Christian Library Australia

...because God cares about you

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Home Church Planting/Missional ABUSE OF AUTHORITY IN THE CHURCH


E-mail Print PDF

This article was written by Pastor Steven Martin of Heritage Church
(Reformed Baptist) of Fayetteville, GA, and was originally published by
"Southern Baptist Founders Journal" and "Reformation Africa - South."


(Authoritarian Shepherds and Idol-Worshipping Sheep)

I. THE PROBLEM: Troubled Times and Reactionary Leadership

Modern churches are over-reacting to sinful patterns in our culture and
creating a worse problem. The late 20th century has had a severe outbreak
of sins relating to rejection of authority: God's, parents, governments,
etc. Since the Fall of mankind in Adam, this is not that unusual. What has
become noticeable is the pendulum being swung in the opposite direction by
those in leadership positions in local churches. Recent titles of Christian
books such as CHURCHES THAT ABUSE point to a growing awareness that some
churches are at least perceived to be abusing their members and attendees.
Some church officers (pastors, elders, deacons) have sinned in their
authoritarian opposition to the lawless, pleasure-loving ethos of our day.
Lay Christians can find themselves confusing conformity to their church's
'status quo' and the 'traditions of the elders' with conformity to the Word
of God and the image of Christ. As a result, Jesus Christ is dishonored,
the doctrines of the gospel come into discredit, and many sheep are deeply
hurt in the process.

How has this sad and sinful state of affairs come into being? The legacy of
the Christian past in our land has almost all be spent by the heirs of the
Reformation, the Puritans and the great awakenings of the 18th and 19th
centuries. Sin is bold in the streets of our land again. Attitudes, actions
and words that were once kept hidden or secret are now flaunting themselves
in broad daylight. One of the sins most evident is the rebellion against
any form of authority. Sinners converted out of our culture are not sinless
saints. Much of this anti-authority mindset has come into churches through
true Christians who have not mortified old habits of heart. Also, sad to
say, 'tares' have been welcomed into the many 'easy-believism' churches by
leaders more interested with 'nickels and noses' than in faithfulness to
Christ and His Word's directions for His Church. Even in 'good' churches
which should model humility and the esteeming of others as better than
themselves (Phil. 2:1-8 ), children rebel against their parents, wives rebel
against their husband's headship, husbands rebel against their employers,
and church members rebel against their pastors', elders' and deacons'
God-given authority (Titus 2 ). While sins of rebellion are to be expected
as common in the world of the unregenerate, they have also become the
frequent reality of too many evangelical, Bible-teaching churches. Many
readers of these pages know of good men who have been deeply wounded and
run out of the ministry by unruly, ungodly congregations. Many pastors
regularly feel like 'clay pigeons' at a skeet range moments after the shout
of 'Pull' is heard! I grieve over good men who have given up the ministry
under repeated assaults.

But it has also been my sad observation that a reaction has set in among
some churches and leaders. 'Authoritarianism' has risen among some pastors
and officeholders such that whole churches seem to be little more than idol
worshippers of 'the great man' and the 'omnicompetent elders'. Instead of
wounded shepherds victimized by their flock, we now have the specter abroad
of wounded sheep victimized by the very men called to feed and protect
them. Who is to say which set of sins is worse or brings more shame on the
name of Christ and the gospel of grace?

Before proceeding, some definition is in order. For the purposes of this
article, 'authoritarianism' is defined as an abuse of the authority
delegated by Jesus Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit and
revealed in God's Word which the officeholders of the local churches are to
exercise. It has been my observation that this sinful abuse of authority
usually takes on or more of the following forms.

FIRST, sinful authoritarianism exists when pastors and other officeholders
speak with binding authority where God Himself has not spoken in His
written Word. If God has not spoken on the subject, it is a usurpation of
Divine prerogative to speak for Him. It is the creature taking the place of
the Creator. A pastor or other officer may rightly proclaim 'Thus saith the
Lord' when speaking against idolatry, adultery, greed, marrying an
unbeliever or any other violation of the express commands of God. This is a
herald's duty and God help the man who 'cuts and trims' texts to speak
smooth words to his flock. But the pastor has no warrant from Christ to
speak with the binding authority of God's 'imprimatur' to issues upon which
the written Word of God is silent. To pretend to be speaking for God
without His express authority is gross sin.

