Recognizing the Characteristics of Godly Leadership and the Characteristics of Ungodly Leadership

While we have learned about those teachings that will help stable us in our faith and assist us in growing to spiritual maturity, we have also learned about those teachings that will not bring about an inward and eternal reality of God’s residence and presence along with those teachings that will inhibit our spiritual growth. There is something else we should look at and that is, what are the characteristics of Godly and ungodly leadership. Godly behavior should evidence the qualities of the fruit of the Spirit while ungodly behavior will evidence the carnal desires of the sin nature.

I have two articles that I would like us to read. All of us, whether in leadership or not, will have aspects of our old sin nature still operating. When this is recognized as such, hopefully, those in the body of Christ who are spiritual will be able to go to whomsoever this applies and provide counsel for correction and recovery. On the other hand, if there is overwhelming evidence of abusive behavior which exhibits an unreasonable use of power over all aspects of the lives of the assembly of believers, then we may just want to get out of there as fast as we can. The first article that we will look at presents both the signs of abusive leadership and the signs of godly leadership. Enjoy.

7 Signs of Abusive Leadership

Fortunately[,] we have seen a recent interest in the subject of bullying and how to deal with it as it relates to our children. This awareness has filtered into the workplace and other social aspects of our lives. Bullying in the form of abusive leadership should also be dealt with inside the church congregation.

To start, let me clarify that I am a very strong proponent of people gathering together on a regular basis for teaching, worship, encouragement, and spiritual-maturity building activities. The Bible teaches us that we should not put off gathering together for spiritual growth (Hebrews 10:24, 25). But I also know that some church situations are rife with abusive leadership.

Let’s look at some signs of abusive leadership and see if we can be helped by recognizing these signs and avoiding these leaders or working to change the behavior. I do believe it is possible that some church leaders don’t realize what they are doing to their congregation. They are leading in the manner in which they were taught and don’t know that there is a better way. Of course, in true cult situations there is no interest in changing because abusive leadership goes hand-in-hand with the definition of a cult.

I am talking about church leadership, but these signs of abusive leadership can be found in many other areas of life.

Leader as Sole Authority

Abusive leadership is typified by the leader holding unquestionable authority. The congregants are not allowed to question the actions or teaching of the leader. They feel threatened when someone is more spiritually mature than they are.

Good Leaders: Good leaders see questions as opportunities to teach the truth. They are willing to explore the question with those who raise them. Good leaders never say, “because I said so.” They want the congregants to grow spiritually and would be thrilled for anyone in their congregation to grow to the same level of maturity as the leader. They seriously consider the responsibility they have to help their people grow (Hebrews 13:17).

Overemphasis on Confession

When there is a strong emphasis on confessing sins to the leader or to his close allies, then there is a spirit of manipulation present in the congregation. Abusive leaders tend to hold “blackmail power” over their followers. They get this power by insisting to know these things about the congregation that are secret to others in the church.

Good Leaders: There is help and healing that can come from confessing your weaknesses to others (James 5:16). But a good leader is not going to manipulate or guilt you into confessing your sin. A good leader will pray for you and your weakness, but he does not need to know the sordid details of your activities.


Abusive leadership craves titles and various levels of authority under them. They want their followers to know that each one has their place and who is over whom. There is usually a very obvious pecking order. Partiality comes in the form of honoring others simply because of a title or [the] way they dress. James specifically warns us about this in James 2:1-9. 

Good Leaders: There is certainly nothing wrong with honoring people for accomplishments, but a good leader will work to avoid partiality as defined by the book of James. Good leadership wants to see each of the congregants grow to their spiritual maturity. Not everyone in the church will mature at the same rate and therefore the more mature can be used to disciple others to greater faith. But this should not be used to create a superiority of one group over another.

Exclusivity                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              A sign of abusive church leadership that I have seen all too often is the thought that “our church is the only good church in the area.” My stomach turned flips in the lobby of a church when I heard one of the church leaders tell me, “besides ours, there is only one other good church in the Atlanta area.” Red flags immediately popped into my head. Needless to say, I had trouble enjoying the church service that morning. I spent the whole morning over-analyzing everything that was taught.

Good Leaders: A good church leader will recognize, and promote the fact, that there are many good Christians in other congregations around them. Maybe another church does not conduct church services exactly like theirs, but good leaders realize that God works with different people in different ways. Their own congregation may truly be the most spiritually mature one in the area, but they will not criticize other congregations to the point of threatening their people to keep them away from other churches.

Lack of Trust

Abusive leaders will not allow others to teach or preach in their church. They believe they are the only ones who can train others. They may have other Sunday School teachers, but the curriculum is tightly controlled by the pastor for his own purposes.

Good Leaders: Knowing that the exercise of studying to teach others will help people grow, a good leader will allow, and actively encourage, others in the church to engage in discipleship and teaching opportunities. There are times when a good pastor knows someone is not ready to teach on their own and still needs training. This is where a good curriculum can be placed in the hands of the teacher. Also, there are times when the leader wants everyone to study the same material for continuity in the lessons. There is nothing wrong with a good curriculum. But there is something very wrong with the leader insisting that no one ever deviate from the material prescribed to them.

