Book Review: Challenging Leaders, ed. Graham Nicholls (Affinity, 2023)

Recent years have seen a number of valuable publications addressing the issue of abusive Christian leadership. Challenging Leaders is another such title that seeks to resource the church to better handle issues arising in this area. Written by a number of contributors, with exact authorship remaining deliberately unclear throughout, this short book is, I think, a welcome addition to that discussion. The authors are a mix of church leaders, para-church employees, and safeguarding professionals who all bring a wealth of wisdom to this subject.

My own firsthand experience of witnessing abusive leadership and harmful church culture in the UK has demonstrated a need to wrestle with this issue more thoughtfully and more widely. The grim reality is that we continue, so often, to fail victims and protect abusers. The authors of this new volume make clear that cruel and self-promoting Christian leadership ‘is abusive and evil’ (63), and we ought to take that simple but stark fact on board. Though this book is not perfect, I pray it will be a helpful resource for leaders and church members alike. Particular highlights include extended reflections on both healthy and abusive church cultures, and we would do well to consider our own church contexts in light of the biblically-grounded discussion in this book.

The authors do not shy away from the fact that this is a ‘real issue’, and therefore pitch this volume as a ‘best practice guide’ (10) to help equip churches and church leadership to address this issue head-on, in a Christ-honouring and gracious manner. No one volume on this subject will be comprehensive (particularly if it is limited to only around 150 pages) and the co-authorship model at times leads the contributors to talk over one another, but this is a pastoral, nuanced and considered work. I’m grateful for the wisdom and love for the church that is apparent in this book, and pray it may indeed be a help to many churches and Christians wrestling with issues related to situations of abusive leadership.

Simple Structure

Chapter One, the Introduction, seeks to open the discussion through a clear understanding of abusive leadership in Scripture, and this is a valuable platform from which to begin. Once various terms are established (including a lengthy discussion on ‘spiritual abuse’ – to which I will return later) a short survey of this issue is explored through Scripture (21-23). Beginning in Eden and moving to the New Testament, this survey is not exhaustive, but it is a clear demonstration of the important spiritual dynamic present in instances of abusive Christian leadership (20). The contributors may have benefitted from additional references to texts from 3 John, Jude or 2 Peter, but overall this introduction serves as a helpful platform from which to discuss church culture and abuse.

Chapters Two and Three address first ‘Healthy Church Culture’ and then ‘Abusive Church Cultures’. Moving from the broad biblical survey of Chapter One, this begins with a good examination of Christ-honouring church cultures based on 1 Thessalonians. Chapter Two is particularly helpful in encouraging the reader to recognise that a biblical, healthy and unified church culture does not equate to one where concerns and questions are overlooked. ‘It is entirely reasonable to raise concerns, necessary in a healthy church, and is not to be viewed as divisive… church leaders should respond with grace and humility and not with harshness, silence or withdrawal.’ (41.) Very much focused on culture over practice, this is a helpful meditation on a healthy, NT church culture, and prepares the reader for the shock of Chapter Three. As someone who has witnessed the damage and danger of abusive leadership and the harmful church culture this creates, this chapter struck me as shockingly accurate. As the authors point out: church ought to be a place of care, but abusive cultures create ‘an environment of harm’ (43). Chapter Three is spot on in terms of the response of abusive leaders to the asking of questions or raising of concerns. Retaliatory actions such as those who raise concerns being described as ‘doing the devil’s work’ (62) are all too common, and this chapter rightly calls those responses out. As noted in the introduction to this post, the authors clearly state (63) that such leadership is ‘abusive and evil.’ This chapter alone is worth reading and reflecting on. It is not perfect, nor does it offer a complete picture (more on this below.) What it does do is offer a frank discussion of the grim behaviours of those who seek to preserve their own power over the good of the flock or the glory of Christ’s name. It is a sobering read, yet an important one.

Chapters Four to Six deal with the fallout from issues around abusive leadership. Chapter Four ‘Trauma and Those who Suffer’ speaks into areas around pastoral care for victims and those affected by this issue. The chapter is a little long, and begins to meander off course at the end, but is nonetheless a valuable resource. Chapter Five ‘Developing Healthy Procedures’ is far more practical, and is once again rooted in biblical teaching as the authors urge churches and leaders to be quick to listen (James 1:19) and concerned with mercy and humility (Micah 6:8). There is plenty of material around different procedures and reporting practices, all specifically focused on the British context. Chapter Six rounds off the work with a shorter chapter on ‘Media and Abuse’. This short chapter is the weakest in the work, and has occasionally surprising moments, such as the almost cynical comments on those who resort to social media to share their stories in desperation (140), and the odd use of the FIEC defiantly refusing to apologise for a doctrinal position on Twitter as an example of social media engagement (141). This example seems to go against a deliberate refusal to mention specific individuals, churches or organisations in examples or case studies in the rest of the book, and stands out a little awkwardly.

A short conclusion ties the work together, before a brief bio on each contributor is included. Rather than ending with a list of further reading or recommended resources (which would have been a valuable addition), the book ends with adverts for ‘other books by Christian Focus.’ In lieu of this, I offer a few suggestions for further reading below.

