All leadership involves the danger of the abuse of power, since leadership is about influence over other people. In religious leadership this danger is heightened since those with positions of authority are representing God and their words and actions carry great weight with those who sincerely want to please God. That’s why the issue of ‘spiritual abuse’ is such a pertinent one for any Christian leader. Some of you reading this will have suffered at the hands of abusive leaders, whether in churches or Christian organisations.

Recently there has been some debate as to the validity of the term, ‘spiritual abuse’, hence I am using quotation marks around it. The Evangelical Alliance has issued a statement saying that they do not agree with the term, preferring to speak of psychological or emotional abuse, terms which the law recognises. While I accept that ‘spiritual abuse’ is very hard to define and proving it in a court of law would be difficult, the term seems appropriate to me because this is a specific form of abuse that takes place in a religious context and has a spiritual dimension to it.

Reading Matthew 23 and reflecting again on the scorching words of Jesus to the Pharisees and other teachers of the law, I am reminded of the great harm done in the name of God by toxic leaders. This passage seems to have great relevance for the church today and all who are concerned to lead well.

Abusive leaders

The words of Jesus to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in Matthew 23 highlight some of the characteristics of abusive leadership, and shows how abusive systems operate in a religious context. Far from being merely a rather dull expose of Pharisaic religion, this passage teems with contemporary relevance for the church today, because the dangers of toxic leadership are ever-present. Here are some manifestations of abusive leadership identified by Jesus:

1. A lack of compassion, burdening people rather than liberating them (v1-4).

2. A preoccupation with image, status, reputation and title (v5-8).

3. A need to be in control (v13-15)

4. Hypocrisy, preaching but not practising, being blind to one’s own shortcomings (v13-23)

5. A focus on legalistic details rather than justice, mercy and faithfulness (v23-24)

6. External religious practice without internal holiness (v25-28)

7. Respecting the prophets of old but silencing the contemporary voice of anyone who challenges them (v29-36)

It is always easier to see the faults in others than to recognise our own failures (blind guides), but anyone in Christian leadership must reflect honestly from time to time on their leadership style, and the impact of their words and actions on those they lead.

Abusive systems

While individuals may be abusive in their leadership style, ‘spiritual abuse’ is more likely to happen within a context that enables it to take place unchallenged. There is therefore a systemic dimension to this problem, and we can see from the words of Jesus in Matthew 23 how this kind of climate is created. These characteristics may be found in both churches and Christian organisations.

1. The exaltation of leadership, placing gifted and charismatic individuals on a pedestal while forgetting that they are human and fallible (v5-7). Respect is good, but not hero worship.

2. Hierarchical structures rather than flat ones, a top-down mentality with a chain of command. Use of titles, rank and preferment. Forgetting that before God we are all equal (v8-12). Submission is good, but not domination.

3. Discipleship as conformity (v15). Progress is measured by how much people confirm to the group’s standards. Such conformity is rewarded, non-conformity punished. People obey, but out of fear. The disobedient are side-lined and marginalised. Obedience is good, but not at the price of conscience.

4. A culture of legalism where rules and regulations abound, spoken and unspoken (v23-24). Acceptance is performance based, God is pleased by what we do rather than who we are.

5. A religion of externals, more about keeping up appearances than being real, being seen to do the right thing rather than being true to oneself (v25-28).

6. An unwillingness to listen or consult with members (v34).

7. Ultimately a refusal to welcome Christ and his love (v37).

Just as leaders need to do some soul-searching, so too do organisations and congregations. What kind of culture have we created? Do people feel loved, valued, encouraged and nurtured? Or voiceless, manipulated, taken advantage of, even bullied?

The true way to lead

As well as highlighting the dangers of toxic leadership in Matthew 23, Jesus also gives us a glimpse of what healthy leadership looks like. This chapter contains some important principles for anyone who wants to lead well, whether in a local church or a Christian organisation.

1. Be a servant leader (v11), that is, someone who uses the gift of leadership not for personal ambition or ego satisfaction but in order to bless others. The greatest joy of a leader should be to see others do well. Good leadership aims to release, encourage, equip and empower others.

2. Learn humility (v12). Be sure to give glory to God for any success, and don’t get carried away by popularity or fame. Keep your feet on the ground.

3. Set a good example (v3), practice what you preach, live out the gospel you proclaim, let there be a congruence between what you teach and the way you live. Be authentic, be real, be open and honest. This way you will avoid hypocrisy.

4. Aim for personal holiness (v26), paying attention to your inner life – your thoughts, motivations and ambitions. Give time to self-examination before God with the help of the Holy Spirit. Do as much as you can to understand yourself and become more self-aware.

5. Listen to others, in particular wise friends and advisors, as well as your critics (v34). Feedback is never easy but it is a key ingredient in personal growth. Surround yourself with those who love you but who will be honest with you. Be always learning, always striving to know God more deeply.

Leadership is a privilege, but it brings a responsibility to lead to the best of our ability. Good leadership is a blessing to God’s people, but there is a price tag – the willingness to be shaped and formed by the Holy Spirit into the kind of leader God wants you to be.