Our culture of evangelical leadership in the States isn’t fantastic. I don’t know of many who would dispute that we have some problems. People in ministry are often burnt out, depressed, and overworked. Many are put on pedestals and our whole church community reels if they dare to fall into sins that aren’t so far out of reach for many of us. That pedestal and distance from ‘regular church members’ can be a much bigger problem than we realize.
That’s not to say there aren’t church leaders who truly love the people they shepherd, who would give the shirt off their backs to help someone in need. This problem doesn’t apply to everyone, but it is a trait of our culture that can lead to deep spiritual sickness and sin. This influence, improperly wielded by spiritual leaders, can leave deep fractures in our faith community. Words like ‘abuse’ and ‘cover-up’ fill our headlines. Writers and thinkers are discussing the devastation of spiritual abuse for the first time. And many leaders have disappointed us by falling into moral failure or deconstructing their faith and walking away from the church.
The problem comes down to this: we have unwittingly created a celebrity church culture that gives some leaders inherent privilege and power without appropriate check over regular church members. WE have created it, because like the Israelites in the Old Testament, we desire a king. We don’t want to be fully responsible for our own spiritual decisions and well-being, so we appreciate it when someone takes charge over us, leads us, and makes our paths straight. We cede some of our own responsibility for spiritual decision-making and growth over to leaders. And sometimes that gently numbs us into accepting a straight path merely because it’s been paved for us, when instead we should challenge it, or looking to its end to investigate where we’re going.
Leadership and the trust we place in wise elders’ decision-making aren’t bad things. Clearly leadership is a gift given by God to his people to help them mutually grow. The problem comes when the inherent power in that leadership is abused or used lightly, and when we shield leaders from necessary consequences. Some leaders among us reach the end of their public influence or even the end of their lives before the voices that try to hold them accountable can be heard. But the leadership we see in the New Testament is very different that what we find in our church culture.
Jesus himself has quite a lot to say on this matter. In his sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7), he introduces and describes the kingdom of God and its people. The whole sermon is full of the characteristics of the kingdom, like humility, mercy, and repentance. And one of these characteristics is VERY plain: The meek will inherit the earth.
‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ is a beautiful old hymn. I imagine not many of us know it anymore, nor the rich theology in its verses. But that opening title line sums up the soft, white Jesus with perfect hair that hangs in lots of church Sunday school rooms and stained glass windows. These depictions often paint Jesus as a weak man, who played with lambs and let little children sit on his lap. These portraits, real or imaginary, aren’t often balanced with fiery Jesus, who cursed pharisees, had calloused carpenter’s hands, turned over tables, and chased money changers from the temple with a whip.
Part of our problem seems to lie in the English word, “meek.” It’s not a direct translation from Greek. Meek in our language means passive, gentle, easily dominated, and the connotation, frankly, often means someone meek is kind of a sissy.
But the Greek word we translate ‘meek’ from Matthew 5:5 doesn’t have the same meaning. Strong’s Concordance says, “This difficult-to-translate root… means more than “meek.” Biblical meekness is not weakness but rather refers to exercising God’s strength under his control — i.e. demonstrating power without undue harshness. The English term “meek” often lacks this blend — i.e. of gentleness (reserve) and strength.”
Biblical meekness, you see, is tamed strength. It rebukes the powerful. It nurtures the low and oppressed. It’s a mother bear fiercely protective of, but eminently gentle with her cubs. It is Jesus, the God of the universe, welcoming little children in all their smallness and immaturity. It is humble, patient, loving, powerful, and a mark of the Kingdom of God. Biblical power is meek, and it is protective. Full stop. It isn’t used to get a leg up. It isn’t used to gain position or wealth or more power or adulation. The kingdom leadership we should strive for, according to scripture, is meek. It leads with fear and trembling, but with a sure hand because it is firm in Who it follows after.
Nowhere do we see this balance of tamed power in leadership better than in Jesus himself. As Paul says when he rebukes the Corinthians, “By the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you,” let us both desire, cultivate, and become leaders who lead with Christlike meekness.