A Much Needed Discussion

Overall this is a helpful contribution to an issue that seems almost inescapable in wider Christian circles at the moment. Whether or not your own experience of church or Christian leadership has been blighted by this issue, it is one that bears reflection. Chapter Two, on healthy church cultures, offers a helpful meditation on 1 Thessalonians and allows us to question our own church contexts in light of Scripture. Chapter Three, on abusive church culture, lays bare some of the more brutal tactics and characteristics of damaging, unbiblical and even evil church cultures. We would do well to reflect on them.

The most significant strength of this book lies in its UK authorship. So much of what UK churches read and imbibe comes through the lens of US evangelicalism, a context and perspective that is further from our own than we recognise. This is a valuable contribution, from a range of UK voices that bring a helpful collective wisdom to this matter. It is able, as a result, to speak into specific issues ranging from para-church relations to dealing with the Charity Commission. There is much practical advice amidst the pastoral.

Hindered by Confusion

This book does, however, fall short in a few ways. At times there is a lack of clarity on some of the tools the authors employ, and careful editing would resolve these. Chapter Five, in particular, includes a number of charts that are simply left unexplained, and would have benefitted from some discussion in the text. A number of references are partial or missing entirely, such as the mention of Hilborn’s paper in the Introduction (18). An odd insertion of Christ into the narrative of 1 Kings 19 is also unexplained (81) in Chapter Four.

Two bigger questions emerge throughout the work. The first relates to the book’s understanding of the term ‘Spiritual Abuse’. A lengthy discussion in the Introduction fails to produce a consensus on a working definition for the book, and the authors in this chapter seem to flip flop between rejecting the term and consigning themselves to having to use it. Overall, the sense is that there are helpful things to draw from this phrase, but the author of Chapter Three then suggests that it is ‘not a term the authors would want to endorse’ (44), a seeming contradiction to earlier in the book. Chapter Four launches into a sensitive discussion of the victims of abusive leadership, and uses the term repeatedly – without giving an apologetic for its use. Yet in Chapter Five a lengthy footnote then backs away from the merits of using the term (134). By this point, there is a total lack of clarity around the term and the contributors’ understanding of it. Chapter Six then cements this confusion. Discussing speaking out in the media in defence of your church or leadership, the authors write: ‘There is no agreed definition of spiritual abuse, so you would be defending a concept that nobody has agreed on. This is tantamount to nailing jelly to the wall.’ (140.) In this final chapter, the term is roundly dismissed as incoherent and intangible. While it is helpful advice not to speak out publicly with unqualified terms and ideas, it struck this reviewer as astonishing how confused the authors of this otherwise clear and helpful study became over a single and hugely important term. It was disappointing that no clear definition or usage was presented, agreed and utilised. The confusion in this area damages the book in what feels like a wholly avoidable way.*

My other disappointment with this book was the lack of clarity on the severity of this issue. The book at times makes comment on the evil of abusive Christian leadership (63, for example), and this is to be commended. Too often in real-world situations, abusive leaders are simply ‘managed’. But Scripture is clear that those who abuse the flock, harm individual sheep and seek to damage the church for the sake of personal profit are not only utterly disqualified from Christian ministry, but act abhorrently, in a way that is simply wholly opposite to the God they claim to serve. I would have appreciated a strength of language appropriate to the severity of the issue under discussion. Not all situations of abusive or errant Christian leadership are disqualifying. Of course there is a spectrum. But certainly a huge amount of what is discussed in this book is so far from God-honouring that the perpetrators no longer come close to imaging the New Testament’s qualifications for church leaders. We would do well to shy away from PR management and seek Gospel clarity in speaking of such terrible matters. This book would have been strengthened by taking a clearer line on the severity of this issue, and the implications for those caught up as perpetrators or enablers within situations of abusive Christian leadership.


Despite these more negative reflections, there is much to commend about this book. I am grateful for the contributors who took the time to research, reflect, pray and write this volume. There is much in this book that will be a helpful resource for many in a dark and painful area. The pastoral sensitivity with which the contributors approach the subject should be commended, and they clearly listened well to the victims of abusive church leaders in their seeking to understand this issue more clearly.

No book on this subject will be perfect. It is a hugely complex area, with spiritual, legal, cultural and ethical ramifications that echo through the church and beyond. Nonetheless, Challenging Leaders is a welcome addition to the few resources available to the UK church in this area. We must do better, both as evangelical Christians in the UK more broadly, and as individual churches up and down the country. Challenging Leaders offers much practical and biblical wisdom in approaching this thorny issue, and I pray it will be a help to many in considering these matters.

Further Reading:

Bully Pulpit by Michael Kruger (Review available here.)

Powerful Leaders by Marcus Honeysett (Review available here.)

Spiritual Abuse, Fallen Leaders and the Misuse of Matthew 18

*I should note, though imperfect, Michael Kruger’s recent book offers a definition of the term and then works within that. This approach provides the reader with a clear understanding and expectation regarding terminology and the linguistic expectations on the reader and the author. See further: Book Review: Bully Pulpit (2022).



    • Thanks Graham, I’m grateful for all the work that’s gone into this and trust the Lord will use it to help churches wrestling with this issue.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s