Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. First week of Advent … How does corruption in the church happen? … A section my wife talked me out of titling "The Four Horse Troughs of the Apocalypse" … What the Beatles can teach us about the sovereignty of God … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore
Why Are So Many Awful People in Leadership?

A famous New Yorker cartoon depicts a flock of sheep grazing beside the campaign billboard of a wolf—whose slogan is "I am going to eat you." One sheep says to another, "He tells it like it is."

I wince with recognition whenever I think of that cartoon, knowing that Jesus probably did not have blind allegiance in mind when he called his followers sheep. Still, maybe the cartoon helps explain why we end up with so many terrible people in church leadership.

When evangelical Christians point out uncovered scandals or hidden abuse among church leaders, they often quote some version of this line attributed to Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

But what if that perspective is wrong? A new book suggests it might be—and presents some findings that maybe we as the church should carefully consider.

In Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, political scientist Brian Klaas argues it’s not so much that power corrupts but that corruptible people seek out power.

Klaas points to research showing how people in all kinds of leadership positions tend to display the "dark triad" of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. He argues that abusive people are the ones drawn to power in the first place.

So how does this manifest itself in church leadership?

Consider what many expect from pastors and other church leaders: the ability to be expert exegetes, social theorists, political practitioners, skilled CEOs, innovative entrepreneurs, and Christlike examples. Who looks at all those qualifications and concludes, "Yep, I’m the person for the job"?

The answer is twofold: people with a strong sense of calling—and those with a will to power. When the calling outweighs the thirst for power, the result can be very good. But when the will to power is stronger, the result can be terrible.

Moreover, it’s most often the abusive people who can endure what it takes to get and to keep positions of power. Using the example of rulers such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Klaas observes how dangerous it is to be a dictator. Notice how many of them end up exiled or decapitated or torn to pieces by mobs of their own people.

"So here’s the question," Klaas says. "Who looks at that job and thinks, ‘I want to try that!’?" The answer is, he argues, narcissists and psychopaths and Machiavellian power seekers. These are the ones who think they are special enough to survive the onslaughts that will come. Or they are the ones with enough psychological dissociation not to care.

Klaas affirms that a certain amount of emotional distance is necessary. On the first day of medical school, his brother was required to dissect a cadaver. Trying to cope with the horror, Klaas’s brother asked the professor whether he should think of the person on the slab in front of him as "a piece of flesh or as someone’s grandpa"—to which the professor replied, "Both."

Too much emotional proximity would render a doctor (or many other kinds of leaders) emotionally paralyzed, Klaas suggests. But too little proximity could lead to a cold technician who doesn’t see the stakes involved. A president of the United States not only must have empathy for the problems of his or her fellow citizens but must also be able to, if necessary, launch missiles that will wipe out human lives.

The men and women who can make these kinds of decisions—and endure the inevitable backlash—represent two kinds of people: those who are gifted by God with a unique resilience and those who just love to be in command. And these two groups are very different. 

So why do awful people seem to get worse and worse the higher they go? Is power corrupting them? Not necessarily, Klaas writes. It may be that they are just getting better at what they do. Or it may be that they are gaining a wider field of possible options to do more harm.

In the book, Klaas describes Steve Raucci, a school-district maintenance worker who behaved like a power-hungry tyrant in his realm. Many who taught or studied where Raucci worked knew how he acted, but for many years, few outside the district limits were aware.

A restaurant patron who screams at the server might be seen only by a handful of people (and God). But someone who acts that way in a large church or ministry multiplies the potential number of people who may observe the behavior. In that case, what has changed is not the level of the leader’s corruption but the number of people around to witness it and thus the stakes of the leader’s success or failure.

James and John did not hold powerful positions when they approached Jesus about the seating arrangements in his kingdom, but they sure wanted to (Mark 10:35–40). Yet Jesus warned them about pursuing that kind of domineering power, saying, "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all" (vv. 43–44).

