Raising Down Leaders


Having grown up in the evangelical/charismatic subculture, I am sensitive to the unique language, code-words, and cliches of the movement. I could hold my own in a room of faith healers, evolution-deniers, and flag-wavers. 
In other words, yes, I could probably hold my own at a Ted Cruz rally, though I think I’d rather be strapped upside down in a prison cell and forced to listen to Taylor Swift music eternally.
In fact, while reading a New York Times article about Cruz’s campaign to be the “Christian” choice for President in 2016, I came across a familiar cliche that struck me as particularly troubling these days. The statement came at the end of the article, in which an anonymous woman is quoted as saying to Republican contender Bobby Jindal:

“I would love to see you godly leaders pray and fast and see who God would be anointing to raise up. We would rally behind him.”

The phrase that stuck out for me was “raise up.” This is a very popular way of speaking about leadership in the evangelical/charismatic world. It’s not that people grow into leadership positions, nor that they have to learn the skills of leadership through hard work and apprenticeship; they are, instead, “raised up” by God. They are given a special “anointing” (another code-word in the charismatic movement) which enables them to exercise the leadership of a church, nation, or company. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard pastors use this formulation in a variety of ways. Let me give some examples of its usage in my own experience:

“We believe that God is raising up godly men to start a revival in this land!” (Yes, it was always godly “men” … The godly “women” were supposed to stay home.)

“God is raising up godly leaders to take this nation back!” (How far back do we want to go? 1950s Jim Crow America? 1860s slaveholding America? Eighteenth-century Native American-killing America?) 

“I believe that God raising up a generation of godly young adults to turn our society back towards Him!” (I was a young person when I heard this one — over and over again. But seriously — what has Generation X contributed to society except maybe grunge and Quentin Tarantino?)

“God will raise up a godly candidate, and when He does, we should support him with all our time, money, and effort.” (This is what Ted Cruz would like you to believe.)
However, my problem with this cliche actually has nothing to do with Ted Cruz’s politics, or anyone else’s. No, I don’t agree with Cruz on much of anything, but that’s beside the point.
The problem is the insinuation that all of our problems will — and can — be solved by a single person, the shining star, an individual with the “right stuff.” The implication is that we need the right person at the top of the hierarchy, at the top of the food chain, and then everything else would gradually fall into place.
Obviously, this problem applies to Democrats as well as Republicans. Plenty of people thought Barack Obama was the godly leader that God had raised up to lead America into a post-racial, free-healthcare-providing, Guantanomo-Bay-free world. Don’t think so.
You may argue, “Well then, we need godly leaders across all the branches of government to work well. The President may be as godly as Moses, but would be obstructed by Congress and the Supreme Court.”
But this wouldn’t change the fundamental problem that the American system of government is built by, and for, powerful people, who make decisions on behalf of the rest of us, and in such a way that usually benefits them and the corporations they represent.
Evangelical and charismatic Christians have simply fallen into the trap that all of us are prone to jump into — the snare that says that we have to fight within the system. 

Instead, we must recognize that the system itself is ungodly. You can’t have godly leaders in an ungodly structure. And if human civilization has taught us anything, it’s that our systems of government are always ungodly.
The last thing we really need is more leaders; we need less. We don’t need more Senators, Congresspersons, or Presidents; we need more concerned, active, and empowered citizens. We need fewer bank CEOs, and more credit unions. We need fewer large-scale agricultural firms, and more local farms. We need fewer administrators, and more teachers, mentors, after-school workers, youth workers, and mental health professionals.
See, I believe that, instead of “raising up leaders,” God is actually trying to “raise down” our leaders and instead encourage common, ordinary folks to take power of their own lives, own work, own ministries. 
This trend has actually already begun. From the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City to the Arab spring protests, from the indignados of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol  to the aganaktismenoi (outraged) in Athens, there is a new kind of democracy emerging. Rather than vertically-aligned power which streams downward from above, this new democracy is instead “horizontalist,” and strives to be open, leaderless, populist, and consensual.
There is a strain of horizontalism in the house churches, cell groups, and new monastic communities which have sprung up in the last few decades. But this kind of open, communal decision-making still threatens the denominations.
Just three years ago, the United Methodist Church came dangerously close to electing a Head Bishop, someone at the very pinnacle of the hierarchy. Despite our democratic General Conference, we have a fairly hierarchical system in place in annual conferences. Bishops oversee district superintendents, who oversee local churches and their pastors, who oversee the people in the congregations.
Why aren’t we trying to be more horizontalist? As a church, why aren’t we more open about our decision-making, our appointment-making? What would it look like if we de-emphasized leadership and actually empowered people to live out their spiritual gifts? What if we really did make sure every decision was made by consensus, and that there were no winners or losers?

