Anointed? 7 … What Makes a Leader? (RJS)

The post today will wrap up our discussion of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson.  In this book Stephens and Giberson examine several different facets of American evangelicalism to explore the manner in which “America’s populist ideals, anti-intellectualism, and religious free market, along with the concept of anointing – being chosen by God to speak for him like the biblical prophets” influence a broad range of evangelical and fundamentalist beliefs and practices.

The theme that ties the book together is an analysis of the informal criteria generally used to “anoint” leaders within evangelicalism. Chapter six, Made in America, focuses explicitly on this topic. Stephens and Giberson open the chapter with a discussion of three leaders – Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, and Pat Robertson – and use this, along with a consideration of the individuals described in the earlier chapters as a starting point to look at the way in which leaders emerge within American evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

Throughout the post-1960’s era Falwell, Roberts, and Robertson were public symbols of the capacity of the parallel culture of American evangelicalism to anoint leaders using criteria internal to that culture – fidelity to the Bible, inspirational preaching, confident assertion of a special relationship to God.

The parallel culture of evangelicalism is like a country without monarchs or politicians. It must produce its own leaders, which it does, through informal processes. These leaders, both great and small, build constituencies more or less skilfully, but they generally employ similar strategies – finding themes around which to rally their followers, playing on common fears, identifying out-groups to demonize, and projecting confidence. (p. 232-233)

What does it take to become a successful leader within evangelicalism?

Which of these characteristics should we value in our leaders?

Which are problems that damage the church?

At times the discussion by Stephens and Giberson seems overly cynical – but there are important ideas here that need to be considered carefully. The  question of “anointed leadership” is central to their discussion and in this chapter this concept is defined most clearly.

The anointing phenomenon is deeply rooted in good old-fashioned American anti-intellectualism. It is supported by some specifically evangelical characteristics. And it is completed with the charisma and ingenuity of the individual leader. The phenomenon exploits these energies, combining them synergistically to make the whole more than the sum of its parts. (p. 234)

Experienced and trained scholars and thinkers who write with care and with nuance cannot make much of an impact against the charismatic emphasis on common fears and “common sense” readings that appeal to broad crowds. The basic features of charismatic leadership are not, by any means, unique to American evangelicals. But without institutional structure, with an approach that assumes anything worth knowing or necessary for understanding should be obvious to all without much work or study, and with the comfort of belonging to a group, American evangelicalism is a fertile field for this form of leadership – both for better and for worse.

There are several important characteristics that feed into the way we look to, listen to, and evaluate both Christian and secular leaders.

We look for someone like us. Stephens and Giberson point out the importance of identification. One particularly interesting example here is the push-back in some quarters against childhood immunization. This is not an evangelical issue – it is a much broader societal issue. A study led by Dan Kahan of Yale University Law School found that this cultural identification is often the deciding factor.

We seek various “cultural clues” that connect us to the expert as a shortcut for determining veracity. Someone just like us is more likely to tell us the truth, we intuit, than is a famous egghead from a far-off university with whom we have nothing in common.

“To figure out what sorts of factual information we can reasonably rely on,” Kahan explains, “we nake use of all manner of cultural cues, many of which relate to the authority and trustworthiness of others, including people who hold themselves forth as experts.” If the mantle of “expertise” is flexible enough that anyone can wear it, then authority can be had by simply making the right connections with one’s audience. (p. 244-245)

Like all of the factors that come into play when looking for clues the trustworthiness of an authority or one who claims authority, these cultural clues are part of human nature. They are not wrong, but they are best used with an element of critical thinking. I posted a while back on some ways to evaluate: Who Can We Trust?

To what extent should in-group identification play a role when evaluating authorities?

