Authority, Not Authoritarian
Several years ago, a woman sat in a meeting with her pastor. Clinging to her chair with eyes to the ground, she took a deep breath and said slowly the line she’d been praying about for weeks: “I think maybe you’ve been harsh with me.”
After multiple meetings with her pastor, she struggled with the difficult interactions that began when she first sought his counsel. She felt trapped in repeated accusatory encounters and had asked for advice. Her mentor suggested she humbly talk to him about it. His response didn’t lead to what she’d hoped. “What kind of woman says that to her pastor?” he asked. He moved on to rebuke her pride and continue to make his point.
CHRISTIANS AND AUTHORITY?
When we discuss authority within the church, Christians should joyfully affirm its place. We believe authority is a good thing given by God. Simultaneously, we must assert we do not use the term in the same way as the world. In the secular culture today, authority is often a by-word, meaning control, dominance, or a privilege belonging only to the powerful. Christian authority means none of these things.
Yet Christians are sinners, too. We can use authority for self-rule and prestige. We can use authority like those who don’t know Jesus Christ. Christ’s humble example fades while desires for control or efficiency take center stage. These temptations are true of anyone with authority and influence. I’ve seen the lustful draw in my own life.
When Peter addressed the elders in his first letter, he spoke to the temptation to abuse authority. He called these men with unique authority in the church to “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” (1 Pet. 5:2–3).
I’ve often heard teaching that brushes over the last warning—“not domineering over those in your charge.” But the multiple high-profile stories of pastor’s misusing authority suggest we need to consider it.
WHAT IS “DOMINEERING”?
The word “domineering” brings to mind such hostile images that it’s easy to assume everyone who works in a civilized manner is safe from this transgression. But in reality, it’s a danger to everyone in authority.
Domineering occurs when the person in authority feels the need (even for good ends) to dominate, subdue, or master those under his or her authority rather than lead, care for, and serve them. Perhaps Peter remembered the scene when Jesus used the same word to describe how the Gentiles ruled. They lord it over others, he said (Matt. 20:25, Mk. 10:42). They gain dominion by manipulating. It’s how sinful people have exercised authority since the Fall, so it makes sense for Jesus to expose it.
“But it shall not be so among you,” Jesus states. He wants to lead his disciples to a contrasting paradigm of leadership, one governed by servanthood and humility. Then he offers the greatest example of such leadership himself by going to the cross (Mark 10:45). So it is no surprise that his followers must follow in his footsteps. They shouldn’t cling to supremacy and control for their own good, but rather lead as shepherds who serve, just as Peter describes.
This is true explicitly for elders of local churches, but Peter’s principles apply to all facets of our lives. All Christians should exercise their authority—in the home, the workplace, or the public sphere—like Jesus. I’ve failed to use my authority this way, and though I’m not an elder, my domineering still has devastating consequences.
4 WAYS TO DIAGNOSE DOMINEERING
In the life of the church, elders are called to lead, teach, speak the truth, and discipline for the good of the body. In so doing, they set an example for how authority should be used. So, as a woman deeply thankful for the calling and care of elders, I’d like to offer four questions that may help you recognize if you are drifting into domineering.
1. Do You Veer into Harshness?
When someone doesn’t understand (or agree with) what you’re saying, do you say it louder and with less kindness? When you’re irritated with the direction of a conversation, do you “take the gloves off”?
How we say things matters, especially for the one in authority. Church leaders must speak truth for the good of the flock. But they must do so with gentleness, kindness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). When we slip into a domineering view of authority, it’s easy to see gentleness as a requirement for others, not something required of you if your job is to “get stuff done.”
Yet that is not right. I’ve heard of techniques for pastors to “make someone submit.” But pastors should never force submission. A pastor’s job is to work for Spirit-given fruit, not forced “fruit,” which isn’t really fruit.
More subtly, a pastor can respond to someone’s confession with a rebuke or an additional accusation instead of grace. It’s as if the shepherd wants further assurance that the confessor finally feels the weight of his or her sin. But in the process the pastor withholds the hope of forgiveness. This, too, is harshness.
A harsh manner may foster outward obedience, but it does not image the character of our Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:11). Nor does it result in the transformation of the sheep. When elders lead in gentleness, they teach the mercy of our God. When they don’t, they tempt sheep to adopt the outward motions of a heartless obedience.
2. Do You Assume the Intentions of the Heart?
Have you ever been to a doctor who barely asks any questions before offering a diagnosis? It’s frustrating, right? But you understand how a doctor can do this: when you’ve seen patterns many times, you begin to see them everywhere.