Klaas also explains why cults of personality or institutions of intimidation seem to get crazier over time—when expecting absurd and extreme things becomes a test of their followers’ loyalty. "If people are willing to publicly embarrass themselves by spouting obviously absurd lies about the ‘Dear Leader,’ then they’re more likely to be worthy of the regime’s trust," he writes. "A henchman who parrots absurdities is a henchman worth investing in."

But what happens when the leader’s absurdities become generally accepted—or at least so commonplace that people become bored with them?

Toxic leaders "keep inventing crazier and crazier myths, constantly testing people within the regime and within society to see who goes along with it and who doesn’t," Kraas writes. "That strategy creates a ratcheting effect: if the lies don’t get more extreme, your loyalty tests become worthless."

We’ve seen that a lot in the public square. And in the church too.

There’s also the problem of survivorship bias or the "caveman effect." We often talk about prehistoric cave dwellers as the ones who drew art on the walls of caves. But maybe, Klaas points out, those who lived in the woods or on the savannas were just as artistic. The difference in this case is that cave walls can preserve what is drawn on them, but animal hides and trees cannot.

I am often asked why there were no white pastors in the South who stood up to slavery or to Jim Crow. While the number is appallingly small, it’s not zero. It’s just that those who went against slavery or segregation weren’t likely to survive in ministry for very long.

So what does survivorship bias have to do with the corruptibility of leadership? We should pay attention, Klaas tells us, not just to those who sign up for power but also to those who don’t want to be in power. Why do they avoid it?

Again, there are a couple possibilities. Some don’t see in themselves the gifting needed for leadership. But others just can’t stand the thought of operating in a social Darwinian atmosphere that requires increasing levels of meanness, conflict, and outrage.

In an interview, Klaas gave the example of his mother who once served on their community’s school board. She was a civic-minded person who cared about education and children—exactly the type of person who typically ran for such positions. Yet now that school-board meetings can be as vitriolic and raucous as national political scenes, Klaas is quite sure she would not choose to run at all today. She would still care about children and education, but to be on the school board, she would have to be the kind of person who could endure death threats, lawsuits, or mistreatments such as being spat on when leaving a meeting. Or she would need to be the kind of person who actually likes such things.

Perhaps, he suggests, we should actively search for the people who don’t want to serve in such positions and find out why. These may be the very people we should recruit to lead. There are parallel examples throughout the evangelical Christian world—from the men and women serving in the secular civic world to those preaching the gospel or leading churches and denominations.

Maybe we should look for the people who love the Bible and the gospel and who don’t see the Sermon on the Mount as a suicide pact.

For years, I heard a colleague in ministry tell younger people that churches and ministries are changed by "those who show up." That’s true. But maybe we need to do a better job seeking out those who don’t want to show up—and ask them why.

I’m not 100 percent persuaded by Klaas’s argument. Power does corrupt—as does the love of money or security (1 Tim. 6:10). Temptations like that can manifest themselves at any time (1 Cor. 10:12–14).

But, overall, Klaas’s book helps to explain this time of tumult and unveiling with Christian leaders and institutions. In some cases, people started out with good motives and lost their way at some point. But some of them—maybe more than we think—were already wired that way. And maybe we just didn’t see or believe it.

Why I’m Happy About Horse Troughs

This past Monday, the New York Times published a master-class analysis by Ruth Graham about how baptism is changing in North America. In her story, Graham included the baptism of my son Jonah at our church, Immanuel Nashville, a few weeks ago. She contrasted his baptism in a portable horse trough with the way I was baptized (way back in 1983) in a baptistery with the Jordan River painted on the wall behind me.

As Graham points out, portable baptisteries like the one my son was baptized in are becoming more common around the United States (and the world), while the number of traditional baptisteries is dwindling.

I see nothing but good news in that.