Public Shame

In an abusive situation there is great pressure to obey the leader and his teachings. Conflicts are not usually handled in a quiet and discreet manner. Anyone who goes against the leader’s authority is publicly shamed for their actions. Then they are cut off from the congregation and treated as outcasts. Those who are still in the flock are warned to not have any interaction with those who have been shunned.

Good Leaders: The Bible does teach the practice of church discipline in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. However, this should be done in a loving way with the intent to restore the person and their relationship with the church and with God. Church discipline is first restorative. If necessary[,] it may be elevated to the point of banishment. But it should never be used for the purposes of manipulation.

Use of Guilt for Obedience

An abusive leader takes on the role of the Holy Spirit in the church. They try to cause a level of guilt that will make their followers live in obedience to their rules. This type of leader is always looking to catch someone doing wrong instead of looking for what people are doing that is right.

Good Leaders: A good leader will allow the Holy Spirit to do His part in the life of the believer. This leader will trust that God knows how to deal with the wayward sheep. There must be teaching from leadership on how a Christian should live according to the Bible, but their role is instruction, not enforcement.

How to handle Abusive Leadership

As I mentioned at the beginning, sometimes these leaders don’t know that they are being manipulative. They may become great spiritual leaders if someone will take the time to teach them. Maybe God would have you try to help them mature in their leadership style. If possible, you should attempt to help them grow as leaders.

Unfortunately, there are also those who intentionally engage in abusive leadership and refuse to listen to reason or to consider they need to change. The right way to handle this is to quietly leave and find a congregation where God can help you grow spiritually. It is best not to cause a mutiny or mass exodus from a church. Trust that God will lead others as necessary to leave the church. It is too easy to take on the abusive leader role in your quest to bring others out of a bad church situation.

I trust God will give you wisdom in your situation as you seek His leading in this emotionally charged and spiritually important matter.262

I thought that this article was excellent. It was very clear in explaining examples of abusive leadership and conversely examples of Godly leadership. The next article, however, will mainly focus on extremely abusive or cultish behavior. This kind of atmosphere is what would involve the doctrines of destruction that were presented earlier. It’s hard for me to believe that someone could get caught up being in subjection to such aberrant behavior by a leader.

On the other hand, I remember when I was on my quest to find God. I attended many churches in my home town not even knowing what to look for. I was looking for a change of life. I was looking for new friends. I was looking for acceptance. I could have easily been taken advantage of. I didn’t know any better. I wonder how many people look for a better life for themselves and join a group that accepts them unknowing what is in store for them later? The information contained in the next article was compiled by someone who worked for the FBI whose seemingly main occupation was compiling information on cults and cult leaders. As such, over the years he was able to compile a list of personality traits that characterized most of them. Let’s take a look at this.

Dangerous Cult Leaders

Clues to what makes for a pathological cult leader

Posted Aug 25, 2012

One of the questions that I am often asked by students of criminology and psychology is, how do you know when a cult leader is “evil” or “bad”? These of course are vague descriptors to some extent, but I also get the question, “When is a cult leader pathological or a danger to others?” This is a valid question in view of the historical record of suffering and hurt caused by various cult leaders around the world.

From my studies of cults and cult leaders during my time in the FBI, I learned early on that there are some things to look for that, at a minimum, say "caution, this individual is dangerous, and in all likelihood will cause harm to others."

Having studied at length the life, teachings, and behaviors of Jim Jones (Jonestown Guyana), David Koresh (Branch Davidians), Stewart Traill (The Church of Bible Understanding), Charles Manson, Shoko Asahara (Aum Shinrikyo), Joseph Di Mambro (The Order of the Solar Temple a.k.a. Ordre du Temple Solaire), Marshall Heff Applewhit (Heaven’s Gate), Bhagwan Rajneesh (Rajneesh Movement), and Warren Jeffs (polygamist leader), I can say that what stands out about these individuals is that they were or are all pathologically narcissistic. They all have or had an over-abundant belief that they were special, that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered. They demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged. And yet, in spite of these less than charming traits, they had no trouble attracting those who were willing to overlook these features.

These personality traits stand out as the first warning to those who would associate with them, but there are many others. Here is a collection of traits of cult leaders that give us hints as to their psychopathology. This list is not all-inclusive nor is it the final word on the subject; it is merely my personal collection based on studies and interviews that I conducted in my previous career.

If you know of a cult leader who has many of these traits there is a high probability that they are hurting those around them emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually, or financially. And of course[,] this does not take into account the hurt that their loved ones will also experience.

