Abuse and Authority

Trusting clergy is perhaps the number one detraction for people about church. Unfortunately, no one can account for all the of the varied ways church organizations and clergy abuse their positions. With sexual scandals and cover-ups hitting the news these past few years, one can almost hear the wind streaming by from a global spiritual vacuum. People are hurting, and they have been hurt by the representatives of the Source for their healing; so it is doubly bad. While proper relationships like marriage are given by God to satisfy us, and while some churches forbid marriage of clergy despite the Bible’s warning not to (1 Tim. 4:3), sexual crime really does come down to the person and his/her choices. This blog post is certainly not able or willing to list out all of the possible abuses which can happen in the church setting. In a sense, whenever there are people, any sort of abuse can happen; but all of us know church should be different somehow.

Abuse of authority is another matter entirely. It can be prevented and predicted, unlike many other abuses. I assert that much of the hierarchical (authoritarian) abuse which occurs could be avoided by a proper understanding of biblical authority and comparing that with toxic leadership which is enabled by toxic followers. God has provided us with biblical data that create the parameters for the limits and nature of church authority. And, the data serves as an expose on letter-of-the-law and/or allegiance-demanding institutionalism, hierarchical denominations, exclusive sects, and domineering leaders.

Here are some observable biblical data about Pastoral Authority which, if properly understood and followed by clergy, would eliminate even the situations which precipitate abuse:


Acts 13:1-4, 20:17-38; 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1

Biblically speaking, one must desire leadership before he can be installed. More than that, he had better be gifted (Eph 4:11). One may be gifted but not desirous; and one may desire “leadership” but not be gifted. Still, if one is not for taking on the responsibility of the recognized role, there is no sense in forcing the issue. Some denominations do this very thing on the local level. Others may not even give the aspiring minister his option. They may withhold the fact that a congregation has asked for him, or they may send him to the congregation despite his objection… his lack of desire. Many a congregant has been hurt by a minister who is himself hurt, slighted, etc. [By saying these things, I do not support church institutionalism or denominationalism. They (unlike their valid counterparts and also unlike national governments – 1 Pet. 2:13-17) don’t have a biblical right to exist, let alone determine the when, where and why of a minister’s opportunities. God does that; the church just recognizes and supports the called.]

If one does desire the “office” (meaning charge or capacity or role, not “position” as in the authoritarian sense), then he also must be of the Spirit-filled character described in the passages listed above. Some will say that “office” means “the charge to oversee” in the sense of being “the act by which God searches the ways, deeds, character, of men in order to judge their lot accordingly, whether joyous or sad; inspection, investigation, visitation.” HOWEVER, they gain this meaning from a comparable Hebrew word, which is solely attributed to God’s action. In other words, what is God’s duty of judgment is God’s alone. What is man’s duty is his alone, and man cannot aspire to perform God’s judgement. That being said, one can show God’s gracious care to others, which is the correct choice of the term’s meaning, according to Thayer’s Lexicon. So, if a man wants to show the same kind of gracious care to fellow believers that God “showed toward you by offering you salvation through Jesus Christ” (Thayer, episkopē), then that man has a proper understanding of what the “office” of overseer is all about. A man cannot save anyone in matters eternal (Jesus does this), but he can be gracious enough to preserve and lift up believers who are in need. It is about care, not position, not obeisance, not administrative powers, etc.

A willing candidate is recognized and inaugurated by the congregation and/or another member of clergy [who founded the church] at that local church (Acts 13:1 ff; Titus 1:5 ff). No clergy should be without consistent demonstrations of the Spirit, or fullness of Spirit. The Spirit, then, is the Governor of the man, not the rules which are presented in Titus 3 and 1 Timothy 1. Indeed, these “qualifications” for clergy are not a check list used by the candidate to show he has taken on and successfully conquered all of the personal development challenges requisite to his “taking office.” Neither are these the exhaustive tests which prove one should keep his ministy. Rather, they are a description of what one should be like, demonstrations of his consistently yielding to the Spirit’s influence in his natural person, before he is appointed. However, if one is to examine a pastor or elder for fitness, let’s not forget to see if the man is hospitable–a sorely lacking quality these days, indeed.


Heb. 13:17 and 1 Peter 5:5

The obedience given clergy by the flock is a voluntary, consenting obedience, rather than the submission of a servant to a master.  The word for “obey” in Hebrews 13:17 is a quite gentler word than the Greek word translated “obey” in Ephesians 6:1 or “be obedient” in Ephesians 6:5. It has the idea of “be persuaded,” rather than being forced to follow military-like commands. The pastor’s authority is based solely on and comes solely from the Word of God and the convincing work of the Spirit. He is only to show the people what is already written; and if he is trying any human kind of persuasion or manipulation, then he is not worthy. Clergy “rule” by the consent of the family of God.  1 Peter 5:5 shows the whole church should submit to each other (as equals) in great humility as they submit to the elder (an equal) based completely on his accuracy to the principles and commands of the Word, not on matters of method or extrapolated philosophy of ministry. [ A better Way (leadership and non-leadership alike) is considering another worthy of more honor than yourself.]

