize them and maybe try to figure out what to do, I am running a series of Friday Feature posts by Tiffany Brown-Erickson. Let’s have a conversation about it. I’d like to hear from you in the comment section.
You may not know who Tiffany Brown-Erickson is right now. But you will. I know her from a missions trip we took to India in 1994 as teenagers. Teenagers from all across the country converged in south Florida to go out into all the world. Our team was a film team. I’ll never forget it. And then, Tiffany and I reconnected through Facebook two decades later. Just recently I discovered she is an excellent writer. And through Facebook conversations, I realized she had experience with bad Christian leaders and a shared desire to see leaders in the church become who Christ has called them to be. We say that knowing we too need to become who Christ has called us to be. At the same time, we cannot remain silent about the wrongdoing we’ve witnessed. Tiffany has dubbed this as a sort of wolf supremacy with sheep in crisis.
By Tiffany Brown-Erickson
A few weeks ago, I came across this Facebook post by Marlena Graves:
“If in your bid for power you run over people, and when in power, you chew them up and spit them out, you’re a tyrant. Not a Christian leader.” I sat and stared at it for several moments, trying to define my immediate internal reaction, which correlated to physically jumping up and down and shouting, No, you have that wrong!
My reaction baffled me. Everything in my friend’s statement was, after all, absolutely correct, and I knew I did not disagree with her—I agreed! So why this resistance in me?
Why this… anger?
And then I realized… the anger I was experiencing was not directed at the true contents of the tweet. No, it was directed at the intended audience of the tweet. The admonition was, after all, clearly directed straight at the abusive culprits it described. It singled them out, the wolves among the sheep. The predators disguised as shepherds.
And this was the problem: I knew that no single one of those it rebuked would ever identify themselves as such.
Hence my anger.
I’ve known such tyrants. I have seen them ‘leading’. Seen them callously walking over God’s children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, seen them chewing up and spitting out the faithful who inadvertently got in their way; and feeling ill, I’ve watched them systematically destroy any who dared to oppose them, to tell them to their face that they were harming those they lead by their pride and selfishness.
I’ve tried to comfort friends who have been pushed to a point of chronic depression and utter disheartenment over a period of years of trying their level best to serve God faithfully beneath the crushing and exhausting load of such a tyrant’s ‘christian leadership’. I’ve seen faith in God’s body on earth shaken, battered, and left bleeding in the dust in the wake of such leadership. I’ve watch healing take years, and years… and years.
Worst of all, I have helplessly been forced to stand by and witness one such leader in particular, a Shepherd by vocation, as he has slowly, inexorably, and ruthlessly destroyed the lives of a handful of people I love deeply. The process has been going on now for six years, and it is not over.
It is never over, with these tyrants, because there is no end to their determination to absolutely extinguish all threat to their power.
And I’m still watching.
But there’s nothing I can do. There is nothing I can say. I cannot confront, and hope for change. Such men and women do not suffer pangs of conscience. They do not read a warning like my friend’s tweet and feel an ounce of compunction.
Because they are not tyrants.
True tyrants don’t ever see the work they do as ‘running over’, or ‘chewing up and spitting out’. They do not classify their dark domain as oppression without bounds. They do not consider the crushing loads they place upon the helpless as unjust, nor do they see the punishment they inflict as persecution of God’s lambs.
They look at their work, and they define it as ‘necessary discipline of the wayward’ or ‘tough love’ or ‘purifying the flock’. They call their beatings Accountability, their abusive control tactics Protection, their manipulations Kindness, and their scourging without mercy the Love of God.
Indeed, these Christian Leaders like to cast themselves as bravely standing up for truth in the face of manipulative enemies, like Jesus. Their detractors are blind to the truth. Those who oppose are enemies of Christ, bent on destroying God’s work—which is always defined as whatever agenda the Christian Leader has in mind. Such people destroy lives in the name of ‘doing the right thing’; have a long list of reasons why it is the right thing, and Scripture to back it up. In their defense, they always have an adoring throng of admirers whose support they have carefully secured, and that throng is always there to tell them how brave they are, and how much the person bleeding in the mud at their feet brought it all on themselves.
Always, the abusive Christian Leader perceives all reality as a battle between light and darkness, with themselves leading the charge on the side of the light. Those who are trampled were opposing the light. Always.
And who would dare to resist such stalwart endeavor for the sake of righteousness?
Meanwhile their victims are quietly led to the slaughter, most of them never even heard or seen.
There are always a few, however, who attempt to make a desperate stand. Like a sheep in the face of a wolf, they are unquestionably outmatched. They have neither teeth nor claws, and their attacker has both in plenty. But this sheep has had a glimpse of the coarse fur beneath the disguising fleece… caught a flash of the yellow eyes and fanged jaws… and it realizes it faces a wolf. Instead of cowering, the sheep is moved by self-respect, or love of those other sheep that also are under attack, or by the love of the truth itself, to stand up.
And it is that sheep, upon whom the wolf unleashes the full force of its fury.
And like a ravenous wolf in sheep’s clothing, this tyrant-disguised as Christian Leader will never be given pause by the admonitions of the faithful.
It makes me aware of my helplessness… and my own helplessness makes me angry. I am only a sheep! And what can I do, if confronting accomplishes nothing? If calling them out produces no twinge of conscience? If their armor is impervious to truth and their heart senseless to pleas for mercy?
What does a sheep without teeth or claws do, when attacked by a wolf, save lay down and die?
*Tiffany is an obsessive-compulsive writer, avid medieval re-enactor and a mother of four highly energetic children living in the Idaho’s beautiful Treasure Valley. She and her best friend and co-author are currently with book and expecting the first volume of their baby, a fantasy epic, to be ready for publication within the coming year.