“The greatest source of power available to a leader,” said Dr. James O’Toole, founding director of Neely Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Southern California, “is the trust that derives from faithfully serving followers.” Three decades earlier, Howard Hendricks, longtime professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, told a Promise Keepers rally, “The greatest crisis in America is a crisis of leadership, and the greatest crisis of leadership is a crisis of character.”
During the past several decades, a proliferation of books, journals, degree programs, podcasts, online conferences, and DVD series have addressed the issues of character and trust in leadership in virtually all arenas of life.
Of course, my first concern is the health and growth of the church of Christ. And nothing impacts the well-being of the church of Jesus more than the heart devotion of the spiritual shepherds who are entrusted with her care and feeding.
In the early chapters of Acts, Luke—a Holy Spirit-inspired historian and physician—did two things. First, he described the birth of the Christian church on the Day of Pentecost. Second, he exposed the strategy of the evil one, who sought to snuff out the life of the infant church. So, the first two chapters of Acts demonstrate the activity of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, Acts 3-6 reveals the activity of the unholy spirit—and we see the threefold strategy of the devil to destroy the church:
Persecution—Satan tried to crush the church by force/physical violence. In Acts 3, right after Pentecost, Peter and John were arrested, jailed, and warned not to speak further about Jesus. Upon their release, they went right back to preaching and working miracles. They were rearrested in Acts 5, severely beaten, and ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus. But the violent persecution resulted in the advancement of the gospel (Acts 5:42).
Corruption—Having failed to destroy the church from the outside, Satan tried in Acts 5 to corrupt it from the inside through the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira. This couple had sold a piece of property and claimed to have given all the income from the land sale to the church. It was a lie. When they were separately confronted, a divine death sentence was imposed on this couple for their stewardship sin. The result was “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (Acts 5:14).
Division—Satan’s third attack was even more subtle. He created dissension in the church to try to distract the apostles from their priority tasks of preaching and prayer. The number of disciples had exponentially increased and the pastoral load had become unmanageable. Racial and generational tension developed. The apostles knew they had to keep the focus on the ministry of the Word of God and prayer, so they proposed a practical solution that resulted in the number of disciples increasing rapidly (Acts 6:3-7).
These are the devil’s three exclusive weapons to blunt the redemptive impact of the gospel and the church in every generation—persecution, corruption, and division. In over 20 centuries, he has not changed his strategy or tactics.
Notice that all of these assaults on the Lord’s church were focused on leadership. Why? Because discouraging, discrediting, or distracting leaders is the shortcut to damaging the health and arresting the growth of the church. These were the three battlefronts for the first-century church in Jerusalem and they are the three battlefronts for the 21st-century church in your city.
Today persecution comes from militant atheism and a secular worldview that actively seeks to excise knowledge of God from the minds of people. Corruption is evident in the frequent moral failures of professed/recognized spiritual leaders. Division became more evident in the church during 2020 largely due to the polarization related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as racial and political issues. But trustworthy leaders today can meet these timeless assaults in the same ways the apostolic leaders responded to them inActs 3–6.
COURAGE: The Trustworthy Leader’s Response to Persecution
The apostles were arrested and imprisoned, but an angel of the Lord opened the doors, brought them out, and instructed them, “Go stand in the temple courts . . . and tell the people all about this new life” (Acts 5:20). The apostles courageously obeyed. Even when they were warned and flogged, they said, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). The text says that when people “saw the courage of Peter and John, . . . they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Ten years ago, a group of 70 of us from Crossroads Christian Church in Evansville, Indiana, made the trip to Dearborn, Michigan, to do festival evangelism in the city parks among the predominantly Muslim population. The first evening, the local imam and several clerics showed up to intentionally disrupt our meeting. They walked to the front of our assembly and began to shout at the people, “forbidden, forbidden!” They had young boys tattooed with the name Mohammed riding their bicycles through the crowd.
I could hardly believe we were in the United States of America. The authorities were called. It was a volatile situation. But the next day, our entire team was renewed and energized to move on to the next park location to faithfully love, serve, and testify in this community of 250,000 Muslims. The courage of this team was not unlike the courage of the early apostles.
INTEGRITY: The Trustworthy Leader’s Response to Corruption
Joseph Stowell, former president of Moody Bible Institute, described the qualities of an authentic Christian leader this way,“Living a life that is worthy of respect, by living as an exemplary leader in five areas: words, conduct (particularly my conduct in regard to women, work, and wealth), love, faith, and purity!”(Notice that all five areas have to do with integrity.)
A survey of Fortune 500 headhunters asked, “What do you look for most in a prospective hire?” The number one answer was “integrity.” The number two answer was “honesty.” It goes the other way too. In their extensive studies of employees, James Kouzes and Barry Posner asked, “What trait do you most value/admire in your leaders?” Again, the top answer was “integrity.” The conclusion of both studies: Credibility (character) is the foundation of trustworthy leadership. Period. And the ultimate test of leaders’ credibility is whether they do what they say.
The duplicitous lives and tragic deaths of Ananias and Sapphira provide evidence that a lack of integrity is a serious sin in the church. The harshest words from the lips of Jesus were directed at professed godly leaders who failed the test of authenticity (Matthew 23). It’s been said, “If you lose your reputation/testimony, you will be fortunate if you live long enough to restore it.”Paul shared perhaps the single greatest leadership ethic when he wrote, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).
WISDOM: The Trustworthy Leader’s Response to Division
When there was dissension and division in the early church over the daily distribution of food, the apostles chose seven men to counter this problem that threatened the unity of the young church. They were to be men of good reputation, known to be spiritually mature, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom (a practical understanding of what is right and true when we do not have a clear word from Scripture).
This wisdom is the by-product of a strong prayer life. Jesus’ brother wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). These leaders make great counselors and practical strategists.
Strong bonds of trust between leaders—both vocational and volunteer—and between leaders and the church family are vital to the health and growth of every church in every generation. And if our eyes are open to Satan’s three frontal assaults on the church, we will be able to respond with courage, integrity, and wisdom that will honor God and advance his kingdom through the church in our troubled generation.