So, the great Check & Balance within the church comes through the Word. If something is extra-biblical or not clearly within biblical in principle/command or goes directly against the Word in some way, then the body has the right to speak against the elder. For example, Lording [see next section] is, to me, a disqualifying offense for an elder. Neither, as I understand it, should the Elder be considered a “diviner” of God’s will. There should be a plurality of elders of one mind with each other–not nepotism–as was the case in Medieval times. A rubber stamp plurality to the senior elder is no good either. And, no elder has the authority to trump the Holy Spirit’s leading in an individual’s life. In other words, no man can tell me God’s plan for my life in the specifics or on the whole. That is “lording.” The elder’s job is to foster the believer’s healthy relationship and communication directly with God, the Holy Spirit, with the objective braces of the Word.


Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45 [surrounding contexts]

The context of this saying by Christ is His teaching on matters of leadership philosophy. He compares/contrasts the way the world works (with their kings and governors) with the way the Kingdom of God functions. When you boil it all down to its jelly, Christ set the example and gave the clear principle that if a man desires position, “loves to exercise authority” and/or demands obedience, then he himself is not submissive to God…even if he does something in the name of God.

John 13:14

This context and verse do not indicate anything but that servant humility is required in every disciple/leader. Some will say that THE Disciples (the circle of church “hierarchy”) were here commanded to “wash one another’s feet,” and so, clean up each others’ sin messes, restoring each other as we get our spiritual feet dirty while walking through the world. Restoring is commanded in Gal. 6. However, to say this passage indicates restoration is an allegorical interpretation where none is required. Christ’s whole purpose was to radically change their perception of what it means to be a leader. He did this by example of what he meant, and it was indeed shocking to them. The situation and the words of Christ communicate clearly enough. The text does not mandate allegorical interpretation. It is clear by this passage and others that Christ designs his church to be run by servant leadership, not administrative leadership.

1 Pet. 5:3

Here Lording is clearly forbidden. Instead, the charge is to be an example of letting the gracious and selfless Lord Jesus live through one’s life, as the Spirit always leads us to do.


1 Tim. 3; Titus 1

In the Pastoral Epistles, it is clear that a multiplicity of elders is necessarily the biblical pattern–not nepotism–as was the case in Medieval times. Paul appointed Timothy and Titus to seek out a plurality of qualified men. These men, together, yet perhaps with one or a few of the pastors/elders being doubly honoured for their faithfulness to teaching, are to oversee (care for) the flock of God. This plurality is a safety system, so that no one pastor “loves the preeminence,” and so that the pastors can counsel together in prayer and in the Word for their duties as mentioned below.

Any leader that assumes exclusive authority, as if he is the only one from which others can learn, is bordering in cult-like tendencies. Fear is a great tool. To combat it, I have adopted the motto, “eat the fish and spit out the bones.” I can learn something from everyone (for good or as a negative example). And, I also adhere to the example of the Bereans who studied to “see if these things are so.” According to the great proverb, we should not proceed by fear in order to discover and single out what is bad. That is learning by a negativity, and one will himself become paranoid and negative. Rather, we should examine all things in order to find the good and hold onto it. (1 Thess. 5:21) Sola Scriptura, Analogia Scriptura  “By Scripture Alone, Scripture Interpret Scripture”


1 Thess. 5:12, 13

In historical context, the Thessalonians had been bereft of Paul, who needed to escape from his persecutors via a ship in the bay. As a result of his quick escape, Paul needed to write a letter to the Thessalonians, part of which addresses the fact he had to leave the young church with “laborers” (a term mentioned in the other epistles, ex. Phil. 4:3) These individuals were laborers but were not pastors, but they were “over” (to have charge of, or responsibility of, like a baby sitter has watch over a baby) the young believers to provide them with continued doctrinal teaching, “instruction.” This is not a matter of “authority” and “hierarchy,” and Paul’s charge to the Thessalonians is that they appreciate or “know” the laborers and give them respect for what they are doing, as the temptation situationally may be to think something like, “they are almost as young as we are in the faith.”


Eph. 4; 1 Peter 5; 1&2 Tim.; Titus; John 10 (good shepherd vs. hireling);  Jude

These passages indicate the duties of church servant leaders are limited to 2 things and only 2 things (see below).