The presence of a common enemy. Modern evangelicalism, and, for that matter, much of human civilization both secular and religious, is formed by the threat of common enemies. We have built within us the natural tendency for in-group identification and defense against the out-group. Although I disagreed to an extent with the way Stephens and Giberson portrayed James Dobson, it is certainly true that Ham, Barton, Dobson, Lindsey, LaHaye, and most other well known evangelical or fundamentalist leaders are characterized most significantly by what or who they stand against. Ken Ham’s entire approach is dominated by military rhetoric and culture war conflict mentality. This isn’t only an issue on the fringe however. James Dobson focused on the family because of the range of forces he saw standing against the Christian family. Harold Ockenga wrote in 1947 “Darkness has engulfed our age.” …”Sin, fear, hate, doubt, distrust, and despair characterize the dominant mood of this age.” (p. 255) We are, it seems, in the midst of a battle between the small faithful remnant and the forces of secularism, liberalism, and Satan.

The discussion of the relationship of science and the Christian faith is laced through and through with culture war rhetoric. I fully realize that this isn’t a failing of evangelicals and fundamentalists alone. It is equally apparent in the rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett and Harris, to name but a few. But I am much more concerned with the effect it has within the church, than on the battles fought outside. The culture of fear causes Christians to turn on fellow Christians in the desire to remain among the faithful. We eat our young, our middle aged, and sometimes our elders. (One recent example here. I could point to many more.)

How are we to know when the threat is real?

When is it more accurate to say, quoting the inestimable Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us”?

Calling. Within the Christian subculture calling plays a significant role in the evaluation of authority. Leaders are called by God to stand for truth and for the gospel. Most leaders feel themselves called to this role within the church – and this sense of calling ranges from pastors and teachers to college administrators, seminary presidents, and evangelists. Those with a sense of calling include leaders of parachurch organizations from Answers in Genesis to World Vision.

Raised with in this culture, I would certainly refer to my desire to write and interact with the questions of science and Christian faith as a calling. Stephens and Giberson note that this culture of calling is sincere and heartfelt. While “successful Christian leaders wield a constellation of strategies masterfully … Most believe in the authenticity of their mission, as near as can be determined. (p. 266)” In fact, the incidents of proven insincerity and manipulation are few and far between.

We are a called people – but what is the sign that a leader has been ordained and called by God?

How are we to know that he, or she, is faithfully carrying out that calling?

Moving Forward. “Anointed” evangelical leaders rising through an informal accreditation process – a process where rhetoric, charisma, and the ability to persuade count for more than reason or study – have a great deal of influence within the church and within the evangelical subculture. They have an influence, so Stephens and Giberson suggest, that far exceeds that of most local church pastors and of Christian scholars.

The ability of evangelical leaders to combine the persuasive powers of a great preacher with the credibility of an academic generates enormous intellectual authority. As purveyors of ideas, they are thus more powerful than either preachers or academics. In particular, this unique combination makes them much more effective than their more academic evangelical counterparts. (p. 267)

This is not likely to change any time in the near future – nor is it clear that it should change. Stephens and Giberson conclude their book with an ambiguous observation.

The DNA of the parallel culture of evangelicalism is wound from two very different strands – an ancient religious tradition and a secular world increasingly dominated by science and influenced by forces outside of conservative Christianity. … The timeless ancient Book will be forever asked to speak to a constantly changing world, and prophets will of necessity arise to be anointed to make that happen. Those leaders must be skilled in appropriating both the spiritual authority of the Christian tradition and the secular authority of the present culture – whatever its changing epistemological priorities – will provide that intellectual authority and be anointed to lead. (p. 269)

We would benefit if Christians leaders, including preachers and pastors on the front lines, thought hard about the ways that leaders and authorities arise and are validated. We would also benefit if more Christian scholars wrote “for the church” as Scot is wont to say. Perhaps most importantly, we would benefit if more Christian scholars wrote in a way accessible to the average evangelical pastor. Francis Collins’s books The Language of God and The Language of Science and Faith (with Karl Giberson) are great examples, but only a start.

What characteristics should qualify one for leadership?

If you are a pastor or preacher – who do you look to for expert advice?

How do you evaluate evangelical authorities?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • I’m sorry to hear this is the last post on this topic, RJS – these have been excellent. I’d love to know your answers to those last three questions! There’s plenty in Scripture on how to appoint local church leaders (1 Tim 3; Titus 1; etc), but very little on how leaders of “movements” might be appointed / recognised. Personally, I can’t see a reason why different character requirements would be needed to those in 1 Tim 3, but then there’s the thorny question of “sez who?” Answers on a postcard …

  • Fred

    Randall Stephens – “The silent, silent partner…”

    That’s what makes a great leader.

