Because of the tendency of good but sometimes immature leaders to respond to selfish or needy people with overbearing authority, and because of the influence of cult figures on so many unwary young people, it is important to be aware of some of the unhealthy extremes leaders can go to in exercising their leadership.
Hopefully the checklist below 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" if they are leading out of insecurity or are responding wrongly to those with needs in their group.
I have included at the end of this paper some Biblical principles for leaders to follow in responding to those people in their congregation or group that have need of loving confrontation. I have also included some guidelines on how to respond to leaders when they are wrong.
Extremism on the question of authority is easy to find: some go to one extreme and propound a kind of Christian anarchism where everyone is a law unto themselves with no need for accountability or submission; others go to the other extreme and teach a pyramidal authority structure that undermines the priesthood of the believer and exalts authority figures to a place God never intended them to have. Those who dare to live in the "radical middle" will no doubt make mistakes in finding their way, but 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.
I am a bit uncomfortable with those who appoint themselves to be "watch dogs" 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 we need those who are called by God to serve the church by discerning the "inroads of apostasy" (I highly recommend the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, Berkeley Christian College, Box 4309, Berkeley, CA 94704), but it is very important that they do their research thoroughly and without bias, and that they pray for those they find to be immature or unbiblical. Those who do this kind of research have an additional responsibility to be mature, discerning Christians (James 3:1, 5-12). They need to seek out those they find to be in extremism and give them a chance to both explain themselves and/or repent if they have been wrong (Matthew 5:21-16, 7:1-5; Galatians 6:1-3). Researchers on cults have no less a responsibility to follow biblical principles of intercession, conversation and church discipline than what they expect from those they are researching in other areas of belief and practice. I have known of instances where those researching the cults have judged others in the Body of Christ wrongly and have hurt and damaged people to the same extent that they were accusing others of doing.
The following contains principles that should be applied equally to all those in the Body of Christ whether pastor, leader or researcher.
1. Insistence on sharing all things in common.
Insisting on giving up private ownership can be a way of controlling people's lives.
2. Treatment of women.
When women are not given any authority or are not recognized as equals to men through respect for their opinions, then authoritarianism is sure to follow.
3. The power of leaders.
The 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). The question is: how much and where. The Bible makes clear that in specific areas leaders do have authority, but there are very definite limits to this authority. For example, a leader does not have the right to tell people what to do in their personal lives. If you think through all the illustrations in the scriptures where elders and apostles were exercising authority, can you think of any instance where any of the leaders in the scripture, even in the crisis days of the early church in Jerusalem, ever tried to dominate or control somebody's life? Even Peter made the clear comment that Ananias and Saphira could have kept all their money and property (the point is that doing what everyone else was doing was not mandatory). The sin was not in what they kept, but in their lying. There are no illustrations in the New Testament that are even remotely similar to the control being exercised by some elders or leaders over God's people today.
Leaders do not have the right to confirm people's personal guidance as to whether they get married, continue working in full-time Christian service or got to another place in that service. It is a privilege to pray with others about their personal guidance but not a right. A leader can obviously give a word of caution or counsel for a person from the word, but that should be shared as a friend. To confuse the two is to bring people under condemnation and make them feel obligated to do what the person is saying because they are an authority figure.
4. Turnover in leadership.
If there is a rapid turnover in leadership every two or three years, it could be an indication the leader is not the kind of person who can win long term friendships due to instability in his life or an overbearing personality. It is very important for those in an organization to ask how long do those working up-close stay with their leader. If people do leave, do they feel condemned when they do so? Would they feel comfortable in returning for a visit?
5. The leader's reaction under pressure.
If the leader is consistently defensive, it may show that he is insecure, unsure of himself and his work. He may try to exercise a great deal of control over others and is often unsure of himself and may express his insecurity through authoritarianism.
Any time a group has an exclusive view toward their role in the church, it could be an indication that there is not only pride but authoritarianism. Do they 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 the fruit of pride and/or exclusiveness.
7. The psychological makeup of a leader.
Does the leader have in his nature a need to control others within his environment? There are some people who; have this psychological flaw. The Lord can use this man, but he must have God break this in his life or he will tend towards authoritarianism and manipulation. Sometimes this trait surfaces in the beginning of a ministry, or it could come out later in a time of crisis or conflict.
