‘The end justifies the means’. It’s a famous saying that seems to have originated with Niccolò Machiavelli, the political thinker who was a statesman in Florence in the early sixteenth century. Machiavelli is often described as the father of modern political theory. In past generations the adjective Machiavellian was used to mean a scheming attitude that embodied evil, but scholars argue that is unfair to the man. Importantly, though, Machiavelli argued that the virtues that shape ordinary life do not aways apply in the same way in leadership. In order to maintain a stable government, a leader may sometimes have to use cruelty, and leaders should aim to be well liked rather than always striving to do what is morally good.
A Machiavellian leader, then, is not needlessly cruel bur ruthlessly focused on the end of stability and development and, therefore, prepared to do distasteful things that may be needed to achieve that goal. At the same time, the idea of pursuing popularity, especially when worked out in a democratic system, could feed populist policies. One could see how a politician following this approach may even become utterly unprincipled, lying whenever necessary to hold on to power, all justified with the claim that he (or she) must do so because the ‘other guy’ would be a disaster for the country.
I will leave it to the reader to decide whether this comment is applicable at all in the modern British political scene (ahem!) What I will say categorically from the perspective of Christian leadership is that Machiavelli was wrong. The end never justifies the means. Or, rather, put more positively, faithful Christian leadership consists in an end that glorifies God, means that glorify God and motivations that glorify God. If any three of these is missing, the action is not truly moral or good.
An end that glorifies God. What would that be? Well, it means the goals of our leadership must be the goals God has set for us in Scripture. To proclaim the gospel to all people and defend the faith against false accusations. To make disciples for Christ from all nations. To shepherd the church by caring for and watching over people, focusing on ministry of the word and prayer. To guard the church against sin and false teaching, exercising loving church discipline. To do good deeds to all people.
What, then, of means that glorify God? I have observed, sadly, that some Christian ‘leaders’ go astray here. They think they can advance God’s kingdom (something only God can do) through techniques that derive from the kingdoms of this world. Marketing of courses and books, resources and programmes, churches and ministries, that is thinly disguised boasting and that plays fast and loose with the truth. Style over substance. Even saying something that does not truly reflect their beliefs (were I a little bolder I might say lying) about a moral issue in the belief it may lead to a compromise with the world. In 2 Corinthians, especially the opening chapters, the apostle Paul spells out for us what authentically Christian ministry looks like. He puts it like this in 2 Corinthians 1:12:
Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.
Integrity and godly sincerity. That’s what we need. Or, if you prefer alliteration, sincerity and simplicity. The kingdom does not operate according to the world’s wisdom – power, boasting, manipulation, money – but by the currency of grace. We must always speak the truth simply and clearly, prepared to look like fools and to face opposition, but to trust that as we commend the truth to people’s consciences in God’s sight, God will work in the hearts of some to bring salvation (2 Corinthians 4:2). God’s work must be done in God’s ways. Too often we may think that if our intentions are good the Lord won’t mind what we do. But Scripture tells us there is a gospel way to do gospel ministry. Only that truly glorifies God because only simplicity and sincerity show that the power and glory belong to God alone not to us.
Finally, what of godly motivations? Well, Scripture clearly shows that God cares not only abut what we do but why we do it. Wonderfully, God can work through the sincere communication of the gospel even if our motives are wrong and I don’t need to set myself up as the judge of others or seek to stop their work even if I think they are motivated wrongly (see Philippians 1:15-18). But when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20) it really will matter what our motivations were. Did I seek God's glory or my own promotion?
So, let us test our hearts just as we test our goals and our means. May the Lord keep and guide us for His glory alone.