It wouldn’t be efficient. It wouldn’t make anything go quicker. It wouldn’t move us from “good to great.” But it would be worth it if our churches became places where more and more laypeople discovered that they could make peace, do justice, read the Bible, pray  confidently, and follow Jesus without a seminary degree, a certificate from a committee, or permission from a superior. 

Would it be a good time to introduce Jesus into the conversation? I recall that he said once:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26). 

If Jesus’ government model were put in place, it would be impossible to tell who was in charge! Everybody would be serving each other, and everyone’s needs would be met by someone else in the room. Nobody would be pushing themselves forward to be noticed. There would be no sloganeering, no finger-pointing, no boasting.
Jesus made it pretty clear in another place that we should not get into the habit of using titles of rank and status:

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:8-11).

That seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? Why then do we divide up power among ourselves, give each other titles and honors, and boast about our accomplishments and achievements? Why do we abdicate our own Spirit-given gifts of discernment and initiative to the powers-that-be?
It’s time to dismantle our pyramids of power, and get moving toward an institutional style that is flatter and more just. Not just in our churches but in our governmental bodies, our civic organizations, our families, and our relationships.
Leaders, raise down.
People, get on your feet!


  1. Cynthia Astle

    Wes, you’ve precisely describe both the bad and the good in our current political-social-church reality. With your permission, I’m going to reprint this on UM Insight. BTW That’s a terrific picture of Ted Cruz!

  2. Josiah

    For some reason, I was reminiscing at 4:39 AM about the tragic events that occurred in 2005 at ASOY. I was a freshman at RFIS. A few minutes after it happened, the ASOY brass called Mr. Griffis, our principal at the time, who immediately called an assembly through the PA system. Many of us had good friends, siblings etc..at ASOY, our bonafide sister school. It was a shock and I’ll never forget the feeling of helplessness and the relief when we realized our loved ones were safe. Junior Basketball practice was muted that day. We were slated to play ASOY that week, and the post-game hugs were more earnest and genuine than ever. I’ve played multiple games in various sports over my high school & university days, but I’ll never forget that one. Google led me to your webpage, and the memories came anew. Thank you for the best written article on the Internet about that fateful day.

    Anyways as I was quickly browsing your articles, this one caught my attention and I was soon shaking my head in agreement with my hands raised and that black-woman-catching-the-holy-spirit expression on my face. I almost yelled “Preach!”, but I doubt my sleeping housemates would enjoy that. I’ll just address the first part of your article in this comment. As a Third Culture kid & minority who grew up in a very conservative household and went to conservative private Christian schools for most of my life, it has been hard reconciling my moderately Liberal political stance with the hardcore (and dated) conservatism my childhood & high school friends & parents seem to profess. Wow. That was a long sentence. From articles calling (ironically enough professed Christian) Obama the devil to thinly veiled racism masquerading as ‘faith-based’ electoral choices, I have come to the conclusion that ultimately the faith of a politician is irrelevant. Ideologies are what make a politician “Christian”. Ted Cruz and Obama could well go to the same church. Since Cruz is extremely conservative, he’s automatically a confirmed Christian, while Obama is a “liar” and “Muslim”. The hypocrisy is galling. My last point is this. Who would you trust with your life? A good atheist heart surgeon or a devoutly Christian one with a track record of failed surgeries? The answer is self-evident. Why can’t we apply that same logic to our politics?

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