Inordinate Pastoral Authority
J. Brad Bailey, Ph. D.
For many years, the Independent Baptist movement has suffered from certain sects who place a high premium on pastoral authority to the exclusion of the individual priesthood of the believer. There is a mysterious defense of this error in many churches. What is certain from Scripture is that this position is mostly indefensible.
In Independent Baptist churches across our nation, damaging and destructive acts of spiritual violence continue to be perpetrated against those who have chosen to make these churches their spiritual families. These are acts no less deliberate and damaging, and yet they are never questioned, never challenged and much less even discussed in the world of the church today unless some incredibly sensational case of it comes to light. I feel that this ecclesiastical silence exists because of the general conviction that pastoral authority must not be infringed upon, and that to intervene in what is seen as “church matters” will constitute such infringement. Also, perhaps the unwritten perception remains in more minds than we care to acknowledge, that to challenge a pastor’s authority is to be found challenging God, not something very many religious people (particularly here in Southeastern states) will contemplate doing. While we argue over these issues, the religious abuse goes on virtually unchallenged and unchecked.
For example: take the case of Moses and how he was approached by his father-in-law Jethro. InExodus 18:13-17 the Bible says, “And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people: and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening. And when Moses' father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even? And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to inquire of God: When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws. And Moses' father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good.”
Jethro had an excellent point. Moses had indeed taken far too much upon himself than he could bear. There is no question under the heaviness of that type of load, Moses would soon burn out. When I studied this passage of Scripture I took great advice from Moses father-in-law Jethro. However, I called a number of friends in the ministry and asked them what their opinion of Jethro’s actions were. The responses basically came down to two: there were those who felt that Jethro was justified in his assessment of Moses’ workload, and then there were those who insisted that Jethro was out of line. Those who saw Jethro as overstepping his bounds were men who I know to believe very strongly in pastoral authority, and rule their churches very strictly. Those who sided with Jethro were of a more balanced and delicate approach to pastoral leadership. So what does the Bible say about this matter?
In 1 Peter 5:1-5, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter wrote, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” This is the definitive word on the matter of pastoral authority. There is no greater text in Scripture that warns us of the dangers of becoming lords over the congregations that God has entrusted us with.
We note first that the Apostle Peter is speaking to the elders from an elder’s standpoint. His first admonition is to feed the flock of God which is among you. When was the last time you fed sheep: real, wool-covered sheep? According to Phillip Keller1, In order to feed sheep, you do not throw seed at them (this is how you feed chickens). In order to feed sheep, you open a gate and let them freely roam in the pasture you have led them into. This is truly how a wise shepherd feeds sheep, but even novice shepherds know that this is the only effective method of feeding sheep. Deniers of this are ignoring the obvious.
The word “elder” is synonymous with episkopos (bishop) from which we get the idea of “supervisor.” It has a common Greek root that is intensified by the prefix epi. The root is scopis which is where we get “scope” from (ex. telescope, microscope). Episcopos means to look at something with the most careful scrutiny. The word “elder” can rightly be understood as an “overseer.”
Then there is the statement that many removed from its context to justify pastoral authority – taking the oversight thereof. Many have connected this with the word “rule” (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24) and postulated what they feel is justifiable dictatorship over the churches they pastor. That is an irresponsible interpretation of the Scripture to say the least. Lord willing, in this chapter we will address some of the greater issues of pastoral authority that exist.
The following are examples of authority problems that churches are facing today:
All of these are fairly common amongst churches today; all are unscriptural; and all are potentially life threatening to a church.
There are likewise, interesting views that church members have developed in regards to the pastoral authority of their church:
There are hazards with all of these views and if a church is to stay clear of these hazards, pastors must do what Paul admonished them to do in Acts 20:28-30, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” The only oversight that we can assume is what the Holy Ghost has granted unto us and that is clearly outlined in Scripture.
There are many different kinds of church government or polity. Churches in which the authority resides in the congregation are called congregationalist. They tend to function as pure democracies. I do not think this is the Holy Ghost inspired oversight that Paul had in mind. Churches that are governed by elected elders are called presbyterian. The most common form of government in church history has been the episcopal type, in which individual pastors serve in local churches, but are ultimately governed by a bishop who presides over a certain number of pastors within a given geographical area. This does not fit the description of Holy Ghost oversight either. This later developed into monoepiscopacy in which one bishop is set above the rest. The Roman Catholic Church uses this monoespiscopal form of church government.
