In a fallen, uncertain world, no one is unbroken, faultless, without sin. Which means that no one in a position of leadership is unbroken, faultless, without sin. And no candidate for a position of leadership is unbroken, faultless, without sin.

This is not an opinion; it is a statement of fact.

The question worth asking then, if we wish to remain faithful to our King, the Lord Christ, is how we should live in light of that unfortunate, sad fact.

One option is to assume that since everyone is fallen, we need not care too much about whether our leaders are virtuous. Their management ability and policies are what matter, not their personal virtue. This position, for the followers of Jesus, is impossible to accept. The people of God throughout history have been called to pray for those in authority (see Psalm 72; 1 Timothy 2), and it’s impossible to take these texts seriously and exclude the leader’s character from our prayers. Besides, we need to keep in mind Jesus’s teaching that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin’” (John 8:34). Among other things, this means that a lack of virtue begets more lack of virtue. This is often easily identifiable in leaders, whether political (reread the history of the Old Testament kings), or religious (reread the Gospels and trace Jesus’ statements about the Pharisees).

Fallen, unbelieving people—including leaders—can love virtue, strive for peace, seek reconciliation over division, care for the poor and oppressed, and work for the general good. Reread Daniel’s appeal to Nebuchadnezzar to demonstrate “righteousness” and “mercy to the oppressed” after the king had a dream warning of judgment (Daniel 4). Such a leader is always preferrable to one who seems to glory in unkindness, seeks personal wealth and power over goodness, rejects the refugee and dispossessed, and propagates discord or violence by action or inaction.

In Scripture when church leaders are under consideration, personal virtue is always part of the concern (1 Timothy 3). When Jesus taught what was essential to the blessed life, his Beatitudes (Matthew 5) continue to challenge us to a life of deep and lasting virtue.

Often one’s lack of virtue becomes obvious at points of tension and debate. There is a difference between sharp disagreement and unkind dismissiveness. It is interesting that Jesus called the religious leaders of his day unflattering names. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:27). If at first glance this seems similar to the name-calling occurring today in our badly divided society, we misunderstand what Jesus was doing, and why.

First, his use of “Woe” was a well-known warning given by prophets from ancient times, used by Jeremiah (48:1-2), Nahum (3:1), Habakkuk 2, and Zephaniah (2:5). When a prophet of God used that word the person was simultaneously claiming a prophetic calling and that God was displeased and about to take action.

Second, his use of the theme of “whitewashed” would also be recognized by the Jewish leaders because of its ancient prophetic roots: See Ezekiel 13 & 22. When he later, in Matthew 23:32, uses another name, calling them “snakes” and “vipers,” these prophetic terms have roots in Isaiah 59:5&8. Jesus isn’t disdaining or sneering at them. Rather, as the Pharisees would be aware, with these terms Jesus is asserting his role as Prophet, taking his rightful place in the long and noble tradition of those who were called to call God’s people to repentance. The terms are not meant dismissively but sternly, as a word from God, in an appeal for spiritual restoration.

If we compare this to the name-calling appearing on social media, in interviews and statements in our society, the difference is both striking and obvious. These names are designed to diminish, hurt, humiliate, and tear down. They are malicious caricatures, meant to stir up hate and dislike and cynicism. As such they are the antithesis of civility and contrary to every fruit of the Spirit, a form of public bullying. It is possible to disagree strongly with someone without trying to destroy them, their reputation, or their standing in the community.

Lord, show us that reconciling with those we imagine are different from us is not only for peace, but also to train us more deeply in the faith that honors everything created by your hand. Help us see that reconciliation leads to deeper knowledge of you. Amen. [Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, for February 8]

In recent years, too many leaders both in the church and out of it have been revealed to have a glaring lack of personal virtue. And such a lack always bears evil fruit, whether it is a refusal to deal with sexual abuse, or subverting the judicial system, or lying about things easily proven false, or vulgar displays of arrogance, wealth, or authority.

It is true I can not change all that, and nor, in all probability, can you. But we do have a voice, no matter how small. We have the chance to pray regularly, and we must. We can use our voice in church and politics and must.

And we have a practical opportunity in our small corner of life and reality to love, serve, and display virtue, even if it seems to be primarily before an audience of One. Virtue is best shown to be lovely and necessary not in discussions but in living demonstrations, especially in times of tension or disagreement. I am called to be a demonstration of the loveliness of virtue and righteousness, even if it seems the effect of my faithfulness is too small to be noticeable.

In the Anglican liturgy during Lent, we review the Decalogue. The Celebrant reads each law, and the People respond. You shall not murder / Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep this law. That seems to be an easy one; few of us have taken the life of another. But that is not sufficient. Jesus revealed in his Sermon on the Mount the deeply expansive meaning of God’s law, which guided the Westminster Divines when they wrote the Larger Catechism. Their exposition of the Sixth Commandment touches on the topic we are considering here.

As part of what they discerned as “the duties required in the sixth commandment,” they included “quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit… by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil.”

And as part of the “sins forbidden in the sixth commandment,” the Westminster theologians concluded, is “sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions… provoking words, oppression, quarreling.”

O God, the Creator of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you in Jesus Christ; in whose Name we pray. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer Occasional Prayers #33]

May it be so for us, and for our leaders, whether ecclesiastical or political.

Photo credit: Photo by Anna Tarazevich (