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Pastoral authority and spiritual abuse exposed for what it is
Several months ago, I (David speaking) met with a young couple who were seeking advice concerning a very important issue.  Their problem had no easy answer, but I did my best to give them some direction.  Their response to everything I said was instantly, overwhelmingly positive.  Rather than feeling exceptionally smart or spiritual, I actually felt uncomfortable.  My advice wasn't that good!  I began to get the sense that no matter what I said they would agree, and they would probably do whatever I said, as well.

Please understand my hesitance: This couple was bright, intelligent, and highly successful in their careers.  So what was wrong with this picture?  I realized that when it came to spiritual issues, they somehow put their minds on "hold."  I realized that the total responsibility to discern and decide had been turned over to the pastor in this case, me.

Lights began to go on as I began to ask about this couple's spiritual history.  It was one of blatant spiritual abuse under a pastor whose "words are from God."  To question or disobey him meant to question and disobey God. "Touch not the Lord's anointed" was the motto most repeated if anyone disagreed with him.  Anyone who suggested that something was wrong quickly became "the problem."

As if to demonstrate the far-ranging power of such a system, the residue of its mindset clung to these folks, even though they had made their escape from it some time ago.  They were willing to blindly submit to an authority figure (me) and accept my words solely on the basis of my position.  People with savvy in every other area of their lives turned to mush when it came time to discern spiritual things.  That responsibility was handed over to me.  Why?  Because I'm the pastor, that's why. 

False Authority

"Because I'm the pastor, that's why!"  The words come hard and fast, their meaning penetrates: "How dare you doubt me!"  "Are you questioning my authority?"  "Don't be a troublemaker."  "Keep the peace."  "Submit to your elder."

Scripture verses quickly come to mind in seeming support of a blind sort of obedience and submission. Hebrews 13:17: "Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account."  Romans 13:1-2: "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves."

With these Scriptures echoing, we tell ourselves, I believe the Bible.  I want to be obedient.  He's the pastor, the shepherd, God's servant, His mouthpiece.  He really must know more than me.  I really must be out of line.  I must be seeing this wrong.  Who am I to question?  I guess I had just better go along.  Why?  Because he's the pastor, that's why. 

This type of thinking is a symptom of living under leadership that legislates and demands obedience to their authority.  It rests upon a false basis of authority.

Jesus confronted false spiritual authority in His day:

Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses." (Matthew. 23:1)

The "chair of Moses" referred to by Jesus is, of course, not a literal chair.  Rather it speaks of a "seat of authority."  For instance, the "chair" of the philosophy department in a college is not a literal chair, but speaks of an earned place or position of authority in that department.  The Greek word for "chair" is cathedra.  The Latin has taken that word and made it a phrase, ex-cathedra, which means "to speak out of a place of authority."  If I speak ex-cathedra, using that to place myself in a position over you, what I say to you is binding.  The reason it is binding is because I speak ex-cathedra.  I speak from the seat of authority.

Jesus' confrontation is twofold.  First, He pointed out that "they seated themselves" in Moses' position - a position given only by God.  These men had taken authority for themselves; it had not been given to them. Second, the sole basis on which they had grasped this authority was because of their position or rank as scribes and Pharisees.  In other words, their authority was not founded on the fact that they were wise, discerning and true.  It was based solely in the fact that they were in charge.

Think about this for a moment.  What a convenient system!  This is a system that will let you be in control, even if you are: a Pharisee whose outward holiness hides an empty heart; a scribe who is an expert at little more than rote religious performance; a pastor who doesn't want to look inside; an elder who doesn't want others to know there are serious problems in your own family.

A Maddening Attitude

Using rank, position, status, or title as a sole basis of spiritual authority reminds us of the maddening attitude concerning the role of women in the church, a residue, we believe, of the old Hebrew system of governing.

In Israel, the criteria for leadership and authority was based on three things.  The first criterion was age: You had to be old.  Second, gender: You had to be male.  And third, race: You had to be Hebrew.  Obviously, it was a great system for old Hebrew males.  In that system, you did not have to be right, wise, gentle, discerning, Spirit-directed, or godly.  If you were a young Gentile woman, it wouldn't matter if you were wise, gentle, discerning, or Spirit-directed.  You didn't have authority because you didn't fit the external criteria.

But consider Acts 2.  The Holy Spirit came and blew that system to pieces when the prophesy of Joel was fulfilled at Pentecost: "I will pour forth of My spirit upon all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit" (v.17-18).

In the new covenant, then, we see that Jesus established a new basis of authority.  It was no longer age, gender, or race.  It is now based on the evidence of the Holy Spirit within you.  Attributes like maturity, wisdom, genuine holiness, and real knowledge are required in order to evidence Jesus' brand of authority.  "Because I said so" does not work anymore.  "Because I'm the pastor" does not cut it.