The difference between the word “elder” or presbyter and the word “bishop” or episkopos has been much debated. What has made the matter most difficult is that in the Scripture the terms appear to be used interchangeably.
What is certain is that in the New Testament, at the top is God the Father, who then delegates all authority in heaven and in earth to His Son, the Head of the Church. God’s Son, in turn, authorized some to speak with His authority, the Apostles. That authority was then filtered to every believer, who became their own priests after the death of Christ. This is the biblical breakdown of authority.
Feed the flock – sheep spend most of their time eating and drinking. If they become lost, they are helpless to find adequate food or water. Left to themselves, they will overgraze and ruin their own pasture. They also need to be led to water that is not impure and stagnant, not too cold or too hot, and water that is not moving too rapidly. That task takes oversight by a competent shepherd.
In churches today, especially in America, enormous expectations are imposed upon the lives of pastors. Because of that, approximately 16,000 pastors leave the ministry every year. Today pastors are expected to be psychologists, theologians, Bible scholars, administrators, preachers, teachers, and community leaders. The pastor often spends much of his time on secondary matters that have little to do with feeding the flock through studying, preaching and teaching.
Shepherding the flock is paramount. Without a shepherd, the Bible teaches that sheep are lost. In Matthew 9:36 the Bible says, “But when he [Jesus] saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” Isaiah 53:6 adds, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Sheep are the most dependent, helpless and stupid of all domesticated animals. Phillip Keller offers another apt observation concerning Psalm 23:2a, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: “The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met.” He then lists those four things as (1) freedom from fear, (2) freedom from tension, (3) freedom from aggravations and (4) freedom from hunger. Keller added, “A flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated and disturbed never does well.”1
Most old-world shepherds did not own their flocks, but tended them on behalf of another owner. When a sheep was killed, the under-shepherd was required to bring back a piece of its torn flesh or some other part of its body to prove that it had been killed rather than stolen by a thief or perhaps sold by a dishonest under-shepherd. This created accountability to the chief-shepherd.
God has created most animals with an uncanny instinct to find their way home, but if sheep stray into unfamiliar territory they become completely disoriented and cannot find their way back home (Luke 15:3-7). They need a shepherd.
Sheep are just as panicked by harmless things as they are by those that are truly dangerous. When real danger does come they have no natural defense except for running, and they are not very good at that. They need a shepherd to protect them.
Sheep are indiscriminate in their choice of vegetation to eat, it is necessary to protect them from poisonous weeds. Shepherds had to go before their sheep to be sure that no poisonous weeds were in the pasture before they entered. They are highly vulnerable to weather extremes. They are vulnerable to infectious disease and they have to be checked regularly and individually for symptoms of disease, for cuts and abrasions that might get infected, and for insects and parasites that can harm them. Flies buzzing around their eyes and ears have been known to irritate and frighten sheep. Sometimes flies will lay eggs in a sheep’s eyes and ultimately cause blindness. They have been observed beating their head against rocks or trees until it kills them to get rid of flies. All of these issues prove that sheep need a shepherd.
In trying to escape real, or imagined danger, sheep will panic into a blind stampede, and pregnant ewes will lose their lambs from the running and sometimes even their own lives from exhaustion. A shepherd has to be close by to monitor these issues and act accordingly.
Because their wool secretes a large volume of oily lanolin that permeates their fleece, much dirt, grass, and wind-blown debris clings to it. Since they have no ability to clean themselves, they remain soiled until the shepherd shears them. Between shearings, that dirty, oily accumulation of filth must be cut away, especially from under their tail, or they won’t be able to eliminate waste and will become sick and die. Sheep need a shepherd!
To stay on subject, the flawed concept of modern inordinate pastoral authority does not exist in the Bible, but comes to us from traditions like the Roman priests, and the pastors of Protestant churches. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to shepherding. These offices with their authority are based on the typology of the Levitical Priesthood, which is an entirely Old Testament concept and was never intended to be imposed in the New Testament. Sheep do not need a priest, they need a shepherd.
The priesthood was intended to be given to every believer in the New Testament church:
1 Peter 2:5, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2:9, But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:
It must be understood that modern pastors do not serve as priests. We are not Nicolaitans, which is a New Testament term describing those who rule the laity – it simply means “to rule the people.” The Lord commanded the church at Ephesus for hating this false doctrine. Yet, this same doctrine has resurfaced in these last days and has become a vexation to many churches.
