The limits of loyalty

In 1974 the Ethiopian imperial regime under Haile Selassie was overthrown. Not only was emperor Selassie arrested and later presumably murdered, but many others were as well, including dozens of officials who had been loyal to the emperor. It was followed by the establishment of a brutal communist regime. There had been previous coup attempts as well, some even perpetrated by those who had been loyal to the emperor through prior rebellions.

I’m currently finishing a biography of Selassie. The book was written by one of Selassie’s close relations, and his father was the last president of the Imperial Crown Council. As he outlines the causes of the fall of the empire, he places much blame at the feet of Emperor Selassie, who started many necessary reforms, but was unwilling for anything to actually be done in the country without his own personal imprimatur. Despite an amazing work ethic, as the administration grew and he aged, it became impossible for him to keep up with things. Too, he was distrustful of everybody—a hard-learned lesson through numerous betrayals in his own country and outside.

Many saw the writing on the wall for the emperor’s government, including the author’s father, who begged Selassie upon his 80th birthday to retire as emperor and put his son on the throne. The author writes the following after describing loyal men in positions of power warning others that the country would fall, yet who refused to flee the country, instead dying in service to their emperor:

> It was not the case that the imperial dignitaries lacked the will to institute reforms. But neither the prime minister nor Ras Asserate were prepared to face down the emperor. Loyalty to Haile Selassie eclipsed every other consideration. They had hitched their own fates to that of their emperor, and in the end they were even ready to go to their graves for him. They vacillated between fatalism and torment. And many times, like the one outlined above, they even despised themselves for having this mindset.

There was much to admire about the loyalty of these men. Still, they failed terribly while remaining loyal. Loyalty is obviously not the highest good.

Only when building your own kingdom is personal loyalty from others the most important thing to seek. But even then, ultimately that loyalty is likely to lead to the downfall of your kingdom. When loyalty is at the top, there remains only two choices for followers. They can either say “yes” or they can stage a coup. We’ve seen this over and over among personality-driven ministries and churches.

The real problem with the emperor wasn’t that he didn’t care about Ethiopia. He deeply cared about it. The problem was that he was unable to distinguish between himself and his country. Many men have the same problem with the ministry they are building. Such men are not willing to lay down their life or their position for the sheep. Such men are not to be trusted.

However, there are also lots of men that cannot be trusted because they are constantly scheming about how to build their own kingdom while serving under or alongside others. They see the ministry they are serving in as some other man’s kingdom, and like the thief who thinks everyone steals, they interpret every call to be faithful in that ministry work as a call for personal loyalty.

So the man calling others to personal loyalty is generally building his own kingdom, while the man who misinterprets a call to faithfulness as a call to personal loyalty is also generally building his own kingdom.

My takeaway is that men who are obsessed with personal loyalty, whether demanding it, or seeing such demands everywhere, are not to be trusted. So, if you are not building your own kingdom and want to avoid men who are, be on the lookout for those who demand personal loyalty or who interpret everything as a test of their loyalty. Doubly so for the man who complains about lack of loyalty in others. Triply so for the man who complains about how others don’t trust him even though he has proven his loyalty.


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About The Author

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Joseph Bayly is the founding pastor of Christ Church in Cincinnati, OH, and acquisitions editor for Warhorn Books.

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