Elders—understandably and wrongly—can do this with the intentions of people’s hearts: “If they’re like me, then they must be thinking…” “When they said that, they must have sinned in their heart…” “They must have been motivated by sin when…” Assumptions begin. Questions are not asked. The testimony of others is taken at face value. And “leading” quickly turns to lording it over.
It’s tempting to play God and tell people why they did what they did. Yet when you judge and then indict a person’s heart motivations, you throw them off balance. It’s a power move. Suddenly the individual wonders if they even know themselves. Insisting a person has been proud, rebellious, people-pleasing, or cowardly, even when they don’t recognize that in themselves, confuses them at best and terrifies them at worst. It subdues rather than serves.
I’m glad shepherds speak to the sin of the sheep. Shepherds must ask hard questions, even questions that helps a person to see their own motives: “Why do you think you did that?” But then shepherds should be quick to believe the person is telling the truth about his or her own heart, or, if they doubt it, to at least trust the Lord to bring to light what is hidden. Shepherds must walk alongside the sheep as they seek the Lord, trusting the Holy Spirit who speaks and fully knows every heart.
This approach leaves our triune God as Lord, rather than any one person. A pastor cannot know it all, and should repent for trying, as Zach Eswine says in his book The Imperfect Pastor. When elders lead well, members like me are reminded to leave the god-playing behind and trust the Spirit.
3. Are You Concerned About Control?
Do you think you know better, so you don’t need the input of others, especially those who aren’t elders? Are you concerned about what ideas they may have that would oppose yours? Do you discourage the flock from reading other Bible teachers? Are you concerned with what the people in your congregation may think or decide? Are you threatened by disagreement? Is your way the only way? Are your spiritual discipline preferences ultimate? Do you consider journaling greater than fasting, or your prayer structure superior?
When someone’s opinions and preferences become holy imperatives, even subtly, the leaders begin to look more like masters than shepherds.
I’ve seen elders give instruction on family plans, job choices, studies, children, and homes. Such pastoral instruction so easily goes beyond biblical directives, and their authority crosses lines of anything connected to biblical wisdom. Sentiments become teachings which become rules. And people suffer.
Jack Miller says it well when he writes, “For the irony of it all is that the more we try to control the work in our own name, the more the work and its problems control us. We begin by trying to own the work of God and end up with the ministry owning us.”
As elders, your willingness to not control teaches me to do likewise. Your courageous leadership that trusts the Lord Jesus to work and lead bolsters my faith, so that I don’t use my authority to control those in my own spheres of influence. I’m encouraged to live in humility before God, you, and others, feeling safe in your care (1 Pet. 5:5).
4. Do You Avoid Acknowledging Your Own Sin?
Is it hard to admit you’re tempted by sin, often the same sin as those in your church? Are you able to repent alongside those to whom you minister?
Sometimes churches can imply that elders are a status above. They’re beyond the level of the congregation, especially the “normal pew sheep.”
In contrast to this, some elders I’ve known publicly and privately admit their need to repent of pride and follow Paul’s example by acknowledging they may be the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). They speak of their temptation to selfishness and their deep need for grace. When they speak of temptations to impurity, they never do so in a way that shames women or pushes them out of relationships or conversations. They talk about sin as if they know they can also be tempted (see Gal. 6:1; Jude 23). They openly discuss their choice of obedience and repentance without needing to protect their reputation of perfection.
When there’s no confession from the highest in authority, it can be implied that the good deeds of the leader invalidate their need to confess. Horrifically, this example can subtly teach a false gospel that achievements and power cover sin.
“Be an example to the flock,” Peter says in the same breath as his charge not to domineer (1 Pet. 5:3). The alternative to lording over people is to live out the honest and secure lifestyle of one who repents before those under one’s care, before both men and women. When elders respond to criticism by asking for help in seeing their own sin and blind spots, we see the theology they teach lived out before our eyes.
When it’s obvious grace is for you, too, we members are helped to repent of sin with joy. When leaders display their need for the work of Christ, it reveals our own great need as well (Rom. 7:24–25). The cross really did save you and me, and I as a member am blessed to see that in your life.
THE GRACE FOR AUTHORITY
Brother-pastors, I’m immensely grateful for your leadership in the church. You shepherd us and lead us, pointing to the glorious grace of Jesus Christ. You speak the truth we need to hear. God has placed you in authority, and this is a good thing. In your place of authority, though, you must choose how you exercise your power.
By God’s grace, you don’t have to be harsh, more knowledgeable, in control, or perfect. The world’s leaders may feel the need to hold on to their power like this. But you don’t need to feel this way. Rather, the Chief Shepherd has given to his church under-shepherds who are freed from such methods. How? Through the power of the gospel. And so those shepherds faithfully wait for their crown of glory after their humble service to many (1 Pet. 5:4). That’s the vision of Christian authority, and it is beautiful.