It is my belief that one of the greatest violations of the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:7a, Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain) is the abuse of authority for egotistical, financial and even sexual gratification. Roman Catholics have been flagrant violators of the fourth commandment by using the authority of the priestly robe to exercise such authority over their young parishioners who submitted to sexual molestation. Many of those priests exploited those children sexually in the name of God – an utter violation of the fourth commandment. In 1993 it was estimated that 40 percent of Roman Catholic priests has sexually molested a young parishioner. I recently heard an interview in which a former Roman Catholic priest who defected said that the average molester abused 200 children. Those priests were not exposed or defrocked, but rather reassigned and allowed to continue in ministry – a shameful display, to say the least.
It is assumed that this would be impossible among Independent Baptists because we deny the celibacy of the priesthood outright. Yet, there is a growing number of Independent Baptist pastors who are being exposed for sexually abusing children and teens. Why? I can only suggest that, though we do not share their teachings on celibacy among priests, we do shamefully share their twisted Nicolaitane authoritarianism.
A bishop, pastor, or elder is a managing member of the local church. It must be understood that as a pastor I have absolutely no authority vested in me simply because I have the gift of preaching or teaching. The only authority that I have is when I am communicating the Word of God to the congregation.
That is not to say that strong leadership is discouraged in the Scripture. To deny that pastors are to be strong leaders in local churches would be to deny the strengths of the greatest of the apostles. Each of these men had been charged by God Himself to perform tasks that would require strong leadership. Leadership is not what is in question. The issue is what Peter called becoming lords over God's heritage.
When Peter said we were to take the oversight of the church, he quickly added not by constraint – in other words, not to the point of oppressive, dictatorial bondage. It is my understanding from Scripture that the only person that constrains us is Christ (cf. Matt. 14:22). Additionally, the only one that we can justifiably called Lord is Christ. A pastor insisting to engage the same powers of constraint and lordship over a congregation that Christ owns is an impostor and a counterfeit.
Peter also added a note about filthy lucre. Of course we understand this to be greed. Greed seems to be the driving force behind many pastor’s authority. They seek to acquire complete control and absolute power in local churches because they cannot afford to be brought into question about sensitive financial and fiscal matters.
This greed also manifests itself in their unwillingness to share any notoriety in the local church. Their greed forces them to be the celebrity of their church. Again, this is an unscriptural practice.
The issuing of lordship over God’s people is both Nicolaitane and pagan Gentile-like in nature:
Luke 22:25-26, And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
Matthew 20:25-27, But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:
Mark 10:42-45,But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Pastors are shepherds, but be it known that there is a Chief Shepherd. We are told that He will appear one day (I Pet. 5:4). When he appears all remnants of authority will be yielded to him. I do not think that this idea is in debate. Anyone would agree that Christ is the Lord of the church, but the point needs to be made that He is the Lord of the church now. We are not, nor will we ever graduate to being lords of the church simply because that is a title that is reserved only for Christ.
From a practical standpoint, here’s what that means – I am not responsible for the daily activities, choices, relationships, or any of the minutia connected to the daily lives of the people who I serve as pastor. Remember, I am not their priest, they are their own priests. Under the heading of “Polity” found in the Congregationalist Handbook for 1916 it is stated, “We believe in the freedom and responsibility of the individual soul and the right of private judgment.” It is somehow assumed that some pastors have been gifted with a portion of God-like, divine omniscience and omnipresence. How foolish!
What often causes members to rebel is not the assertion of authority but the arbitrary use of power, with little explanation of the rules and no involvement in decision-making. Involving the church members in decisions doesn’t mean that you are giving up your authority. It means acknowledging that the member is on a level playing field and has the right to participate in decisions that affect his or her spiritual life.
In his masterpiece of Jewish history The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim wrote of the inordinate and oppressive authority that the Pharisees forced upon those in the synagogues. He said, “They provided for every possible and impossible case, entered into every detail of private, family, and public life; and with iron logic, unbending rigour, and most minute analysis pursued and dominated man, turned with her he might, laying on him a yoke which was truly unbearable. The return which it offered was the pleasure and distinction of knowledge, the acquisition of righteousness, and the final attainment of rewards; one of its chief advantages over our modern traditionalism, that it was expressly forbidden to draw inferences from these traditions, which should have the force of fresh legal determinations.”2 Edersheim described the philosophy of authority of the Pharisees by saying, “. . . which traditionalism declared absolutely binding on all – not only of equal, but even greater obligation than Scripture in itself.”3 I fear that many Independent Baptists are dangerously close to crossing that same line. Edersheim wrote that the traditionalism and authority of the Pharisees “. . . went further, and placed the oral actually above the written law.”4
Do you know what that means? Are you aware of the limitless error the Pharisees were involved in because they placed their authority above the authority of the Word of God? All they had to do was just say that the Gentiles were dogs – hated by God – and their followers believed it without question. They only alleged that Jesus was doing his miracles by the power of Beelzebub and their mesmerized disciples sought to kill Jesus for it. They were wrong about Christ’s miracles. They were wrong about Christ’s deity. They were wrong about Christ’s miraculous birth, and so much more. Yet, few people dared to think independently and challenge the authority of the Pharisees. They followed their commands like mindless automatons. This is sadly, another similarity that I find between the Pharisees and many modern Independent Baptists.
