Religious leaders are powerful, and angry religious leaders can be dangerous.
The claim was embedded in the middle of an article about a person who had anonymously posted on social media for a couple years but finally stepped out of the shadows. He was explaining one of several reasons he chose anonymity. I reread his statement and thought, “He’s not wrong.”
I immediately thought through multiple examples of the Bible, where religious people in prominent positions did damage to individuals and communities. People in power get recognition and influence. They grow accustomed to people listening to them. And some handle it well, humbly; others do not.
I’m not going to condemn religious leaders as a group. To throw everyone in the same circle is incorrect and unfair. Every one of us could be circled up with a group we fit into yet have important differences. The majority of religious leaders who have personally been in my life have positively influenced me. Even the ones I encountered isolated issues with taught me something if primarily what to avoid. And I’ve gone through periods of ministry positions in which people would say I had influence on them. Did I get it right all the time? Absolutely not. Even when I was confused when someone brought up a discrepancy in my behavior, I seriously considered it, because I don’t have the same experience with me as they do. I never can. I need to listen to others’ feedback because I will never interact with or receive myself the same way others do. That’s not to say I should wholeheartedly embrace everything others say, but I shouldn’t immediately discredit it either. Filtering and discerning what to absorb and what to deflect is important.
The definition of dangerous is being able or likely to cause harm or injury, likely to cause problems or to have adverse consequences. I’m not claiming all religious leaders are dangerous, just that they can be. I also recognize we could say this about all leaders and, to some degree, all people. But I think most of us can agree we need to be honest about the dangers of stirring up anger among religious leaders. Righteous anger? No problem. If people are angry because of what God is angry about, I get it. But if we take on more anger than God would or express it in different ways, if we hang onto anger for too long at the expense of grace, if we rationalize what we’re saying and doing because we can find one or two examples of God’s anger that might or might not be accurately paralleled to our situation, we are wrong.
And we are dangerous.
I’m not slamming a certain type of religious leaders. This isn’t a post about celebrity pastors (although some would fit), a specific denomination (although someone in every denomination would fit), or any demographic of age, race, region, etc. (although, again, someone in every demographic would fit). But it’s important to be aware of the dangers of leadership, which, because of the relationship. raises awareness of the dangers of followship. I know some might say, “I’m smarter than that. I don’t follow anyone. I’m my own person, and I’m not going to fall victim to some foolishness.” In and of itself, that claim reveals foolishness. No one is beyond influence of others. Some are more susceptible to unhealthy influence than others, but every single one of us is impacted by and impacts others.
What’s the point? I mean, if we’re all susceptible and every leader has the potential to be dangerous when angry, what can we do about it? Avoid it? I don’t think that should necessarily be our first response, but it’s a valid one at times. We need to acknowledge what our willingness to walk away will mean to others. Are we simply avoiding a conflict or conversation we need to have for ourselves and others? Perhaps. Should we get angry in response? Probably not, although anger expressed in healthy ways is certainly not bad. Anger meeting anger rarely works well unless it is used by one person to de-escalate the situation. Awareness is essential. We need to stay alert to the possibilities. It doesn’t mean we have to be cynical, expecting the worst, but let’s not wear blinders either. Let’s know the warning signs of unhealthy leadership. Let’s give people room to grow, let’s extend grace, but let’s be wise enough not to discount the small, nearly imperceptible changes and indicators that something is happening that is rooted in pride, power, manipulation, or greed.
Let’s make sure our response doesn’t exacerbate, ignore, or encourage leaders who, if angered, are potentially dangerous. There is enough spite, hatred, and selfishness in the world. Let’s be faithful to be different. Let’s stay engaged, postured for God to use in his generous, gracious, just ways.