8. Group conformity.
There is always some need for conformity, particularly amongst organizations that have policies and procedures that are necessary for the accomplishing of their goals. However, these policies and goals should be open for the scrutiny of all in the Body of Christ, and should be made with the counsel of godly people outside of the organization. They should be explained to those who join the organization before any commitment of membership is made so that the individuals understand what would be required of them and expected of them and they can agree to it beforehand.
9. 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?
10. Possessiveness of staff and fellow workers.
Does the leader make those who wk with him feel obligated to stay? Is there a constant pressure use by the leadership to manipulate people into staying with the group? Do they feel somehow 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 lead to great hurts and make people feel very condemned for leaving the group.
11. Atmosphere of mistrust.
Do the leaders use rules, regulations, scriptures and policies to control people's lives? Or do they create an atmosphere of grace and trust? Do the leaders rely upon people's maturity or do they continually infer that the people cannot be trusted and "laws" must exist to regulate people's behavior? Obviously there must be a certain amount of submission, particularly in missionary organizations that have developed policies and procedures in order to be more efficient in achieving their goals. But even then those policies should be based on trust and not forced on those who disagree. Hopefully potential areas of disagreement will be discovered before a candidate joins the missionary society, but if not they should be given the freedom to leave (if conflict doe arise) with appreciation for one another and a simple agreement that it is best for a parting of the ways.
12. Questions and criticisms.
Can members of the group bring up their questions or make constructive criticism without the leadership becoming defensive? Are the leaders secure enough and mature enough in the Lord to encourage people to share hurts or disappointments, or ask questions about things they disagree with without fear of recrimination or being judged as being "critical or rebellious"? Are the leaders accountable to somebody else besides themselves and "the Lord"? Are they open to be corrected?
Does the leadership make the members of the group or organization feel obligated to work long hours, burning the candle at both ends? Do the leaders drive their people and make them feel guilty for having personal time for hobbies, recreation, letter writing etc.? Leaders can be guilty of burning their people out an placing them under condemnation for wanting the time necessary to be refueled and refreshed in order to keep doing their work with the emotional strength that they need to carry it out.
14. Moral impurity.
Often those who become authoritarian or manipulative have compromised morally and are living in sin.
15. Role confusion: inspirational and pastoral leadership.
A leader can become authoritarian or abusive in his leadership if he does not learn to distinguish the difference 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" for the direction of the group; it is quite another thing to be involved in personal counseling. If the leader approaches his personal counseling in the same style and manner as he would to seek to inspire the whole group with a word from the Lord, he can come across not only very directional but also overbearing or overwhelming to those to whom he is giving counsel. His role in counseling is to remind people of scriptural principles and encourage them to seek the Lord and to put God first in obeying His word. It is not his responsibility to tell people what to do or to correct the errors in their life, but more to encourage them to be open to the Lord and to obey His word.
16. Ownership of policies and major decisions.
Do the leaders give the people an opportunity to feel ownership at a grass roots level about decisions that are being made for the group? Are decisions handed down arbitrarily from the top without any opportunity for the staff to participate in the decision? Do the people feel like they can be a part of shaping the policies of the community and not be rebellious if they question them?
17. Over emphasis on one person’s responsibility.
Too much emphasis in this area without emphasizing God's grace and mercy produces condemnation and doubt about God's love and forgiveness. It is the loving kindness of God that leads men to repentance.
18. Taking too much responsibility to correct the problems in people’s lives and not leaving them free to respond to the Lord when they are ready to do so.
Trying to be the Holy Spirit for people always leads to conflict and hurt.
19. Denying people the right of appeal of a decision they disagree with or denying them right of accessibility to go to others for counsel when they disagree with a leader.
To "box" a person in in this way is very unjust and shows that the leader is at the very least exerting undue pressure on the person concerned, and perhaps it indicates the basic insecurity of the leader and his unhealthy need to be in control of the situation.
20. Not admitting faults or refusing to lead from a place of vulnerability and transparency.
If the leadership makes mistakes or has somehow been a part of a situation that has been unjust which can include not communicating difficult living situations ahead of time and then blaming people for reacting to them; or not giving people adequate food or heating; or putting them under immature leadership and then blaming them for not cooperating, or exploiting their financial generosity. In all these circumstances we should admit our failures and weaknesses and ask forgiveness from those who have been hurt. If a leader does not do that he will tend to blame others for the reactions and accuse them of "having the wrong attitude" of "being in rebellion." (An excellent book on this subject is The Man Who Could Do No Wrong, by Charles Blair, Chosen Books.)
