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People to Watch Out For

5 warning signs to recognize a leader who is dangerous.


In Rolling Meadows, just a short drive from here, stands Harvest Bible Chapel. You’ve probably driven by it. The church started with 18 people, meeting in a high school, and grew to over 13,000 people, across seven campuses in our area.

Harvest Bible soon made Outreach Magazine’s list of the largest churches in America and the fastest-growing churches in America. And James MacDonald, the pastor, became a household name, with a radio show on over 1,000 stations.

Three years ago, though, MacDonald was fired—after recordings surfaced in which he is allegedly heard plotting to blackmail the CEO of Christianity Today, by planting child porn on his computer. A few months later, MacDonald’s former bodyguard reported that MacDonald had asked him to kill his ex son-in-law.

Now once this sad, sickening tale has all come out, if you’re worshiping at Harvest, it’s super-easy to see that “Well, if our pastor is plotting blackmail and murder-for hire; they’re acting like a mob boss, so they have to go.”

But for years and years, it was NOT so easy to see that. 13,000 people missed it. Oh sure, there were occasional accusations of bullying, but most of those were either on an anonymous blog or from disgruntled former members.

How do you and I, who are part of this church or any church, recognize a bad church leader sooner? How do we sniff out early on that this powerful teacher or warm pastor is a huge danger to us and to our church?

At this point, it might be easy for some of us, who grew up in non-denominational churches, to think, Oh, well, that’s a problem with large evangelical churches: They depend on larger-than-life leaders, and there’s no denominational authorities to appeal to. That’s why I’ve become Anglican ….

Reality check. I say this with solemnity and with deep grief: Have we taken in that just in the past two years, and ONLY among Anglican churches here in Chicagoland, we have had:

  • One former lay leader now standing trial on charges of child sexual molestation
  • A rector [senior pastor], who has been inhibited from ministry for the rest of his life, over inappropriately close relationships with female college students in the church
  • Another rector, who was forced to resign after an outside investigation revealed “alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, and abuse of power.”

And this one cuts close to home for me. Because this leader was in our group of churches, and when he was asked to become our dean, I encouraged him to do it. So if there’s anyone who can say this, I can: “It’s always easy to see the problem after it’s all come out. It’s not as easy to see it early on.”

So how do you and I recognize—before it’s too late—the leader who is a clear and present danger to our church?

You and I have to know, friends. I used to see situations like this as an aberration, a one-off, one rogue leader who went bad. But I now see them as chronic and recurring. People like these were in the early Christian churches, they are in our churches today, and if the Lord Jesus waits to return in all his glory, they will be in churches 100 years from now.

With God being my helper, I want to lay out as clearly as I can, what you and I should be watching out for in any leader here at Savior, or any future church you may be part of.

And then talk honestly about what we should do, when we see any of these early-warning signs.

Church’s Security System

Churches must have a security system. I cannot think of a better place in the Bible to help us install one, than the short letter called Jude. Jude is often ignored, but that’s like turning off our security system.

Who is Jude? Jude is Jesus’ youngest brother. Jesus had four half-brothers—meaning, they had the same mom, Mary; but unlike Jesus, they had Joseph for a biological dad. The oldest was James, who wrote that book in your Bible, and the youngest is Jude, who wrote this one. At one point, all the brothers didn’t believe in Jesus and made fun of him. But people change, and now Jude is happy to just call himself, “Jesus’ slave.”

Jude sits down to write a letter to a group of house churches, but his plans get changed. He says in verse three, ““Dear friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all timeto his holy people.”

Jude’s saying, Stop the presses! I have to warn you. Why? He goes on to say in verse four, “because some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. The condemnation of such people was recorded long ago, for they have denied our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

How do ungodly people “Worm their way into our churches?” I wondered about that. They obviously don’t arrive and say, “I’m here to wreck you and your church.”

I’m guessing they play on good qualities in us. Our good qualities. They play on our hospitality. Jesus taught, “If you receive a prophet as one who speaks for God, you will be given the same reward as a prophet.” So we in churches are built to welcome each new person as if he or she is Jesus.

Then, after they play on our hospitality, they play on our desire to grow spiritually. The late, great A. W. Tozer warned us:

Strange as it may seem, the danger today is greater for the fervent Christian than for the lukewarm and the self-satisfied. The seeker after God's best things is eager to hear anyone who offers a way by which he can obtain them. He longs for some new experience, some elevated view of truth, some operation of the Spirit that will raise him above the dead level of religious mediocrity he sees all around him, and for this reason he is ready to give a sympathetic ear to the new and the wonderful in religion, particularly if it is presented by someone with an attractive personality and a reputation for superior godliness.

So it can be easy for us as Christians, unknowingly, to start out with, “Welcome,” and then move to, “That sounds interesting, tell me more.” And with the wrong leader, end up at, “Oh, really, God’s grace is so big, I don’t have to worry about all the pain of trying to live a moral life? This is awesome.”

Jude says, “No, no, no! “The condemnation of such people was recorded long ago, for they have denied our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Jesus never lived like that. He never taught that.

In the rest of the letter, Jude gives us clear warning signs that you and I can use to recognize a leader who is dangerous. I’ve tried to summarize all of Jude’s warnings into five specific danger areas.

Warning Sign #1: Immoral

The dangerous leader makes excuses; they’re an exception, because, well, they carry so much, or they’re so gifted, or God is using them; or they live at a higher level. So they don’t have to live a fully moral life.

Listen to Jude’s phrases:

  • “They say that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives”
  • “They do whatever their instincts tell them.”
  • “They do shameful deeds.”
  • “All the ungodly things they have done”
  • “They are living only to satisfy their desires”
  • “Their purpose in life is to satisfy their ungodly desires”
  • “They follow their natural instincts.”

