And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble and I am not indignant? (2 Cor 11:28-29).
The Apostle Paul had a lot on his mind. He poured out his heart to the Corinthians about the hardships and stress he endured for the sake of the gospel. Yet, he said, the welfare of the churches he’d founded and the believers who comprised those churches was always at the top of his concerns.
This was not always so for Paul, who had once been known as Saul of Tarsus, a self-described “Pharisee, a [zealous] persecutor of the church” (Phil 3:5-6). Luke described Paul ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women “to prison . . . breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 8:3, 9:1).
The sad truth is that for Saul of Tarsus, and his ilk, their end justifies their means. In the interest of preserving the purity of their religion, they resort to character assassination, false claims, persecution, and murder (Acts 6:8-9:1). When Saul did this, he was acting in the spirit of Caiaphas.
Caiaphas was the ruthless high priest who told his colleagues, who were anxious, but indecisive about the threat of Jesus to their political and religious security, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have a man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 12:49-50).
A terrible thing happened to Caiaphas’ soul in the exercise of power. He came to value the stones of the temple over the flesh and blood Jesus. He, holder of the sacred office of Aaron, substituted the manipulation of the popular will of the people rather than wait upon and submit to the Holy Spirit.
Leaders such as Caiaphas and Saul of Tarsus seek to force unanimity which always will require verbal, if not physical, intimidation and violence to achieve. It is inevitable that those who seek to eliminate dissent usually end by exterminating dissenters. Leading by damaging and destroying people is a contradiction in terms because Christian leadership means persuading and encouraging people to come together and move from point to point, but always toward their eternal home with the Lord.
Several years ago, a friend told me that he once had a ministry with a companion to “destroy congregations in order to purify them.” The two men gave up their professional work to travel from church to church. Because of their backgrounds and credentials they were often given the pulpit. One of them would attack the pastor and leadership of the church on theological grounds and the other would condemn certain members for their perceived lax lifestyle practices. After quarrels started and dissension took hold, some members and their leadership were marginalized or driven out. That was seen as a victory, even a revival.
“We damaged a lot of people in the process,” the man told me sadly.
“Why did you stop?” I asked.
He said, “gratitude for the Lord’s grace and mercy to me. Reflecting on that brought me to my senses.”
“One morning, I woke up and the Lord spoke to my heart and asked, ‘Why are you doing what you are doing? Destroying relationships and reputations in my name is blasphemy. It does not serve me.’ It pierced my soul and I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I’ve gone back to as many of those churches as I could and confessed my wrong and asked for forgiveness for the harm I caused.”
Those who lead by intimidation are generally focused on the objectives of what and the means of how. In authoritarian regimes, “Why?” is not a welcome question, but it can serve as an excellent doorway to humility and revelation. Like my repentant friend, Jesus brought Saul to his side with a “Why?” question. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” To Saul’s life-changing shock, Jesus was alive and a living presence in the hearts of those men and women Saul had been dragging to jail or having killed and Jesus wanted to know why Saul would do such a thing?
It’s instructive that nearly half of “the works of the flesh” that Paul condemned to the Galatians –enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, envy, factions – are relationship-destroying conducts and attitudes. The other half are self-destructive behaviors that are certain to destroy relationships if indulged. In contrast, all eight of “the fruit of the Spirit” that Paul lists –love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – are relationship-building virtues. (Gal 5:19-23)
This is fully in accord with Jesus’ desire that his followers become one with the Father and him in the complete unity of love (John 17:20-26). Love is Jesus’ policy toward people and their relationships. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
Somewhere along the line, Jesus convicted Paul thatone was the best number as in “There isone body andone Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith,one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4). Paul came to realize that for the body to be one and stay one required “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).
The unity of believers and their peace are gifts of the Spirit. The collective focus of the believers on Christ is the effort necessary to maintain that unity and peace. The minute believers take their eyes off of Christ and start watching each other, arguments and divisions start occurring.
