How NOT to Lead

By Mark D. Roberts

June 15, 2022

Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians

Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 2:3-6 (NRSV)

For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others.


We live in a day when many leaders in all sectors live and lead in ways that promote their own good rather than the good of others or the organizations they lead. The moral failure of leaders begets mistrust and suspicion. In the first century AD, the Apostle Paul and his colleagues faced similar challenges. They proclaimed the gospel in a world filled with wandering teachers who practiced deception and manipulation, and who worked for personal gain rather than the good of others. Thus, Paul and Co. strove to live and lead with integrity, to be leaders worthy of trust. Their example challenges and encourages us to do the same.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians.


These are not the glory days for leaders. In today’s world leaders face an exceptional variety of obstacles. Many of these have to do with the changing and uncertain nature of the world in which we live and lead. Other obstacles have to do with the fact that so many leaders in our day have turned out to be flawed both professionally and personally. The more people see leaders fail to fulfill their promises, bend the truth to the breaking point, and care mainly about their own power, the more people will assume that leaders of any kind are worthy of suspicion and mistrust.

I wish I could say that things are usually different in the church. Christian leaders should be people of exceptional integrity. We should be seeking to follow Jesus in every aspect of our lives. But every day it seems like there is a new revelation unveiling the misdeeds of Christian leaders. These days, those misdeeds often have to do with covering up wrongdoings within organizations, including gross moral errors that have wounded innocent people. Rather than being honest and taking accountability for organizational failure, leaders who represent Christ hide, distract, deceive, and do whatever they can to preserve their own power.

The apostle Paul and his church-planting colleagues were very aware of the flaws and foibles of leaders in their time of history. They knew that if they were to be trusted by the people in the communities they served, they would have to live exemplary lives. This meant, among other things, avoiding the behaviors that were commonly associated with immoral leaders and teachers.

In the second chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul and his colleagues intentionally distinguish themselves from other teachers who wandered about the Greco-Roman world peddling their philosophical wares. The missionaries write, “For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others” (1 Thessalonians 2:3-6).

From our point of view, this list of things that the missionaries did not do can seem random. They rejected deceit, impure motives, trickery, flattery, greed, and seeking human praise. But, in fact, this list is not random. Rather, it reflects accurate knowledge of the first-century cultural setting. Many self-proclaimed philosophers wandered from city to city, preaching their particular path to better living. Though some of these philosophers, often called Cynics, had pure motivations, hoping to improve humankind, many others played the role of wandering philosophers in their quest for glory or financial gain.

How did these less-than-honorable teachers persuade their hearers to follow their path? Many used flattery to butter up the crowd in order to gain followers or financial gifts. Many also employed deceit in order to advance their particular agenda. We know this because some of the more decent philosophers complained in writing about their dishonorable competitors. So, what we read in 1 Thessalonians 2 reflects the fact that Paul and his colleagues were quite aware of the cultural milieu in which they operated. They understood the dangers of being associated with the wandering philosophers who had no integrity. Paul and Co. knew they had to be different so that they and their message would be taken seriously.

We who serve as leaders in today’s world—whether in business, the academy, the arts, government, or the church—face a dynamic similar to that of the first century. With so many leaders abusing their power, seeking personal gain, and majoring in deception, we who lead must be keenly aware of how we are living as well as how others see us. We need to live and lead in such a way that people will trust us and take our message seriously. In particular, we need to avoid the kinds of things leaders do today that are so egregiously wrong. We need, for example, to hold ourselves, our people, and our organizations accountable for our behavior. When wrong is done, we who lead need to be appropriately forthright and genuinely repentant. We need to make restitution where that is needed. We need to rebuild systems so they reflect God’s justice. We need to demonstrate that our ultimate loyalty is to a God who is greater and higher than any organization or any person.

In future devotions, I will examine more closely some of the specific things Paul and his colleagues say about their actions and motivations in 1 Thessalonians 2. For now, however, I want to invite you to think about your own setting for life and work. If you are going to be a person people trust, how do you need to live? If you are going to live and lead in such a way that you are beyond reproach, what do you need to build into your life? What actions should you work hard to avoid? How can you live in such a way that people will trust you and follow your leadership?


Take time to reflect on the questions from the previous paragraph.


Take a good, hard look at yourself—how you’re living, working, and leading. Are you doing anything that might jeopardize your leadership, something that might cause those you lead to lose their trust in you? If so, talk with God about this. Make a plan to live and lead differently.


Gracious God, thank you for the example of Paul and his colleagues in 1 Thessalonians. Thank you, in particular, for their awareness of the cultural milieu in which they worked. Thank you for their resolve to live and work with honor and integrity, to be leaders that others could trust.

Help me, Lord, to be similarly aware of the setting in which I lead. Show me which behaviors or attitudes I should avoid. Teach me to lead in a way that honors you and that earns the trust of those whom I serve.

As I pray for myself today, I also pray for other leaders in all sectors. May we be people of integrity and truth. May we take responsibility for wrongdoing. May we be passionate about your justice. May we always uphold the truth. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Trustworthy Leadership

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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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