7 reasons why it’s so scary to challenge Christian leaders

"Runaway Radical" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward
“Runaway Radical” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

You can buy a print of this cartoon HERE.


My friend Jonathan Hollingsworth and his mother Amy Hollingsworth wrote a book together about his experiences with harmful Christian ministries and their destructive leaders. This is the review I gave of their book, Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World:

”I was gripped by this young man’s story; I recognized my story in his. Jonathan, along with his mother Amy, describes the stress put on our kids to be amazing superheroes before they are simply human beings. In Jonathan’s case, it was the pressure to be a radical follower of Jesus and sacrificial servant of the church, no matter what the cost.

As Jonathan says, ‘When spiritual growth is measured in intensity, the only direction you’re permitted to go is off the deep end. To question your belief system is to backslide, so you’re told that the only way to get better is to dive headfirst into those existing beliefs with more manic zeal than before.’

This book provides poignant and powerful insights into the pressures on our youth to sacrifice their lives for ideals that aren’t always ideal.

He is young, and yet he chose to take on these leaders and expose their destructiveness through sharing his experiences. He is always in my thoughts because I know how much of a long-term struggle such a project can be. I’ve been there and done that, so I know exactly what it’s like. Just sharing your experiences and observations about bad leaders is risky and scary business.

Here’s why: (I’ve started them all with ‘sssssss’ because they are like snakes!)

  1. smear: Even though you might criticize something they said or did, they will criticize your personality and make you out to be a terrible person, crazy, ambitious, a liar, abusive, or anything else to make you seem sick and on a crazy mission.
  2. spent: They will do things that will require you to lose or spend money. Litigation, withholding pay, getting assistance, therapy, etc. They know the power of money over peoples’ lives and will suck you dry knowing that when the money runs out so will your voice.
  3. spin: They will turn it around to make you look like you are the bad guy and that they’re the victims. They will gather sympathizers who take pity on them for being a Christian leader persecuted for their beliefs and ministries.
  4. shame: They will claim that you are hurting the Bride of Christ, or causing trouble in the body, or that your intentions are harmful to the church, or that you are wrecking peoples’ lives. They will try to make you second guess yourself because they understand that any measure of self-doubt is a chink in your armor.
  5. sticky: Bad leaders are like a very nasty virus It takes a lot of effort, work, and time, for them to change or stop. They’re sticky and are resistant to normal treatment. They are intransigent. You often have to be in it for the long haul to see any change. This quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., has helped me: “The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Let’s hope so!
  6. support: Those with power seem to have unlimited support, both relationally and financially, to maintain a strong campaign against your efforts to expose and publish their abuses. They have tons of connections with power. You might be able to raise some support, but they are mostly powerless. It not only takes a certain amount of courage, but perseverance, to keep up the good fight.
  7. silence: Every attempt will be made to silence you. All the above tactics will be employed to shut you up permanently. They want to continue unexposed, unhindered, and untouchable. If your voice in any way compromises or interferes with them, they will do whatever it takes to silence it.

I know there are more, but these are the seven that come to my mind right now. Perhaps you could add to the list.

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42 Replies to “7 reasons why it’s so scary to challenge Christian leaders”

  1. Jesus dealt with people just like these called the Pharisees. They were full of pride because they thought they knew all the answers and had God’s approval on everything they did. They gave Jesus all sorts of grief. He called them white washed sepulchers, looked good on the outside but nothing but death inside. And He said said it best- “neither cast you your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”. So since there is nothing new under the sun the same unholy spirit that was in the Pharisees are in these so called Christians that treat others like sh*t. And just because they say they are Christians does not mean they are…putting a turd in a cookie jar does not make it a cookie.