God’s grace really is amazing. But real grace always leads us to a moral life, not an immoral one. A sacrificing life, not a self-serving one.

So warning sign #1: You will pick up in this person a carelessness about holiness, an openness to the immoral. They push the edge. They drink more than they should. They joke about things they shouldn’t.

Warning Sign #2: Rebellious

They have a rebellious streak. Listen to Jude’s descriptions:

  • They “defy authority,”
  • “Like Korah, [who rebelled against Moses] they perish in their rebellion”
  • “[They are] grumblers and complainers.”
  • They “claim authority from their dreams.”

This actually happens a lot. A leader assumes, “I deserve a lot of power or authority because of my special spiritual gifts of preaching, or leading, or words of knowledge. Or these special experiences I’ve had, like visions of heaven.

The Apostle Paul had a real vision of heaven, and he never talked about it. For years. He only did when he was forced to do so, when he was being rebelled against, by leaders like this, so Paul had to say, “Look, I’ve had that kind of vision, too, but that is NOT what my authority is based on.” You can tell I’m legit by “the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ.”

So don’t give any extra credit to the person who sees angels or writes a book about their spiritual visions.

The healthy leader doesn’t just accept authority over them, they desire it. Even when that authority asks them to slow down or stop. But have we not all seen leaders who talk all about how they’re under the bishop or elders, but as soon as they’re asked to slow down or stop, they bristle; and they paint the people asking them to change, as malcontents and problem people.

Whenever you see board members resigning in frustration, when you see staff having short tenures, you will almost always find behind it a leader who is headstrong and rebellious.

Warning Sign #3: Arrogant

Jude just lays them out. These people:

  • Scoff at supernatural beings”
  • Scoff at things they do not understand”
  • Are “scoffers.”

Three times Jude uses the word “scoff” to warn us, don’t trust a person who is a scoffer, who thinks they’re above it all.

Probably in his day, these teachers were saying, “We don’t worry about no devil or his fallen angels, because we are so powerful over them. We know how to name each demon and cast it down.”

While the real Apostle, Paul, had a much more humble, and God-centered approach: “Put on all of God’s armor”—qualities like faith and righteousness—“so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil.”

When you sniff a leader is arrogant, watch out! Jude warns us, they “brag loudly about themselves.” Now most dangerous leaders are way too smart to do obvious brag-fests, so they do humble-brags, where in the sermon illustration, they are the fall-guy, but only so we’ll give them credit for being so honest and humble. They have zero intention of actually working on whatever issue they just mentioned in that sermon illustration.

Warning Sign #4: Divisive

Pretty soon, with the dangerous leader, you have a clear in-group and an out-group, there are their loyal followers, and there are the people who just don’t get it and should be avoided.

Jude says flat-out, “These people are the ones who are creating divisions among you.” Where there should be brotherly love in the church, they “follow in the footsteps of Cain, who killed his brother.” They murder the character of people who are questioning them.

Warning Sign #5: Money Is Somehow Flowing to Them

Jude warns, “Like Balaam, they deceive people for money.” Jude adds, they “flatter others to get what they want.”

Follow the money trail, and in the dangerous leader, you will find special expenses that are justified because of the needs of this amazing ministry. Or ministry funds they have access to without real accountability, or reasons why they have to travel, or of course the need a nicer home to retreat to.

According to one source, in 2012, James MacDonald was taking a salary over $500,000, and living on a $1.9 million estate. Meanwhile, Paul says to his churches, “I did not become a financial burden to anyone. I have never been a burden to you, and I never will be.”

Now you know why Jude says so strongly, we have to defend our faith against people like this. If left unchecked, they will lead us away from Jesus. They will divide a church. They will disgrace our witness as Christians.

But let’s be honest, to defend the faith against people like this is hard and thankless work. In a system with a bad leader, when you “name the problem, you often become the problem.” All the whistle-blowers I have known have suffered for doing the right thing.

So it’s very tempting, instead, to just give up on church because of bad actors like this. I see a lot of people choosing the exit door.

But we can’t let all gymnastics stop, because of Larry Nassar. We can’t let all movies stop being made, because of Harvey Weinstein. We can’t cancel all college football games, because of Jerry Sandusky.

I refuse to leave the church unprotected against someone like this. I urge all of us to make that same commitment. So how do we do what Jude says, and defend the faith?

‘If You See Something, Say Something’

As your pastor, may I suggest this phrase, borrowed from your local airport: “If you see something, say something.”

If you notice in a leader, the qualities Jude lays out here:

  • Immoral
  • Rebellious
  • Arrogant
  • Divisive
  • Or Making money off it all

Say something.

Here at Savior, if it’s a lay leader, talk with the pastor of that area. If it’s someone on staff, talk with Karen or me. And if it’s Karen or me, contact our diocesan ombudsman, Kimberley Pfeiler. She’s there just for things like this. You can always talk with our bishop, Todd Hunter.

Savior is blessed to have been started by leaders who lived and finished really well. Bill & Linda, Doug & Marilyn, and many lay leaders still here. No scandals. No fall out. No bodies in their wake.

And Karen and I have as our number one goal to imitate them and to finish our race as well as they finished theirs.

But if I ever go cray-cray and start acting like what Jude describes, I’m asking you here and now to say something.


Let me finish this message the way Jude finishes his letter. After so strongly warning us against bad leaders, he lifts our eyes and encourages us in God. God is strong, and God is with us.

So Jude leads us in this beautiful prayer of praise, and may it encourage us tonight:

Now all glory to God, who is able to keep you from falling away and will bring you with great joy into his glorious presence without a single fault. All glory to him who alone is God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen.

Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,

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