The Danger of Natural Christian Leadership

I studied at the University of Michigan in the 1970’s (like, before indoor plumbing). I joined a campus ministry that emphasized community, the Holy Spirit, and outreach.

It was a great group. About one hundred and fifty of us “sacrificed”—believe me, it was a sacrifice—to live in the dorms all four years for the sake of outreach. We roomed, did laundry, and shared meals alongside nonbelievers (of which there were two or three).

Our evangelism efforts focused on leaders. We felt that if we could bring the gospel to these natural leaders, they would invite friends and become leaders in our ministry.

So we purposely befriended student in the honors program, sports team’s leaders, those in pre-med and pre-law, and significant influencers in our dormitory houses.

I’m ashamed to admit, we called our strategy, Selective Evangelism.*   

What was the result?

Let’s put aside ( if we can) the obvious Biblical flaws with our strategy (man looks on the outside while God looks on the inside). What culture did Selective Evangelism create?

The leaders we cultivated were innately disciplined; it takes self-will to excel at academics and sports. When these leaders joined us, they brought their native discipline to Christianity, and they created a culture of discipline.

This discipline helped thousands of students. They created personal schedules and ordered their lives with regular prayer times, better study habits, and personal integrity.

Prayer, grades, and morality improved across the board. Who could argue with that?

But it also created a culture of compliance, a peer pressure of willpower. Little by little, tips and techniques for personal discipline became rules and regulations for conduct.

And the culture of compliance birthed a society of secrecy. Our leaders were so good in their personal order that it was a little embarrassing for us to admit neglecting—for the seventeenth time this month—to take a prayer time.

What was our problem?

Our leaders were innately disciplined, and they taught others to be like themselves.

But many of the students were not innately disciplined. They worked at self-control, but they lacked the inborn gift. They grew weary, ashamed, and secretive. They despaired.

Reliance on natural discipline made our leaders unable to teach new-birth spiritual discipline that comes from grace. They naturally did “it”—why couldn’t everyone else?

Native gifts lead to self-sufficiency and independence from God. Oswald Chamber says, “God is not involved in our natural life as long as we continue to [live in] it.” Our leaders lived in their natural gifting and pressured others to imitate them.

But the students who lacked inborn discipline (though they may have been naturally loving or generous) needed spiritual rebirth, grace-based change, not external pressure.

Star athletes are often the worst coaches.

But wasn’t Paul naturally … ?

The Apostle Paul was naturally disciplined. He exceled at academics and morality. Did God choose him—just perhaps—because of God’s own strategic Selective Evangelism?

Not a chance.

In Philippians 3, Paul regales us with his former (and incredible) discipline and morality. Then in verse 7 he says, “But whatever gain I had, I count as a disadvantage.” (Disadvantage is often translated loss, but the original Greek meant disadvantage.)

Paul is saying, “I used to be hyper disciplined and moral; and now I think all that natural gifting worked against me. It’s just dung.” What brought Paul to this unguarded self-disclosure? It’s called conversion.

In Romans 7, Paul claims that he studied all the commandments—one through nine—and he disciplined himself to obey every single one. And he felt great about himself. Then he read the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” He says it slew him.

Paul realized that he coveted the praise of others; he coveted self-esteem; he coveted feeling good about himself. The driving force beneath his discipline was coveting.

He wasn’t disciplined because of innate goodness. He was disciplined because of self-centeredness. His discipline wasn’t grace-based; it was natural man, flesh-based.

Let’s all become super-natural leaders

Not all native talents come from coveting. It is fine—good even—to bless others with our innate gifts. If you were born with perfect pitch, make beautiful music, but let’s not force others to write a symphony. Though perhaps we can help them harmonize.

Their best harmonies, though, will come when they find their own gifting, their abilities that bring life to others. They may be more loving or generous than us; let’s encourage and value those traits in them (and, who knows, maybe even learn from them!).

Finally, let’s teach gospel-changed hearts, how the cross made the naturally timid to be bold, and how grace made the naturally direct to be gracious.

Let’s Selectively Evangelize each other daily by selecting (and teaching) the inner-traits that God super-naturally birthed in our hearts.

Sam

* This ministry had really good people, Selective Evangelism was discontinued, BookCover_1500x2400and the organization publicly repented. That humility takes super-natural heart change.

Check out my book on natural moralism and supernatural grace: Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?, available in paperback or Kindle formats, at Amazon.

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What do YOU think?

12 thoughts on “The Danger of Natural Christian Leadership

  1. Sam good thoughts, only thing I might say is that natural discipline is not wrong, nor is natural leadership if there is such a thing wrong. We need only remember two things as that is concerned 1) All good and perfect gifts come from only one source 2) He planned our steps before, knew us in our mothers wombs, appointed the time and place that we would live, for truly he uses all of life to bring us closer to HIS image and created purpose for us.

    It is the why of our motivation, purpose and the passion of our lives that determines whether those gifts are used as they were designed. If our why is focused on the now then those three key areas will never be satisfied and will always find us searching for something that appears bigger than the last thing but is indeed infinitely still smaller than the ultimate thing. If the why is focused beyond the now and on the WHO then we find ourselves coming to the point those three key areas are exhibited in desires that seek to glorify, make him know and touch others with the magnitude of the cross and 150% unadulterated, unmerited, undeserved, foolproof grace which always brings a heart of deep gratitude, bended knee and a sacrificial heart.