  • Paul W

    If being an evangelical leader entails preying on people’s fears, lacking nuance, and villainizing a fabricated enemy then why would anyone aspire to be a leader or a follower in evangelicalism?

  • RJS


    That is the overly cynical way of putting it – and although the hype may make it appear so at times, this is not the message of Stephens and Giberson.

    We do, however, need to think critically about the things that influence us and the techniques that we use to get a message across.

    I think the message is that we need critically self-aware leaders both great and small … who disciple critically self-aware Christians. Critical here does not mean “come down hard on” is means analytical and judicious – asking the right questions with intentionality.

  • Susan N.

    Hi RJS,

    Because this is an issue that generates a strong emotional response in me (making Stephens’ and Giberson’s cynicism seem tame by comparison), I have refrained from commenting — though I have followed the series. This wrap-up post was very well-written. Thanks for putting this together on JC.

    You have highlighted so many good (valid, valuable) points…

    I liked this excerpt: “The parallel culture of evangelicalism is like a country without monarchs or politicians.” 😉

    On the topic of charisma and in-group identification with authorities, I was curious as to the formal definition of “charisma.” Bing dictionary says this:

    1. personal magnetism: the ability to inspire enthusiasm, interest, or affection in others by means of personal charm or influence

    2. divine gift: a gift or power believed to be divinely bestowed

    So I was mentally comparing what qualities in an academic/intellectual authority would inspire my interest and/or affection. I think, if a secular or religious scholar seeks to influence the masses, the ability to teach is essential. A good teacher is able to communicate new or difficult ideas in a way that will be accessible to the average person…without making that person feel “less than.”

    Have you ever read the historical fiction / biography of Nathanial Bowditch titled, ‘Carry On, Mr. Bowditch’? He was a very smart man, ahead of his time, who learned how to teach rough-around-the-edges sailors advanced navigational techniques. A close friend of his (Bowditch) once spoke truth in love to him about his tendency to hold those with lesser abilities / knowledge in contempt. She said, “You are like a man who rushes into a room and trips over a stool, and then curses the stool for being in your way.” (My paraphrase)

    That last example is one which scholars who aspire to influence the general masses should take care *not* to be. I think this is how some evangelicals who might otherwise be open to pro-intellectual dialogue or input are rebuffed and turned off — in perceiving that the “liberal elite” think they know it all and are looking down on the average joe.

    I have appreciated Scot’s theological writing, because it is authoritative (author is a credentialed scholar of NT, support for truth claims are provided, etc.), AND (this is the biggie for me), the writing is accessible and not insulting to my current level of knowledge. Those two together create an authority figure whom I can trust.

    I also liked Scot’s story (yesterday) of his early exposure and journey with Calvinism. I took away from that story the advice to read, read, read as much as you can. Talk to many people, seek diverse views on a subject. In the end, though, we all have to think critically and choose for ourselves what (and whom) to believe.

    Francis Collins impressed me this same way in the way he writes about science. Very accessible and adept at teaching.

    One last personal story that came to mind while reading the section about in-group determination based on cultural identifiers. I am acquainted with several families who do not believe in vaccinating. (The majority are both evangelical and homeschool families, but a few were from my La Leche League association years ago. These LLLI folks do not necessarily homeschool, and even fewer are evangelical by faith.) A year or so ago, I had a very disturbing (on so many levels) conversation with a mom whose youngest child (infant – 2-3 mos. old at the time) had been diagnosed with whooping cough. Pertussis is making a comeback, presumably due to so many foregoing childhood immunizations — my non-expert opinion. The upshot of the conversation was, “Don’t trust the government or medical “establishment.” This mom insisted that she felt at peace with the child’s illness, she was trusting (and properly “fearing” God), versus fearing the world and any natural consequences that could occur. The baby did live, thankfully. I did pray that God would be merciful to this family. Later, this same mom asked if I had an opinion on the Rob Bell / Love Wins hubbub… because, “she wasn’t sure about what to think?” I humored her request and answered honestly and in detail. In evangelical circles, Rob Bell is *not* the charismatic leader who is anointed! He is Exhibit A of who not to be reading or listening to. His book is fodder for developing apologetic / evangelistic strategy! I think Rob Bell is charismatic, but he’s definitely in the “out-group” among conservative evangelicals. And I’m not just talking about fundamentalist extremists here…

    Christmas peace to you and yours, RJS.

