Redeeming Authority for Those Who’ve Only Known Its Abuse
When I was a young boy, the word “authority” was synonymous with the word “abuse.” My guardians, be they Foster-Carers or Children’s Home staff, abused their power and authority in so many different ways. As I grew older, the police became my authoritarian hate figures, many of whom abused their powers, too. Often I would be stopped on the streets and searched with no warrant other than a police officer’s shrugging admittance, “Because I can, son.”
School wasn’t any better. As soon as I felt able, I rebelled completely. I went from a A-student to an, “I couldn’t care less” student almost overnight. My rebellion wasn’t borne out of a frustrated inability to learn (I was bright) but out of a perverse delight in rebelling against any and all authority figures in my life.
As a child, I suffered bona fide torture at the hands of adults. In response I tried my best to behave—to be “good,” to toe the line. It didn’t work. Still I would be mercilessly assaulted. When I responded by misbehaving and becoming uncooperative the abuse continued unabated. I soon realized it made no difference whether I behaved or not. Those who had authority over me abused it regardless.
As I now write these words as a pastor of an evangelical church in an inner city area of Edinburgh, Scotland, I know little has changed. Abuse is as commonplace here as buying milk from the local supermarket.
ABUSIVE PASTORS AND ABUSED CHURCH MEMBERS
Yet as I read the Scripture, one thing is clear. Pastors are called to shepherd the sheep, not abuse them. That needs repeating constantly, particularly within the context of an evangelical grapevine (read: internet) awash with horror stories of abusive pastors and churches hanging poor, innocent members out to dry. There are bloggers and so-called discernment sites scanning the evangelical cyber world—CIA like—for keywords such as “authority” or “discipline” in an effort to protect the innocent masses from ecclesiastical terrorism.
And who can blame them? It’s not like the stories of mismanaged discipline issues in churches are a rarity. With the downfall of high-profile pastors in recent years for “abusive patterns” of behavior, they have plenty of ammunition with which to arm themselves.
But here’s the question: as a pastor who has also suffered abuse, how do I respond to the abused sufferers and anti-authoritarian people in my care in a way that’s biblical, loving, and true to God’s revealed Word?
Here are six ways:
1. My starting point has to be Scripture, not my personal experience.
Deeply wounded as I may be, the Word is perfect, sure, and true. It’s the abuse of it by people that is at fault. The Word should be trusted 100 percent. God, regardless of how I feel, has my best interests at heart.
2. We must teach our people that submission to authority is a God-honoring act.
In Romans 13:1–2, Paul tells us we’re all subject to authorities whether we like it or not. The context there is civil government. But in Hebrews 13:17, we read that church members should submit to those in leadership over them in. Therefore, the question for the Christian is not, ‘Should we submit to our leaders?’ but, ‘How do we submit to them in a way that is biblical and wise?’ I’ve checked and there’s not a pass on this for those of us who come from abused backgrounds.
3. We must avoid the “pendulum effect.”
The tendency of those of us who have suffered abuse is to respond in a completely opposite direction. So, for example, because I was badly beaten as a child, I make the decision not to effect any discipline in my own children’s lives. While a reasonable human response to my abuse, it’s not a biblical position when I read in Proverbs 13:24, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” Then there are churches that shrink back from authority so as to not be seen as abusive. This in itself is a form of abuse. People are allowed to behave and do what they like without any fear of recrimination. Picture a house of errant teenagers being allowed to behave as they please without any discipline. We have to be careful to avoid extremes. We should not avoid exercising loving authority any more than we should exercise it excessively.
4. One of the best challenges to pastoral excess and abuse is a strong eldership.
For those leaders who love to quote Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:3 reminds them of their responsibility in how they are to exercise authority. A strong eldership guards against the one-man band approach of so many churches. A dominant, unchecked personality leading the church can, and has been, a recipe for disaster. It leaves us open to abusive patterns of authority. In our small church, we have six elders, and the other five act as a good failsafe against my strong personality and sinful inclinations. I have lost many a vote on my eldership, which, while frustrating, is good for my humility. I’ve also been talked out of making many poor decisions! Without a plurality of leaders, it’s far too easy for strong personalities such as mine to run roughshod over the local church. It also guards against personal animosity. We’d be lying if we said we absolutely love everyone in our churches. Some people frustrate the absolute life out of us and so having an eldership mitigates against treating them unfavorably. But, you, say aren’t elders just as open to abusing their authority? Of course they are.
5. That’s why the best challenge to an abusive eldership is healthy, biblical congregationalism.
In our church we have the following process when it comes to matters of discipline:
- We expect 95% of problems between members to be settled in accordance with Matthew 18 principles, before any elder even hears about it.
- If it cannot be resolved one-on-one, then take a mature Christian with you.
- Serious cases come to the elders.
- If it cannot be resolved by us, then we take the fifth step of going to the church members.
These steps aren’t a perfect failsafe against error, but they do seriously mitigate the chance of pastoral and leadership abuse in the lives of our people. Above all, as pastors and elders we should admit our fallibilities. I know pastors who think it’s a sign of weakness to admit our failings and uncertainty to the membership. On the contrary, I think it installs confidence in the leaders of a church. When we come to the congregation for serious cases of church discipline, we’re holding ourselves and our decisions up to the wider scrutiny of the whole body. Again, at every point, this mitigates against either heavy-handedness or pastoral cowardice.
6. We must offer worthwhile examples to others.
Those of us who have known abuse must now, in Christ, work to be good and faithful husbands, who love our wives and deal with our children well. Those of us from broken homes need good models of leadership and authority in every area of our lives, both inside and outside the church. In our home, we have an open-door policy, which sees guests at our table for every meal—sometimes even living in our home. We can teach many of the principles above from the Word but, more than that, those who have experienced abusive authority need to see living illustrations of how family members handle conflict in a way that’s biblical, loving, and authoritative.
Much of the abuse I see in the lives of the people among whom I minister is borne out of neglect—a neglect of parental responsibility and a failure to set clear rules and boundaries. The answer for the church is not to neglect our duty out of a misguided sense of love, but to ensure that when we do lead, we do so sensitively, lovingly, firmly, and well.