Authority and Its Abuse
Sadly, it’s not uncommon for those in authority to abuse their authority. For example, consider these various examples:
From an 2013 article about bad bosses in The Washingtonian:
A guy at my old company used to make his employees ask before they could use the restroom—and he would time them. If they were gone longer than five minutes, he would add the time up at the end of the week and make them use vacation time.
He made anyone late to a meeting stand in the corner for the entire time, and he had others who said anything particularly ‘stupid’ stand on their chair or the table.”
From Randi Kreger’s book Stop Walking On Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality:
My dad used fear, guilt, intimidation, blaming, and manipulation to control my whole family. He's poisonous—the kind of person who has you doubting your own perceptions and beliefs. Life with him was a rollercoaster—up and down, for years and years. He'd rage and snarl one minute, and then apologize the next, and expect you to forget all about it. The constant instability and insecurity eventually rendered me completely numb. He refuses to take responsibility for his behavior, and acts like any rift in our relationship is my fault. I am trying to forgive him.
Or this, from the Department of Justice Report on Baltimore Police Department:
We find reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing against African Americans. Statistical evidence shows that the Department intrudes disproportionately upon the lives of African Americans at every stage of its enforcement activities. BPD officers disproportionately stop African Americans; search them more frequently during these stops; and arrest them at rates that significantly exceed relevant benchmarks for criminal activity. African Americans are likewise subjected more often to false arrests. Indeed, for each misdemeanor street offense that we examined, local prosecutors and booking officials dismissed a higher proportion of African-American arrests upon initial review compared to arrests of people from other racial backgrounds. BPD officers also disproportionately use force—including constitutionally excessive force—against African-American subjects. Nearly 90 percent of the excessive force incidents identified by the Justice Department review involve force used against African Americans.
What these stories have in common is their consistent example of abusive authority. And when it happens, the results are often devastating. Devastating for a workplace, devastating for a family, devastating for an entire community of people. The greater the degree of authority, the greater the pain inflicted when it is abused.
If it’s devastating in the world, how much more so in the church of Jesus Christ?
Human authority is a delegated power to make decisions and bring laws of some type to bear on the one under authority. And the Bible makes it clear that this is a good thing. Romans 13:1 says, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” In that context, it’s speaking about the governing authorities, but it’s true of all authority. There is no authority except from God.
Remember the conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in John 19? So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” But Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”
Authority is good, because when used properly, it is a reflection of the power, wisdom, and love of God.
THE AUTHORITY OF JESUS
Abusive authority is the improper use of authority. Like all sin, it’s a distortion. It takes something good and God-ordained and uses it improperly. So, in order to understand the bad version, let’s think about what the good version is. And to see the good version, as one would predict, all we have to do is look at Jesus, because he is the epitome of everything good, and that includes authority.
This couldn’t be clearer when we arrive at a passage like John 10:1–11:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
In this passage, which comes on the heels of Jesus healing the man born blind, the Lord Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd.” The shepherd/sheep imagery is rich in its Old Testament background and is a picture of how God relates to his people.
In Jesus’s culture, it would have been an obvious picture of authority. The shepherd has authority over the sheep. The shepherd decides where the sheep goes, when it’s time for the sheep to come in from the field. He feeds the sheep, cares for the sheep, corrects the sheep when they’re off. He clearly calls the shots. He has authority over the sheep.
But here’s where it gets surprising. Jesus uses his authority, not to hurt the sheep or take advantage and abuse the sheep. He uses his authority to bless the sheep. In this way, the authority of Jesus is protective, loving, and sacrificial.
Notice the end of verse 3: he “leads them out.” Notice also the middle of verse 4: “he goes before them.” The shepherd is in front so any predator, if they want to get to the sheep, have to get past him first. He uses his authority to protect.
Jesus calls his own sheep by name (10:3). It’s personal. He’s not just taking care of a mass of worthless sheep, simply there to serve his purposes and meet his needs. Instead, he knows them and calls them each individually by name.
In verse 11, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is shocking. While sheep certainly had value in that culture, the value of the sheep was nothing compared to the value of the shepherd. The shepherd would not be expected to endanger himself for the sheep, let alone die for them.
But that’s exactly what Jesus does. The purpose of authority is for the good, the blessedness, and the flourishing of the one under authority. And that’s exactly what Jesus says he uses his authority to accomplish in verse 9: “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved.”
Saved from what? Saved from the wrath of God. That’s what we deserve because of our sin. And we’re all guilty. We all like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. So Jesus, through his death and resurrection, secures our greatest good, our most significant blessedness, the highest possible degree of flourishing imaginable. He saved us. Jesus used his power and authority to save us.
Jesus is contrasting himself with both the leaders of his day and the bad shepherds from the past. As Jesus makes this contrast, it would have drawn the minds of his listeners back to texts like Ezekiel 34.
ISRAEL’S ABUSIVE SHEPHERDS
Here’s what Ezekiel says in Ezekiel 34:1–10:
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: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured 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. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, (I can’t imagine anything worse that can be said. But that is exactly what God says to those who abuse and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.”
Jesus, as the good shepherd, is the fulfillment of what’s being prophesied here. But notice the specific critiques of Israel’s shepherds that all fit into what Jesus says about the thieves and robbers in John 10.