This blind allegiance that was first modeled by the Pharisees, is still creating problems today. In fact, many of the issues that are being raised in this book are due to inordinate pastoral authority. Just as it was with the Pharisees, many people assume that everything the pastor says is to be performed to the letter without any biblical fact-checking.
Jesus destroyed the authority of the Pharisees when he said, “Neither be ye called masters (Matt. 23:10a).” The word “masters” means “one who does your thinking for you.” That was exactly the position the Pharisees were most comfortable with. They did not want their parishioners thinking independently of the traditions, teachings and authority of Pharisaism. I tell you with a broken heart that scores of pastors can only function under similar circumstances, and I doubt that they are even legitimately called of God to preach.
You will notice that most pastors who try to exercise the mythical “gifts” (human omniscience, etc., referred to above) have relatively small congregations. There is a reason for this. Human omniscience and human omnipresence (forgive the oxymorons) are limited to the five senses. That means that what we know about our people is derived from what we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. I understand, and believe, that pastors do possess a certain discernment that is part of their spiritual gift, but I also understand that no one hears all or sees all but the God of all. For pastors who are drunk on authority they are hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing, and feeling all that they can process. When their congregations grow numerically there is an innate sense of losing control that they often feel that causes them to implode. So their congregations naturally stay small.
Remember friends, authority is like a bar of soap: the more of it you use, the less of it you have. Overusing pastoral authority shortens the length of your administration measurably. Many ambitious young pastors fail to see it early enough. It takes a lot of athletic ability to kick yourself in the pants, grab yourself by the back of the collar, and throw yourself out on the sidewalk, but many young, power-hungry pastors are managing to do all three.
Before I share some examples of inordinate pastoral authority, let me inform you that I too bought into this idea and paid the price. I pastor a church where excessive pastoral authority was expected. In the history of our church there was once a pastor who taught and believed that no member of the church had a right or a reason to even come to the church property during the week if the pastor was not there to approve their activities. I am not certain if that philosophy was based on ignorance, or laziness, but I am certain that it was very costly.
In the early days of my ministry in Live Oak, Florida, people were restricted in their activities. Simple things, like changing a burnt-out light bulb, or taking out a stinky bag of trash, went undone. As a consequence of that former pastor’s ideas, in the beginning, I did all of those things, and more. It did not take long for me to realize that I could not do it all, and that there were other people in our church who were eager to get involved in simple deeds of service to improve our church’s appearance and functionality.
The church had not been painted in decades. The auditorium furniture, carpet, and lighting were extremely out of date. More important things like church records, the membership roll, and the church bylaws were also woefully lacking. The church seemed to be in a state of atrophy. No one visited. There were no outreach ministries. There were only Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night services. It was a comfortable one-man show. It took some time to turn things around, but now Bible Baptist Church is the host church of multiple effective outreach ministries. If I had to micromanage all of them I would inevitably go mad.
John Maxwell said, “Your leadership ability – for better or for worse – always determines your effectiveness and the potential impact of your organization.”6 Titles don’t have much effect when it comes to leadership. Many men are infatuated with the title of pastor. Among some Independent Baptists, being a pastor means that you can say and do anything you want in a church virtually without consequence. That is an intoxicating method of ministry. As it has been said thousands of times absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ministers are not immune from this corruption. So how do we know when things are out-of-hand? Consider the following:
A young, inexperienced pastor once stated that pastors should have absolute veto power over their member’s decisions. That means any relationship can be ended by your pastor’s authority. That means any occupational choice can be vetoed by your pastor’s authority. That means any business decision must come under the approval of your pastor’s authority. That means any major financial transaction must come under the authority of your pastor’s decision. That means he gets to dictate what you wear, who you fellowship with, what recreation you enjoy, where you vacation, how much and where you get your education, what purchases you make (do you see the point?) – the list goes on and on.
