Authority: Its Use and Abuse A Christian Perspective
Floyd McClung, Jr.
Executive Director, International Operations
Youth With A Mission
Because good but sometimes immature leaders can respond to selfish or needy people with overbearing authority, and because cult figures can have so much influence on unwary young people, it is important to be aware of some of the unhealthy extremes leaders can go to in exercising their authority.
Examples of such extreme authority are easy to find. Some leaders propound a kind of Christian anarchism in which everyone is a law unto himself, with no need for accountability or submission; others advocate a pyramidal authority structure that undermines the priesthood of the believer and exalts authority figures to a place where God never intended them to be. Although those who dare to live in the “radical middle” will no doubt make mistakes in finding their way, they will in the end enjoy the rewards of their efforts: deep friendships, godly accountability, the serenity of surrendering others to the Lord, and the peace of living in a manner that is pleasing to our Father.
Despite my concern about the abuse of authority, I am uncomfortable with those who appoint themselves to be “watchdogs” for the Body of Christ, especially when they are quick to judge or are harsh in their spirit. Perhaps this is another form of authoritarianism? Obviously, the Church needs those whom God calls to discern the “inroads of apostasy” (I highly recommend the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, Box 4308, Berkeley, CA 94704). However, it is important that their research be thorough and without bias, and that they pray for those they find to be immature or unbiblical. Such researchers must be mature, discerning Christians (James 3:1,5-12), and should give those they criticize an opportunity to explain themselves and/or repent if they have done wrong (Matthew 5:21-16, 7:1-5; Galatians 6:1-3). Cult researchers should also follow the biblical principles of intercession, conversation, and church discipline to which they expect others to adhere. I know of instances in which cult researchers have wrongly judged others and have hurt and damaged people to the same extent that they accused others of doing.
I hope that the issues discussed below will illuminate the nature of these unhealthy extremes. Additionally, an understanding of these issues will not only help members of organizations or congregations evaluate the kind of authority they are following, but will also help sincere leaders do some “soul-searching” to determine whether or not they are motivated by insecurity or are responding wrongly to needy persons in their group. The following discussion enunciates principles that should apply equally to all in the Body of Christ, including pastors, leaders, and researchers.
Insistence on sharing all things in common. Insisting that those under one’s authority give up private ownership can be a way of controlling their lives.
Treatment of women. When women are not given any authority or are not recognized as equals to men, authoritarianism is sure to follow.
The power of leaders. Scripture teaches us to submit to those whom the Lord has placed over us (Acts 20:28-31; I Timothy 1:3, 4:11; Titus 1:13, 3:1; Hebrews 13:17). But the key question remains: how much and where? The Bible makes clear that although leaders have authority in specific areas, their authority has definite limits. For example, a leader does not have the right to tell people what to do in their personal lives. Nowhere in scripture are there instances in which elders or apostles tried to dominate or control another’s life in ways such as we see today. Even Peter noted that Ananias and Saphira could have kept all their money and property (that is, doing what everyone else was doing was not mandatory). Their sin was not in what they kept, but in their lying.
Leaders do not have the right to tell those whom they guide whether to get married, continue working in full-time Christian service, or go to another place in that service. It is a privilege to pray with others about matters of personal guidance, not a right. A leader’s words of caution or counsel should be offered in friendship, so as not to make the person feel obligated to do as an authority figure advises.
Turnover in leadership. A rapid turnover of leadership, e.g., every two or three years, may indicate that the leader is not able to forge long-term friendships, perhaps because of instability in his life or because of an overbearing personality. Consequently, it is important to examine how long those working closely with the leader stay with him. When they leave, do they feel condemned? Would they feel comfortable returning for a visit? If not, then the leader may be abusing his authority.
The leader’s reaction under pressure. A leader’s defensiveness during stressful periods may reveal insecurity or lack of confidence about himself and his work. An authoritarian attitude and attempts to control others may reflect the leader’s attempt to compensate for his own deficiencies.