SECOND, sinful authoritarianism exists when pastors and other officeholders
usurp the Lordship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the lives of
God's people by deciding the will of God for them where Scripture is
silent. To pretend to give authoritative guidance to God's people without
His Word is another gross sin of man pretending to be God. Church officers
may not declare 'the will of God' for God's people on such choices as one's
career, choice of Christian mate, choice of lawful employment, place of
living, schooling they attend, etc. without becoming surrogate gods. Flocks
of sheep with paralyzed decision-making faculties reveal exposure to
shepherds who played 'God' for them. Thus the sinful tendency noted in John
Milton's wry observation ('New presbyter is but old priest writ large')
returns to haunt the churches. And even more sadly, some idol-worshipping
sheep love it to be so.

II. CAUSES OF THE PROBLEM: Sinful Shepherds and Sinful Sheep

Sure the cause of authoritarianism and idol-worship is sin. But what sins
in particular need to be recognized, repented of and mortified by the Holy
Spirit's help? Five sins of the shepherds and three sins of the sheep come
to mind. Taken together they produce churches with a powerfully sinful
pathology which dishonors Christ, injures the sheep, inflates the shepherds
and tears down the church of God.

THE SINS OF THE SHEPHERDS: Today's authoritarian shepherds seem to fall
prey to one or more of the following five sins as they exercise their
ministry. Examine your own heart and your church to see if these things are

[1] IDOLATRY: the sinful desire to always be in control, especially the
control of the lives of God's sheep. Such sin is but a thinly veiled
attempt to play God for His people. And make no mistake, such m en become
as God to their flock. It is hardly surprising that pastors with such a
sinful tendency will eventually attain near papal infallibility in their
churches. Paul's command to young Titus in 2:15 ('...rebuke with all not let anyone despise you') is their 'life verse' in
practice if not in precept. Usually this idolatrous sin of always needing
to be in control is accompanied by a wrathful, berating, anxiety-producing
spirit as the controlling leader will tolerate no loose electrons in his
personal universe of control (Cf. Ezekiel 34:4 & ff.; Matt. 20:25 ; 1 Pet.
5:3). Such self-deified leaders produce congregations which are more afraid
of displeasing the leaders than they are of displeasing their Lord and
Savior. Men who must be 'God' to their people ironically lose the authority
of God's Holy Spirit by their sin. Then their God-given authority is
replaced by fleshly control maintained by manipulation, intimidation,
verbal coercion and the ecclesiastical version of pulling rank (e.g., 'Now,
I'm your elder and you had better do this, or else...'!) The Apostle John's
description of Diotrophes seems to fall under such a category of sin (3
John 9-10 ).

[2] PRAYERLESSNESS: authoritarian pastors and leaders do not rely upon
prayer for their people as a primary instrument ordained by God for the
edification of protection of His people. As a result, they verbally coerce
and bully their people into conformity. They seek to rely only on the 'arm
of flesh' of their own strong-arm tactics. Sadly, while such men console
themselves that they are only giving faithful oversight to their flock,
they do not labor in prayer for their people like they do in personally
seeing to it that people toe the line. Such fleshly shepherds expend far
more labor scolding, threatening, manipulating, confronting, 'counseling',
and 'EXERCISING DISCIPLINE' to get their people to knuckle under to their
will. Apparently, extrinsic motivation is all that they know. Intrinsic
motivation produced by the Spirit is not sought. Laboring before the throne
of grace for the Spirit's supernatural work of conforming God's people to
Christ's image (2 Cor. 3:18 ) is hard work and the flesh will recoil. But
spiritual shepherds will lay aside the weapons of flesh which feel
comfortable and 'natural' to old, world-taught hands and they will make it
their aim to learn anew how to labor in prayer for God's working. The Word
of God makes plain that every shepherd's arsenal does include the rod and
the staff. But it also emphasizes the importance of intercessory prayer for
the growth of the people of God. The reader is asked to read and ponder
again the recorded prayers of our Lord and His apostles on behalf to he
flock of God (cf. John 17 ; Eph. 1 & 3, etc.). Sadly, many leaders beat
their sheep because the weapons of the flesh still feel more comfortable in
their hands than the weapons of the Spirit. The Apostle James rebukes those
who claim to be wise but whose lives are strewn with the wreckage of their
carnal leadership and he links it to, among other things, as being
self-serving (self-idolatry?) and prayerlessness (James 3:13-4:3 ).

