The Belligerent Leader, Part 2
In part 1 of this series, Jerry challenged us with the question of whether we manifest an attitude of belligerence in our spiritual leadership. In part 2, he tells us what to look for:
Intolerance of Others
Some men simply can’t hide their mounting frustration over the shortcomings of others. Even small infractions are not acceptable where a leader’s reputation or convenience is threatened. You may not see yourself as an angry leader, but how you respond when people and circumstances do not cooperate tells the true story. A few years ago, I listened as a pastor defended his bitterness in the midst of a recent and very ugly church-split. He had been the pastor for several years and was becoming increasingly resentful that his congregation frequently grumbled at his teaching and leadership. Why had they not appreciated his ministry? Where was the willing submission commanded in Scripture?
One Sunday, his frustration resulted in a public display of anger. Such behavior shocked the church, and eventually precipitated his dismissal. Sadly, the absence of character formation in others exposed a glaring flaw in his own maturity, crippling any potential ministry he may have had in their lives. Had he remembered that Christ-like shepherding requires patience and kindness, especially when wronged (2 Tim 2:24), the word of God would not have been maligned. All Christians must learn to bear with one another’s weaknesses, but leaders are called to a greater forbearance and compassion than those we lead. An intolerant shepherd may be free to carry out his ministry for a season, but God resists such attitudes and will most certainly chasten an impatient leader severely until he faces the problem.
Arrogance and Joylessness
Angry leaders reveal that they have a personal agenda which resists the sovereign purposes of God. More to the point, harsh leaders refuse to acknowledge God’s use of trials for their good and His glory. As James 1:2-4 commands, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Indeed, the weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, and shortcomings of others are used by God to reveal areas where we desperately need work. God often puts someone in our path whose immaturities test our patience and commitment to sacrificially love them as Christ has loved us. Intolerance of others reveals our lack of love and forbearance, which, according to Scripture, instantly turns their sin into a secondary concern (Matt 7:1-4).
In a sermon, John MacArthur captured the heart behind anger with this assertion: “Anger is the opposite of love because anger says, ‘I matter so much, if you do something that I don’t like, I’m going to let you have it.’” On a much more frightening scale, when we’re angry at people and circumstances, we are really lashing out at God’s good providence. Instead of kissing the hand that afflicts us, we’re demanding that God order our lives by our script, our assessment of people, our comfort-level. How often on the one hand have we boldly asserted that we “are not [our] own…[we are] bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:19-20), while on the other behaving as if the Lord has no right over us? Unchecked arrogance at this level quickly drains the joy and blessing out of ministry.
All arrogance is shattered under the powerful display of humility at the cross of Jesus Christ (Phil 2:3-8). The cross proves—in spite of our personal claim to inherent worthiness and value—that it is Christ alone who is worthy; He is the treasure of highest value. In a word, He matters, not us! In the grand scheme of redemption, it is due to the grandeur of His love, the wonder of His grace, and the “kind intention of His will” (Eph 1:5) that we matter at all. When we lead others with such truth as the backdrop, no matter how challenging, arrogance dies a natural death. As Jim Shaddix has poignantly stated regarding pastoral leadership: “Preacher, if your preaching is constantly calling people’s attention to the crucified life, then those of us who listen to you will not have time to sing your praises.”
Self-Righteous and Judgmental Attitudes
Another evil that plagues the belligerent leader is self-righteousness—amplifying everyone else’s sin while minimizing their own. It’s the age-old “log in the eye” hypocrisy Jesus warned against in Matthew 7:1-4. This is dangerous ground to tread! God is as direct as ever regarding His severe response to this ugly pretension. Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt 7:1-2). When we look down on others with haughty judgment, we invoke the same compassionless treatment from God toward our infirmities. What a terrifying response from the living God! Belligerent people are told they can expect to be handled by God, not according to His tender compassion, but with a severity matching their contempt of others. Such words should sober even the most hardened heart, and result in a fresh realization that self-righteousness tops God’s list of man’s most despised iniquities (Prov 6:16-19).
I’ve also found that self-righteousness and outbursts of anger go together like chips and salsa! Every self-promoting leader I’ve known is pushy, easily provoked, prone to bitterness, and unforgiving. Such pride is never open to critique and won’t tolerate a rebuke. Negligently, some leaders try and “clear the air” by generally admitting to a quick-temper, or by making regular verbal apologies for offenses without the hard work of serious character reformation. This is a profound danger both to one’s spiritual integrity and conscience. Proverbs 28:13 teaches that shallow, half-hearted apologies invite more trouble, while an honest confession and desire to forsake sin stirs up compassion. An explosive temper is not a minor drawback that others must learn to endure until it’s over. Proverbs 19:19 states: “A man of great anger will bear the penalty, for if you rescue him, you will only have to do it again.” Anger problems do not simply dissipate over time. That’s because lurking behind angry tantrums are the ugly idols of reputation, personal rights, and revenge. Bitterness and anger says, “I deserve to be treated as I please; my reputation matters most; my expectations will be met, or else!”
Some leaders regularly pay homage to their own reputation rather than living for the exaltation of Jesus Christ. They uphold a set of “personal rights and expectations” for others to acknowledge and serve. Martha Peace has unmasked this self-orientation well: “One way we weave God into our self-focus is by having a self-focused view of the universe. Being overly taken with our own importance, we try to obligate God to grant our wishes and make us feel special.” Human beings obligating God? What a ridiculous notion! Yet, that is precisely what drives many leaders’ perception of themselves. When violated, a belligerent leader satisfies his appetite for revenge in a volcanic tirade, hoping to “make someone pay.” If these idols of self-worship are not smashed with a vigorous repentance and mind-renewal, a trail of broken relationships, destroyed credibility, and lifeless ministry will result! Our only hope is to cultivate an insatiable appetite for Christ over every other desire.
There’s probably no greater description of this reality than the words of the great Scottish pastor/theologian, Thomas Chalmers:
We only cease to be the slave of one appetite because another taste has brought it into subordination. A youth may cease to idolize sensual pleasure, but it’s only because the idol of material gain has gotten the ascendancy. There is not one personal transformation in which the heart is left without an object of beauty and joy. Its desire for one particular object may be conquered, but its desire to have some object is unconquerable. The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.
For believers, the “expulsive power” has to be a Spirit-controlled, unquenchable thirst for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you’re steeped in habitual condescension toward others, flee with great haste to the mercy of God that He might arouse a new passion to lead for the exaltation of the Savior.
Jerry Wragg is one of our seven TES campus pastors, having served as the Pastor-Teacher of Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL since 2001. Jerry also serves as Chairman of The Expositors Seminary Board of Directors. This article was adapted from his book, Exemplary Spiritual Leadership: Facing the Challenges, Escaping the Dangers (Day One Publications, 2010).