Exclusiveness. A group’s holding an exclusive view on its role in the church could indicate not only pride, but authoritarianism as well. Do the members of the group recognize all other committed Christians as believers and a part of the Body of Christ? Beware of those who categorize some Christians as being more special to God, or having a revelation or experience, or doctrine that produces pride and/or exclusiveness.
The psychological makeup of a leader. Although the Lord can sometimes put to good use a leader with a psychological need to control others, such a trait will incline the leader toward authoritarianism and manipulation, unless God can liberate him from this destructive need. It should be noted that although the need to control others usually surfaces in the beginning of a ministry, it can sometimes manifest later in a ministry, especially during times of crisis or conflict.
Group conformity. Goal-oriented organizations always need some conformity regarding policies and procedures. Goals, policies, and procedures, however, should be open to scrutiny and should be made with the counsel of people outside the organization. Moreover, they should be explained to new and prospective members in order that they understand and agree to the group’s expectations and obligations.
Leaving the group. When individuals want to leave the group are they made to feel guilty or is pressure put on them to stay? Do they feel hurt when they leave? Do they feel like they’re second-class Christians if they are not staying with the group and going back to a local church? If so, then the group’s leaders are probably abusing their authority.
Possessiveness of staff and fellow workers. Does the leader make those who work with him feel obligated to stay? Is there a constant pressure used by the leadership to manipulate people into staying with the group? Do they feel that they have to break out in order to leave the group? Is “guidance” or “covering” used as a way of keeping people in the group? This kind of possessiveness can often harm people and make them feel condemned for leaving the group.
Atmosphere of mistrust. Do the leaders use rules, regulations, scriptures, and policies to control members’ lives? Or do they create an atmosphere of grace and trust? Do the leaders rely upon members’ maturity or do they continually imply that members cannot be trusted and must have “laws” to regulate their behavior? Obviously, a certain amount of submission regarding policies and procedures must exist, particularly in missionary organizations, in order to efficiently achieve the organization’s goals. But these policies and procedures should be based on trust and not forced on those who disagree. Potential areas of disagreement should be discovered before a candidate joins the missionary society, but if such does not occur, the candidate should be allowed to leave (if conflict does arise) with respect and an appreciation for the wisdom of a parting of the ways.
Questions and criticisms. Can members of the group ask questions or offer constructive criticism without the leadership’s becoming defensive, by, for example, judging questioners and critics as “rebellious”? Are the leaders accountable to somebody else besides themselves and “the Lord”? Are they open to being corrected? If not, they are probably abusing their authority.
Overwork. Do leaders make members feel obligated to work long hours, burning the candle at both ends? Do leaders drive members and make them feel guilty for taking personal time for hobbies, recreation, letter writing, etc.? If so, leaders can cause burnout in members and then condemn them for wanting time off to restore the emotional strength necessary to carry on their work. Such behavior is especially injurious to members, for they are “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”
Moral impurity. Those who become authoritarian or manipulative have often compromised themselves morally and are living in sin. Their hypocrisy adds to their insecurity and causes them to become even more defensively authoritarian.
Role confusion: inspirational and pastoral leadership. A leader can become authoritarian or abusive if he does not learn to distinguish between personal counseling and visionary inspiration. It is one thing to stand in front of a group and inspire the group with “the word of the Lord”; it is quite another thing to be involved in personal counseling of individual members. If a leader approaches personal counseling in the same manner as he approaches the task of inspiring a group, he may come across as controlling and overbearing to those whom he counsels. The leader’s responsibility in counseling is to remind people of scriptural principles and to encourage them to be open to the Lord and to obey his word, not to tell them what to do or to correct the errors in their lives.
Ownership of policies and major decisions. Do leaders give members an opportunity to feel a sense of ownership about decisions made in the group? Or are decisions handed down arbitrarily from the top, without any opportunity for members to participate in the decision-making process? Are members made to feel “rebellious” if they question policies or seek a role in shaping them? If so, the leaders are probably abusing their authority.