  2. Oh lord its hard to be humble, when your perfect in every way. . Quote from a song sung by Mac Davis in the 80’s. That says it clearly. Do not judge others, as it will come back 100 fold to you for judging them. Also what you see on the outside is not always what is happening inside. Ive always found it hard to accept why people are so fast to either make fun of others, or instantly judge others. Whenever you see what you think is someone doing something wrong, perhaps clear your mind and think of how you yourself might react in a similar situation. You cannot help anyone by judging them, but you can help them by helping them help themselves, and uplifting their spirit.

  3. Sometime I’d like of see your list of what gifts the challenge has given you, too.

  4. Ken, those are more ways Christian leadership escapes accountability. People tell you you’re not allowed to judge, that you too are a sinner and that it’s better if you stay silent. Despite the fact the text says that leaders should be above suspicion and that we must watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    We often can’t even unseat sexual predators from the midst of religious leadership. We’re supposed to forgive them and give back their position that they’ve shown themselves unqualified to hold.

  5. “They did such great things in ministry” doesn’t absolve them of wrongdoing committed while in said ministry. I think the gross wrongdoing discredits the good they’ve supposedly done.

  6. i, for once, am tired of hearing ‘Do not judge others, as it will come back 100 fold to you for judging them’.

    it is my right to judge them, because they have held themselves up as authority, leaders, paragons. they have said their standards are extra, special, outside of accountability. because there is a deity-shaped idea that gives them this power, i am to blindly and meekly follow.

    it is not even that i could say ‘judge me the same’, it is that i *have* been judged as hard by authority already. this is how they retain their power. the standards given to me-us-those who are to follow are incredibly high and painful.

    to fail is to lose community, security, love.

    so of course people do not want to judge. and of course it becomes easier and easier for the one in power to wield their great harm, because they get to set all the standards.

    i reject this, and i judge.

  7. I lived it. They all loved me until I evicted the elders daughter the pastors were letting live in my house saying they were going to buy it; but for 15 months, it wasn’t happening. “Don’t worry Angie, we are taking care of you.” When I called bullshit to their crap, no one would talk to me, return my phone calls, or answer my emails. The house had so much damage and the pastors wouldn’t even drive one mile to look at the things, nor would they look at the pictures. I had to spend tens of thousands of $$$ on to be able to sell it. They said I couldn’t make them move out because ‘I’ would look bad to the church. Then I got papers from an attorney saying I was slandering. Truth is slander when you say it about their ‘anointed’, I guess.

  8. Good article. I have been in situations where Christian leaders may exhibit some or all of the characteristics listed, and not all intentional. I have also been involved where the accuser(s) were at fault and/or lying, and very destructive to the church, the Body of Christ. In all cases – we all need to remember that we are all sinners, and make mistakes. We may need to confront and deal with the issue. However, to go online or write a book with only your side of the issue resolves nothing, weakens new or uninformed believers, and hurts or destroys others.

  9. This is the fundamental problem with works-based religion. “the only way to get better is to dive headfirst into those existing beliefs with more manic zeal than before.” Eventually, anything less than complete zealotry is considered a mark of spiritual failure. And we begin to rank people by the degree that they publicly display their Christian work.

    How refreshing, instead, to hear Paul’s words: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

  10. Good start with the article,but as you well know,that is only the tip of the iceberg. Most responses were really good too,with a few exceptions.

    Here are some SaaS words for narssacist : self-absorption, self-admiration, self-confidence, self-importance, self-interest, self-love, self-possession, self-regard, self-worship, selfishness, superiority, swellheadedness,

    Take your pick. I’ll chime in with some of my own story at another time,but I salute the young man’s courageous efforts.

    I have been hear before,but can not remember where the link came from. Today,though,my Google Now app put up the link to this post (-: thanks,and I look forward to more. God bless.

  11. We are told to discern. That’s the one spiritual gift missing today.

    No my dear Wormwood, “discernment” has been redefined into a diabolic meaning: Seeing DEEEEMONS under every bed and in every reflection, like a Conspiracy Theorist who KNOWS everyone else except himself is part of The Conspiracy.