21. Teaching that a leader should always be obeyed no matter what he says because he is "God's anointed," or "you should obey the leader even if he is wrong and leave matters in God’s hand to judge."
We should teach people to obey God and His Word, not men 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 there is a need for confrontation over bad attitudes, the following scriptural guidelines 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 8:17; Deuteronomy 17:3-4; I 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, event the disappointment that comes out of love for a person that we know could have done much better. We must pray until we have God's heart for a person, then go to them when we sense God has prepared their heart for the 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 show a caution that reflects maturity and real love for what is best for the person involved.
The principles above give us guidelines on how to respond to those that we are correcting when we are in a position of leadership or when we are going 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 their attitude or actions? The following guidelines can be helpful.
(1) Make sure the facts are correct. Don't judge a person wrongly, and don't accept a charge against a person on the word of just one other person (Romans 2:12; Deuteronomy 13:12-14; and I Timothy 5:19). It is very important to hear all sides of a conflict before a judgment is made.
(2) Pray for the leader and make sure that you have no critical spirit or root of bitterness in your heart toward them. If you've been hurt or disappointed, make sure that you keep on forgiving until your heart is free of hurt. Make sure you maintain a heart of love since love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8). It is possible to lose objectivity about a situation through taking on the hurts of others. If you counsel with people who have been hurt by an authority figure and you take on their pain you can take sides in the conflict and lose the opportunity to both offer sound biblical counsel to the one hurt (e.g. to forgive and pray for the ones who hurt them) and be a minister of reconciliation and healing in the broken relationship.
(3) Pray for the leader that he will have a revelation from the Lord about the wrong that he's done or that he will know the right thing to do if he needs wisdom in the situation. It's extremely important that we intercede for him as an indication of our genuine commitment to the person and for God's best in the situation.
(4) If a leader has done something wrong and there is no change, seek God in humility if you are to speak to them. If it is an obvious wrong, such as stealing, being involved in a sexual sin, being dishonest etc., and you've gone to them and they do not repent, then go to another godly person in the Body of Christ and ask them to go with you to talk to the person again (Matthew 18:15-18; Luke 17:4).
(5) If there is no response and it is not a matter of serious disobedience to obvious moral principles, then do not go to others in the Body of Christ criticizing and slandering the person concerned. The Bible does speak very strongly about the importance of unity and forgiveness in the Body of Christ. To go to others when you disagree with a decision could put you in a position of causing a greater sin than the one that you are concerned about in the life of the leader. There are strong warnings in the scriptures about taking matters into our own hands and trying to correct them. Even David would not attack Saul in spite of his great sin because God had put him in that position of leadership. David trusted God to bring an answer in the situation (I Samuel 24:6; Numbers 14; Ephesians 4:26, 29, 30-32).
(6) If the leader is authoritarian or immature or very unwise, you have one of two options: you can stay under his authority and continue to pray for him after you've gone to him to share your concern, or you could leave the group. It is important that you do not stay and become critical and bitter. You have the freedom before God to leave at any time that you feel the pressure is too great on you. /but do hot stay and become a source of division. If you do stay you should have the faith that God is going to bring a change in the situation and that He wants you there to be a blessing to others and for your own personal growth. God will vindicate you if you keep your heart right and continue to pray and believe the Lord. If it is a matter of 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 - then after bringing a warning to the person and they will not change, then you should also leave the group. To stay where there is moral impurity or doctrinal heresy could lead to compromise in your own life.
(7) If you are unsure as to what to do, seek counsel of godly people outside of the group. Go to a mature pastor or a leader in another organization, even if your leaders tell you not to do so! Every believer has that right.
At the same time that we point out some of the abuses of authority, it is important to affirm the great need for godly leaders. To become a wise leader means years of experience, which of course includes making mistakes and failing. The scripture gives many examples of failure on the part of those who went on to be greatly used by God, this includes 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 obviously there needs to be correction, but even more important there needs to be restoration and the kind of counsel and commitment that redeems one who has failed. The leader who does that is indeed a rare and blessed person. May their kind greatly increase!
"The word of the Lord came to me: 'son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ho shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep?. . . The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. . . And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. . .So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed, Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. . . For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. . . Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. . But we were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children. . . For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to lead a life worthy of God , who calls you into his own kingdom and glory." (II Timothy 2:24, 25a; I Peter 5:1-3; I Corinthians 4:15,17; I Thessalonians 2:7, 11-12).