    The truth of this statement is what alway keeps us focused on the right why!
    “Let’s Selectively Evangelize each other daily by selecting (and teaching) the inner-traits that God super-naturally birthed in our hearts.”

  2. Sam, while I agree with some of your premise, I’m not sure of your point. Like John Eldredge and Andrew Farley, when you base your theology on your personal experience, the result is something that sounds good, and may work for the few (the naturally disciplined in your example) but like their message, falls dangerously short of the gospel’s balance and power to change a life.

    Jesus was self discipined. He was up before dawn to pray, and knew theTorah at age of 13
    Jesus also knew when it was time to take his followers off the ministry path, and get alone for a while.
    Jesus knew how to play, and invited children onto his lap, and into his life.
    He knew when to go, and when to wait,
    He upbraided hard working Martha when she wanted Mary to be just like her, and he fasted often enough to be able to say “doing the father’s will is my food”

    I guess my point is this – my experience and your experience is shallow, and short sighted. Basing our theology, doctrine or personal belief system on the same is dangerous. Paul said “Follow me, as I follow Christ.” It’s natural for a bunch of young college converts to think they can change the world through their own natural ability applied to spiritual things. But the solution isn’t to push away from those dreams and vision. Rather we’re called to be like Christ in all of his habits, character, truth and lifestyle. Less of me and more of him in every part of my life.

    • Hi Timothy,

      I agree completely that theology based on experience is weak. (Did I say completely!)

      I used the opening story as an illustration not a foundation for theology.

      I have also been significantly helped by people using their natural (and supernatural) gifts; I love many worship songs written by gifted composers.

      I simply want to point out dangers of too many Christian leaders who rely too much on natural gifting:
      – God looks on the inside, man looks on the outside
      – Our best teaching comes from God’s change in our hearts–from his truth and through his Holy Spirit
      – Much of our natural “gifting” actually comes from fleshly desires for acclaim
      We often value most the natural gifting in us, and we don’t value enough the natural gifting in others

      Be that as it may, I hope we all grow in personal discipline, greater moral integrity, love, grace, and a deeper knowledge of the one who saved us.

      Thanks for your comments; they were challenging and insightful.

      Sam

  3. you are such a breath of fresh air. You and Joseph Prince are two Christian men that I really enjoy reading/ listening to lately. The message of Grace is finally out there. Jesus is finally being preached again! PTL!

  4. I can never resist chiming in when you draw on those old dorm experiences of ours! Today I’m wondering how we managed to hear the term “selective evangelism” without an alarm bell going off, but that’s the nature of that time of life, isn’t it? Evaluating an idea by its relation to the group rather than its content, I mean.

    Anyway, as one of those who struggled in vain to live up to the practices of the more naturally disciplined, my painful and protracted failure was my first and best teacher on the theology of grace. So, personally, I’m inclined to respect the relationship between experience and theology.

    Whatever it is.

    • Martha,

      I just emailed someone about the same thing. Sure, I know every believer relies too much on the natural man. But! How in the world could we have been so blind as to accept that self-serving term, Selective Evangelism!

      We were college-aged idiots.

      So, my question is, What re we so blind to now (and that is so stupid) that in a few years we’ll be shaking our heads?

      I think God uses experience to grow theology but not birth it. I can read, “Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.”

      In my head I understand God’s sovereignty. But when in real life I walk into the valley of the shadow of death, I find I didn’t know that theology at all.

      Sam

      • “…to grow theology but not birth it.”

        I can see that. Another thing I see is that the verbs to choose really bear consideration, don’t they?

        I’m considering, for instance, that true Theology is actually pre-existent (I mean, it’s the truth about who God is and how everything relates to him, right?), so maybe it’s really our understanding that is born. That is, if my experience bears out some theological truth, that’s just the nature of things. The real miracle is in perceiving the import of my experience fruitfully. One certainly has other options.

        Which takes us to your very good question– What are we so blind to now that in a few years we’ll be shaking our heads?

        I only hope we do. Continued growth, after all, is not a given.

        And that’s why grace is the best news of all.

        • Martha,

          Again you challenge and hone.

          I like your comment that real theology–that is real truth–is pre-existent. We are coming to know it, but not to change it.

          And I believe that God uses experience to shape us into his truth, so in that way, experience is theological; but only as we allow God to shape us into his truth (rather than us shaping God into our truth).

          And I like your last comment, I do hope we continue to grow. As the end the Narnia series, Further up and further in.

          Sam

  5. The aspect of Paul, which I love, is that God raised him up, not to be placed on a pedestal for adoration, but as a role-model, an almost flawless example of what God expects out of each of us. And as far as how high we can go, up the heavenly pathway, Paul puts it quite succinctly… “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us,” Eph. 3:20. The only limit to what we can attain to in Christ is our unbelief in God’s willingness to give us all the fullness of His character and power.