Is there a lack of godly leaders?

We don’t have a shortage of leaders, but a shortage of followers of the one Leader who can transform lives and nations. We don’t need to enlarge our vision, but make it smaller and more focused. We don’t need more numbers, but more quality and consistency among the numbers we already have. We need more people who will do things God’s way and fewer people doing things man’s way. (James Montgomery Boise)

Where have all the leaders gone?

I find that when a particular issue is raised with me, if it is in the current purpose of God, the Spirit speaks to me with a clear response and then through prayer and meditation, the Spirit reveals the mind of God.

This happened recently when an article was brought to my attention. It was a lament over the lack of holy living in the lives of ‘high-profile’ leaders.1 The article was titled “where have all the leaders gone?” and began by announcing; “The church today faces a serious leadership crisis”. Immediately I sensed the Spirit say; “there is no lack of godly leaders, rather a lack of God-followers‘. As I prayed about this the Scripture most prominent in my mind was Paul’s warning to Timothy about the last days:

2 Tim 4:3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. NIV

Two problems appear today concerning leadership: firstly there seems to be a general lack of discernment about who God’s leaders are today with most preachers either ignorant of or afraid to rebut populist views that follow celebrity preachers;2 and secondly, as a flow-on from this lack of discernment, is the apparent chaos and sense of disappointment expressed when it becomes evident many of these ‘leaders’ are not of the ilk of Christ; men who can never say, imitate me as I imitate Christ.3 

Elijah was surrounded by the same climate of ungodly prophets and priests, men who encouraged God’s people to follow other gods. He lamented that he alone was zealous for God, yet God told him that there were 7000 men who also had not fallen into the idolatry of the age.4 There were godly leaders in Israel but the people chose to follow false prophets. It seems to be repeated throughout history that people who attend church, but do not passionately desire the knowledge of God, will invariably follow charismatic leaders whose teaching appeals to their humanity.5 Despite times when the church is predominantly occupied by ‘church-goers’ rather than God followers, in every generation Jesus continually gives of Himself through godly leaders to those who passionately desire Him; whether many or few.

People having a form of godliness, yet trapped in and controlled by the sin nature, will follow false teachers because their messages cater to the natural desires. Then, when one of these celebrity teachers is exposed as an habitual sinner many will use this as an excuse to reject God and blame the church for their hurt. This is a natural process that occurs every day of the week, not only in religious circles but also in politics, sport, the arts and civil powers etc.6  Those who are growing in the knowledge of God however, should never be guilty of celebrity following or suffer disappointment when these celebrities are exposed as “clouds without rain, promising much but producing nothing”.7  Like Paul, God followers should be intensely aware of false teachers and refuse to put up with them. They also know that nothing can separate them from the love of God and refuse to let scandal, false teachers, or devil agents become an excuse for rejecting the holy love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

It is not ‘leaders’ who will bring change to the problem of the lack of godly leaders, it is God followers who will bring the change. Genuine followers of Jesus Christ must stop getting caught up in the hype of celebrity preachers:

  • reject as leaders those whose lives contradict the example of Jesus Christ through sinful acts:

3 John 11 Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God. KJV

  • reject as leaders those who proclaim another gospel:

Gal 1:8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! NIV

  • seek to follow8 God appointed leaders who preach Christ crucified and live lives pleasing to God:

1 Cor 2:2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. NIV

1 Cor 11:1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. NIV

  • pray for a visitation of Jesus Christ rather than celebrity preachers.

Discerning godly leaders

2 Cor 11:2-6 I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.” I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way. NIV

2 Cor 11:13-15 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. NIV

If followers of the true Leader, Jesus Christ, are going to reject the hype of celebrity teachers, then a bold discernment between Jesus’ ascension gifts9 and pretenders is required. Are we genuinely tired of the hype? Of the message of relevance that is no gospel at all? Then it is time for true God followers to no longer ‘put up with it’ so easily.

To discern between those given as gifts by Jesus and the pretenders requires that we discard the world’s assessment criteria and measure or assess those who call themselves ‘apostles and prophets’ through a mind renewed by the gospel.10 Is a man who is surrounded by thousands of people a leader appointed by God or are they a teacher gathered by men with itching ears? Unfortunately we still use the assessment tools of the god of this age rather than that given us by the Spirit through Scripture.

In the marketplace, success is measurable and the measurement is numbers; how many, how much, how often etc. Such measurements are based on the sin nature and are expressions of root sin: pleasure, possessions and/or position.11 Too often the same tools are used in the church to recognise leaders: How many people come to hear you preach, how many books have you written/sold, how much money can you raise, how often do you travel or are you invited to preach? Success is found in these numbers and ‘high-profile leaders’ are at the pinnacle of success.