[3] UNBELIEF: many leaders in churches do not believe the declarative
statements and promises of God contained in His Word. They do not believe
that Christ is presently and actively Lord of His church such that the
gates of hell shall not prevail against it. They do not believe that God
the Holy Spirit is also presently and actively Lord of the church,
conforming God's people to Christ's image. They do not believe God the
Father is presently and actively exercising His Fatherly love and
discipline over the lives of His adopted children. In this pattern of
unbelief, following hard on the heels of their own prayerlessness,
authoritarian shepherds develop the mindset, 'If I don't make them do this,
they won't!' or 'If I don't make them do this, who will?' They really do
not believe that Christ will shepherd His sheep and the Holy Spirit guide
and convict the saints while they are away from the human shepherd. Just as
Christian parents must entrust their Christian teens unto the Lord as they
drive the car down the street or leave for the university, so pastors must
learn to trust God to work in the hearts and lives of His people when they
are out from under the watchful gaze of the hyper-shepherd. Sadly, such
pastors and elders create a 'police-state mentality' in their
congregations: everyone's life is carefully monitored and scrutinized for
any deviation, and any 'sins' or questionable activities are to be reported
to the church leadership immediately. Lack of faith, love of love, and lack
of joy are the hallmarks of flocks led by such unbelieving shepherds.

[4] LACK OF LOVE FOR THE SHEEP: shepherds in ancient Palestine walked ahead
of their sheep, leading them on and calling them by name to follow them to
green pastures and cool waters. The sheep followed because they had come to
know and trust the shepherd's faithful care and loving concern for their
well-being. It was the shepherd who slept in the doorway of the sheepfold
to guard the flock by night. It was the shepherd who fought the bear, the
lion and other predators. It was the shepherd who protected the flock from
the thief. It was the shepherd who stayed awake that the sheep might sleep
in peace. It was the shepherd who left the ninety-nine safe to search for
the lost sheep. It was the shepherd who gently led the nursing ewes and
their young, not cursing them for being 'weak, slow and consumed with
mundane matters'. The Bible surely uses such images to depict a sacrificial
and empathetic love for the sheep on the part of the shepherd. But times
have changed and shepherds in he West have grown accustomed to doing things
differently. 'Sheep ranchers' now employ barking dogs and herders in
helicopters to drive the frightened, harassed and bewildered sheep ahead of
them. in modern 'sheep ranching', sheep are motivated by fear of the
snarling bite of the rancher's seemingly omnipresent dogs and incessant
bellowing of the rancher's loudspeaker in the helicopter overhead. Sadly,
in too many congregations today, sheep are not led; they are driven by a
man more like a callous meatpacker than a loving shepherd. Many modern
ranchers do not even like sheep; it's just their business. In fact, men
entering the ministry today are encouraged not to get too close to the
sheep, let alone emotionally involved in their lives and problems. As a
result, many pastors, elders and deacons do not really like, let alone
love, their people. Yes, they promote witnessing and world missions, but
they just don't like to be around individual sinners. Many pastors love to
study, preach, teach and manage but they just do not like the people. Even
their time counseling people is only 'fix' problems that might mess up the
church. Compare such attitudes with that of our loving and compassionate
Lord for the sheep-like sinners of His earthly ministry (cf. Matt. 9:36 and
14:14; Mark 1:29-41 and 10:21). Do you see how far removed our Lord's
shepherd ministry is from many pastoral examples today? Sacrificial and
compassionate shepherd-love which lays down its life for the sheep has been
replaced too often by loveless 'sheep management' by emotionally distant,
bureaucratic sheep ranchers.

[5] PRIDE: at root, all the above mentioned sins of office bearers stem
from an inflated sense of their own importance. John Calvin once observed
that from the king on his throne to the scullery maid in her kitchen, each
of us harbors a kingdom in our hearts. Such is the sinful pride of the
human heart. Creatures that have been saved by the sovereign grace of the
Creator, put into the service of their fellow creatures and commanded to
herald the good news of Divine pardon and deliverance may all too quickly
forget that they are but clay pots made out of 'proud dust' (to note Thomas
Watson's apt description). We must be reminded that we hold our office by
our Master's pleasure, to do His bidding, to further His Kingdom, and to
build up His children. Humble shepherds look upon god's sheep with
compassion born of self-knowledge of their own wicked and slow hearts.
Prideful shepherds look down upon the sheep with scornful contempt for
their weakness, slowness, dullness, and failings. Humble shepherds remember
that even the Great Shepherd of the sheep patiently endured the
misunderstanding, scolding and fleshly second-guessing of His slow-to-learn
sheep (cf. Matt. 16:22 ; Mark 4:38 ; 1 Pet. 2:21-23 ). Prideful shepherds,
however, react to every real or perceived slight to their 'august
personage'. How unlike their Master! Shepherds must learn that they cannot
be conformed to the image of Christ as long-suffering and forgiving unless
they are first 'long-bothered' and wronged. Think about that before reading
on! Pride, however, responds to the irritations of fellow sinners with
anger. Bottom line, an angry leader is a prideful leader.