Jesus teaches his disciples about the necessity of meek leadership in Matthew 18. They ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom, and he takes the opportunity to show them how to be meek leaders through a series of teachings and parables. He turns their question on its head and effectively tells them that it’s the wrong question entirely. He welcomes close some young children and says, “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” He says we must become like little children even to enter the kingdom of heaven, and then says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” He is heartbroken over a world with things that cause people to sin and to fall, but he goes on to say that if you are the man who brings those things… woe to you.
I used to assume this passage was about harming and leading children into sin. I still think it includes that, but in the previous quote, Jesus says all who follow him become these little ones. So all his further remarks about little ones include us. Faith by nature is the substance of things unseen; it is not always logical or predictable. Blessed are those who have believed and not yet seen. So, by nature, believers entering into the kingdom of God with such a faith are vulnerable. They know so little of what they believe in initially, that they have to trust teachers not to mislead them as they plunge deep into the words and character of God to learn what exactly it is they have faith in.
Jesus shared this teaching with the disciples, who would soon be responsible with the Spirit’s empowerment to nurture the whole of the Christian world into faith. Jesus tells these men, who would have power and influence: woe to you if you lead one of these little ones to sin. It would be better if we tied a rock to your neck and threw you into the ocean. And that is his answer when they grasp for power and ask who among them is the greatest. He tells them to become low and humble themselves, and follows up by telling them not to mislead a single one of the little ones who will follow after them as they follow after Jesus, or there will be grave consequences.
Proceeding in Matthew 18, Jesus then tells the well-known parable of the lost sheep. He begins with, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones,” further emphasizing that each little believer is precious and counted by God. Effectively, Jesus tells the disciples that any single person who believes and follows him into the Kingdom is just as important and worthy to be there as the disciples themselves. None are better than the others. He is establishing further principles of leadership. To lead meekly, we must not value ourselves any more highly than a single person ‘beneath’ us, even if they’re as dumb as a sheep that got lost.
The next section of Jesus’ teaching lays out rules for conflict and confrontation. This passage does teach about protecting each other from gossip, but I think we often miss the power dynamics Jesus was teaching about as well. When we read this passage in context and recognize it is part of Jesus’ teachings on meek leadership, it takes on some other layers of meaning.
First of all, Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you.” Notice the power distance there between the two parties in this conflict—there isn’t one. This is brother to brother. Not father to son, or son to father; not servant to master, or master to servant; not employer to boss or church member to pastor. Remember, Jesus is speaking this to his disciples, who were all brothers, roughly on the same plane as each other under Jesus.
Jesus continues by saying that if the brother will not listen and is not convinced of his fault, then the situation grows until he does—first with two or three other brothers, then with the whole church, and finally, if he will not listen, he is to be treated like a pagan or a tax collector. That means an outsider, a traitor, a nonbeliever. It might refer to church discipline or excommunication, but it certainly means he is treated as one who is not living out his faith and is therefore held to pagan standards, like a legal system or social shame, etc.
All of this is done ultimately to redeem both brothers from sin. But notice also, that all of this is done to protect the brother who has been sinned against, not the brother who sinned. And this is not a situation of mutual sin that he addresses; it is a clear cut, one-directional sin. Jesus asks the brother who has been wronged first to approach his brother on his own, but after that he is protected by witnesses, by the church, and then by the community at large.
Jesus drives home these points by reminding the disciples of the power they will hold: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus tells the disciples, in effect, ‘If you package away a sin, it will stay hidden. But if you bring it into the light, it will be dealt with and released. Your judgments and actions will echo into eternity.’ He follows this scary responsibility with a statement of comfort: if they agree in their prayers, the Father will do what they ask. And when even two or three of them come together in Jesus’ name, he will be with them.
Church leaders have power and authority. But they are responsible to use it protectively. They have a weighty responsibility connected to their actions, but they will never have to make those judgments on their own.
After this discourse, Jesus closes his teachings on meek leadership with a powerful parable. Peter responds to the last teaching by very magnanimously suggesting that he might even be willing to forgive said brother (who sins against him) seven whole times, if Jesus were to ask him to. I can almost imagine Jesus’ chuckle as he answers, no, that Peter should in fact forgive seventy-seven times. I don’t know about poor fisherman Peter, but that’s a higher number than I can keep track of. I don’t have that many fingers, or that long of a memory. So Jesus means here: forgive more times than you can count.
