Abuse of Authority in the Church
A Biblical Perspective of Leadership
by Jason Young

A sad and unfortunate fact in many Christian churches and organizations today is that pastors, teachers and other elders exert or attempt to exert a heavy-handed, authoritarian type of control over their membership. While many of these leaders are well meaning, frequently authoritarianism is rooted in a hunger for power and control. These leaders rationalize and defend such behavior under the guise of love and shepherding. The Bible indeed gives a certain level of spiritual authority to church leadership, but all too often such authority is abused and misused, going well beyond what the scriptures allow.

As a result, many sincere and well-intentioned believers are led astray into extra and unbiblical teachings. The ultimate outcome is a distorted view of Christ and the gospel, which causes many to ultimately walk away from God altogether. For those that manage to function within an authoritarian church, commonly feelings of guilt, condemnation, and worthlessness hang like a dark cloud over their Christian walk. Obviously, this is not what God intended for his children. Jesus said, "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matt. 11:31)

In this article, we will examine what the Bible says about authority and the role that spiritual leaders are to play in the lives of believers.

Clearly, God calls many of His children to offices for the purposes of leading and shepherding the flock. Bishops (pastors), teachers, administrators, etc. are all biblically ordained roles (cf. Eph. 4:11, 1 Tim 3:1), but just how much authority are these offices given?

Paul, the most prolific New Testament writer and one of the greatest apostles, never once claimed control over the personal lives of his followers. He could have easily elevated himself to a self-important and tyrannical position over the church as many pastors do today. Yet he knew that he was to be a servant-leader, not a dictator. In II Corinthians 1:24, Paul wrote,

"Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy..."

Of all people, Paul could have claimed dominion over another's faith but instead considered himself a "member of the team," charged with helping people mature in their faith. Paul led by example not by militant rule.

In the same letter to the Corinthians, Paul addressed those that did wish to control the church by militant rule. In II Corinthians 11:19-20 Paul says,

"For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise! For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face."

It seems that in Corinth there were those in the church that wished to bring the church into bondage by exalting themselves above others. In other words, these self-important leaders were enslaving the congregation with their authority, and the Corinthians foolishly tolerated it.

Peter also understood what God's expectations were for leaders.  He wrote in 1 Peter 5:1-3,

"The elders who are among you I exhort...Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion...nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock."

Peter could not have been clearer. He explicitly states to lead by example, not as a lord. He says to serve as an overseer and not to force people into submission. In other words, lead, but "not by compulsion."

John spoke of dictators in the church as well. John wrote about Diotrephes who loved to control members of the church. Like many pastors today, Diotrephes spoke poorly of other churches and other Christians and forbade members from fellowshipping with them. III John 1:9-10 says,

"I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds, which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church."

Jesus taught plainly in regard to the proper role of leadership, speaking against those that "lord" over others. He even taught that He did not come to be served, but to serve others. In Mark 10:42-45, Jesus said,

"You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you...For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve..."

He stated that we as Christians are not to lord over others, abusing our authority as the Gentile leaders did. Jesus says, "...it shall not be so among you."

A scripture commonly used to justify abusive control and authoritarianism by the leaders of some churches is Hebrews 13:17 that instructs believers to, "Obey those who rule over you..." These leaders think that this means they have blanket authority over the flock entrusted to them and that they can proceed to take control over the personal lives and personal faith of believers. The word obey in this passage literally means "to be persuaded by"1 in the original text. Nothing in this verse gives church leadership unrestrained control over the lives of others. Instead it teaches believers to consider the example set by truly loving, God-fearing, servant-leaders that lead us to Christ.

In short, those that wish to act as dictators are not fulfilling a calling of God but are instead elevating themselves into a position to serve their own self-interests and ambitions. They step outside of biblical teachings for the purpose of fulfilling their desires to control the lives of others. Some of the greatest leaders in the Bible - Paul, Peter, John and even Jesus Himself - explicitly taught against those that wish to "lord" over believers. Ironically, those that claim "authority" themselves reject genuine authority - that of the scriptures and of the Lord Jesus Christ.


1- Thayer and Smith. "Greek Lexicon entry for Peitho". "The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon". Strong's # 3982.

This writing is the copyright of Jason Young and is reprinted on this site by permission as actseighteen.com has closed. View all of his available articles here.

Page added July 28, 2015


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