"Another way to describe the religious leaders of Jesus’ day would be “imperative.” Imperative people must be in control. The Pharisees who confronted the lame man who Jesus healed on the Sabbath are a prime example. Imperative people:
- Are uncomfortable with people whose ideas are different from their own
- Have an inborn craving for control
- Are driven by duty
- Hate to admit they are wrong
- Get irritated when people make “mistakes”
- Do important jobs themselves because someone else might not do them right
- Create dependency on themselves
- Act superior but feel inferior
The Jewish leaders who opposed the paralytic that Jesus healed were concerned with only two things: conformity and control. It didn’t matter to them that a lame man was healed. Their petty concern was that he was carrying his bed on the Sabbath.
It’s as if they were saying, “Shame on you, healed man. Wait until tomorrow to be excited. Don’t carry your bed now that you can walk...just lay there and be calm!”
Obviously, these imperative people were not focused on the right thing. They were more concerned with their petty religious traditions than the joy of a man whose lame legs were made whole. They followed the “letter of the law,” but disregarded the Spirit of Truth. They read God’s Word but had no understanding of its true meaning. The Scriptures were a pretext for them to control and manipulate others.
One of the greatest challenges you will face as a leader is imperative people who don’t want to yield their supremacy over a church, school, classroom, or work department. Imperative people feel strongly obligated to direct the behavior of other people - beyond their mandate. They have an inner need to command, to exhort, or direct the lives of others. Imperative people are a bane to leaders who want to get things done for God.
When Jesus healed the lame man, He modeled acting according to the motive behind all biblical truth - God’s love for us. The Pharisees, and many Evangelical Christians still today, fall into the trap of trying to follow the letter of truth; they try to obey the Bible without fathoming the love of the One who gave us the Bible. Perhaps worse yet, they issue judgment when others do not act in accordance with their personal interpretation of biblical truths.
When more weight is given to literal interpretation of the words written to convey biblical truth than the intent of the One who gave us that truth, it ends up being more man-centered than God-centered. Obeying the letter of the law is a matter of physical action, but obeying the Spirit of Truth requires more than just outward action - it involves a loving attitude of the heart and mind.
To refrain from adultery is obedience to the letter of the law, but to exercise restraint in one’s thought life is obedience to the Spirit of Truth (e.g., not lusting in one’s heart for another man’s wife, or any woman or man for that matter).
Great leaders don’t try to monitor or control the behavior of their followers according to the letter of the law. Instead, they seek to motivate obedience from the heart by equipping people to act as independent adults, not dependent children. Healthy, independent adults can think for themselves; children need their parents to think for them.
The teachings of Jesus are revolutionary because He taught obedience to the Spirit of Truth. He didn’t annul the Ten Commandments, He expanded them, revealing their spiritual intent. He didn’t annul the law against murder, but taught us not to hate or judge others from the heart.
In the same Spirit as Jesus, mature spiritual leaders empower their people to look at problems from a biblical perspective, then spiritually discern the intended application of biblical truth for those specific circumstances. The best teacher in town is not a human being, but the Holy Spirit. As leaders, our followers have the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit within them, the Spirit of Truth, to teach and guide them as they apply biblical truths to their lives.
My father used to say to me, “Son, if you are going to get on your knees to pray through your conviction about something, stay there long enough to get that conviction for yourself and not everyone else!”
Though I grew up surrounded by imperative people in our conservative Evangelical church, I am so thankful my dad was mature enough to see through the superficial religious veneer of many of his peers.
Dad fought his way through the rubbish of imperative religion to find a deeply felt, but lovingly held, set of convictions. He was beloved as a pastor because he was not judgmental when parishioners came to him about an alcohol problem or confessed that their daughter was on drugs. Dad was deeply compassionate when a single mother was overwhelmed and depressed by the burdens of caring for two or three children alone. Dad had convictions, deeply held biblical convictions, but he held them with love. He gave others space to come to their own beliefs.
To apply these truths to my own life, I had to learn the difference between following the letter of the law versus the Spirit of Truth. It means being flexible rather than rigid; being a person of conviction, but not imposing your convictions on others. It means giving others freedom to apply biblical truth for themselves - with loving accountability.
Most of us have some imperative characteristics. It becomes a weakness when we allow them to disrupt our relationships with family, business associates, and friends. When that happens, we need to back off and learn how to keep a potential strength - leading with conviction - from becoming a damaging weakness.
To live in freedom, imperative people must yield to these truths:
- God is absolute, we are not. Give others space to come to their own convictions.
- We are not responsible for people, God is. Trust the Holy Spirit to correct, convict, and guide others.
- Cultivating relationships is more important than being right. Live from the inside out, not the outside in (i.e., from the heart, not the head).
Freedom is the key word here. Imperative people have to learn to allow others to be themselves, and - this is sometimes even more difficult - to allow themselves to relax and simply be themselves. Freedom from being an imperative leader means influencing others without controlling them. There is a time and place to clarify expectations and commitments, but there is a line between doing that and becoming the religious police. It means cultivating contentment in your heart about your convictions and allowing others the same freedom.
If you recognize imperative tendencies in yourself, here are some steps you can take toward freedom:
- Identify any controlling or judgmental inclinations you might harbor and humbly acknowledge them to others.
- Understand how the drive to control others has worked in your life to the detriment of others.
- Yield to God’s change in your life through repentance, confession, and forgiveness.