No man in his right mind would welcome the oversight of even a one hundred member congregation if he had to micromanage all of those areas for every person in the church. Now this is where we get controversial. Any man who insists on having that depth and degree of authority over his congregation is not in his right mind. He is neither biblical, nor rational in his thinking. He is a megalomaniac – megalomania is defined as a delusional and mental disorder that is marked by feelings of personal omnipotence and grandeur. I call it scorched-earth authority – you either obey or burn.
Among all of these bizarre and seemingly unrelated incidents is an all too common thread that I would like to discuss here. It is an old time deception that has dogged the footsteps of old time religion, the deceptive snare of religious abuse inflicted by aberrant Christian churches. Several such groups currently are operating here in the South East, and many hundreds more exist across the nation. Each of them, however, have one thing in common: they regularly inflict religious abuse upon their members in the name of pastoral authority and Christianity and have committed untold amounts of spiritual violence upon them.
Nevertheless, when a church, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, calls a pastor, that pastor is in charge of the pulpit. He has the oversight. Inherent in that is the responsibility for who preaches and what they preach. There is no man in the congregation who is more qualified to say who and what is needed when it is time to select visiting preachers for any special services. He is the man who has been given the oversight. God called him to preach and to pastor. The Holy Spirit has made him the overseer, elder, and pastor of the church. Other men of the congregation should not intrude into this area of biblical responsibility and authority.
I understand the disappointment that many pastors face when their members make carnal decisions. I am reminded of some advice that a pastor friend of mine received from his medical doctor. He visited the doctor’s office complaining of chest pains and heart attack-like symptoms. When the doctor saw on his medical chart listed under his occupation was the word “pastor,” the doctor told him that pastoring a church should be a virtual stress-free occupation. As you can imagine, that raised the ire of my pastor friend. The doctor explained that, as a physician, he himself had hundreds of patients. He said that many of his patients pay close attention to his medical advice, but yet, never do what he tells them to do to make them healthy. The doctor explained that after he had done his job and given his patients sound medical advice, he did not lose any sleep when they did not take heed to his advice. He explained that pastoring a church was much the same. The stress of the ministry is nearly eliminated when you realize that once you have spoken the truth of the Word of God, the choice is now theirs, and so are the consequences. The stress of pastoring is multiplied when we extend our authority beyond the preaching of the Bible. People do not want that degree of authority, and we certainly cannot maintain that degree of authority without ruining our health, our churches, and our minds.
Church members can make their pastor’s job a lot less stressful by doing what Paul demanded – I Thessalonians 5:12-13, “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. And be at peace among yourselves.” I Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.”
The limit to a pastor’s authority is based on the limits of written in Scripture on the subject. The only time one should question a pastor’s authority in any given spiritual area is when it clearly violates Scripture. For example: a pastor demands that the church allow for female adult Sunday school teachers; or declares that the NIV Bible will be allowed for teaching; or will begin to have fellowship with churches that are not of like faith and practice. As absurd as it might sound, some churches followed their ‘pastor’ (a.k.a. cult leader) so blindly that they would even give him all their money, routinely do drugs as part of a religious experience, and have sexuality be a part of church services! Some have even taken their own life in order to follow their ruler! These are extremes that certainly should have, and could have been prevented by identifying the obvious signs of inordinate pastoral authority.
For the many years that I have pastored I have had no real power, at least by worldly standards. Nevertheless, I have struggled with the intoxicating deception of power. Like the twelve disciples, I wanted to be the greatest in the kingdom. I wanted all the “perks” that come with power. As disconcerting as it may be, the fact is that ambition and obedience will probably always share the seat of power in the pastor’s life. This is not an ideal situation, but it is the most balanced way of operating in my observation.
I imagine that when we stand before our Judge – the Great Shepherd – we are going to have to answer for attempting to be His substitute in the lives of our parishioners. We are not their priests. We are not their consciences. We are not the Holy Spirit. We are not their final authority, and though we regularly preach the Bible to them, that is intended to be a supplement of their own personal devotions in the Word of God.
Immorality – the Bi-Product of Inordinate Pastoral Authority
I want the following statement to arrest your attention: none of the early Church leaders fell into sexual sin. That is an alarming realization. How could men have such great power and not let it go to their heads? What differences separate our current trends of sexual immorality in ministry from their testimonies of faithfulness?
