Thread #124: What Toxic Leaders Hope You Won’t Find Out

Jesus told us that one of the chief signs of the last days was to be the multiplication of corrupt, false spiritual leaders.  In this episode of Thread, the Apostle Paul outlines four “birthmarks” of a false leader, someone you should run away from as one of God’s sheep.  In his day, the Apostle Paul was an excellent gatekeeper and protector of the flock.  Listen to his words of caution and learn what toxic leaders hope you won’t find out.

An Ominous Warning

Acts 20: 29 After the wonderful feelings of verse 28 celebrating the delight of being a good shepherd, Paul turns suddenly in verse 29 with this heart-wrenching prophecy, “After my departure, savage wolves will come in among you not sparing the flock.” Paul was an excellent gatekeeper and protector of the flock. When Peter and Barnabas were influenced by the conservative Jewish delegation that came to inspect the church at Antioch, they withdrew from eating food with the Gentiles because this would defile them as Jews and they sat at a Jews-only table that was set up by the Jerusalem delegation.

Paul created a very awkward scene by rebuking them in public for their hypocrisy and for not embracing the fullness of the gospel. He was a close friend of Peter and Barnabas was his mentor but he put all of that at risk to rebuke them openly because he knew that their actions were wounding the baby Christians that they formerly ate meals with. Paul was a fierce protector. He knows his enemy, the devil, and he knows that his absence as the chief Shepherd over the churches in this city will create an opportunity for spiritual attack and that the most likely place to attack the sheep is for the devil to get inside their leadership circle and plant some evil men.

Let’s look at some of the characteristics of a false leader. Paul calls them savage wolves. Wolves kill sheep. They use them. They feed off of them. They do not love the sheep. Here are four characteristics of the false leader:

  1. V 29 For a wolf, it’s all about them, not the flock.
  1. V 30 they are intent on drawing people to themselves.Not to Christ, not toward each other. They love “fans” and they will work to divide God’s people because when the sheep all stay together they are more difficult to attack. A wolf wants to separate them from the flock. False leaders have a central concern about membership. “Are you in our group or not?” “Are you my sheep or not?” “Are you loyal to me or not?”  It’s Us against Them. These are warning signals and if you hear your leader focusing exclusively on this subject you do well to move away from them. A wise sheep will not be destroyed by the wolf.  These are the last days and we need to be very careful about the leaders we follow. Those leaders who behave like rock stars want you to be their groupie. You are made for better things than this.
  1. V 30 their doctrine is perverted. This means that they will take truth, Real Truth, God’s Truth—but then they twist it so that it is no longer aligned with God’s character. This doctrine is generally whatever would be popular to teach about. These topics will be popular because they appeal to our sinful, fleshly desires that are still buried deep in our heart.

The two teachings in my lifetime that have been the most abused are about healing and material prosperity.

Let’s talk about healing for example.  

The Bible says a lot about physical healing but healing us by a miracle every time we get sick is not the center of God’s plan for our bodies. In fact, as I have often said, you really have to ask yourself, “What is the meaning of healing to a terminal generation?”  That is, no matter what I’m healed from, it does not solve my physical problem. My body has been affected by the Fall of Man and from the age of 18 the death clock begins to run and my body weakens itself systematically until I die because death is still at work in me.

The resurrection of the body completely solves my problems. But we don’t preach the Resurrection because it’s not as popular as preaching temporary healing. And because we hyper focus on this teaching we don’t know how to deal with the reality of death.

I live in a Buddhist country and this week a Buddhist friend of ours, a sweet mother, only 27 years old, suddenly died. We were shocked and joined the family and their five days of keeping vigil over her body. We went with them for their Chinese traditional ceremonies with such a different perspective about what happens after death. This gave us the opportunity for some very precious conversations with members of the family.

One said that she wanted to really get serious about being devout so that she could stop the cycle of being reborn. Another one said that he did not want to stop it because he enjoys his life even if he has troubles.  Then someone said, “the Christian way is good because they are happy to die.” I’ve been thinking about this all week. I’m not sure it’s true that all Christians have a positive thinking about death, but I’m really glad that my friend perceives it that way because that is the Christian way.

Apparently, they have met some true Christians who would join Paul and celebrate that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord and that great reward is waiting just beyond the door of death for those who are faithful to Jesus.

Western Christianity is so afraid of death. Our dead disappear from the hospital and magically appear dressed up and looking nice at the funeral home. We cover the dirt around the graveside with Astroturf and wait until everyone leaves to lower the body into the ground. It wasn’t like this before. In the first half of the 1900’s almost everyone died at home. Your doctor told you you were dying so you could go home and set your affairs in order. You could apologize to everyone you had wronged and make sure you had drawn up your will. Then your family came to visit you and the church people surrounded your bedside singing to you in your final days about heaven’s fair land and seeing the face of the Lord. Now, we often lie to the dying about their condition and go to extreme measures to avoid death for just a little while longer.