However, if Scripture is to be believed, such outcomes are not ours to measure. Apostle Paul declares:

1 Cor 3:5-7 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. NIV

Sound Doctrine

Perhaps the first criterion in discerning ascension gifts of Jesus from celebrity preachers is to have a personal passion for the knowledge of God. A desire for sound doctrine will ensure a Spirit-led journey into truth.12 Being Spirit-led is not a reason to reject ascension gifts of Jesus but rather a means to identify Jesus as he gifts himself through them. The Spirit will resonate within us whenever we hear the sound doctrine of the cross as it is proclaimed and there will be no fear of following Christ in those leaders.

The clear warning of 2 Timothy 4:3 is that people will not put up with sound doctrine but pursue teaching that suits their own desires. So, they will gather around them teachers who cater to these desires. Be warned, the crowds are not right. If the last days are a time of great deception, then we cannot just accept anything that comes along: no matter how popular it becomes in churches.

Jesus personally warns His followers:

Mark 13:22-23 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect – if that were possible. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time. NIV\

 These warnings are not talking about the ungodly, for they have never received any divine doctrine nor do they gather teachers around themselves, this word is for those religious people who call themselves followers of Jesus. Perhaps we need to consider the point of false Christs and prophets preaching outside the church! What is the point of deceiving the deceived? Why try to ‘lead astray’ those who are already outside of God? These warnings speak about what will happen ‘in the church’ when the church is lukewarm and indifferent to sound doctrine: A time when the church is too much like the world. The most astute description of this can be found in 2 Timothy:

2 Tim 3:1-5 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God-having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them. NIV

Lovers of themselves, lovers of money and lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God stand out. They are the foundational expressions of idolatry as defined by Apostle John13 the lust of the flesh, lust of the eye and the pride of life. When men who are called ‘leaders’ insist that we need to preach a message that ‘appeals’ to people, are they not espousing ‘doctrines of demons’? When we are told to preach a message that people want to hear, are we not catering to their own desires? When we are compelled to ‘affirm people’ who ‘need to feel good about themselves’, rather than calling people to repentance, aren’t we affirming their idolatry?

The Objectionable Message of the Cross

Indeed the message of the cross, rather than affirming, appealing or desirous is; foolish, offensive, objectionable and unwanted. John Stott, in “The cross of Christ” (1986:12), says, “So far from offering us flattery, the cross undermines our self-righteousness. We can stand before it only with a bowed head and a broken spirit.”

Moltmann expresses it beautifully in the opening chapter of his book “The crucified God”:

“The cross is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and foolishness. Today, too, it is considered old-fashioned to put him in the centre of Christian faith and of theology. Yet only when men are reminded of him, however untimely this may be, can they be set free from the power of the facts of the present time, and from the laws and compulsions of history, and be offered a future which will never grow dark again. Today the church and theology must turn to the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom he offers. This is essential if they want to become what they assert they are: the church of Christ, and Christian theology.” (1974:1)

I can already hear the objections that I have heard so many times before, ‘we must move on from the cross and to the resurrection’, or as one ‘celebrity teacher’ declared, ‘I am called to preach the blessings of God’. Another says, “The people are hurting and need to be comforted”, or, “people want to know how to live not how to die” “they want steak on the plate not apple pie in the sky”. Yet such objections come from an ignorance of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such language is actually foreign to Scripture and offensive to the gospel. Quite prepared to offend such teachers I believe them to be the doctrines of demons that Scripture warns about (1Tim 4:1).

The meaning of the cross as good news is that we cannot live until we have died. Paul declared, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20) The gospel message handed down through the ages is the word of the cross:14

1 Cor 1: 18, 22-25 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. NIV

P.T. Forsyth wrote in “The cruciality of the cross”:

Christ is to us just what his cross is. All that Christ was in heaven or on earth was put into what he did there… Christ, I repeat, is to us just what his cross is. You do not understand Christ until you understand his cross… It is only by understanding it that we escape from religion with no mind, and from religion which is all mind, from pietism with its lack of critical judgment, and from rationalism with its lack of everything else. (1909:44-45)

Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, according to Stott describes the reformation this way: “The whole struggle of the reformation… was simply the struggle for the right interpretation of the Cross. He who understands the Cross aright – this is the opinion of the Reformers – understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ.” (p. 44)

In the company of such inspired men I feel compelled to stand with them over against much of our modern philosophies and restate the opinion that only the cross reveals the love of God, his promises, his benefits and his blessings. The only true affirmation of a man can be found in complete surrender to the cross and it is the sole source of comfort and peace. To offer blessing, affirmation or comfort from any message other than Christ crucified is to offer a humanistic gospel that will inevitably produce death; a Christianised motivational self-help philosophy.