1. They must oversee the FEEDING of the flock. (Ministry of the Word and Prayer – Acts 6, 1 Pet. 5:2)

  • For the growth of the family of God into maturation, rooted and grounded in love and continuing to grow in Grace and in the knowledge of Christ
  • For the protection of the flock from false doctrine or open and unrelenting sin.
  • For the maturity of each believer to gain a vibrant connection and interrelation with God Himself, so that he/she is directed by God to use his/her gifting in the church as God Himself directs, and so that he/she is ministering as a “little Christ” in his/her place in the world (Eph. 4).  [see also What is Church, Really?]

2. Restore the failing.

They must NOT do ministry for the purpose monetary gain for the sake of getting rich, for power, for sexual favors, for “Lording” etc.

The under-shepherds must oversee the flock; that is sure. However, what they oversee is important to note. The pastor is NOT an administrator. He does not oversee church growth or manage “opportunities for ministry.” Nor does he govern what is the ministerial path of one’s life or even individual decisions, as if He is a diviner of God’s will. Christ and the Holy Spirit do that. The pastor must not step into the role of the Spirit. He must foster realtionship to God through the Word and Spirit by showing what the Word says and also by prayer. That being said, it is important for the believer to work with Pastors and not against them…as in mutual submission to THE LORD, both working together for the same cause in humility.


Gal. 6:1

Since Pastoral care is about care, clergy should know what is meant by “restore” the failing. Sadly, some think it means “hash out in detail all of the bad behavior which the guilty has done, so they know how wrong they’ve been, so they can really really repent.” Instead, clergy should view it as partnering with the Word to instill faith, supply hope, and promote biblical love to the needy. But, notice this passage states that restoration is supposed to take place when one is caught (as in, “caught red handed” and/or “caught in a trap,” “overcome”). That means one would have to see a clear, biblical command being broken. And if this is the case, the remedy is to minister faith, hope, and agape love to the failing. Or, equally, if the sin is public knowledge (not opinion, assumption or rumor), and if the person is wanting restoration to spiritual health once asked about it, then restoration of faith, hope, and love can happen.

Many pastors abuse their position by divulging sensitive information to other ministers but not in accordance with Scriptural prescription. At times, this is done though the counselee is repentive. Yes, Matthew 18’s instructions must be followed by pastors. Repentant or not, the abuse of any professional confidence is illegal, (at least in the States) not to mention unbiblical (gossip) and unethical. It can hardly be considered restoration. In cases of clearly unrepentant sin (continued divisiveness, heresy, immorality, etc) being present or known within the church, the body (not just the clergy) eventually seeks to restore the one involved in meekness, not kick him/her out while he/she is down. The correct process for avoiding hearsay gossip is found in Matthew 18; 1 Cor. 5. One is only removed from fellowship when he/she insists on open sin, and so, is not repenting. This is such a “we’re with you” kind of attitude that the Scripture indicates meekness (“gentleness,” NASB) is absolutely necessary, and that, one should consider his own weaknesses for practicality’s sake before attempting to help another. Temptation can come when someone is telling their struggles, especially if one is showing the proper “in-their-shoes” compassion that is mandated by Galatians 6. Sadly, “in-their-shoes” compassion is rarely the attitude coming from some clergy.

Besides cases which resemble the above description, it is the Holy Spirit’s job to teach and correct the believer through the believer’s being under the accurate teaching, reading, the accurate preaching and accurate study of the Word. It is not the responsibility of clergy or of their staff or of recruited congregants to police the actions and especially the “intents” (or possible actions) of others, or to control the lives of others to minutia. [see An Argument for Silence ] I feel sorry for both the leaders and congregants of such churches. Yes, they are out there.


1 Tim. 5:1, 19

If the man has sinned, then he should humbly admit his sin, not pretend to be perfect or justified by his position, or by returning accusation to “cover” himself under the guise of alleging another’s wrong. This passage communicates the rebuke if an elder in a “not-this-but-that” fashion. It is not forbidding one to confront an elder. It is rather giving the manner in which to make one’s point… by entreaty (question asking, giving the benefit of the doubt); but where an elder’s error is blatant, he should be confronted as Paul confronted Peter (Gal. 2:11).

If a man has indeed sinned, the command in Scripture is to restore him. A pastor must not consider himself above “sin” or the need to be restored for blatant faults. Any man who will not admit his humanness in humility needs to be removed from his role.

The command to not rebuke an elder is in accordance to matters that are not clearly against biblical command or explicit principle. Again, the Scriptures make Lording a grave offense, and it is worthy–as I can see it–of removal from the role of pastor as well as other matters mentioned in 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1 and clearly accepted standards of ethical behavior. But, it must not be lightly alleged. And, in the presence of 2 or 3 witnesses, a thing should be established. This does not mean one should go about, gathering witnesses in a gossip-like, plotting manner. It means Matthew 18 applies to pastors as well as the rest of the body.

Distinctive Church Beliefs – adapted from documents by Gospel Light Christian Church, Singapore

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