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Lead by fear?

In a Christian ministry a godly man was trained for several years to succeed the founder when he retired. This protégé seemed to be a perfect successor. Once he was installed into the position he quickly won the hearts of many followers by his kind demeanor with other people in the organization.

This leader could fire a person when necessary, but he did it in a way that respected the individual and did not destroy him.

However, the board of this organization did not like this new style of leadership, believing that the necessary element of leadership was an authority that generates fear in its underlings, especially fear of being treated harshly or fired at any moment without explanation or defense. It is believed that without this harshness, the authority of the leader will never be respected and chaos will ensue. In spite of being the top authority in that ministry, the board removed him from his position effective immediately with the explanation that he was not harsh enough to be a good leader.

Insensitive aloofness

I once asked a leader of a large ministry, “Do you have any friends here?” He immediately responded, “Of course not. How can you fire someone if he is my friend?”

Being “thrown under the bus” by a colleague is all too common in Christian ministries, often to demonstrate the capability of insensitivity to hurting others or harshness to his superiors, perhaps to give evidence of the ability to make tough decisions in order to be promoted someday.

It is easy to discredit potential leaders in organizations, raise subtle suspicions or twist constructive criticism into antagonistic opposition. Gossip is prolific in many Christian ministries and spread by the leaders! Fear of being reported to superiors often keeps gossip under control among staff personnel. Sometimes this makes it difficult for non-leaders to discuss how to improve work situations without appearing to complain and thus get reported for insubordination.

Biblical leadership at any level is totally dependent on trust and perceived integrity. “Bad-mouthing” a colleague is common in conversations. Differences of opinion are seen as threatening or treasonous in the opinion of unquestionable leadership. Paranoia is the fear that staff people are prone to rebel against their absolute authority. There is no learning from the bottom up or attempting to win agreement from the top down, rather a demanding of total, unquestionable submission.

Fault finding manipulation

A second means of establishing this fear-based authoritative leadership is to find a fault, however small, in the work or life of an underling. Minor issues are then blown out of proportion to justify receiving harsh rebuttal or corrective treatment by the authorities. The demoralizing impact of this defacing treatment is intended to crush the staff’s self-confidence or self-image. The only way to get any self-respect back is to gain the approval of these same leaders. This style of fear-based manipulative leadership is all too common in Christian ministries.

Unquestioning followship demanded

“Teamwork” takes on the definition of a total, blind, unthinking submission and allegiance to an individual who alone can decide what the will of God is for others. Any questioning of this authority is seen as rebellion and sinful rejection of God’s anointed one and is treated with ostracism, reassignment and minimizing of influence.

Usually this person has the purse strings of the organization. The practice of the political “Golden Rule” is all too common: “He who has the gold, rules.”

Those who adjust have learned by watching how their cohorts were treated when they questioned decisions. Their defamation generated a fear ripple throughout the organization and taught everyone to be careful of taking any initiative or “constructive criticism.”

Institutional priority

Only the leader can think of effective ideas. The paternalistic patterns build security to some followers and too much confinement to others, who seldom last long in such an organization. When people leave they are seldom missed because they never were important personally. Only the organization is important. People are only to be used then discarded for someone more useful to the organization.

If many “successful” ministries are practitioners of this model of leadership, what kinds of missionaries are we sending overseas to replicate this necessary type of leader? Failure is deemed as not measuring up to this style of leadership.

Cliques of big leaders

These types of leaders think in terms of power-persons, shakers-and-movers, giants, and great leaders. Others have little value, or are made to feel like they have little value in comparison to them. Others are only there to serve the needs of the “big” leaders. What a contrast with what Jesus said!

What about Jesus?

Once two ambitious disciples wanted to be the highest authorities in the universal kingdom of Christ (Mark 10:37). Apparently all the disciples wanted the same authority (Mk 10:41). Jesus takes this opportunity to teach His leadership model, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them” (Mar 10:42 NKJ), that is, the style of leadership mentioned earlier in this article.

Then Jesus makes one of His strongest prohibitions: “Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant” (Mar 10:43 NKJ).

The secular leadership model should be found nowhere among Christ followers in families, Christian institutions or church organizations. Peter never forgot this lesson when he wrote, “nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1Pe 5:3 NKJ). “Lording over” means to “bring under one’s power, to subject to oneself or master, to hold in subjection, or gain dominion over.” Do you think someone can lead without threats, or demanding total unquestioning submission to a leader?

Rather Peter commands, “but lead them by your own good example” (1Pe 5:3 NLT), or by being their “servant” (Mk 10:43) committed to meeting the needs of others, rather than manipulated them by open or subtle threats to meet the leader’s needs. His measure of success is not bigness, but by building a reputation of relationships: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 NKJ).

However a leader’s staff perceives his style of leadership, all those under his responsibility will attempt to duplicate his leadership style throughout the organization. The more a person can bring others under their authority however cruel the tactic, the more likely he will be seen as a “great leader” and rise in the organization. As long as such an intimidating leader is successful followers tend to swallow their hurts and pride, just to be part of something big or popular.

Do you believe Christ’s words will work in any organization? If one does not believe what Jesus said, then His directives will be ignored and whatever leadership style brings “success” will become the final authority.