  12. ” However, to go online or write a book with only your side of the issue resolves nothing, weakens new or uninformed believers, and hurts or destroys others. ”

    I haven’t read the story behind the young man’s book, but I suspect, Vic, that he went through a lot of pain and silencing before he finally made his story public. I suspect his intention was not to destroy anybody, but to prevent others like himself from BEING destroyed.

    And as you say, many “uninformed believers” are going like lambs to the slaughter because only one side of the story is made public. People need to understand what is good and what is abusive! What sort of damage is being done to the church by unaccountable leadership? Untold damage I’m afraid.

  13. Scary? Scary is standing up for your christian faith in Iraq or Syria. Uncomfortable is more like it. People only have as much power over you as you allow. I have lived in an intentional christian community for thirty years and have called my pastors and administrators out more times then they care for. I could have been cast out on the curb. I’m still here. Sure, I have been treated like a rebel but I choose not to allow their sin to dictate and define my life. I wake up every morning asking God how I may serve Him. God did not call us to be vitims but to be more than conquers. My hope is this young man doesn’t choose to live as a victim the rest of his life but gets on and does the work set before him.

  14. I have read “Runaway Radical,” and quite honestly, as a member of the same congregation as Jonathan, I had nearly identical conversations with the same senior pastor. Although we are not close, I also witnessed firsthand the painful transformation Jonathan endured as a result of his experience in Cameroon and afterward. His outer demeanor showed his pain. I am not amused by the insinuation made in the comments here that a person should not be permitted to share only one side of a story. Whose story are we to share, if not our own? Who decides which stories are worthy of being told and who is forced into silence?

    To me, that is the point of “Runaway Radical,” to tell a story of disappointment from the perspectives of a young idealistic missionary and the mother who watched her son nearly destroyed through the process. If we all shared the truth of our stories, rather than the “what we wished had happened,” we would all be better off.

  15. The problem being, the “other side” often has the podium and other considerable influence to their advantage. Some church leadership will resort to lawsuits and threats of lawsuits.

    So, you tell *your* side. with the effort the other side is using to shut you down, they already have the upper hand. So why tell their side of the story? Who tells you the other side of their story? That’s such a quack demand. You wouldn’t trust that representation from the person that has a vested interest in their own side of the story.

  16. do not be afraid to speak up….we need more and more people to tell what they went through….i could write a book about the things i’ve gone through with churches, pastors, etc…it has ruined my life…i do into fit into any church and do not fit into the world either..my mind is shattered, ruined, made into a cult-like mentality, of which i still am trying to forget…

    i’ve had much pastor/church abuse…mocking, public humiliation, sexual attention/flirting, gross neglect, mean-spirited ‘prayers’ meant to harm & ‘correct’ me,being ignored, shunning, rejection, subtle jabs from the pulpit, false ‘prophecies’ aimed at my personal faults, friends nastily mocking me, remarks about my weight/clothing, etc,etc…as have many other people..they are just too scared to ever leave the church-cult(s)

  17. Just my opinion – I have witnessed some of the “other sides”, with some of them as friends. Many of the comments have been gross exaggerations and outright lies. Please note that I am not in any position of church leadership. However, at times when church discipline are warranted the person being disciplines reacts with this kind of accusation. From the other side, I have had to meet with church leadership when I was accusing the pastor of misconduct, lying and deliberate misinterpretation of the scriptures. I do see both sides. When a church is run as a business, with no accountability, there will be problems.

  18. Many good and heartfelt comments. Unfortunately too many of these reflect anger and the need for revenge, which are not of Christ. These would tend to lead the impartial observer to side with the pastor or his staff. If those that have been hurt are genuine followers of Christ, please follow the steps listed in Matthew chapter 18. To publish or go public is wrong, putting you in the same camp as those you were huirt by.

  19. Vic, at what point would you dispense with the “biblical” method? How much abuse is it worth staying silent for? That system is also a recipe for silencing rape victims. Predators benefit from silence.