  • RJS

    Thanks Susan,

    I should have defined charismatic. In this post I am generally using the term in the common sense of definition one.

    I think we often run into trouble in evangelicalism because too many, both leaders and followers, confuse definition one with definition two. A charismatic leader – even a charismatic Christian leader – is not necessarily following the Spirit or particularly empowered by the Spirit.

  • Joe Canner

    Susan #5: Unfortunately, I think it will taking something approaching an epidemic to convince people about immunizations. We are too far removed in time from the pre-immunization epidemics for people to be scared of them anymore.

    The interesting thing about the anti-immunization movement is that it doesn’t seem to be inspired by a single charismatic leader (evangelical or otherwise). Instead it seems to stem more from the anti-science, anti-intellectual culture that has been cultivated by evangelicals (mostly in the creation/evolution arena). As RJS noted, there is a deep distrust of science, even when it comes to issues like immunization and global warming for which there is little basis for theological objection. The logic seems to be: “you atheists couldn’t be trusted on evolution, so we’re not going to trust you on anything else.”

  • Rick

    But Joe #7-

    They did not pull that out of thin air. From the LA Times:

    “The doctor who launched the modern anti-vaccine movement acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly,” Britain’s General Medical Council has ruled. But fear not. Dr. Andrew Wakefield is still a hero to his many acolytes. And others, with curious credentials, fight on to terrify parents into not getting their children inoculated. In 1998, Wakefield wrote and then vociferously hawked an article in the British medical journal Lancet linking autism to the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella). After the council’s decision, Lancet this week retracted the article. Among the facts that have come out of the inquiry into Wakefield’s research is that two years before his paper appeared, lawyers seeking to sue vaccine makers paid Wakefield the equivalent of $700,000.”

    So the idea came from a medial journal, so it had some “authority”. When it comes to their kids, many are not taking any chances.

    The recent Dr. Oz claims about arsenic have similarities, with many trusting his “authority”. However, in the case of Dr. Oz, he has now been shown to be correct. His critics have had to apologize. Because of his success, the anti-immunization issue is now more difficult.

  • Rick

    oops, sorry, #8 should say: “medical journal”

  • I’m not sure that they haven’t identified something endemic in American culture and not just evangelicalism. In our country, we are very susceptible to the process of rallying the troops around a common enemy. The McCarthy communist hearings of the 50s are an example where politicians can use a common enemy to gather a following as well as anyone. Kennedy, Reagan, Bush 2 all used common enemies to get elected or re-elected.

    We see it in sports culture, local politics, local churches etc., etc. One thing that heartens me since the turn of this century is that the cult of the Christian Superstar is fading in our country. There are certainly a few well-known names, especially among the megachurch pastors, but none of them are currently recognized as having “untouchable, hyper-anointed” status. The “flat world” reality created by online connectivity shows the warts of all men and women.

    It’s a start.

  • Rick

    Mike #10-

    “In our country, we are very susceptible to the process of rallying the troops around a common enemy.”

    But that does not mean the enemy is not real.

    I think we need to be careful about balancing intellectual advances with being “on guard”.

  • Rick #11….agreed; sometimes the enemy is real. My observation is not the reality of common enemies but the American preponderance to use a common enemy to gain a following. It is certainly not just Evangelicals who do it – so do politicians, scientists, newspapers etc.

  • Joe Canner

    Rick #8: Thanks for the background, I had forgotten about that. No doubt Wakefield’s article played a significant role, but there is also a lot of anecdotal evidence and science distrust that give the movement traction despite the exposure of Wakefield’s fraud.

