God’s Grace and Broken Leadership
Four things to remember about failures in the Church
Sometimes disappointment in people leads to disappointment in God. When a few key leaders in a church let us down, it’s easy to develop an aversion to all leadership in the Church. The hurt may be so deep that we make the mistake of blaming God for what people have done.
However, the fact that God chooses to use broken people to help accomplish His perfect will is an illustration of grace rather than incompetence. Here are four things I’ve discovered about broken leadership:
1. Broken leadership reflects our deficits, not God’s. The Bible makes this clear in the first six chapters of Genesis, when humanity experienced a radical degradation in the human condition. The first humans disobeyed God and became familiar with sin (Genesis 3:1–7). The first nuclear family invented murder (Genesis 4:8–12). Within a few generations, “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).
The Bible would be much shorter if God hadn’t made the decision to preserve a single family to start again (Genesis 6:8). This family wasn’t perfect, but God still extended blessings and promises of restoration (Genesis 8:20–22).
Every time the promise passed from one generation to the next, it illustrated both the wholly broken nature of people and the holy ambition of God to pursue us. In essence, this is the story Scripture tells over and over from Genesis to Revelation. This gives us context and hope when we experience fragmented leadership. In spite of the pain we feel, God is undeterred in His good purpose.
Every time the promise passed from one generation to the next, it illustrated both the wholly broken nature of people and the holy ambition of God to pursue us.
2. Broken leadership doesn’t mean God didn’t sincerely move in a spiritual community. In the fourth century, a group of early Christians called the Donatists decided believers who had renounced their faith under religious persecution and then repented were no longer worthy to administer the sacraments. Any ministry these leaders performed was considered invalid. This created conflict in the Western Church, with figures like Augustine challenging the Donatists. Ultimately, church leaders agreed that the effectiveness of the priesthood of believers comes from the perfection of the one High Priest, Jesus, not from the believer (Hebrews 4:14–16).
Centuries earlier, when Jesus saw a widow putting two mites into the temple treasury, He commended her (Luke 21:1–4). Although Jesus objected to the corruption of certain religious leaders, He still acknowledged the sincerity of the woman who approached to worship. In doing so, He demonstrated that the shortcomings of leaders and institutions do not nullify God’s work in the spiritual community.
Despite the struggle with this tension, the Church eventually recognized that the brokenness of a leader does not diminish the legitimacy of someone’s personal worship. This truth should color our interpretation of leadership issues today.
When a lapse in leadership becomes public, it often creates an identity crisis for people who had authentic encounters with Jesus under that leader. One of the tragedies of a leadership breakdown is the collateral damage it has on the community. Unfortunately, some end up so dejected and confused that they leave the faith altogether. For those processing these feelings, it can be difficult to accept that experiences with Jesus are still meaningful, even if the context in which they happened was unhealthy.
Judas participated in ministry that introduced people to Jesus (Mark 6:7–13). The Spirit of God came upon Saul, and he led Israel to significant military victories for the Lord (1 Samuel 11:6–11). Elisha trusted Gehazi to raise the dead (2 Kings 4:25–31). Even though the outcome of these leaders was not God’s desire for them, God still accomplished His will in the lives of individuals they served.
3. Spirit-empowered leadership brings effectiveness beyond brokenness. When Jesus called the disciples, He chose to lead a team of broken leaders. In a culture that rewards polarization, it’s easy to find ourselves in the place of James and John, voicing our righteous indignation for the brokenness of others that Jesus came to save (Luke 9:51–56; John 4:39–42).
Every pronouncement of judgment Jesus gave against leaders of His day was a window into the shortcomings we all experience. In their own personal failures, the disciples learned that all people are broken without the spiritual transformation Jesus brings. Nonetheless, when Jesus promised the disciples He wouldn’t leave them as orphans, He meant it (John 14:18-20). The Holy Spirit allows each of us to experience the same closeness with Jesus that the disciples enjoyed.
All leadership is broken, but never forget that all leadership has access to the Holy Spirit. Spirit-empowered leadership brings effectiveness beyond brokenness. This transparent gap between brokenness and Spirt-marked effectiveness demonstrates God’s grace. This reality defined Bible leaders like Paul and David (1 Samuel 16:13; 1 Corinthians 2:4).
4. Broken leadership doesn’t have to be broken forever. We don’t embrace broken aspects of leadership simply because God’s grace can work beyond them (Romans 6:1–2). In the Old Testament, God raised up the prophet Samuel in an environment of lapsed leadership and spiritual compromise. Figures like Eli and his sons represented an institution rife with abuse of power, intimidation, theft, sexual immorality, and contempt for the Lord (1 Samuel 2:12-25). Even still, in the midst of this spiritual atmosphere, God established and spoke to one of the most influential and sincere figures in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 2:26; 3:1–21).
A product of Samuel’s obedience was the opportunity to formally anoint David, who also learned to discern God’s voice as a leader. Although David broke ground under a broken king, God used David to lead an entire nation in spiritual reformation (2 Samuel 6:1–15; 1 Chronicles 22:1–19).
Figures like Samuel and David remind us that God can raise up leaders from the ashes of failed institutions.
Human nature makes it easy to write off ministries, churches and leaders that have failed us. The Bible reminds us that the final say on any leadership failure can only come from God. May we never forget the history-swaying power of a “yes” to God at any stage in life.