THE SINS OF THE SHEEP: Sad to say, but the sheep themselves contribute
their own sins to the creation of authoritarian ministries. Having talked
with and ministered to several wounded sheep, it has struck me how seldom
they have seen their own culpability. They are quick to foist all blame
upon their harsh leader-taskmasters. But petty dictators cannot reign
without the consent of their bowing and scraping subjects who, when they
are not fawning all over their leaders, are assuming the role of doormats
for the leader to wipe his feet on. There are at least three sins which
laymen contribute to the sinful pathology of authoritarian churches.

[1] IDOL-WORSHIP: sinful flesh is not content with the unseen reality of
the one true God. It wants to fashion an idol in place of the invisible God
who is spirit. There is always the temptation to act like the Jews of
Saul's time who wanted a human leader that they could see, rather than the
unseen God Himself (1 Kings 8:1-18 ). But God shares His glory with no man,
not even 'called men' who are promoted to demi-god status by their adoring
flock. Such flocks too often find for themselves a man who likes to lord it
over the flock. Thus a sinfully symbiotic relationship is complete with an
abusive authority figure coupled to idol-worshipping minions (e.g., Jer.
5:30-31). Such people populate churches that boast of their preacher but
speak little of Jesus Christ!

[2] FEAR OF MAN: too many sheep are more gripped by the desire to please a
man or more fearful of displeasing a man than they are of pleasing or
displeasing Almighty God (cf. Prov. 29:25 ; John 5:41-44 ). They spend their
time dancing around their idol, expending all their energy catering to his
every whim and seeking to avoid his wrath. Men-pleasers have little stomach
for potential conflict or simple disagreement. They would never dare
question their exalted leader, no matter how respectfully. They would never
ask for the biblical basis for a decision made by the leadership, even when
that decision seems to fly in the face of clear biblical teaching. Such
men-pleasers crave the smile of a man's countenance more than the smile of
God and they will not speak the truth in love (Eph. 5:15 ).

[3] UNBELIEF: too many believers do not believe that God still guides His
people today through the means of prayerful meditation upon the Word of God
and the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is easier for the
flesh to suspend the use of spiritual faculties and biblical means of
guidance for the short-cut of asking the leader to determine God's will and
make the decisions all the time. It is not surprising that Christians who
put men of clay on pedestals, who then cravenly serve these idol-leaders,
and who do not believe that God still guides should fall prey to abusive
leaders. It is only the grace of God that it does not happen more than it
does. (Even good leaders know the temptation to become surrogate 'gods' or
infallible 'oracles' for their people. They learn to stoutly resist the
frequent temptation placed before them by individuals to always answers
their questions of guidance and decision-making.) Perhaps authoritarian
shepherds are God's chastening rods upon the backs of idol-worshipping,
men-pleasing, unbelieving sheep who will not have God to be their God and
who substitute a mere creature in His place (cf. Isaiah 2:22 and Psalm


The call of the Word of God to sinners is always to 'repent and believe'.
Even after conversion, believers must remember to continually preach the
gospel to themselves. The message is ever fresh and relevant. So it is for
the office holder who has exercised his office in sinful ways which have
dishonored the Master and hurt the sheep. So it is to the idolatrous member
of a local church who has sinfully preferred looking to puny men rather
than to Almighty God. What form should repentance and faith take for
Spirit-convicted shepherds and sheep?

SHEPHERDS convicted of the sins of authoritarianism should [1] Humbly come
to the Word of God and prayerfully meditate upon those great passages which
mark the work of the man of God who is the good shepherd and which warn
against abuse of the office of leader in God's Kingdom. Such a prayerful
and meditative study would begin with Abraham in Genesis 18 , Moses in
Exodus 32-33 , Aaron and his sons in Leviticus 10 , the abusive leaders of
Ezekiel 34 , the woes of our Lord upon the Pharisees of Matthew 23 , our
Lord's comparison and contrasts of John 10 , Paul's instructions to Timothy
and Titus, and Peter's admonition to the elders in 1 Peter 5 . [2] Repent
and confess their sins. Public sins must be publicly confessed; private
sins must be privately confessed. Leaders should not fear humbling
themselves before men, knowing that God's favor is all important. [3]
Pastors guilty of authoritarianism should preach to themselves and their
flocks an extended series on 1 Corinthians 13 or Philippians 2 or the
Sermon on the Mount or John 10 . [4] Leaders should not be afraid to humble
themselves into the dust before God and the people for our God does not
despise a broken and contrite heart, but rather draws close to the
repentant sinner (cf. Psalm 51:17 and James 3:13 - 4:10). God comes close
to the meek and lowly and raises them up. The true people of God will also
not despise God's truly anointed leader once the self-appointed,
man-anointed flesh is mortified. [5] Pastors must seek to cultivate the
habit of intercessory prayer on behalf of their people. They must also pray
for great grace to resist the persistent temptation to play God for people.
They must learn to redirect potential idol-worshippers to the living God
who delights in His Bride but who will not share her with another. They
must also pray that the sheep who have been hurt will not become embittered
but would be forgiving of the pastor's sins. Unloving shepherds must pray
for God the Holy Spirit to produce the loving fruit of the Spirit in their
hearts, and with a compassion bred of humility and selflessness, they must
cultivate works of loving concern even when the initial 'feeling' of love
is not always present. God will not long withhold His Spirit from that man
who pleads for grace to love the flock entrusted to him as Christ loves it
and who begins to regularly give himself to them in sacrificial prayer and
service. [6] Men who humble themselves before the Lord will be shown what
they need to see of their sins and Christ's Cross and they will learn with
new insight how the blood of Christ cleanses even the stains of pastoral