Paul knew that the stresses of economic hardship and persecution could distract the churches from Jesus. So he prayed for them continually, took up collections for their support, and encouraged them with letters. He visited whenever he could. He loved the believers and their burdens became his burdens. “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” (2 Cor 11:29).
A good leader in the example and spirit of Paul is a leader concerned about his or her people. I have been emphasizing that to young leaders recently. Three behaviors that I warn them about as pernicious to the cause of Christ and the people of that cause are the impulses for instant gratification, complacency and self-preservation.
Yielding to the pressure from the people to give them whatever they want right here and right now is deadly to the health of the community. “Golden calves” come in many shapes and sizes and are ever popular. Whenever the demand for instant gratification is granted it means the future will be short-changed, compromise will be the standard method of operation, relevance will supplant principle as the guiding ethos, and the patience that is the bone and sinew of hope will never be learned.
Social media expert, Clay Shirky, opines that “Institutions seek to preserve problems to which they are the solution.” The Church is intended to be a Spirit-filled community that brings the power and presence of Christ to the world and prepares in the fullness of time for all things in heaven and on earth to be gathered up into Christ (Eph 1). Complacency with the status quo is a denial of those purposes. Christ is the “way” to the Father (John 14:6). Either the Church is on the move, changing lives, growing faith, and advancing the kingdom of God or the Church is dead.
Cowardly leaders who resist that movement in order to preserve themselves are not of God. If we are deepening in our understanding of God and finding more love for our brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit is moving in our church and our hearts. If our church experience reduces our God in stature and minimizes our love for others, it is a sign we need to move on.
Similarly leadership focused on self-preservation cannot be loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, or loving its neighbor as itself (Luke 10:27). Our love for our God and our neighbors requires a courage of word and action that is always there for us in God’s providence. This is validated by David’s timeless observation, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps 27:1).
Do you want more encouragement to be a brave and bold leader of integrity? Listen to Paul – “If God be for us, who can be against us. He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him give us everything else?” (Rom 8:31-32).
And here’s what I think is Jesus’ last word on this subject: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:27, 33).
Clinging to our possessions such as the perquisites of power will defeat our leadership and disqualify our discipleship because we cannot possibly carry the cross with full hands. The old hymn tells us, “Nothing in my hand I bring, only to Thy Cross I cling.”
The spiritual cowardice that denies Christ on this earth seeks the cloak of religious and social conformity to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ (Gal 6:12-13). Sometimes this cowardice hides behind the fiduciary duty to protect institutional assets as an excuse for standing down on the challenges of faith. There are plenty of Caiaphas-types around who are willing to sacrifice the flesh and blood Jesus to preserve the bricks and mortar and the bank accounts.
Yet, when Jesus Christ returns will he ask the Church, “Did you take good care of my stuff and preserve it,” or will he ask, “Did you use my stuff to help my children in their suffering and prepare them to enter my Kingdom?” There’s a reason that the cowardly and the faithless head the list of those who won’t enjoy eternal life as the children of God (Rev 21:7-8).
This may seem like a radical message from a long-time corporate attorney, but I see no conflict between setting the advance of the kingdom of God through the lives of the people as the priority of the church and the exercise of prudence. It is the responsibility of leaders in the cause of God to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” and to trust Jesus’ promise that the necessities for life and service will be provided in God’s grace (Matt 7:31-33). Leaders who care about their people will never shirk that responsibility or abandon their trust in Jesus.
The temptations of instant gratification, complacency, and self-preservation are ever with us, but so is our God and he is faithful. Leaders like Paul who keep their focus on God and know and rely on his love as the operating principle of their lives will help their people to reach their eternal home with their God. That, after all, is the one-item job description of a Christian leader.
Kent Hansen is a business and healthcare attorney from Corona, California. This essay first appeared in his weekly email devotional, “A Word of Grace for Your Monday.” Kent’s devotionals can be read on the C.S. Lewis Foundation blog at www.cslewis.org.