Overemphasis on Man’s responsibility. Overemphasis on the individual’s responsibility downplays the role of God’s grace and mercy and results in feelings of condemnation and doubt about God’s love and forgiveness. God’s loving kindness leads men to repentance, not the individual’s actions.
Taking too much responsibility. A leader should not take so much responsibility for correcting a person’s problems that he does not leave him free to respond to the Lord when ready to do so. Trying to be the Holy Spirit for others always leads to conflict and hurt.
Denying the right of appeal. Leaders should not prevent members from appealing a decision or going to others for counsel when they disagree with a leader. To “box” a person in in this way is very unjust, indicating at the least that the leader is exerting undue pressure on the person.
Not admitting faults. Leaders can make mistakes and act unjustly in many ways. They may, for example, not forewarn members about expected difficulties and then blame members for reacting negatively to the difficulties. They may not give members adequate food or heating. They may place them under an immature leader and then blame the members for not cooperating. They may exploit members financially. If leaders make such errors, they should admit their failures and weaknesses and ask forgiveness from those who have been hurt. Leaders unwilling to acknowledge their imperfections will exacerbate the situation by accusing disturbed members of “having the wrong attitude” or of “being in rebellion.” (An excellent book on this subject is The Man Who Could Do No Wrong, by Charles Blair, Chosen Books.)
Obedience. Teaching that a leader should always be obeyed no matter what he says because he is “God’s anointed” or because members “should obey the leader even if he is wrong” constitutes an abuse of authority. We should teach people to obey God and his Word, not men simply because they are called “leaders.” Obviously, people need to deal with independence and an unbroken spirit, but that should be dealt with in the opposite spirit: gentleness and love. When confrontation concerning bad attitudes is called for, the following scriptural guideline should be followed:
1. Galatians 6:1-3. Go in a spirit of gentleness and humility “looking to ourselves lest we too be tempted…”
2. Proverbs 18:17; Deuteronomy 17:3-4; 1 Timothy 5:19. always hear both sides of a matter and thoroughly look into all the points of view before a judgment is made.
3. James 3:13-18, 5:19-20; Matthew 18-15-18. Follow the spirit of love outlined in these passages. Seek in every way to be redemptive. Never put people in a position where it is hard for them to return or seek counsel or find help from others. Remember that the portions of scripture on church discipline in Matthew are preceded and followed by injunctions to “not despise one of these little ones” (speaking of a straying or lost sheep) and to forgive our brother “seventy times seven” – which does not mean exactly four hundred and ninety!
4. I Samuel 12:23. Pray for those we are concerned about to make sure we have God’s heart for them and we are not reacting to them out of our own hurt or disappointment, even the disappointment that comes out of love for a person who we know could have done much better. We must pray until we have God’s heart for a person, then go to him when we sense God has prepared his heart for correction. Timing can be everything.
5. Proverbs 11:14, 15:22, 24:6. When there is a difficulty with someone’s attitude, seek the counsel of a mature, older pastor (particularly the pastor of the person involved) on how to respond. There is great protection and wisdom in seeking the counsel of others, especially from older, more mature men outside one’s own group or organization. The willingness to seek this counsel shows a caution that reflects maturity and real love for what is best for the person involved.
Christian organizations have a responsibility to carefully train and supervise youthful leaders who are given positions of responsibility and influence over others. Because young people joining organizations are often psychologically undeveloped, lacking in life maturity, and deficient in education and training, they sometimes lack the emotional strength to withstand the manipulations of insecure and dominating leaders. It is important, therefore, that every organization accept the responsibility to supervise its leaders carefully.