  • jamie

    I’ve enjoyed the little that i’ve read in these articles.

    I think, depending on your context, this could be a HUGE issue to wrestle with.

    In my context, there are many, many, for whom the “seminary degree” is the golden ticket. in my context there is no way you should do anything but youth ministry unless you attain a seminary degree. It doesn’t really matter how God is working through you or how you prove over and over that your a leader…the degree is what counts.

    I do certainly agree that a degree is important….but there needs to be much more that goes into calling leaders to our church.

  • As a young man who feels called to ministry and would like to be a, at least moderately, influential Christian leader this kind of stuff is depressing. It seems that even if one is sincere one is still required to self promote and use manipulation to gain authority. I don’t know if I’m supposed to suppress my ambition, or let it run wild.

    I don’t know how things could possibly change, but it seems our system too often rewards selfish ambition and self-delusion. I know and have seen men quickly rise to positions of authority simply because they had charisma. Some of these men also have other great qualities that do qualify them for ministry, but because they rise so quickly they may never have to learn things like submission and humility. Furthermore, a person like me is left to feel like I must not be anointed since I don’t seem to have the charisma these other men have.

  • AHH

    This has been a good, thought-provoking series. Were there other “anointed” experts analyzed in the book that you didn’t get time to blog about? For example, given the nature of the book, I was expecting to see something on Calvin Beisner, who seems to be the go-to guy for the Religious Right when it wants to oppose creation stewardship.

    I think “moving forward” requires dealing with the well-taken “common enemy” and “like us” points. For example on the science and faith issues, it won’t help if a defense of theistic evolution comes from some “egghead” who is into process theology or something. That is why it is important to have people like RJS who solidly affirm Christian orthodoxy and solidly oppose the atheistic philosophy of people like Dawkins. Same for Francis Collins, and various faculty at Calvin and other schools, and I try to do my bit. It is harder to dismiss science and scientists as the enemy when you are in close fellowship with one (although that does not guarantee freedom from attack as Schneider at Calvin found out and I am now experiencing at my own church to a much lesser degree). I think in any such conversation, it is important to make sure it is understood that we are on the same “team” before plunging into the controversial issues.

    And probably pastors need to think about who they are listening to on areas outside their expertise — if they are just listening to the self-proclaimed experts followed by the Evangelical herd, or whether they will be more discerning.

  • Susan N.

    Joe (#7) – yes, you are probably right about it taking a disaster of epic proportions (epidemic) to reawaken many people to the importance of mass immunization. Just as an aside (sorry RJS–not my intent to hijack the thread), I have noticed a series of TV commercials on public health aimed at educating people on the importance of immunizing for pertussis, because babies often catch it from older children or adults who weren’t vaccinated or whose vaccines haven’t been “boosted” recently. Having just completed my annual physical, at which time I submitted to a Tdap booster vaccine, I just wanted to put a plug in for grown-ups to be attentive to receiving needed boosters 🙂

    Rick (#8) – you are right, too. It’s very confusing and scary sometimes, trying to navigate the overabundance of information in the public sphere — some of it good, and some of it not. With vaccines, there is always a small risk of severe reaction or even death. I think it’s good to weigh the cost/benefits and try to make a balanced, sensible decision when information is ambiguous. Choose a competent doctor whom you feel you can trust, and feel comfortable discussing your concerns.

    We (American society) certainly have charlatans in the secular sphere too, that somehow get elevated to “anointed” status among the general public or segments of it.

    The interesting correlation to evangelicals who attach or associate with “cultural identifiers” (like the anti-immunization believers) is that if you openly differ with these cultural identifiers, often your status shifts to “out-group.” The anti-immunization issue among evangelicals becomes a kind of litmus test of faith. Do you place your faith in the government, or medical science, or “the world”, or do you place your total trust in God alone? It can work the same way with creation vs. evolution science, political party, etc. That is not helpful to spiritual health.