God’s critique of Israel’s shepherds is communicated in the following ten ways:
- They feed themselves and not the sheep. (34:2)
- They eat the fat. (34:3)
- They clothe themselves with wool. (34:3)
- They slaughter the fat ones. (34:3)
In other words, just like the thieves and robbers Jesus mentions in John 10, these shepherds are stealing from the sheep for their own shameful gain. But there’s more:
- They have not strengthened the weak. (34:4)
- They have not healed the sick. (34:4)
- They have not bound up the injured. (34:4)
- They have not brought back the straying. (34:4)
- They have not sought the lost. (34:4)
- They have ruled with force and harshness. (34:4)
In other words, just like the thief and robber, these shepherds kill and destroy the sheep through their negligence.
Notice the abuse of authority in this passage isn’t so much seen in how they treated the strong, but how they treated the weak, the sick, the injured, the straying, the lost (34:4). They saw the weak not as precious souls in God’s sight in need of strengthening, but as annoyances. They saw the sick, not as chosen and beloved, but as an inconvenience. They saw the injured as in the way and slowing down the ministry. They saw the straying, as not worth the time to pursue. They saw the lost as hopeless. They abused the sheep because they didn’t have eyes to see the sheep as God saw them.
Unfortunately, this is far too often the case today. The apostle Peter, in giving instruction to under-shepherds, picks up on some of these themes in 1 Peter 5:1–5:
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 going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
My assumption is none of you want to abuse the authority given to you by God. And my guess is that those who have given in to the temptation to be abusive in their exercise of authority didn’t go into ministry with the goal of being an abusive pastor. My guess is, like most sin, it happened gradually and subtly. Hebrews 3:13 talks about the “deceitfulness of sin” for a reason.
Looking at 1 Peter 5:2, do you notice whose flock it is? It’s God’s flock. Not your flock. It’s God’s. They’re God’s sheep. And notice where they are: “among you.” Not beneath you. What this verse most certainly does not say is, “Subdue your own flock that is under you.”
And yet, so much of pastoring today looks like that. But we must ask Peter, how do we do this? How do we shepherd the flock of God that’s among us? He tells us how.
First, he says, “exercise oversight.” There’s the authority—power delegated by God. The meaning of “authority” there is important: “to look intently with the aim of caring for the one looked upon.” That aim is also important: to care for the one under authority. Then he gives instructions in three pairs, each one stated negatively and then positively. Each of these is meant to help pastors, to help us avoid abusing authority.
Not under compulsion, but willingly — (Pride)
This gets at our motives. It causes us to search our hearts and ask ourselves, Why are we in ministry? That’s a good question to ask. Why are you in ministry? Or why do you desire to go into ministry? This is an important question, because we all know the right answers. For the glory of God. The spread the gospel. To help and serve people. Those are right, biblical answers. But having the right answer isn’t enough. I’m sure all those in our circles who have given into the sin of abusing their authority all had the right answer.
People enter the ministry for all kinds of reasons. Here are some bad ones.
1. The desire for power
Some people crave power. They like the idea of being the boss, of being in charge. They like people having to do what they say. It might be because they felt powerless as a child, and now they have an opportunity to exert the power they always desired but never had.
2. The desire for affirmation
Some people, more than anything else, just want to be affirmed. This is the person who craves compliments and lives on applause. It feels good to be affirmed, and for this person, they get an opportunity every week to be told they’re doing a great job. Of course, for many, this backfires when they get called to a congregation that criticizes more than affirms; these brothers often get crushed under the burden of criticism.
3. The desire for respect
There’s a respect that comes from the office. I once heard about a guy who insisted that the congregation not call him by his first name but call him by his title.
I can’t help but wonder if that guy ever read Matthew 23: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.”
Nothing’s wrong with being rabbi, teacher, or instructor. But there is something very wrong with glorying in it. Because glorying in it is a manifestation of pride. That’s why Jesus immediately says: “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
4. The desire for a “platform”
This is why big conferences can be dangerous. Because no matter how careful the organizers are, it can reinforce the false notion that the most faithful pastors are the pastors with the biggest ministries and the most pronounced gifts. It’s sadly ironic, but the reality is that the bigger the “platform,” the more challenging it will become to be among the flock and shepherd well. For some reason we’ve separated preaching from shepherding. That was never meant to be because they go hand in hand. I love what Anthony Carter says about why he doesn’t speak at more conferences: “God hasn’t called me to shepherd the world, but the flock.”
Not for shameful gain, but eagerly — (Greed)
This was explicitly stated in Ezekiel 34 and implied by Jesus in John 10 when he said thieves and robbers steal. The warning against greed is a constant warning in Scripture. There’s going to be a temptation to use the church’s money for our own sinful ends. This is why financial accountability is so important—two signers for every check.
Not domineering, but being examples to the flock – (Power)
Here are a few ways to be domineering
- to not listen
- to retaliate when criticized. I know of one person, whenever he was criticized would sit people down from ministry
- using the Word to make your point rather than making your points from the Word
- by equating your suggestions with the Bible and binding people’s consciences
- to command obedience where the Word does not command it.
That’s how to rule harshly.
Brothers, we must realize pride is at the root of every abuse of authority—in the home, in the workplace, in the church, everywhere. We must also realize humility is the key to avoiding it. Surely this is Peter’s point in 1 Peter 5:5—“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‚God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
To be sure, many will mistake the use of authority for its abuse. In those moments:
- show a deep and genuine humility by listening to how your actions might have been perceived, even wrongly perceived
- lean on your fellow elders
- teach congregationalism as an insurance against authoritarian leadership
- truly live among your people through regular visits and conversation that yield a general awareness of their spiritual well-being.
There’s more to say on this subject, but I’ll leave you with my own exhortation fueled by the words of Peter: “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 going to be revealed . . . use your authority to empower others.”
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Editor’s note: This article is an edited version of Shai’s talk from First Five Years 2016.