Among the litany of problems that modern inordinate pastoral authority has created, one of the greatest has been sexual immorality in the ministry. There exists a whole group of has-beens who were once drunk on authority but now are no longer in the ministry because of sexual immorality. In fact, many of the men that I have observed who were inordinate in their pastoral authority wind up sexually immoral. A sad observation, but true indeed. Richard Exley wrote the following:
. . . there are those who have become victims of their own success. They are powerful men surrounded by “yes men.” No one really holds them accountable, and over a period of time they are able to justify almost any desire they have. The laws of God which apply to ordinary people are amended to suit their lifestyles. One thing leads to another until even infidelity can be rationalized.7
The challenge of power is how to use it and not abuse it. When you abuse it, it reverses on you and it hurts you. This is what often creates an opening for immorality in ministry.
A man who cannot be comfortable with any resistance to his dictatorship whatsoever is creating a simulated panacea of self-fulfilling pleasure. Ultimately, he will be tempted to carry that fabricated pleasure to its desired physical fulfillment, and since there is nothing spiritually fulfilling about the subject, physical gratification is his only source of fulfillment.
When you consider the massive egotism that these types of men possess, and couple that with how they surround themselves with only those who will answer “yes” to every whim and desire that they have, it is no wonder the Devil uses that for their ultimate moral demise. That combination makes inordinate authority a leading cause of immorality.
The scenario is not hard to imagine, and for most of us it has been observed as follows: a spoiled pastor who has never been resisted because he intimidates people like a mafia crime boss becomes the trophy-case pastor of a local assembly and then uses that status to gain favor and advantage. That is an all-too-familiar circumstance today among Independent Baptists. The pastor will then become the object of envy, and even lust among women who might be discontent with their husbands. Many times the authoritarian pastor will discover a weakness in marriages in the church and will assume to role of a model husband in the minds of women, and sooner or later, he will be tempted to sin, or will be the hidden cause of marital disharmony in the church.
Inordinate authority is a dastardly and dangerous mindset. It garners attention and degrees of respect that become sinful and idolatrous. There was a group of women that the Apostle Paul described as “silly women (II Tim. 3:6).” These types of women inherited their silliness from Eve. Eve was impressionable, and when the Devil successfully separated her from her husband, he managed to persuade her to do ungodly things. I fear that this same type of thing is happening in churches where pastors are overplaying their hand on authority. They are setting themselves up as an alternative to what God has commanded and that is a position that can and will be envied by silly women.
Pastors struggle with sexual temptation and a significant percentage of them have succumbed. Confidential studies have proven that nearly one in four pastors said that since they had been in the local church ministry, they had done something with someone (not their spouse) that they felt was sexually inappropriate. Twelve percent acknowledged that they had sexual intercourse with someone other than their spouse, and 18 percent admitted that they had participated in other forms of sexual contact with someone other than their spouse. Of these who reported, only 4 percent said that they were found out or exposed.8
The verdict is that preachers are human men who have egos and sexual needs just the same as other men – with one significant difference. Other men can acknowledge their humanity, their propensity for sin, and receive the counsel and support of the church. For the most part, the preacher must live in denial. He has no one to turn to.
The question that is most frequently asked in cases of ministerial immorality is “How could he have done something like that?” These questions have seldom, if ever been answered. At least in part, I want to offer a modest answer. In my observation, inordinate authority produces ministerial immorality. Herein lies a second tragedy – we fail to learn from our mistakes and we are doomed to repeat them. The battles of lust from within and passion for authority create an almost unbeatable enemy. A pastor’s success can become a part of the trap.
We pastors really don’t have a way to know whether we are successes or failures. We are trying to please a lot of people and sometimes we fail to please any people. If in that circumstance, along comes a woman who is tender and admires our efforts, and affirms, affirms, affirms, the trap has been laid. Pastors often confess that “She just understands me.” That understanding leads to closeness, which leads to affection, and then sexuality.
I would like to add that the inordinate pastoral authority that many are incubating has a very negative affect on their wives as well. Briefly consider that the monster that she is married to has created a genuine hatred for the ministry because she has become the target of his enemies. She is tempted to hate the ministry, and then she feels guilty for feeling that way. He is tempted to resent her because he feels that she does not appreciate him or his ministry. These are the unavoidable consequences of inordinate pastoral authority that may lead to immorality. Without some major adjustments, such a marriage is headed for major trouble. She will probably withdraw and suffer in silence, or else throw herself into the business of being a super-mom and the perfect preacher’s wife. He will likely redouble his efforts in a misguided attempt to compensate for the emptiness that he feels within his marriage. All will be vain. Their efforts will only lead to further disillusionment. They are prime targets for the snare of the enemy.
