In recent weeks, we’ve been looking at the need within evangelicalism for leaders who can spot and oppose threats coming at the church from multiple directions. (See here, here, and here.) I call this “multi-directional leadership” as opposed to a one-directional leadership that urges vigilance regarding dangers that would encroach upon the flock from only one side of the field (while leaders remain oblivious to dangers from other angles).
The temptation for pastors and church leaders is to stay one-directional. You curry favor and receive short-term acclaim from church members when you point out the dangers they already recognize. But in the end, as I pointed out in an earlier column, one-directional leaders leave the church vulnerable to different dangers and challenges.
Why do we tend toward one-directional leadership? Fear.
We could sum up this temptation under the broad category of “fear of man,” which is the biblical description of this problem. But the fear of man manifests itself in different ways in our leadership. There’s fear of the trajectory and fear of losing status. Let’s take a look at both.
Fear of the Trajectory
One-directional leaders often make claims and stake out positions that go beyond what is required by Scripture out of a fear that any movement at all in a certain direction will become a slippery slope to theological or moral disaster. They fear the bad trajectory.
We shouldn’t dismiss this impulse as always wrong. It is good to recognize how trajectories work. Some slopes really are slippery. That doesn’t mean we embrace the logical fallacy of accusing people of holding positions they don’t or assuming that a certain viewpoint always leads in a problematic direction. But we should recognize that ideas have consequences and warn others regarding a trajectory of thought or action that leads away from the truth.
The problem with one-directional leaders is not that they’re afraid of the slippery slope or the bad trajectory; it’s that they forget that trajectories can go in more than one direction. Worried about the slippery slope on one side, they miss the slippery slope on another.
Here’s an example. If you hold to the complementarian view that reserves the pastoral office to qualified men, you may be alert to any ideas or proposals that appear to challenge that perspective. You don’t want to start down a path you’re convinced would lead to problematic trajectory. But what if your concern about a slippery slope in one direction leads you to miss a problematic trajectory in the opposite direction? What if you remain unaware of ways in which you’ve cultivated a culture that dismisses women’s contributions to the church? What if your eagle-eyed vision of threats to complementarianism keeps you from seeing the dangers of misogyny, or blinds you to the lack of women flourishing in your congregation?
One-directional leaders aren’t wrong when they warn about a problematic trajectory; they’re wrong when they miss trajectories going in more than one direction. And ironically, by missing the opportunity to train people to see multifaceted dangers, they make their congregations more vulnerable to the very threats they were most worried about. When challenges come from an unexpected direction, and when the sheep are shocked to find the shepherd was unaware of a threat from that side at all, the sheep lose faith in their shepherds and gravitate toward the other side of the field. The danger most feared becomes the direction for the flock.
Fear of Losing Status
Being a multi-directional leader means you take a risk. You embrace the fact that you will likely lose status among people. And so, a second way in which the fear of man can manifest itself among leaders is when we quietly sacrifice our convictions because we are afraid of what our peers or followers may think.
One-directional leaders worry that if they point out dangers from the opposite direction, they may open themselves up to the charge that they are no longer “sound” or “solid” regarding the dangers they usually point out. In order to maintain their reputation, they let dangers they can see out of the corner of the eye encroach upon the flock because they don’t want to lose face.
This is a constant temptation for all of us. In ancient times, Glaucon and Socrates debated whether people care more about appearance and reputation than reality. The biblical understanding of sin helps explain our longing for affirmation and justification, which is why so often our hearts are more concerned with looking right than being right. We want the approval of others, and so we tend to avoid issuing warnings that might endanger that affirmation. Then, in order to justify our uneasy feeling that we are one-directional leaders, we succumb to confirmation bias, where we seek out and interpret new evidence so that our one-directional warnings are confirmed.
The fear of the bad trajectory and the fear of losing status can make us one-directional rather than multi-directional leaders.
Pairs of Opposites
Since I’ve begun this series, several readers have sent me this quote from C. S. Lewis’ sMere Christianity:
“He (the devil) always sends errors into the world in pairs–pairs of opposites. . . . He relies on your extra dislike of one to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.”
I don’t think errors always present themselves in the way that Lewis describes here, and sometimes errors come in more varied combinations (not just pairs). But his warning is apt. Your recognition of one danger may leave you vulnerable to another.
In a column next week, I will explore one more temptation for leaders. What happens when a one-directional leader starts to become multi-directional, faces significant backlash from peers and followers, and then begins to unite with other leaders who have been wounded in similar ways? That’s what we will look at next time.
This is the fourth in a series on this subject. See the follow-up post here:
Also for further reading:
Editors’ note: Check out Trevin Wax’s new book The Multi-Directional Leader (TGC, 2021), available now for preorder. We invite you to join us—either in person or online—for TGC’s 2021 National Conference. All registrants, including those who register for the livestream, will receive six free books, including Rebecca McLaughlin’s The Secular Creed and Ivan Mesa’s Before You Lose Your Faith. Learn more.