People, we are told by celebrity teachers, want to know how to be better husbands or wives, better parents, better people and so our preaching should give them ‘keys’ to becoming such people. These pursuits do not separate Christians from the world nor from other religions, but places them in solidarity with the world.15 As commendable as these desires may sound the source is idolatrous because the aim is not to please God but to please ourselves, our children or our spouse and to be seen as righteous in the eyes of others.

The Apostle Paul however defines the true mark of a Christian, not as one who wants to be a better person in their own eyes or to be seen by others as good, but as one who wants the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ.

Phil 3:8,10-11 I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

The wisdom of God for the redemption of man is the cross of Jesus Christ. To become a different person may be the dream of many but to become a ‘new creation’ is the reality of the message of the cross to those who believe. Our encounter with Jesus Christ reveals the cross as death and life, shame and glory, poverty and prosperity, captivity and freedom. To speak of the cross is to speak of the resurrection of the crucified God and the crucifixion of the risen Lord. The cross of Christ is more admirable than any of our good intentions and any word that is not soundly rooted in the cross, no matter how good intentioned, is pitifully inadequate.

Concluding this Matter

So then, what of my earlier statement that we do not lack godly leaders but God-followers? It is time for those who firmly believe they are ‘God-followers’ to stop following the crowds. Popular teachers are not necessarily godly leaders. Large churches – and even small – may simply be gatherings of men who will not put up with sound doctrine who have gathered around teachers who preach what they desire. The proof is in the message preached. But how will you know if you have never ‘struggled for the right interpretation of the cross’? I remember speaking about a celebrity teacher who declared his ministry was only to ‘preach the blessings of God’. He preaches popular messages that appeal to the idolatrous nature of fallen humanity. One minister said that he did preach Christ on the basis that he mentions the name of Jesus (occasionally). On that basis however, every cult that uses the name Jesus preaches Christ and so do many other world religions, so we cannot call them false teachers or non-Christian teachers either. It is the preaching of the cross, not the mentioning of the name of Jesus, that is the gospel. It is the context in which Jesus is named that qualifies the rightness of the message as being the word of the cross.

There are many godly leaders who have not been gathered in by large congregations of men seeking teachers who suit their own desires. Like the prophets of old they are voices in the wilderness declaring the way of the Lord. Like Paul and the other Apostles who “did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” (Gal 2:5).

If the church is really the church of Jesus Christ, then he will unite his own together if they truly seek Him out and stop chasing after self-affirming crowds. The church of Jesus Christ is not a church of society but a community of heaven living in contrast to the society around it.

As George Eldon Ladd says in his book the presence of the future, “It is therefore the church’s duty to display in an evil age of self-seeking, pride, and animosity the life and fellowship of the Kingdom of God and of the age to come” (1974:269).

I want to complete this section with a quote by James Montgomery Boice:16

We don’t have a shortage of leaders, but a shortage of followers of the one Leader who can transform lives and nations. We don’t need to enlarge our vision, but make it smaller and more focused. We don’t need more numbers, but more quality and consistency among the numbers we already have. We need more people who will do things God’s way and fewer people doing things man’s way.

  1. What I refer to as ‘celebrity’ teachers []
  2. if genuine ascension gifts can’t or won’t speak out how can those who are being equipped learn to know sound doctrine? []
  3. 1 Cor 11:1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 1 Cor 4:16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me.; cf Phil 3:16; Heb 6:12; 13:7 []
  4. 1Kg 19:14-18 []
  5. At various times in history the visible church is more like a society of men than a community of heaven. It is at these times that revival is desperately needed; a visitation of God rather than a change of leaders is what we should cry out for. []
  6. Note the outcry when a sports star is accused of anti-social behaviour, or drug and/or alcohol abuse, or other misconduct. Loyal supporters either want them banned or forgiven depending on how successful their team will be without the star. Blogs about celebrity teachers who have ‘fallen’ or non-religious celebrities who have also failed society through lack of character – usually for the same acts – have the same arguments for and against. They should be forgiven or dumped/sacked. The arguments are the same whether religious, political, profession or popular. []
  7. Jude12,13 []
  8. Heb 13:17 []
  9. apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers []
  10. Rom 12:2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. NIV []
  11. 1 John 2:16 For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. NIV []
  12. 1Jn 2:18-27 []
  13. 1Jn 2:16 []
  14. 1 Cor 2:1-2 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.   For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. ; Gal 3:1-2 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? ; Gal 6:14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. ; Phil 3:10-11 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. []
  15. I think we have forgotten, or do not really believe, that the world is under the control of and serves the evil one and social oughts have their origin in the god of this age. []
  16. Whatever happened to the Gospel of Grace? Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook The World, p28 []

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