It is apparent that many of us have lost our realism. You can cross the line and be overconfident in the flesh to the point that you leave God no choice but to kick the leg out from under the pedestal. I found this story and I am greatly impressed to share it with you. I am not sure who wrote it, but it expresses the need of humility best:
Some time ago I dreamed a dream in which there was only one character – me. Only there were two of me, twins, if you please, but not identical.
The first me was the man I know, the man I was at the time – thirty-five years old, about 5’9” tall and maybe fifteen pounds overweight.
The other me was the man I once wanted to be – more then six feet tall, with the kind of body that only steroids and weights can produce.
We were standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. A hundred feet below the surf beat itself into foamy spray against a wall of jagged rocks. The steroid me was holding the other me high above his head as if he was going to hurl me to my death on the rocks far below.
In my dream the real me, that is the one I recognized, attempted to reason with the other me, that muscle-bound maniac, but to no avail. I told him he was throwing his life away. Why hurl me to my death when he could use his enormous strength and agility to pursue a career as a professional athlete? He seemed not to hear me and death was imminent.
Then I awoke in a cold sweat. Instantly, it seemed, I knew that dream was a warning from God. The steroid me was my ego, my ambition, the old man. So strong was he that I could not contend with him. He was immune to my most desperate and impassioned pleas. God was my only hope, and there beside my bed I prayed that He might crucify this old man, and He did. God defeated him, but He did not destroy him.
He broke his power, but he still lives. He is no longer the ‘strong man,’ holding me captive, and I am no longer at his mercy. But he is still to be feared. Now he’s a broken man pleading for my sympathy. ‘A crust of bread,’ he cries. ‘A helping hand for an old friend,’ he pleads, ‘Just a few minutes of your time.’ So pathetic does he seem that I am almost tempted to share my life with him. But then I remember that this is no friend, he is a deadly enemy, one who takes his life from me. With determined deliberateness I turn my back on him. By God’s grace I will starve this ego maniac. I will deny his unholy ambition, day by day, and thus reckon him dead.
Unholy desires are what fuel inordinate pastoral authority and that produces disaster. May God help my fellow pastors and myself to be aware of our need to die to self and shrink our egos to the point of nonexistence.
Boasting About Preachers
There have been times when men have been introduced as great men of God pastoring great churches. There have actually been introductions of preachers that I have heard in services that were so glowing that one would think that Christ Himself was going to be the next preacher.
There were and are preachers that are virtually worshiped wherever they go, and by all appearances, they love it. I have heard many preachers introduced with great pomp and circumstance, but I have rarely heard those preachers rebuke those who were treating them like ecclesiastical rock stars.
The fact is that we do not find terms in the Bible like “great man of God” or “great church.” Often when a preacher or a church was addressed directly in the Bible it was to rebuke them or correct some doctrinal error they had adopted. If any of the early churches should have been called “great” and should have been exalted by the other churches, it would have been the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, the “mother” church. However, speaking of these men, Paul said,
But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: (Gal. 2:6)
In fact, instead of treating Peter like an ecclesiastical rock star, Paul singled out Peter to rebuke him before them all for his hypocrisy, for the simple reason that he was the most influential person in that situation.
But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? (Gal. 2:11-14)
When Peter addressed the great Paul – who is far greater than any preacher alive today – Peter called him “our beloved brother Paul” (II Pet. 3:15), and Paul called himself the chief of sinners (cf. I Tim. 1:15). It sounds like they had adopted the philosophy of Elihu on the matter who said, “Let me not, I pray you, accept any man's person, neither let me give flattering titles unto man. For I know not to give flattering titles; in so doing my maker would soon take me away.” (Job 32:21-22)
We should certainly have a biblical respect for godly leaders and authority figures in the church. They should be honored. Nonetheless, they should be honored within the bounds of Scripture and not be exalted in a carnal manner after a worldly fashion. That would be a great sin.
