The chief complaint I hear from survivor bloggers is how they were abused by hyper-authoritarian pastors and church leadership.
Though each person may vary as to his or her experience, typically, the “authoritarianism” is reported as manifesting itself in rigid, domineering moralistic preferences that govern every aspect of a Christian’s life. The “moralism” can be as benign as a rule against wearing short pants in the church building, to the absurd notion that trick-or-treating on Halloween is satanic, to the more sobering idea that Christian families are in serious sin if their children aren’t homeschooled.
These moral preferences aren’t spelled out in any written document that is handed out to members. (Though I am sure there are survivor bloggers who could probably produce such a real-life document). Rather, they are shared “convictions” experienced by members in the spiritual climate within the church by what is taught in the pulpit and advocated in the Sunday school rooms.
Take for example the pastor’s idea of Christian modesty. If he teaches that no women are ever allowed to wear pants because pants are a “man’s garments,” or a man’s hair cannot cover his ears or touch his shirt collar because “long hair on a man is effeminate,” and everyone in the church conforms to those preferences, any “non-conformity” will be met by strong glares and possible rebuke.
It’s one thing for moralistic church leadership to forbid the people from listening to any rock music including CCM. It’s quite another when they tell you how much money you need to tithe every month or what Bible version you must use or you risk falling into sin. Particularly odious, however, is when they tell you how many children you and your wife must have or what kinds of foods you should eat in order to be really, really godly.
Any person who may not share in these preferences will find it difficult to participate in the body life of that local church without feeling a burden of guilt and an unspoken hostility from other members for non-conformity. That is not a spiritually healthy environment. Pastors need to be especially alert to fomenting this sort of oppressive atmosphere in their churches. In fact, I would say these pastors are held doubly-accountable before the Lord in such cases.
The Apostle Peter warns pastors in his first epistle not to “lord over” those that have been entrusted to them (1 Peter 5:3). The idea here is that pastors have a unique role as spiritual leaders and they should be an example of humble service to the people they watch over. Pastors are not to abuse their authority with manipulative intimidation. Especially in areas that genuinely are preferences regarding the living out of moral issues on a daily basis.
As shepherds, these are men who have been stirred up by God’s Spirit to desire that office and are divinely placed in their position to govern the spiritual lives of men’s souls. They are first teachers of God’s Word, so they have a serious responsibility before God Almighty to handle faithfully the teaching of sound doctrine (James 3:1, Ephesians 4:11-16). But moreover, their duties as shepherds means they have an equally great responsibility to serve God’s people by loving them, discipling them, and training them in godliness.
Using his God given authority to forcibly insist Christians must adopt his non-biblical moral preferences has never been the role of a shepherd.
A genuine mark of the Holy Spirit’s work in the body of Christ is that faithful teaching will produce faithful application of that doctrine in the lives of Christian people. One struggle a pastor may experience is learning the discernment that distinguishes between the Holy Spirit’s exclusive sanctifying work in the hearts of Christians and the authority they’ve been granted to disciple the members of their flock. When a pastor blurs the distinction between what is the exclusive work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying believers with his scripturally revealed duties as a shepherd to watch after the flock, a danger exists for him to abuse his authority.
A pastor who equates his personal convictions and preferences with true spiritual godliness risks lording over his flock and stepping into areas where he has no authority.
You as a pastor may believe watching TV is a worldly distraction that wastes time, and you may be right about that conviction. But it is inappropriate for you to insist ALL church members must embrace and implement your anti-TV convictions as a means to obtain true spirituality. All a pastor can do it mildly exhort people with long-suffering concerning his reasons for why it’s not good for Christians to watch TV. Once he begins laying a heavy guilt trip on people, he’s moved into abusing his authority.
What steps can a pastor take in order to keep himself from falling into abusing his authority and head-off any accusations of “lording over others?” I am sure there are probably more, but I’ll offer three simple thoughts.
FIRST, I would say communicate. Explain clearly why it is leadership requires what they do from it’s members. Discuss openly with the flock any major Church impacting decisions made on behalf of the people. As long as you are sharing information that isn’t confidential, that would include any church discipline issues.
SECOND, welcome dissent. Be prepared to defend your position, as well as answer hostile questions and challenges graciously, fully, and with long-suffering. A pastor may have to deal with the same nit-picky, button-holing person over and over again, but dealing with hassling complainers is part of the pastor’s job. His immediate response to dissenters must never be “my way or the highway!”
And THIRD, and most importantly, be humble. That would especially include receiving correction from the members that may result in changing a long held preference tradition or direct a course change in the way the pastor may have handle a situation.
I think if a pastor makes a good faith effort to work out at least these three suggestions in his ministry, no one can truly accuse him of lording over people and abusing his authority.
Now. A ending word to church members who like to cry “spiritual abuse” and “hyper-authoritarianism.”
Similarly, members of the flock must heed the exhortation following Peter’s words to shepherds: Likewise you younger submit to your elders. The “younger” here, I believe, has the idea of younger in experience, which means “young in the faith.” The contrast is between elders/shepherds and the younger, or the remainder of those in church. In other words, the flock over which the shepherds watch.
In the same way shepherds should serve the flock, members of the flock need to serve the elders. They serve by submitting to them and not holding them in suspicion about everything they do. That entails trusting their authority even at times when you, the member, don’t like them exercising their authority in particular areas.
A person prone to kick against authorities he believes are “meddling” with his life and sticking their nose in “my business,” needs to seriously re-evaluate what it is he wants out of church and why it is he’s there. If you think it’s none of the pastor’s business that you let your teenage son date an unbeliever or that he’s concerned you and your family only attend church once or twice a month, it may be helpful to save him the grief and move on to a place where no one will interfere with your life.