A famous New Yorker cartoon depicts a flock of sheep grazing before a campaign billboard of a wolf—whose slogan is “I am going to eat you.” Under the frame, one sheep says to another, “He tells it like it is.”
I wince with recognition whenever I think of that cartoon, knowing that Jesus probably did not have blind allegiance in mind when he called his followers sheep. Still, maybe the message of the cartoon helps explain why we end up with so many terrible people in church leadership.
When evangelical Christians point out uncovered scandals or hidden abuse among church leaders, they often quote some version of this line attributed to Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
But what if that perspective is wrong? A new book suggests it might be—and presents some findings that we as the church should carefully consider.
In Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, political scientist Brian Klaas argues it’s not so much that power corrupts but that corruptible people seek out power.
Klaas invokes research showing how people in all kinds of leadership positions tend to express the “dark triad” of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. He argues that abusive people are the ones drawn to power in the first place.
So how does this manifest itself in church leadership?
Consider what many expect of pastors and other church leaders: the ability to be expert exegetes, social theorists, political practitioners, skilled CEOs, innovative entrepreneurs, as well as Christlike examples. Who looks at that list of qualifications and concludes, “Yep, I’m the person for the job”?
The answer is twofold: people with a strong sense of calling—and those with an urge for power. When the calling outweighs the thirst for power, the result can be very good. But when the will to power is stronger, the result can be terrible.
Moreover, it’s most often the abusive people who can endure what it takes to get and retain positions of power.
Using the example of rulers like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Klaas observes how dangerous it is to be a dictator. Notice how many of them end up exiled, decapitated, or torn to pieces by mobs of their own people.
“So here’s the question,” Klaas says. “Who looks at that job and thinks, ‘I want to try that!’?” The answer is, he argues, narcissists and psychopaths and Machiavellian power seekers. These are the ones who think they are special enough to survive the onslaughts that will come. Or they are the ones with enough psychological distance not to care.
Klaas affirms that a certain amount of emotional distance is necessary. On the first day of medical school, his brother was required to dissect a cadaver. Trying to cope with the horror, Klaas’s brother asked the professor whether he should think of the person on the slab in front of him as “a piece of flesh or as someone’s grandpa”—to which the professor replied, “Both.”
Too much emotional proximity would render a doctor (or many other kinds of leaders) emotionally paralyzed, Klaas suggests. But too little proximity may lead to a cold technician who doesn’t see the stakes involved. A president of the United States not only must have empathy for the problems of his or her fellow citizens but must also be able to, if necessary, launch missiles that will wipe out human lives.
The men and women who can make these kinds of decisions—and endure the inevitable backlash—represent two kinds of people: those who are gifted with a unique resilience and those who just love to be in command. And these two groups are very different.
So why do awful people seem to get worse and worse the higher they go? Is power corrupting them? Not necessarily, Klaas writes. It may be that they are just getting better at what they do. Or it may be that they are gaining a wider field of possible options to do more harm.
In the book, Klaas describes Steve Raucci, a school-district maintenance worker who behaved like a power-hungry tyrant. Those who taught or studied where Raucci worked knew how he acted, but for many years, few outside the district limits were aware.
A restaurant patron who screams at the server might be seen only by a handful of people (and God). But someone who acts that way in a large church or ministry multiplies the potential number of people who may observe the behavior. In that case, what has changed is not the level of the leader’s corruption, but the number of people around to witness it and thus the stakes of the leader’s success or failure.
Apostle brothers James and John did not hold powerful positions when they approached Jesus about the seating arrangements in his kingdom, but they sure wanted to (Mark 10:35–40). Yet Jesus warned them about pursuing that kind of domineering power, saying, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (vv. 43–44).
Klaas also explains why cults of personality or institutions of intimidation seem to get crazier over time: “If people are willing to publicly embarrass themselves by spouting obviously absurd lies about the ‘Dear Leader,’ then they’re more likely to be worthy of the regime’s trust,” he writes. “A henchman who parrots absurdities is a henchman worth investing in.”
But what happens when the leader’s absurdities become generally accepted—or at least so commonplace that people become bored with them?
Toxic leaders “keep inventing crazier and crazier myths, constantly testing people within the regime and within society to see who goes along with it and who doesn’t,” Kraas writes. “That strategy creates a ratcheting effect: if the lies don’t get more extreme, your loyalty tests become worthless.”
We’ve seen that a lot in the public square, as well as in the church.
There’s also the problem of survivorship bias, or the “caveman effect.” We often talk about prehistoric cave dwellers as the ones who drew art on the walls of caves. But maybe, Klaas points out, the people who lived in the woods or on the savannas were just as artistic. The difference in this case is that cave walls can preserve what is drawn on them, but animal hides and trees cannot.
I am often asked why there were no white pastors in the South who stood up to slavery or to Jim Crow. While the number is appallingly small, it’s not zero. It’s simply that those who went against slavery or segregation weren’t likely to survive in ministry for very long.
So what does survivorship bias have to do with the corruptibility of leadership? We should pay attention, Klaas tells us, not just to those who sign up for power but also to those who don’t want to be in power. Why do they avoid it?
Again, there are a couple possibilities. Some don’t see in themselves the gifting needed for leadership. But others simply can’t stand the thought of operating in a social Darwinian atmosphere that requires increasing levels of meanness, conflict, and outrage.
In an interview, Klaas gave the example of his mother who once served on their community’s school board. She was a civic-minded person who cared about education and children—exactly the type of person who typically ran for such positions.
However, since school-board meetings can now be as vitriolic and raucous as national political scenes, Klaas is quite sure she would not choose to run today. She would still care about children and education—but to be on the school board, she would have to be the kind of person who could endure death threats, lawsuits, or mistreatments such as being spat on when leaving a meeting. Or she would need to be the kind of person who actually likes such things.
Perhaps, he suggests, we should actively search for the people who don’t want to serve in such positions and find out why. These may be the very people we should recruit to lead. There are parallel examples throughout the evangelical Christian world—from the men and women serving in the secular civic world to those preaching the gospel or leading churches and denominations.
Maybe we should look for the people who love the Bible and the gospel and who don’t see the Sermon on the Mount as a suicide pact that will end their career or ministry.
For years, I heard a colleague in ministry tell younger people that churches and ministries are changed by “those who show up.” That is true. But maybe we need to do a better job seeking out those who don’t want to show up—and ask them why.
I’m not 100 percent persuaded by Klaas’s argument. Power does corrupt—as does the love of money or security (1 Tim. 6:10). Temptations like that can manifest themselves at any time (1 Cor. 10:12–14).
But overall, Klaas’s book helps to explain our present time of tumult and reckoning with abusive Christian leaders and institutions. In some cases, people started out with good motives and eventually lost their way. But some of them, perhaps more than we think, were already wired that way. And maybe—like sheep nodding at a wolf’s campaign billboard—we just don’t want to see or believe it.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.