Servant leader: myth or goal

A professor I met said he is sick of hearing about “servant-leaders” because they always mean, “You are the servant, and I am the leader.” He wondered if anyone read what the Bible said about servant-leaders.

Specifically he was referring to Jesus’ statement to his disciples, who all selfishly wanted to be next to the highest authority in the Messianic world kingdom (Mark 10:37). Then Jesus described the basic secular leadership philosophy, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them [katakurieuo “bring one under power, to subdue, master, hold in subjection or be the master of”] , and their great ones exercise authority over them” [katexousiazo, “wield power,” “become master, gain dominion over,” or “tyrannize, domineer”] (Mark 10:42).

This is not a condemnation of this authority but an observation of it’s existence. Perhaps this is a necessity in the military and governments to function. Jesus’ contrast is pointing out that we are to be people-builders instead of empire-builders.

The lust for this level of power is the drive of the fallen angels who craved for God’s authority over creation (Isa 14:13-14), willing to usurp even God’s throne to obtain it.


Jesus is not saying there will not be “great among you,” but rather how one becomes great and what his responsibility becomes as a great leader is radically different from the secular powers. A Christian executive once told me that he did not think strict biblical principles would work in an institutional leadership role. People will take advantage of the situation and inefficiency would result. Perhaps there are some misunderstandings, but one should never “throw out the baby with the bath water.”


Christians should not practice dictatorial, narcissistic, self-promoting, intimidating, fear or threat based style of leadership. Regrettably, many “successful” ministries are led by this style of leadership. The patrón style leader is often sought out for key leadership positions. He can make things happen. This is the businessman leader.

Hendriksen writes, “They spend all their energies to get to the top and once having reached tat peak, they cause all others to feel the weight of their authority” (Mark, p. 413).

Jesus’ definition

How does this fit with Jesus’ directive? He began, “whoever desires to be great among you…,”(Mk 10:43), which is not a bad or selfish desire if it is not self-serving. “Great” means according to Louw Nida, the “upper end of a scale, with possible implication of importance” (78:2).

Desiring to be a leader that is not self-seeking is the first requirement to be a pastor or elder (“bishop” or Overseerer) (1 Tim 3:1).


Jesus continues, “… shall be your servant” (diakonos, “one who executes the commands of another”). In parallel fashion, the next verse reiterates the principle with a synonym, “And who ever wants to be first among you must be the slave [doulos, “devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interest”] of all” (Mk 10:44 NET).

This paradox is to mark Christianity as distinct. The leader is to live for the interest, needs and wellbeing of others, rather than himself. All the prerequisites (1 Tim 3:1-8) describe a person who is internally and socially healthy to the point that he can be devoted to the needs others.

Jesus gave himself as an example as one who “did not come to be served, but to serve [diakoneo] and to give his life a ransom for man” (10:45). Obviously, we ccnot be the ransom for sinners, but we are to similarly sacrifice our lives freely for the benefit of other people.

Institutional priority

Some live for Christian institutions and use people for the greater good of the organization until such persons are deemed useless. Then they are discarded with little sympathy or care. Jesus’ focus appears to be to serve the needs of people over (or at least parallel with) Christian institutions. This balance act is the struggle of Christian leadership and requires great wisdom to keep Jesus’ priority.

Serving needs

The key is meeting the needs of others. Every believer has the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:9), and thus is given a manifestation of the Spirit’s care for others through the “spiritual gift [that] is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Cor 12: 7 NLT). No spiritual gift is self-serving, rather other-serving. Our primary serving to others is through our spiritual gift.

The greater roles are therefore, reserved for those who can meet the needs of more of God’s people.

What do people need?

Paul told the elders at Ephesus to “watch out for yourselves and for the flock of which [not over which] the Holy Spirit has made you overseerers, to shepherd the church of God (Acts 20:28 NET). The plural command to “watch out for yourselves” or “watch out for each other” refers to the group of elders who were to keep accountable to each other for obedience in their lives as well as their care of the flock.

Jesus gave a primary focus of the ministry to be “teaching them to obey all things that [he] commanded” (Matt 28:20).

The secret of life’s success is living by the Word of God. No greater service can be given than to teach, explain, exhort, comfort, encourage and preach obedience to all that Jesus commands all believers to obey. The personal psychological, emotional, relational, moral, and corporal needs are foundationally built upon God’s Word.

Symptoms of a servant

Perhaps the key is communicating to each other how import they are personally to you and to Christ. The opposite is all too true about leaders as the tittle of Les Carter’s book on Narcissism, “Enough about you, let’s talk about me.”

The one who obviously is more interested in others than in himself is the one who should be entrusted with leadership roles. Pay attention to how much people love to talk about themselves with little interest, except criticism, for others.

Servant team

Leadership is always a team effort with each one contributing their strengths and giftedness to the benefit of each other and to the whole task, while keeping each other true to the principles of God’s Word. What a purposeful life!

How to live out the ideal servant-leadership role without a strong natural dominating leader taking over is the challenge of any team ministry. The Body of Christ is not a football team led by a quarterback, rather perhaps the analogy of a soccer team who learn to blend their strengths together helping each other perform their best and reach their goal.

Any organization that is committed to making every member a success and never communicates rejection or failure is bound to succeed. Someone said, “the more people you make successful, the more they will make you successful.”