Don’t get me wrong: I would not change one thing about my baptism. I wouldn’t change the organ playing in the background. I wouldn’t change the gurgling of the water heater. I wouldn’t even change that painting (though, in truth, it looked more like the Biloxi River than the Jordan).

The reason baptisteries are on the decline (besides the cost of maintenance) is that so many congregations are church plants. Many meet in schools or businesses and set up and tear down each week. Some have purchased buildings from churches that baptized infants and so don’t need full-depth immersion baptisteries.

We should be happy about this transition. The gospel marches on; churches are built up and multiplying.

And as the article points out, using informal baptisteries is not an innovation at all—it’s a return to older practices.

My grandparents were baptized in a pond in Mississippi in the middle of winter. My great-grandmother (a devout Presbyterian) was horrified, fearing that my grandmother would catch cold or freeze to death. (It was Mississippi, not Minnesota, but she still had a point.) My grandparents’ baptism was a lot closer to the way my son was baptized than the way I was.

But, really, all three baptisms—my grandparents’, my son’s, and mine—were and are the same: "one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all" (Eph. 4:5–6).

The amazing reality is that no matter where we are baptized—in a river or pond, in a tub anchored to the floor, or in a trough carried in and out—these words are still said: "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The gospel is still preached in word and in water, in bread and in wine.

Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

A Very Paul McCartney View of Providence

Graham’s article about baptism includes a picture of me as a kid, standing in front of the baptistery at my home church, Woolmarket Baptist in Biloxi, Mississippi. I was preaching on a youth night, and it is all the cringe 1983 can deliver—which is a lot. My friend and colleague Ray Ortlund texted that picture to a group of us with the caption, "A Beatles haircut fifteen years after it was cool."

But we were in Mississippi. We had no idea that the Beatles had ever existed.

Since I’m more like Kris Kristofferson than Ringo Starr, I’m not the target audience for Peter Jackson’s three-part Disney+ documentary on the Beatles. But I’m watching it all the same, partly because I have yet to hear an interview with Paul McCartney in which I was not engaged the whole way through, just by the way he tells a story.

Case in point: Terry Gross interviewed Sir Paul McCartney on a recently aired episode of NPR’s Fresh Air. I was particularly drawn to his description of when, driving through a blizzard, the band’s van slid off the road, down a slope, and turned on its side. Gross asked McCartney about the group’s thoughts when it happened. He replied:

It was like, well, how are we going to get to Liverpool? And out of that, though, came … one of our greatest sort of mottos. …We’re standing around … and somebody said, "Well, what are we going to do now?" And then one of us—I can’t remember which—said, "Something’ll happen." … That is, like, the greatest quote ever because in life, when you’re faced with these crazy things, something will happen. And it always seemed to console us. … I’ve told quite a few people since then … that when you’re in your darkest moments, just remember that incredibly intelligent Beatle quote: "Something’ll happen."

"Something’ll happen" is not the fullest expression of a biblical view of divine providence, but it’s not really wrong either. So I’ll let it be.

Next Week: My Twelve Favorite Books of 2021

Stay tuned.

Desert Island Playlist

This week’s submission comes from reader Rebecca Yeager, who writes, "I love the ‘desert island’ lists your readers share and wanted to contribute one of my own. I can’t imagine being trapped on an island with only 15 songs for the rest of my life, but if you’ll let me share 15 albums, here are the essential ones I think could get me through without losing my sanity!"

1. Advent Songs, by Sojourn (2003/2007). The first CD I ever owned—my best friend gave it to me for my 16th birthday. This is still my favorite CD and one I listen to on repeat all year round. Interestingly enough, it was produced by and includes two solos from Mike Cosper, back when he was on the worship team at Sojourn in Louisville, Kentucky. He has now gone on to be famous for other things, including the CT podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.

2. Love and War and the Sea In Between, by Josh Garrels (2011). The first album I ever purchased from my favorite Christian singer-songwriter. Genreless.

