A few months ago, I was speaking at a local Christian high school on integrity in leadership when a group of boys brought up a well-known Gen Z influencer. This individual has gained a large following by intentionally propagating derogatory views of women, and has consequently been banned from multiple platforms and ‘cancelled’ by various groups. But this has only added to his appeal among certain young men.
The moment my high school audience heard the mention of his name, the entire crowd broke out into a frenzy. I love chaos, especially when teaching teenagers. It usually makes for a good teaching moment, and in this case I had an impromptu speech on integrity ready, because it had been written into my heart by lived experience.
Watching the boys so passionately defend their hero, it was as if I was looking at a version of myself from a decade ago. In my late teens, I began following the teachings of a popular evangelical church leader. He was a phenomenal teacher and built one of the fastest-growing churches in America. He was loud, obnoxious, abrasive—and I loved it! It was thrilling to watch!
Year after year, he grew in popularity until, within a matter of weeks, his entire church network fell apart. Why? Because it turns out he was as loud, obnoxious, and abrasive off the stage as he was on the stage. He had amazing giftings but lacked the character to nurture and carry them well.
I wondered if the boys who defended their toxic hero would someday also experience what I had. It can be a painful experience realising that a faith leader that you once admired, and who influenced your faith, was not the person you thought them to be. It feels somewhat personal and can take years to reconcile the disappointment with your own faith journey.
This toxic leadership style extends beyond just mega-church pastors. Sadly, it has become increasingly prevalent for young leaders to approach me, feeling disillusioned. They struggle to reconcile the dissonance they feel when encountering older Christians they once admired. These individuals were gifted in all the ways that evangelicals celebrate today, yet in reality, they proved to be narcissistic, vindictive, racist, divisive, bitter, and self-seeking (Gal 5:19–21).
If you are an evangelical, you may relate.
We need to stop and ask if we might be assessing spiritual maturity and growth today in the wrong ways. What are the metrics we evangelicals use that have enabled certain leaders to rise to a position of influence without the character to sustain them? And are the metrics themselves part of the problem?
The future of the Christian movement depends on ‘lay’ members
Jesus’ Metrics for Discipleship
Jesus understood the importance of his disciples using the right metrics to discern spiritual maturity.
At the start of his ministry, he warned us, ‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them’ (Matt 7:15–16a).
Notice that Jesus called us to pay special attention toward those who lead us. He encourages us by explaining that it is possible to single out the wolves from the sheep. All we have to do is pay attention to the fruit people produce.
In the same way, Jesus re-emphasised the importance of fruitfulness at the end of his ministry. He declared, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples’ (John 15:5, 8).
According to Jesus, there is a metric we can use to help us discern whether someone is a genuine disciple of Christ or an inwardly toxic ‘ferocious wolf’. This metric is fruitfulness.
Jesus continues in Matthew 7:16–18, ‘By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.’
What kind of fruit are we looking for? What does it look like for a disciple to produce good fruit? How do we recognise them?
Repeatedly, individuals within the evangelical community (spanning various branches of evangelicalism) have expressed astonishment upon discovering that those they thought were virtuous sheep turned out to be deceptive wolves.
Are we so innocently naive, and spiritual leaders so artful in their deceit? Or could it be that we have been examining leaders based on the wrong fruit?
Paul’s Metrics for Discipleship
Fortunately, the Apostle Paul points us to the answer. He describes the qualities of a person who is producing the fruit of the Spirit as one who exhibits ‘love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Gal 5:22–23).
The fruit of the Spirit in the life of a disciple has more to do with the inward quality of a person than their outward capacity.
There is nothing in Paul’s metrics for spiritual fruitfulness that has anything to do with attendance, gifting or talent, success, effectiveness, or any outward actions. It doesn’t say the fruit of the Spirit is a big church, an amazing preaching ability, or visionary leadership.
The fruit of the Spirit is about the inner person, not the outer person. It is about who we are becoming in Christ, not about what we are doing for Christ. It has nothing to do with gifting, capacity, or competency and everything to do with character.
This is where we make the biggest error in our assessment of spiritual leadership and personal maturity. In most cases, we will excuse the lack of character (i.e. the metrics for spiritual fruitfulness) for what we deem missional success.
As long as someone is ‘doing’, we excuse their ‘being’.
For instance, we will quickly excuse someone’s vice for gossiping (sowing disunity) if they are a gifted preacher. We excuse their sin because of their giftedness. If someone is gifted in organisational leadership and helps pioneer new initiatives, but is easily angered and overly ambitious, we quickly turn a blind eye because he must be (according to evangelical logic) ‘a man of God’. Yet we might question the success of someone with a humble lifestyle and unimpressive church, even if they possess the fruit of the Spirit.
The fruit Jesus encouraged us to pay attention to had to do with inward character and emotional maturity, not outward competence. The metrics we are to pay attention to describe someone who is growing in and embodying inward health.
Why Crisis Lets Us Grow as Leaders
I love how Pete Scazzero in Emotionally Healthy Discipleship grounds Paul’s teaching in reality when he writes, ‘Emotional health and spiritual maturity cannot be separated. It is impossible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature’ (138–139).
We should intentionally use the ancient lists Paul provides us as the metrics of discernment for evangelical discipleship. Those who produce the fruit of the Spirit should warm our hearts as they emulate Christ.
In contrast, those who produce the acts of the flesh should raise alarm bells in our souls. Otherwise, we will cease to be victims and more accurately become perpetrators of the system we so easily critique.
Bringing the Metrics Home
As Christians, we must spend time in careful reflection. We are all part of the system that produces toxic Christians. We have all in some way elevated competency over character, and doing over being. Before we can reform the system, we need to begin the work of seeking renewal within ourselves.
If you were to read the list Paul gives in Galatians 5:19–21 as he details the metrics for good fruit (the fruit of the Spirit) and bad fruit (the acts of the flesh), where do you see yourself more truly? Perhaps a better exercise would be to read the lists to those who are closest to you and ask them to call out the good and bad they see in you in the descriptors.
It is time for us all, as the global church, to humbly come before God and ask the Holy Spirit to begin a renewal work within us so that we can produce the fruit Paul mentions. Let us set our hearts to become the people who conform to the image of Jesus in our own age.