Loyalty is a dangerous virtue: The church needs whistleblowers

In all the discussion recently about church leaders who are accused of bullying their staff and their congregations, I kept noticing how often these leaders demanded absolute loyalty from those placed under them.

A recent article about a disgraced leader of a church planting network named “rejection of critical feedback, and an expectation of unconditional loyalty” as part of a style of leadership that has left an intercontinental trail of damage.

Abusive Christian leaders


God is faithful and does not betray his people. This is one of the most profound theological truths …

The thing about loyalty is that it seems like an obviously good thing. And it seems reasonable, if you are working in a team, to expect loyalty from the team members – to one another, to the leader, and to the vision of the team.

It’s surely right to expect that a person not sow discord or be a disruptive element. If a team member betrays the trust of the leader or the team, then the team can’t function. It’s treacherous.

And the Bible seems to support the goodness of loyalty from two angles – first, in the idea of faithfulness, and second, with the notion of unity.

God himself is the model of covenant faithfulness to his people. He is consistent and reliable in his loyalty to them. As we hear in Deuteronomy:

“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations…” (Deut 7:9).

God is faithful and does not betray his people. This is one of the most profound theological truths of the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, we hear the call for the church to express its union with Christ by its own unity. Jesus prays, in John 17:11:

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

The church congregation is called to be a body of Christ, living out of its deep spiritual unity in him (Galatians 3:28). And on the flipside, one of the great crimes of the New Testament is dissension and fractiousness. As Paul writes:

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.” (Romans 16:17)

So – God is faithful and we are to be faithful. We are one in Christ, so don’t cause disunity. Isn’t it important to be loyal – especially to our leaders, who have such a difficult job to do?

But God’s faithfulness does not mean that he overlooks injustice and corruption in them, does it?

Hold on a minute, though: we need to examine these concepts a bit more closely.

Yes, God is faithful when he makes a covenant with his people. He is faithful to them through prosperity and poverty, in their faithfulness but even in their unfaithfulness.

But God’s faithfulness does not mean that he overlooks injustice and corruption in them, does it? You only have to read a few pages of the prophets to see that he is fierce against them in their idolatry and their adultery, their greed and their exploitation of the poor.

God’s loyalty to his covenant is ultimately his loyalty to himself. Which means he is loyal to his people in the very act of holding them to account where they have broken faith with him. It is his faithfulness that he both judges them and restores them. When we hear of God “remembering his covenant”, we hear about him doing mercy to his people, and often judging their enemies – “for his name’s sake”. But this is not disregarding their sin, but dealing with it and mending it.

What does this mean for loyalty with the church? It means I can’t, as a Christian leader, require a loyalty of someone other than their loyalty to the faithful God. And their loyalty to me might actually be fully expressed in their pointing out my sin – so that I might be more Christlike.

It’s possible, in other words, to be what I would call a ‘loyal critic’. In parliament, we sometimes talk about the second largest party as the ‘loyal opposition’. Their job is to hold the government to account – and this is not seen as treachery but as crucial to the process of government itself.

Likewise, it is vital to the life of the church that we are reminded of the standard to which we are called. The loyal critic – which we should all be ready to be – sees where the church or its leader is failing, and, motivated by love, seeks its renewal.

It is not an expression of loyalty to a leader to put up with their abusive behaviour.

The Christian leader is never a law unto themselves or a ‘pope in his own parish’. They are always measured against the standard of the gospel of Jesus Christ – and as a sign that they understand this, should always seek accountability. (Beware the unaccountable leader: he may just think that he is God. Run a mile.)

It’s not at all disloyal to hold a Christian leader to account against the standard of God’s word revealed in the Bible. We’re to treat people with grace, and to be aware of our own tendency to be blind to our sin, for sure; but it is not an expression of loyalty to a leader to put up with their abusive behaviour.

In fact, to speak the truth to their jerkiness with humility is an act of Christian love.

If we take a second look at unity, we find likewise that the source and standard for unity is not the leader of the church, but Jesus Christ. We are united in him and by him. We are his body.

And the New Testament images for unity do not ask for conformity to anything other than the mind of Christ. While leaders are to be respected, honoured, and even paid, it is not their vision or their ego or their charisma that unites the body of Christ. Christian unity is a complex unity that does not erase diversity but transcends it.

Now, to lead a group of human beings on this basis is not quite the same as leading an army or company. With the military or a business there is a goal external to the group of people which provides a measure for its performance. Performance – victory in war or the attainment of profit – is critical. The leader’s job is to get that performance come what may.

But the church does not exist in that way. It exists to glorify God. Its existence is its own end.

The metaphor that best describes it is the family. It’s relationships are not simply a function of the task that everyone has for winning a war (say), but rather the relationships are the point of its existence. So the leader is not accountable to achieve a target of some kind but rather to care for the flock – which may of course involve rebuke and discipline, but all with the purpose of making the church more itself, which is more like Jesus.

David abused his power without regard to the dignity and the lives of others, and without regard to God.

Perhaps the story for our times is the story of Nathan the prophet.

As King, David had become a law unto himself. He lolled about in his palace when he should have been patrolling his borders with his men. He demanded use of Bathsheba’s body when he spotted her bathing. He then tried to manipulate the situation to hide his sin from her husband Uriah the Hittite. Only, that didn’t work because of the loyalty of this foreign-born soldier and servant of the king.

So David had Uriah killed in battle.

This was thuggish behaviour of the worst kind. David abused his power without regard to the dignity and the lives of others, and without regard to God.

But who would challenge him?

Step forward Nathan the Prophet – one of history’s great whistle-blowers.

Was Nathan disloyal to David?

Now, consider for a minute Nathan’s position. It was not as if he had a court higher than the king to call down David. There was no-one human higher than the king in terms of law or government. There was no separation of the powers here. There was no tribunal.

He only had the word of God. He could only blow the whistle on David to David, and hope that David would recognise his position before the Lord.

And so: Nathan stepped into the king’s chamber to tell him the story of an outrage of justice – the theft by a rich man of a lamb belonging to his poor neighbour. The king’s outrage when he hears this story is a beautiful trap – we might say that the king has been shamed by his own virtue signalling.

And what results is the deep sorrow and repentance of David.

Was Nathan disloyal to David? Not at all. In fact, his act of faithfulness to David in God was far truer than the kowtowing and compliments of many ‘yes’ men.

What Christian leaders need today – what the church needs – is more Nathans.

Rev Dr Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point, and is the author of several books.

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