3. I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream., by The Tallest Man On Earth (2019). The most recent album from my favorite secular artist, this one contains increasingly lush instrumentation. I can never decide if I prefer his newer work or his original pared-down guitar and banjo. Whichever I’m listening to at the moment!

4. Brighter Wounds, by Son Lux (2018). The classically trained experimental rock trio reflects on the 2016 election and the birth of lead singer Ryan Lott’s first child, weaving in scriptural references.

5. High Violet, by The National (2010). The album that made me fall in love with indie rock. Matt Berninger has the world’s saddest voice.

6. This Is All Yours, by Alt-J (2014). The range of this album is just mind-blowing.

7. Graceland, by Paul Simon (1986). Simon’s lyrical abilities, coupled with the talent of South African prodigies like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, create something extraordinary.

8. No One Knows About Persian Cats, by various artists (2010). The soundtrack to the movie of the same name, this album showcases artists from the underground indie rock music scene in Iran, where artists literally die for their art. This is also the album that convinced me that I actually love rap!

9. Hadestown, by Anaïs Mitchell and various artists (2010). A concept album retelling the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, featuring Greg Brown (Greg Brown!), Bon Iver (Bon Iver!), Annie Lennox (Annie Lennox!), and others. It’s now a Broadway musical, which I’m dying to see, but no one can beat Greg Brown’s rendition of "Why We Build the Wall" on the original album. The entire album is full of vivid storytelling and culturally relevant, poignant lyrics.

10. The Jesus Record, by Rich Mullins (1998). The last record from Rich Mullins (produced posthumously after his tragic death at 41), this one consists of demos with a more stripped-back, minimalist sound.

11. A Collision / B Collision, by the David Crowder Band (2005, 2006). These albums got me through my senior year of high school. They were the soundtrack to my prayers as I walked alongside a close friend who struggled with and eventually lost his battle with leukemia at age 18. Crowder has some crowd pleasers here, but my favorites are the ones that never made it to the radio. "The kingdom of heaven is here and now and coming."

12. EXIT, by Wande (2020) / Genesis, by Cass (2017). One or the other—the first lady of Christian rap or the first lady of Christian hip hop—has got to be on my list.

13. Fordlandia, by Jóhann Jóhannsson (2008). Icelandic classical composer Jóhannsson wrote this epic album inspired by a failed utopia: Henry Ford’s rubber mill/industrial complex-turned-ghost-town in 1920s Brazil. (It’s real; look it up!) This music is freakin’ beautiful.

14. Chariots of Fire, by Vangelis (1981). My favorite movie and one of the most haunting soundtracks of all time.

15. Last, since I started with a Christmas album, I’ll end with one too—but this one doesn’t actually exist! Since this is a fantasy project, can I will it into existence? I’d like to have the soundtrack to White Christmas with me on my desert island, but Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney were contractually forbidden to record together. In my ideal world, this soundtrack would exist, and I would listen to it year round.

What do you think? Send me your Desert Island Playlist (of songs) or your Desert Island Bookshelf (of books).

For a playlist, as Rebecca did, choose between 5 to 15 songs, excluding hymns or worship songs. (We’ll do those later.)

For a bookshelf, ask yourself this question: If I could have one bookshelf with me to last the rest of my life, what volumes would I choose? Send a picture to me with as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Send either or both to

Quote of the Moment

Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.

—Ted Chiang


Currently Reading Currently Reading

Will Smith and Mark Manson, Will (Penguin)

Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman, Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office (Custom House)

Paul K. Moser, The Divine Goodness of Jesus: Impact and Response (Cambridge University Press)

Jarvis J. Williams, Redemptive Kingdom Diversity: A Biblical Theology of the People of God (Baker)

Eugene Peterson, On Living Well: Brief Reflections on Wisdom for Walking in the Way of Jesus (WaterBrook)

Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, with wood engravings by Agnes Miller Parker (Heritage Press)

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Russell Moore

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