As Jesus rounds out these teachings with this parable, we have learned that (1) meek leaders should protect and be gravely afraid of leading their little ones astray; (2) that they should consider each member of their flock just as important as themselves; (3) that they should protect the brother who has been sinned against by bringing sin into the light and not binding it away to hide it; and now (4), that leaders should show every mercy to those they lead, because they themselves have experienced greater mercy than they can ever measure or repay.
In this parable, Jesus describes a king settling accounts with his servants. One who owed an unassessable amount of money could not pay it back. It would take his whole life’s work and the work of his family to repay the debt. The servant begs for patience and makes a promise the King must know the man cannot keep—to pay back a life-debt. The king shows pity and completely cancels the debt. Not a penny owed.
This same servant then left and found a fellow servant to the king, who owed him a small amount. In his rage, the servant with the cancelled debt demands the other servant pay him, and begins to choke him! The debtor makes the same plea and promise—he asks for patience and promises to pay what he owes. Instead of cancelling this debt, or even agreeing to wait for his payment, the servant throws the man in prison until the debt is paid. The king calls the first servant back, tells him he is wicked, reinstates the man’s life-debt, and puts him in prison to be tortured until the money is paid. Jesus slams the parable home and says, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Jesus teaches his disciples, and us, that a meek leader should be forgiving and merciful. And in the process he shows us that God’s character (like the king in the story) is enflamed with rage when we mistreat our fellow servants, when we respond to their sins (debts against us) with rage and violence, accusation and harsh punishment. The king forgave the man’s life-debt in view of redemption. His mercy was to give the man an undeserved life of freedom when he showed repentance and a recognition of his sin (the debt he owed).
We are not to consider ourselves like the king in the story. We are the first servant, the unforgiving one. The only appropriate response to the Lord’s undeserved mercy to us is to show undeserved mercy to others. Any debt or sin others have committed us pales in comparison to what the Lord has already forgiven in our own life. Jesus isn’t asking us to cancel others’ debts and act as if they never sinned without reckoning up the damage they have done. He is merely asking of us patience. And a willing heart to forgive.
ANY LEADER who is abusive with his power and uses it to intimidate or control in order to take what he believes he is owed—like the first servant in the story—is NOT a meek leader. He angers God enough that he should undergo torture to pay a lifelong debt. Essentially, an abusive leader, or any person in God’s kingdom, deserves hell if he uses any power that he has over others harshly and without redemptive purpose. To put it in Jesus’ earlier words, it would be better for him to have a boulder hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea to drown than to lead any of the little ones who follow Jesus astray.
These are harsh words. And they demonstrate Jesus’ meekness perfectly. He was a leader who protected the small, the young, the weak, the vulnerable, and held those in power to the highest accountability for how they use it over others.
Let me break up my own harsh words with a caveat. I, we, are all called to show the same grace and forgiveness to each other. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to type on this keyboard and call leaders to account without recognizing that my own words on this screen should be held to the same standard, and without recognizing also that all of us have access to that same profound forgiveness and mercy the king showed. I owe the same forgiveness and mercy to any brother or sister who has wronged me. And if I extend that forgiveness, Jesus promises the same grace when my words and actions are weighed against me and found wanting.
So let me be clear when I say that I do feel pity, grace, and forgiveness for Christians who have not shown meekness in their leadership. Maybe they don’t sin in this way knowingly. And like I said before, the responsibility for this culture of leadership isn’t just on our leaders. It’s on us. We—I—have participated in faith communities that do not hold our leaders accountable. We—I—sit comfortably in systems that reward leaders for a near narcissistic confidence in their decisions and teachings. These systems take away our responsibility for our own spiritual growth and give it to teachers or people in power over us, and then pressure them to be productive in work they never should have been responsible for in the first place.
