The Dangers of Charismatic Leadership

Leadership sets the tone for the direction of a movement. In fact, one might argue that a movement will rise or fall largely on its leadership. To understand the effective movement leadership that we see in the New Testament is to understand the theocentric focus of the leaders. This leadership imbues a profound sense of humility, as it looks at Jesus as the chief cornerstone upon which the entire foundation of the household of God is built (Eph 2:19–22). Without Him, everything crumbles under the weight of our inadequacies. It seems like we see contemporary movements regularly crumble, as leaders become enthralled with their own abilities and personalities. We see this most clearly in new religious movements (NRMs), but increasingly in the American evangelicalism.

In the study of new religious movements, which are often pejoratively referred to as cults, leaders clearly take on a savior role, as followers are attracted to their charismatic personalities that often communicate their connection to God, or some supernatural force, which gave them special abilities or a position as a divine authority (Wessinger 2012; Dawson 2006). These personality cults—such as Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, or David Berg of the Children of God/the Family—exhibit extraordinary influence over their followers. While these extreme examples resulted in abuse and death, others have exhibited a spiritual abuse couched in Christian language that appears legitimate for a while, but they are often exposed by disillusioned followers. In recent times, one may recall Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels, James MacDonald, and most recently, Jerry Falwell, Jr. as well-known examples of charismatic personalities within the evangelical world who held an extreme influence over followers, thus permitting their deviant behaviors and moral failures. 

The characteristics of these leadership figures, whether in evangelicalism or in NRMs, are similar: they have an ability to form a charismatic bond with followers; they demonstrate “extraordinary” abilities to communicate with authority; and they have “extraordinary” experiences that have confirmed a divine calling. Where this type of charismatic leadership departs from New Testament leadership is in its anthropocentric focus, rather than the theocentric focus we see in the leaders of the first century church. A cursory study of the Apostle Paul reveals multiple characteristics that are an antithesis to charismatic leaders: his self-identification as a doulos (“bond servant;” servant in ESV) of Christ (Rom 1:1); his self-identification as the chief of all sinners (1 Tim 1:15); his self-identification as a diakonos of the church (1 Cor 3:5). For Paul, this was not self-deprecation or a false humility, but the reality and realization of a life so focused on God that everything else, including himself, faded in the shadow of His glory. While Paul could rightly claim an authority over people (2 Cor 10:8), he would much rather identify himself with his co-laborers (2 Tim 1:7) and call others to join him on God’s mission (1 Cor 11:1). This is the type of leadership that propels a movement into the future, as it is tied to God’s mission and not their own.

There always seems to be a tendency to elevate religious personalities to such a height that the pressure and attention results in abuse. This was no different during the first century. There were many messianic figures proclaiming salvation for Israel and philosophers who amassed followings all over the Roman Empire. However, what we see in New Testament leaders is their deliberate focus on making Jesus famous among people. This theocentrism is apparent in Paul, who mentions the three persons of the Trinity 133 times in his short circular letter to the churches of Asia. John’s anonymity as the author of the Fourth Gospel is evidence that he wanted to draw his readers and listeners to Jesus and not to himself. New Testament leaders are unwaveringly theocentric as they inspire Jesus’ followers to join in God’s mission as co-laborers—not in a hierarchical system that promotes their leadership, but rather in a community leadership among equals. These leaders knew that there was only one head of the church, and He is the only one worthy to follow. 

Adapted from Ephesiology: The Study of the Ephesian Movement

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