This disproportioned praise of mortal men leads to egotism of the most nauseating degree. One man became so self-important that he boasted that if he fell, “fundamentalism would fall with him.”9 He claimed that God had given him the “steering wheel of fundamentalism.”10 It was later observed about this same man:
A cursory sampling of his sermonic output betrays his hopeless propensity to make himself the hero of every story and illustration and depict himself in his sermons in the legendary proportions of his carefully crafted person around which he has built a personality cult rivaling that of Jim Jones.11
Every cult needs a larger-than-life personality to operate its evil machinery. However, Independent Baptist churches do not operate like cults, or maybe some of them do. The late Dayton Hobbs rightly observed:
When the Word of God in lives of men and women is replaced by the cultish power of some preacher with a super-ego, sound judgment is affected and all kinds of weird and unscriptural things go on under the guise of the work of the Lord.”12
When this “great” pastor (referred to earlier) had been charged of lying and covering up immorality, he went before his church and compared himself with God and instructed the congregation to trust him as they trust God. He said:
It is impossible for us to understand God, so He does not require us to do so. We have never been God, so we cannot understand God. Because of this, all God asks of us is our faith, our trust, our confidence. You cannot understand me. No one in the history of America has ever stood in my shoes, so I cannot ask you to understand. I can ask you what God asks; I would like to have your trust, your faith, your confidence.13
If all of that is not enough, just examine the following blindness that exuded from the earlier mentioned cases of inordinate pastoral authority. This same man’s daughter said, “Every member was in complete obedience to my father. They didn’t dare disagree or be disloyal for fear of being publicly ridiculed or punished or banished for doing so.”14 If that’s not enough, look at the following rules that were required of students attending a fundamental Baptist Bible college founded by this same man. These were handed out every year:
LOYALTY TO LEADERSHIP – ____________ ____________ COLLEGE [name intentionally concealed]
Purely Biblical Authority
The greatest New Testament passage regarding pastoral authority is where we began earlier in this chapter: I Peter 5:1-4. Look at it again.
The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.
Without restating the thrust of this chapter, let me offer a simplified outline of that passage that will serve as a reminder of what a qualified elder is supposed to be:
II. Experienced Elders. (1b)
III. Expositing Elders. (2a)
IV. Executive Elders. (2b)
V. Eager Elders. (2c)
VI. Ethical Elders. (2d)
VII. Exemplary Elders. (3)
VIII. Expecting Elders. (4)
I especially want to emphasize that first point – exhorted elders. The word “exhort” has the idea of positive reinforcement, but it also bears along the lines of helpful comments after an evaluation. If a man cannot be exhorted he cannot be a qualified elder. If he has the personality of a rattle snake and the demeanor of a porcupine, he will be hard to exhort.
We can distill the teachings of Scripture and the contents of this chapter into four points of wisdom. First, when church members are disobedient, their disobedience should always fall under the heading of disobedience to the Bible, not to their pastor. This can only be possible when people are more familiar with the teachings of the Bible than they are with the personality quirks or preferences of their pastor. If the Bible is the authority of the church, this will be the obvious and logical conclusion.
Second, if you are embarrassed of your people’s deeds and activities, generally it is because you are exercising too much pastoral authority. The need is to detach yourself from their disobedience of the Bible, and give them to the Lord for discipline and chastisement. Hosea had to allow Gomer to feel the thorns of God’s chastening hedge (Hos. 2:6). Surely he was not proud of what she was doing, but in the end, he was aware that it was in God’s hands. If they are really His children, God will have a sure remedy for their disobedience to Him.
Third, a church member should have the right to ask the Pastor to explain his decisions if that member is asking him to do so with a non-critical, antagonistic spirit.
Fourth, members can choose their pastor’s counsel or not based on believer-priesthood. There is no biblical right to decide personal issues for another person. It is their free volition and we cannot determine that for them. We cannot make their decisions because that takes away their rights as a believer-priest.
Pastoral authority should function in all areas, but in every area there are also accompanying biblical boundaries. Pastors, be a leader in your church. Be a strong leader in your church. Lead aggressively. Lead visibly. Lead resolutely, but never attempt to assume the role of the ultimate leader of the church. In the profoundly wise insights of Dr. Roy Branson,
“As we have said, many pastors never try to lead as God commands. They are perfectly willing to roll over for the boards, councils, etc. They are not spared. Though they have let the board make the decisions, the pastor will still be blamed when things go wrong [emphasis mine].”16
Lead effectively until you are satisfied that the Lord is pleased and you have done all that you can. Be purposeful. God has not willed it that you be the Lord of the church, but for heaven’s sake, He has assuredly placed you in that ministry to insure that the deacons are not the Lord of the church.
After this many years of ministry I have concluded that there is no amount of money that can fairly compensate a pastor and his family for their spiritual and emotional investment in the local church. Our pay often comes in the form of influence. When we are blessed to influence people unto godliness, our burdens are justifiable and satisfied. Clothe yourself in humility (I Pet. 5:5) and God will exalt you, but if you insist on proud, egotistical, high-handed, megalomaniac authority, God will resist you and your ministry.
Brad Bailey is a husband, father of four, author, pastor-teacher and college president in Brandon, Florida.
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