SHEEP convicted of worshipping idols, pleasing men and disbelieving God
must also repent and believe. [1] Repentance includes study and meditation
upon God's Word regarding idolatry, men-pleasing, and the sin of unbelief.
[2] Repentance also includes turning from the sins to Christ and here the
convicted sheep must look to the Great Shepherd of the sheep for cleansing,
the restoration of intimacy and strength to persevere. Weak faith grows
best upon a diet of regular study, meditation and a believing hearing of
the Word of God (cf. Rom. 10:17 ; John 17:17 ). [3] Sheep must also learn
from God's Word that enduring real or imagined conflict is not the worst
thing in the world and that the worst that man can do to you is nothing
compared with what Almighty God can do (cf. Prov. 29:25 and Luke 12:4-7 ).
[4] Sheep must meditate upon the reality that they are believer-priests
with equal access to God as their leaders. Both leaders and laymen have the
merit of Christ as their title deed for bold access to God and confidence
of God's hearing and answering their prayers (Heb. 10:1-23 ). Sheep who walk
with God, who know His Word, believe it and obey it are not likely to fall
prey to tin gods, clay idols and fleshly shepherds.

May God give His people grace to see their sins and repent of them. We dare
not glory in our current condition and slothfully ignore the deplorable
state of much of Christ's church. We must first judge ourselves that we may
not be judged. And we must plead the purposes and promises of our God and
Savior in begging Him for the renewal of the Holy Spirit, both individually
and corporately.


1. Martin Luther, THREE TREATISES; Concordia - a clarion call of the
Reformation against the authoritarian abuses of the Church of Rome,
especially 'The Freedom of the Christian' and 'The Babylonian Captivity of
the Church'.

2. Jerram Barrs, SHEPHERDS AND SHEEP; InterVarsity Press - an evaluation of
the charismatic shepherding groups of the late 70's but sadly still
applicable to abuses today.

3. Roger O. Beardsmore, ed. SHEPHERDING GOD'S FLOCK; Sprinkle Publications
- a treasure of good counsel and teaching on biblical oversight. Chapter 5,
'Pastoral Authority and Freedom of the Conscience' is especially pertinent.

4. Jonathan Edwards, CHARITY AND ITS FRUITS; Banner of Truth - a profound
exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 with powerful application for us today.
Loveless hearts should dwell here.

Christian Publications - just what it says! Tozer saw how Christ's supposed
servants wielded more authority in local churches than He did. Should be
read and reread.

6. Walter Chantry, THE SHADOW OF THE CROSS; Banner of Truth - a bomb on the
playground of contemporary evangelicalism. Sub-titled 'Studies in
Self-Denial', it treats the neglect of self-denial in evangelism, marriage,
prayer and the pastoral ministry.

7. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, AUTHORITY; Banner of Truth - an invaluable and
unique contribution on the authority of Christ, His Word and the Holy
Spirit for Christ's servants and churches. Reveals the tragi-comic attempts
of evangelicals the past 200 years to regain the Holy Spirit's power
through non-spiritual means. We prefer today to look to gimmicks,
conferences, the 'great man', special events and jazzed up entertainment to
sag up Spirit-deflated lives and churches. Lloyd-Jones calls us back to the
Bible's way, the better way, the only way of renewing the churches and
awakening the masses. If you seek His 'authority', read this carefully.

8. Clifford Pond, ONLY SERVANTS; Grace Publications Trust - shows the
leader as servant of Christ and His people. refreshing, clear and simple.


This article was written by Pastor Steven Martin of Heritage Church
(Reformed Baptist) of Fayetteville, Georgia,  USA


Follow us on Twitter