Here are the typical traits of the pathological cult leader (from Dangerous Personalities) that you should watch for: 

  1. He has a grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve.
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance.
  3. Demands blind, unquestioned obedience.
  4. Requires excessive admiration from followers and outsiders.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement—expecting to be treated as special at all times.
  6. Is exploitative of others by asking for their money or that of relatives, putting others at financial risk.
  7. Is arrogant and haughty in his behavior or attitude.
  8. Has an exaggerated sense of power (entitlement) that allows him to bend rules and break laws.
  9. Takes sexual advantage of members of his sect or cult.
  10. Sex is a requirement with adults and sub adults as part of a ritual or rite.
  11. Is hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others. 
  12. Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy.
  13. Makes members confess their sins or faults, publicly subjecting them to ridicule or humiliation while revealing exploitable weaknesses of the penitent.
  14. Has ignored the needs of others, including: biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs.
  15. Is frequently boastful of accomplishments.
  16. Needs to be the center of attention and does things to distract others to ensure that he or she is being noticed, e.g., by arriving late, using exotic clothing, overdramatic speech, or by making theatrical entrances.
  17. Has insisted on always having the best of anything (house, car, jewelry, clothes) even when others are relegated to lesser facilities, amenities, or clothing.
  18. Doesn’t seem to listen well to needs of others; communication is usually one-way, in the form of dictates.
  19. Haughtiness, grandiosity, and the need to be controlling is part of his personality.
  20. Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated or exploited for personal gain.
  21. When criticized he tends to lash out not just with anger but with rage.
  22. Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy.”
  23. Refers to non-members or non-believers as “the enemy.”
  24. Acts imperious at times, not wishing to know what others think or desire.
  25. Believes himself to be omnipotent.
  26. Has “magical” answers or solutions to problems.
  27. Is superficially charming.
  28. Habitually puts down others as inferior; only he is superior.
  29. Has a certain coldness or aloofness about him that makes others worry about who this person really is and or whether they really know him.
  30. Is deeply offended when there are perceived signs of boredom, being ignored or of being slighted.
  31. Treats others with contempt and arrogance.
  32. Is constantly assessing people to determine those who are a threat or those who revere him.
  33. The word “I” dominates his conversations. He is oblivious to how often he references himself.
  34. Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly; when he does he acts out with rage.
  35. Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong nor does he apologize for his actions.
  36. Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems.
  37. Believes himself to be a deity or a chosen representative of a deity.
  38. "Rigid," "unbending," or "insensitive" describes how this person thinks.
  39. Tries to control others in what they do, read, view, or think.
  40. Has isolated members of his sect from contact with family or the outside world.
  41. Monitors and/or restricts contact with family or outsiders.
  42. Works the least but demands the most.
  43. Has stated that he is “destined for greatness” or that he will be “martyred.”
  44. Seems to be highly dependent on tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments.
  45. Uses enforcers or sycophants to ensure compliance from members or believers.
  46. Sees self as “unstoppable” and perhaps has even said so.
  47. Conceals background or family, which would disclose how plain or ordinary he is.
  48. Doesn’t think there is anything wrong with himself and in fact sees himself as perfection or “blessed.”
  49. Has taken away followers' freedom to leave, to travel, to pursue life and liberty.
  50. Has isolated the group physically (moved to a remote area) so as to not be observed.

When the question is asked, “When do we know when a cult leader is bad, or evil, or toxic?” this is the list that I use to survey the cult leader for dangerous traits. Of course[,] the only way to know anything for sure is to observe and validate, but these characteristics can go a long way to help with that. And as I have said, there are other things to look for and there may be other lists, but this is the one that I found most useful from studying these groups and talking to former members of cults.

When a cult or organizational leader has a preponderance of these traits then we can anticipate that at some point those who associate with him will likely suffer physically, emotionally, psychologically, or financially. If these traits sound familiar to leaders, groups, sects, or organizations known to you, then expect those who associate with them to live in despair and to suffer, even if they don’t know yet that they will.263

Wow! That list was riveting for me. When I saw that one of the cults was called the Church of Bible Understanding, it caused me to stop in my tracts. Back in 1977, in my hometown, when I was on my quest to find God, this was one of the groups I attended. They were operating out of a store front on Main Street. I decided to stop in and find out what their Sunday morning service was all about. Looking back now, what went on there was unusual. But at that time, I didn’t know anything about God or His Word.

There is one more thing I would like to mention and that has to do with some of the personality traits of cult leaders. I have been in Christian churches where God’s presence was saturating, where most of the teachings were foundational, where the assembly of believers were growing spiritually, and where there was tremendous missionary outreach. However, some of the personality traits mentioned here were clearly evident in the behavior and subsequent teachings of a few of the leaders.

What is one to do if this is the case? Hopefully, there are enough spiritual leaders who are able to get together and approach those in leadership who are exhibiting ungodly behavior and teachings with the hope that these areas can be rectified.

I hope you have enjoyed this study as much as I have. I have prepared something for you that I hope you will use for your spiritual benefit. What this is will be contained in my closing remarks. What is it, you ask? Please go to the next page and find out.





New Covenant Ministries - Ministerios NuevoPacto - Harbor Church, Block Island                                                                                                                                                                                                          

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262David Peach, “7 Signs of Abusive Leadership”, What Christians Want To Know 26 May 2020 <>.

263Joe Navarro M.A., “Dangerous Cult Leaders”, Psychology Today 26 May 2020 <>.







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What Are the Distinctive Different Characteristics Between Godly and Ungodly Leadership?