Every organization faces the danger of unsupervised leaders harming vulnerable young people. But this danger is especially acute for organizations that give leadership opportunities to youthful, visionary leaders. Increasing awareness of the problem through seminars, educational programs, and wise supervision will help reduce the danger. All organizations should make such education a part of their standard training.
The principles above can serve as guidelines on how to respond to those whom we are correcting when we are in a position of leadership or when we are ministering to a brother or sister in need. But what do we do when the leader over us or any person in a position of authority is wrong, either in his attitude or actions? The following guidelines can be helpful:
1. Make sure that the facts are correct. Don’t judge a person wrongly, and don’t accept a charge against a leader on one person’s word (Romans 2:12; Deuteronomy 13:12-14; I Timothy 5:19). It is important to hear all sides of a conflict before making a judgment.
2. Pray for the leader and make sure that you do not have a critical spirit or root of bitterness in your heart toward him. If you have been hurt or disappointed, make sure that you ÿ…keep on forgivingÿ• until your heart is free of hurt. Make sure you maintain a heart of love, for love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8). It is possible to lose objectivity by taking on the hurts of others. If in counseling you take on the pain of individuals who have been hurt by an authority figure, you may be taking sides and losing the opportunity to offer both persons sound biblical counsel and be a minister of reconciliation and healing in the broken relationship.
3. Pray that the leader has the wisdom to know the right thing to do in a situation or that the Lord will reveal to him that he has done wrong. It is extremely important that we intercede for him in order to show our genuine commitment to the person .
4. If a leader has done wrong and does not change, seek God in humility if you are to speak to him. If it is an obvious wrong, such as stealing, being involved in a sexual sin, being dishonest, etc., and he does not repent after you have talked to him, then go to another godly person in the Body of Christ and ask him to go and talk to the leader with you.
5. If the leader is not responsive, but his actions are not a matter of serious disobedience to moral principles, do not criticize and slander the leader in front of others in the Body of Christ. The Bible speaks strongly about the importance of unity and forgiveness in the Body of Christ. Hence, complaining to others when you merely disagree with a decision, could constitute a greater sin than that which you have sought to correct in the life of the leader. Scripture cautions us against taking matters into our own hands. Even David would not attack Saul, in spite of his great sin, because God had put Saul in a position of leadership. David trusted God to open Saul’s eyes (I Samuel 24:6; Numbers 14; Ephesians 4:26,29,30-32).
6. If the leader is authoritarian, immature, or unwise, a member has two options: He can, after sharing his concerns, remain under the leader’s authority and continue to pray for him, or he can leave the group. It is important not to stay and become critical and bitter. One has the freedom before God to leave any time he feels the pressure is too great. One should not stay and become a source of division. If one does stay, he should have faith that God will bring about a change in the situation and that He wants one there to be a blessing to others and to grow personally. God will vindicate the concerned member if he keeps his heart right and continues to pray and believe in the Lord. If, on the other hand, the situation involves moral impurity or compromise on orthodox doctrines – such as the inspiration of the scriptures, the divinity of Christ, the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, his atonement on the cross – and if the leader refuses to change after having been advised about his wrongdoing, then the member should leave the group. To stay where there is moral impurity or doctrinal heresy could lead to compromise in one’s own life.
7. If one is unsure about what to do, seek counsel of godly persons outside the group. Go to a mature pastor or to a leader in another organization, even if your leaders tell you not to do so! Every believer has that right.
Although we should point out abuses of authority, we should also recognize that becoming a wise leader requires years of experience, experience which includes mistakes and failures. Scripture gives many examples of failure on the part of those who went on to be greatly used by God, including Moses, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, David, Peter, Paul, and many others.
There is a great need for wise fathers in the Lord who will take Timothys under their wings and encourage them and train them in godliness and wisdom. Where there is abuse of authority, there obviously needs to be correction. But even more importantly there needs to be restoration and the kind of counsel and commitment that redeems one who has failed. The leader who recognizes and learns from his failures is indeed a rare and blessed person. May their kind greatly increase!