Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

September 2004
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Abusive Leaders #1

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus said that kingdom leadership is of a fundamentally different nature than the leadership of the world.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant …” (Matt. 20:25-26; cf. Is. 55:8-9; 30:1-2; 31:1)

Unfortunately, the leadership that is present in so many churches is not only “worldly” in its authoritarianism; it is often worse than worldly leadership and downright abusive.

The purpose of this series of Letters is to expose abusive leadership in the church. Our approach is not the usual anecdotal one taken in writings with a similar purpose; in this series we will try to build conceptual frameworks that reveal the very heart of what constitutes both abusive and servant leadership.

A godly leader is firm and strong but he does not dominate the people of God. However, a leader who is insecure in his relationship with God and with others may compensate by domination and dictatorship over God’s people. There are clear New Testament warnings against tyrannizing, overbearing, bullying, controlling or possessing the people of God.

A New Testament example of abusive leadership was Diotrephes, whose pride and self-exaltation resulted in a public spirit of exclusivism and unteachableness:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. (3 John 9-11)

A close study of these three verses yields the following characteristics of an abusive leader:

In Ezekiel 34:1-16, God condemns the leaders who didn’t care for the people but exploited them for their own personal benefit.

… Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. (Ezek. 34:2-5)

… my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, (Ezek. 34:8)

In Zephaniah 3:3, God condemns the leaders who “are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning.” In other words, they devour the people completely so that nothing is left; unlike wolves that would usually leave some bones to gnaw on. These leaders totally plundered the people.

Her officials are roaring lions, her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. (Zeph. 3:3)

Similar condemnations of leaders are found in the Old Testament:

… Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of the house of Israel. Should you not know justice, you who hate good and love evil; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones; who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin and break their bones in pieces; who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot? (Mic. 3:1-3; cf. Ezek. 22:25, 27)

There are also New Testament warnings against this kind of leadership:

The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. (John 10:12-13)

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Pet. 5:1-4)

The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely… (Phil. 1:17)

In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. (2 Cor. 11:20)

I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! … (Acts 20:29-31)

An abusive leader is one who tends to centralize authority and derive power from position, control of rewards and coercion. In contrast, a servant leader gives authority away to others, encourages participation in decision making, relies on others’ knowledge and initiation for completion of tasks, and depends on love and respect for influence.

Leaders have a choice: they can hold onto their power and use it purely for selfish ends, or they can give their power away to others. Paradoxically, leaders become more powerful when they give their own power away. They don’t lose anything – in fact, everyone benefits!

Leadership power is not a fixed and limited sum (like a pie that can be cut into only so many pieces) to be hoarded and grudgingly divided up only when absolutely necessary. A leader’s power is not reduced when he empowers others. Organizationally, power actually expands and multiplies when it is shared with others. When people have responsibility and genuine influence, their commitment to the organization and its success drastically increases. The key to unleashing an organization’s potential to excel is putting the power in the hands of the people who perform the work. Thus, leaders must trust and respect their constituents, and they must know their people well enough to empower them appropriately. Jesus is our ultimate Model for this; He did not wait until His disciples were perfect before He gave them authority (Matt. 10:1; 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-20; etc.). Thus, servant leaders who take the power that flows to them and connect it to others, become power generators from which their constituents draw strength.

People who have authoritarian leaders will not feel empowered, but distrusted and used. Consequently, they will tend to do what is expected of them only as long as the leader is personally present to supervise them. Moreover, they will usually be discontented with the close, autocratic style of leadership and feelings of hostility will arise. However, people who have servant leaders tend to do what is expected of them even when the leader is absent – since the people have been genuinely empowered with personal responsibility and authority, resulting in a high level of personal ownership – and they will have more positive feelings towards their leader.

Our next Letter will begin to look at the root cause of abusive leadership.

Comments 1
  • winston
    Posted on

    winston winston

    Reply Author

    This is the kind of teaching every leader needs.