As a part of this grace, I recognize that our human nature leads us to fashion God in our own image. It’s why we make Jesus white in the West, why megachurch preachers see themselves in a Jesus who preaches to thousands, and why tough, abrasive leaders love to tell the story of Jesus turning tables. Our spiritual giftings reflect God’s character in us, as they are meant to. But it means that if we look only at ourselves and forget to value the multi-gifted church Body around us, we forget the other giftings that model other parts of Jesus’ character. I am a gentle soul. So “Jesus humble, meek and lowly” has always been the Jesus I have read into the gospels. Jesus with a whip, or Jesus publicly cursing religious leaders makes me deeply uncomfortable. Just like writing this blog post makes me deeply uncomfortable. But when we strive to reflect Jesus in every aspect of our lives, we will see growth in the areas of his character that we aren’t naturally prone to. When powerful leaders listen to the voices of the meek and lowly, they can learn to reflect Jesus in that way too.
This ethic of meekness isn’t isolated to just Matthew chapter 18. When you’re paying attention, it pops up all over the Bible. Go and take a look for yourself. The book of Esther overflows with commentary on arrogant power abuse and the disastrous end it leads to. Esther and Mordecai depend on the Lord even in their positions of power—meekly—and through them the Lord saved his people. Psalm 37 holds the original verse Jesus quoted from in the sermon on the mount when he blesses the meek who will inherit the earth. Abigail meekly uses her shrewdness and influence to stay the hand of King David and keep him from sin. David himself is meant to be the archetype of Jesus, the Shepherd King who cares for his ‘flock’ as one from amongst them, not as an all-powerful ruler who uses the people under his care however he will.
But when Jesus comes onto the scene, we see this theme of meekness expand into the perfect expression these stories have been building up to the whole time. Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ teachings and character show us the paragon of meekness we should imitate. He IS the good shepherd, who fiercely fights for his sheep and would lay down his life for them. He welcomes little children, raises up widows from despair, comforts those who mourn, fills those who hunger and thirst with living water and bread of life, and delivers the kingdom to the poor in spirit. He shows us that to be the greatest in the kingdom and to inherit the earth, we must be meek as he is meek, and gentle and humble of heart. Jesus truly shows the very strength of the God of the universe tamed by gentleness. He balances the power and authority necessary to call out pharisees publicly with a tender care for the downtrodden. In my opinion, nowhere is this more striking than when he interacts with the woman caught in adultery in John 8.
The religious leaders rightfully call out a sin, but they abuse their power and shame her publicly for it. They behave just as the unmerciful servant does in Jesus’ parable we just discussed. Jesus places himself in the direct line of their ire to spare her from it, and reminds them of the debt they owe; slowly all of them realize that the woman isn’t the only one among them who has sinned. They drop the stones they would have thrown. And Jesus confronts the woman about her sin only after all of them have left. He does so gently, and privately. He does not minimize or side-step her sin, but he knows she is already aware of it and has suffered for it at the hands of power-abusing men. Without further shaming her in her vulnerable state, Jesus offers her the chance at a new life of walking in righteousness. He builds her up, and offers her redemption.
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. 2 Corinthians 11:3-4
Dear brothers and sisters, if your leaders have modeled Jesus’ leadership to you any other way, they have misrepresented him. In very real ways our spiritual leaders shape our view of God himself. They have a responsibility to model meekness along with their other leadership qualities, and to the extent that they fail to do so, they mar your understanding of the Lord whether they intend to or not. To any of you who have been harmed by spiritual abuse of this kind, I am deeply sorry. Any spiritual leader who consistently bullies or abuses power, and especially any spiritual leader who intimidates or manipulates in his or her bid for prestige and notoriety has not shown you the meek leadership of Christ. If they refuse correction like the brother in Jesus’ teachings, they are to be held responsible and accountable for their actions But we are accountable too, for leaving this type of leadership unchallenged in our ranks for so long.
Other, smarter, more well-informed people have written much better and more eloquently about this. These themes run through some strains of liberation theology, Black theology, and feminist theology. Diane Langberg, Chuck DeGroat, Rachael Clinton Chen, and others have made abusive church leadership and the devastation of spiritual abuse their field of study, and their resources are invaluable. The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast by Christianity Today is also a good introduction to open our eyes to the abuses of church leadership.
Other people have said these things better, but perhaps I’m just the person in your circle sharing these ideas with a familiar voice. Regardless of how you hear about meekness and spiritual abuse, “By the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you:” don’t let it fall on deaf ears. We have a church culture to change. Let’s get to work.