We need balanced doctrine to truly live with victory because “we are what we think”. Every doctrine is crucial, but only one is central: The Kingdom of God. God is building His kingdom and is saving the earth and everyone on it: that’s the central doctrine. That’s the true solution for the problem of man.

The problem is not that today’s strong health and wealth teachings are not biblical — it’s that they are not the center of the Bible doctrine and to make them the center changes the focus of the scriptures—what Paul called “the whole counsel of God”.

The bottom line is that from Paul’s day to ours, the extreme prosperity and healing teachings of false teachers, are generally sold because they are self-centered. It keeps us focused on ourselves and our material world and that is not a Christian way to live.

  1. The Fourth characteristic of a false leader, according tov.33, is that they are ultimately looking for an angle that will get them to the money. They want money, perks, benefits—stuff.  They want people to literally give them the clothes off their back.

False teachers build their whole ministry around pet, self-centered themes because they know that we like to hear about these things. We will pay to hear about these things. We will buy books and teaching series about them. We will invite them to speak. We will support their ministry because we believe there something in it for us.  Even the appeal for giving that they use is not that we should give to God’s work out of gratitude or because it is our responsibility, or so that those without the gospel may hear and be saved.  No, they teach us to give so God will give back to us.

In every way, false teachers twist the word of God and even use its promises to make us more selfish and weak.  

It’s not a small problem.  Paul doesn’t say they are misguided brothers. He calls them savage wolves. Paul calls upon the community of spiritual leaders in the city of Ephesus to bind themselves closely together and to hold themselves in their ministries to a high personal standard. He also calls them to resist and block those who attempt to rise to prominence among house churches through these devious means. They are to call out these false teachers and not to sit there silently and allow these wolves to attack and scatter the sheep.

What to Focus On

V32 is an important correction. Paul says, on one hand, keep an eye out for these bad guys, BUT don’t spend all your time focused on ferreting out evil.  Some people make this their lives’ one ministry: Exposing False Teachers. Paul says,  Yes, expose them, but don’t let that be your focus. Give yourselves completely to God’s word. Grow! Preach! Teach!

Paul says that God’s Word is able to build them up. He’s telling them that their focus needs to be on their own spiritual development and growth. I need to become a big, strong, powerful, fruit-filled tree. It’s amazing when you find somebody like this. Let’s call true spiritual leaders, “Mighty Tree People.”

Mighty Tree People Stand out in Three Ways:

  1. They are spiritual landmarks. Psalms one says of the one who fears the Lord and walks with Him every day, “He will be like a tree.”  It’s kind of like giving directions and somebody will say,” You know where there’s that really huge tree by the side of the road?”  The kinds of powerful people who focus all their energy on building others up become the spiritual landmark in their city and in their social circle. They are the reference point, the example of what it means to walk with God.
  1. They are a source of spiritual and material provision for others. In v.34 Paul describes himself in this way. People who are in the ministry of building others up are willing to share their things with others, and so God gives them extra stuff. We are a source of, not just spiritual, but also material provision for other people. It’s a blessing to allow God to make you a source.
  1. They are a shade and support for people when they are weak.

The word “elder” in the Bible doesn’t mean that you’re old. Most of the apostles were in their early 30s. It’s just comparative adjective. It means you are older than someone else, not oldest, just older. You’re a little farther along than they are. This means that a 16-year-old can be an elder in the life of a 12 year old.

All of us can minister to those who are a little bit behind us and become these three things to them: a Spiritual landmark, a source of spiritual and material provision, and a place of shade and support for people when they are weak. It’s a wonderful way of life and it is a way that brings blessing to us. So if you want to be healed and you want to be blessed, don’t ask for it directly, just bless others and God will bless you.

A New Saying of Jesus

V.35 gives us a new saying of Jesus that is not recorded in the Gospels. John says there are many sayings that were not recorded in the Gospels. Paul brings one now, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” That’s balanced doctrine. It is blessed to be selfless. You are blessed when the pattern of your life is to give constantly, freely, and unforced.

Paul sets before these elders a life vision, a goal. Not a numeric goal, like, “plant 100 churches this year.” The life goal he sets before them is to become a special kind of person and to live out a selfless kind of lifestyle based on ministering to others and building them up.

He knows that if the people in front of him will do this they will make many disciples who will also follow in this manner of selfless living — and then the Church will truly be the light in the city of Ephesus.

It’s a beautiful thought and worthy of our emulation.

In verse 36 Paul kneels down and prays with them. They all weep, hugging and kissing him with great sorrow because they will never see him again. Then they walk with him to the ship to see him off.

Wow! What a model for living and how close to the pattern of life that Jesus set for us.



Thread #123: What To Pay Attention To
Thread #125: What to do when someone says "I have a word for you from God."
Chuck Quinley
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