  20. I do agree with you Vic. So much of what goes on in churches is nit-picky, silly, gossipy, and ‘he-said, she-said’ taking offense. In those cases, it would do us all a lot of good if it was handled by both parties with godly maturity and forgiveness.

    BUT. There are people in church who have spent long agonising hours praying and worrying about something they see in the church or leadership that just isn’t RIGHT. They finally gather up the courage often to face the leadership and from that moment on, they are subjected to a harrowing and unjustified assault on their credibility. They are often publicly shamed or shunned. I suspect these people struggle in prayer and with themselves trying to make sense of what is happening. It can cause debilitating mental, physical and financial consequences. They can begin to doubt themselves and god. All along these people were only doing what they firmly believed to be the right thing and the suffering can lead them to think they are going mad.

    In cases like this, we need to hear the stories. These good, broken people are ‘the others’ and they have been silenced. We need to be warned so we can warn others. We need to take up the cause of the oppressed. Isn’t that what Jesus would want? Didn’t he get angry at injustice???

  21. David, I left that remark on the run. It does sound cryptic, eh? What I mean is that your essay focuses on the negatives of challenging the surety (pride) of Christians. I agree with all of it. But I’d truly like to read your thoughts about the gifts God has given you in your acts of reckless courage and faith when you have. When I’m contemplating speaking up about a theology collision I liken it to “climbing up on the cross”. “Scary” is a good word. But tell me about your resurrections, too. I’ll bet they’re great.

  22. My mom and I attended a church for many years, where we didn’t approve what the pastor was doing. We were wondering why the other church leaders and elders wouldn’t say anything to this particular pastor’s behavior. For instance, he would put down his own relatives right at the pulpit. Anyways, I decided to leave the church simply because I didn’t approve what the pastor was doing. However, I am glad that other people are speaking up about misconduct at particular churches.

  23. It is difficult to see that people continue to blame the victim.

    So many have been harmed by people who say they speak for and work for God. The harm that has been done, in the name of God, is so disturbing. My heart is broken. And my soul aches as each new story surfaces. I know I will bear the wounds of my spiritual abuse forever. I can’t imagine what others are having to live thru.

    Nothing compares to spiritual pain, it tears at the soul and it never goes away. I have had a tough life. But the damage done by the spiritual abuse cannot be described. One of my psychiatrist told me that the trauma of spiritual abuse is likened to rape of the soul. I was diagnosed with ptsd afterward. It doesn’t end.

  24. Nice job summarizing the way that “leaders” shut down people who are trying to help build up the body of Christ, David. thanks for synthesizing this and laying them all out in one place.

    On a personal note, Doug Wilson used numbers 2, 3, 5 and 6 on me just last week. Oh well.


  25. I know, David: “usurper, temptress, child” or “broad, twinkie, manga-eyed waif”, it’s all labeling women instead of interacting with them as people made in the image of God.

  26. David,

    An FYI

    The home page says there are 36 comments on this article, but when I click on the title and go into the article the comments are fine and it says there are 0 comments. I’ve had this happen in the past on this site. I have been unable to see the comments at this article for three days. FYI

  27. David –

    Now that I posted a comment, I can see all the comments. bizarre and drive me crazy . . . not a far drive some days 😉

  28. How do we let men and institutions get such a grip on us? It is, partially, a product of our own laziness in not reading the Bible properly and talking to God AT ALL for the most part. I think that for me, I became enamored with my “calling” and not my “walking”. I didn’t seek Him to show me who I am, what HE created me to be and then walking that out. Instead, I forfeited my dream and worked hard to fulfill another man’s dream instead. Did it TWICE! Duh! What a dumb ass I was. But, you know, on this side of it I see the beauty in who I am, what HE created me for and following that path is pretty much worth all of the detours I took in the process. Love my life now more than ever before 🙂

  29. David, nice summary on the tactics of abusive leadership / groups. I wish this stuff never happened in the Church. It is tragic. I take comfort, though, knowing that it’s just a temporary deal in the refinement this side of heaven. = )

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