Yesterday I suggested that the dominant mark against my own life and generation is an overly aggressive ambition. This ambition is often masked by appeals to faith, to mission goals and to growth in the numbers of people we reach or attract. It is particularly apparent in the virtually Corinthian way that we build empires and ministries around the personality if our leaders.
I once asked a highly regarded leader of a major Christian ministry if he feared this problem and he assured me, without even a moment's hesitation, that this was a non issue since his goal was to draw people to Jesus and the truth and not to dispossess them of this danger. I argued otherwise, to no avail. I even suggested that if he looked carefully he could see all around him the clear evidence that people came to hear him and listened to his every word as if he was the font of deep wisdom. (I didn't quite put it this way, being a little more tactful than this.) His answer was that he preached the truth and followers were solely responsible for what they did with his message (and all the products he distributed for his mission). This man, and dozens like him, can make or break other ministries by his response. If he invites an unknown person to speak that person has a following. If he stops inviting a person then that person will be marked in the minds of the great man's following. There is something about all of this that is just not right. It is, if I can get the right word, unseemly. It may be much worse in the light of 1 Corinthians 3-4.
Last week I was in a discussion with some friends over lunch when this subject came up, as it often does. One person spoke about getting the various evangelical tribes together for the purpose of the mission of Christ. I asked him, "How do you propose to unite these leaders, and thus their followers, when you and I both know they will have nothing to do with people in a different tribe?" This very issue surfaced again with the Manhattan Declaration. I have seen some helpful criticism of this document, especially by Professor John Stackhouse at Regent College. But most of the attacks have come from tribal leaders who think such statements deny the gospel in some profound way. Besides the fact that this is utter nonsense I think the attacks actually come because the document did not originate within the mission of a particular minister or ministry. Sectarianism is alive and well and flourishes in all settings, especially conservative evangelical ones that are donor-driven.
Bernard of Clairvaux said: "Ambition is the mother of hypocrisy and prefers to skulk in corners and dark places. It cannot endure the light of day. It is an unclean vice wallowing in the depths, always hidden, but ever with an eye to advancement." Could it be that ambition is a far more serious problem than most of us care to admit? Could it be that while many of us have said we are all about making followers of Jesus in the end we connect his followers with our persons (and ministries) far too closely?
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John, you have put your finger on a truly serious problem.
Ambition is a tricky subject because there is so much good in it and so much bad in it, and in practice the two are so difficult to separate. Where does the desire to see God’s name exalted end and the desire to aggrandize one’s self and one’s ministry begin? The Spirit of God knows. But often we do not. I find that I must continually remind myself that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross, the way of suffering and shame, the way of earthly loss for the sake of eternal gain. I must continually remind myself that those who are last in this world will be first in God’s kingdom, and vice versa.
“Could it be that ambition is a far more serious problem than most of us care to admit?” Absolutely. And it is when we do not acknowledge that it is a problem that it becomes cancerous.
I believe that effective spiritual leadership requires a leader to be ready to relinquish authority to others wherever possible, as soon as possible. Where this does not happen, the spiritual growth of disciples and the work of the Holy Spirit is stifled. Very soon after Jesus’ rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven, leaving the church and its worldwide mission in the hands of very young and inexperienced disciples. In reality, he relinquished control of his ministry to the Holy Spirit. “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away” (Jn 16:7). I believe that if Jesus had remained on earth in bodily form, the disciples’ spiritual growth would have been stunted.
Could this be one of the reason why so many Christians remain spiritually immature? Perhaps the un-Christlike leadership models that we espouse have created a kind of institutionalized immaturity in our churches today. And, as you pointed out, it is a primary cause of spiritual disunity. We must be ready to relinquish control to the Holy Spirit by submitting ourselves to one another.
Perhaps the concept of ambition should be handled like anger or jealousy. There is a “good” or “righteous” kind and there’s a “bad” kind. I’m thinking selfish, disproportionate, wrongly motivated, wrongly targeted, etc., ought to be modifiers. Ambition may suggest equally a praiseworthy or an inordinate desire. The fruit of the Spirit being the moderator, of course.
Cult of personality is certainly unavoidable, so it might be true that ambition (even the good kind) can magnify it. Even Jesus had groupies, and he called them out for following him just because of witnessing miracles and being fed. Paul recognized his own groupies in Corinthains. And I’ve both been and experienced the same from others in my walk as Campingites, Hortonites, MacArthurites, Rushdoonyites and Piperites, to name a few.
As for the Manhattan Declaration, I saw a number of comments on blogs that said something like, “Why did they sign that? Why didn’t one of our guys write something similar but in our own language and on our own terms to allow more of us to sign it?”
The danger of sectarianism is that it doesn’t deny itself, but says, “The solution to the real problem of sectarianism is for everybody else to realize that they need to do things our way.”
By the way, I’ll be using this comment to launch my own mega-ministry, and I might even give you credit! 😉
AMEN to this post and the comments as well! God bless!