    That there are “enemies” which are dangerous (Rick, #11), okay. I can go along with that. In fact, I was reading an interesting passage in Exodus 23 this morning. It’s about God preparing the Israelites to enter the Promised Land — a pluralistic society if ever there was one! The study I am using (CRI/Voice Institute – Exodus Devotionals) pointed out that God instructed the Israelites to stay focused on worshiping Yahweh alone, and to demolish all the other gods in the land. Not to demolish people, mind you, but to demolish “gods.” How many American idols (even inside the Church) have we given our loyalty and worship to, instead of, or alongside Christ the King? Enemies that are dangerous are other idols. I thought this was an interesting distinction. Maybe we shouldn’t be elevating our evangelical leaders to rock star status? There is danger in displacing the One who commands our wholehearted worship. I guess I’m acknowledging here that we the flock bear responsibility for how we relate to our leaders in the context of following our big ‘L’ Leader.

  • Rick

    Susan N-

    “How many American idols (even inside the Church) have we given our loyalty and worship to, instead of, or alongside Christ the King? Enemies that are dangerous are other idols. I thought this was an interesting distinction. Maybe we shouldn’t be elevating our evangelical leaders to rock star status? There is danger in displacing the One who commands our wholehearted worship.”

    Well said. We are so trained by our culture to have that type mindset (Hollywood, Politics, Music, Sports, etc…) that we don’t make that distinction with our own church/faith leaders.

  • Robert Dunbar

    This isn’t simply an evangelical issue; it really is a human issue. We’re all subject to confirmation bias, to groupthink, and to group polarization. Why would we be surprised that they affect the way we choose leaders–even church leaders?

    For the evangelical churches in particular, I think a lot of this comes down to ecclesiology. Most evangelical denominations don’t emphasize their ecclesiology and most people in the pews probably don’t have a clue what it is, or means. Without clear teaching–which has to begin with clear statements of faith–on ecclesiology, people will follow the models of their culture. There’s nothing unique to American conservative Christianity about leaders “finding themes around which to rally their followers, playing on common fears, identifying out-groups to demonize, and projecting confidence.” Culture has filled in the gap created by abandoning ecclesiology.

    I think a first step would surely be to review the offices of the New Testament church, in the fulness of their meanings, and to see whether our “anointed” leaders measure up. And perhaps a second step lies in realizing that the NT shows both that we all have “an anointing” (to understand God’s will) and that there is only One who is called “Anointed.”

  • RJS

    Andrew (#1),

    I may put up a post that elaborates on some of my ideas (for what they are worth).

    I evaluate evangelical authorities more or less the same way I evaluate other authorities – Does what they say and propose hang together? Are the ideas sound? How do they support their positions and why? But I have spent my adult life learning and practicing “critical thinking.”

    Sometimes it gets me in trouble … most people (even pastors) are not used to having to defend their ideas and positions in this manner. If a Nobel Laureate tells me something is true, I don’t accept it without testing it out in my mind and in conversation (and occasionally in more concrete ways) and the same is true for evangelical authorities.

    (Actually what gets me in more trouble on occasion is extreme impatience (to put it mildly) when people won’t or can’t defend their position and simply assert it and expect it to be accepted. The admonitions to be patient and slow to anger are places where I could use a good deal of improvement.)

  • RJS

    Mike (#10) and Robert (#19),

    It is not just an evangelical issue – not by any means. But evangelicalism, because of the informal structure is particularly vulnerable to some forms, or so it seems to me.

  • RJS


    Great comment. It is harder to dismiss people as the enemy when you are in close fellowship with them … but that does not guarantee an absence of conflict.

  • phil_style

    @RJS, #20 “when people won’t or can’t defend their position and simply assert it and expect it to be accepted. The admonitions to be patient and slow to anger are places where I could use a good deal of improvement.”

    amen. I do the same thing. It is one of my major character flaws that I get quickly frustrated with those who I think have not adequately justified their opinions. I should just relax a bit.

  • Rob Dunbar

    @RJS #21: “evangelicalism, because of the informal structure is particularly vulnerable to some forms, or so it seems to me.” Yes. That’s why I have begun to appreciate the need for a well-developed ecclesiology. Didn’t used to…and got burned.