So if my basis for authority is solely that I hold an office, I have a false basis of authority.

Let's get a biblical perspective on true spiritual authority considering some examples of those who demonstrated it.

The first is Moses.  Moses clearly demonstrated the authority of one who had come to know God through a personal relationship.  In fact, it was his very authority that the scribes and Pharisees were presuming for themselves.  Moses was to them the authority.  But even his authority wasn't his.  Just because Moses made a pronouncement didn't mean it was automatically authoritative.  His authority came from the fact that he truthfully and clearly told the people exactly what God told him.  If God had given him something to say and Moses had turned it around, somehow making it different, he would not have had authority.  The only legitimate authority that Moses had was when he spoke exactly what God told him to say.

What does this mean?  It means that the authority was in the truth, not in Moses.  It wasn't because Moses was Moses, someone higher, better, more powerful than others; it was because he spoke the truth.  Because Moses was a servant who did what God told him to do no matter what the cost, he walked in what is the only appropriate basis of spiritual authority.

From Moses, we must draw this conclusion: Though people may honor us with a position of leadership, we do not have authority in God's eyes simply because we are named the pastor, the elder, or the chairman.  We are going to have to speak the truth to have authority.  We are going to have to be sensitive to the Spirit to have authority.  We are going to have to be wise, and seek to know and say what God says clearly and accurately.

Is it possible for any one person to have such a strong record of leading and governing in God's authority?  Yes, but this is rare.  Is it possible that a small group of elders can have such a record on behalf of a whole group of people?  Yes, but again this is rare.  The point here is that it is also possible that God speaks, in some way, by His Spirit, through every man and woman in a given body, contributing various facets of God's will, so that the leaders can gain an even clearer picture of what God wants to accomplish.  In fact, this is what Acts 2 indicates.

The next example is Timothy.  Timothy was the pastor of the church in Ephesus, a large church previously led by Paul.  Timothy was having difficulty establishing authority in his ministry.  Following the apostle Paul in the pastorate would be a formidable task for anyone, but for Timothy it was particularly troublesome.  Not having some of the instinctive, aggressive leadership qualities that Paul had, Timothy was getting run over by strong, negative influences in the church.  The epistles of First and Second Timothy are Paul's letters of instruction to Timothy on how to deal with the problem.

At no time did Paul suggest that Timothy puff out his chest and announce boldly, "I am the pastor!"  No, he said things like this: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).  It is as if Paul took Timothy aside and said, "Son, authority will come when you rightly divide the word of truth.  It won't come because you're loud.  It won't come because you throw your ecclesiastical weight around.  If you want authority, figure out what God has been saying through His Word, tell the people what the Word says, and your authority will be founded upon that."

In 2 Timothy 3:14-17, Paul said:

You [Timothy], however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

Or in simpler words, "If you want to know what to say, go to the Scripture.  You'll sound inspired, like you know what you're talking about.  Figure out what God says.  Timothy, that is your authority base.  Give people the Word.  Tell people the truth."

Is it possible for one person, or one group of leaders, to comprehend all that's in God's Word?  Not likely.  God's living Word is demonstrated through all who are seeking Him, regardless of "rank."  In some areas of life, many areas perhaps, those in the pews will have more real authority from having tested and lived out God's Word in situations God will never choose to lead the pastor through.  If He is the Shepherd of the flock, then I as a pastor must listen to what He is saying through the flock, remembering that I too am a follower of Him.

Paul is a third example.  While we rightly accept everything Paul has said in the epistles as authoritative, Paul himself warned that just because he says something does not make it true.

In Galatians 1:8 he said, "Even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed."  It's as if Paul is saying, "Listen Galatians, if I start twisting this gospel, don't listen to me.  You see, the authority isn't in me.  As long as I speak the truth, I will have authority.  Authority is not automatically part of a person.  The authority is in the truth."

The final example is Jesus.  When people heard Jesus teach, one of their common responses was amazement. They marveled because they had never experienced such authoritative teaching.  It was different than the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees.  What they noticed was the authority.


These are four great portraits to relate to the texts we noted earlier.  Men like Moses, Timothy, Paul and Jesus could authenticate with the fabric of their very lives that their authority was from God.  It is in this context that we should view passages like Romans 13:1-2.  That is, if someone rebels against living, demonstrated, authentic authority that obviously results from a life submitted to God, then he or she is opposing the governance of God.  It does not mean that a leader can take the attitude, "I said it, and I'm the authority so it must be right.  And even if it's wrong you should submit to it, because submitting to me is the same as submitting to God."  We submit to authority when it demonstrates authenticity.

Even today we have leaders who are like the scribes and Pharisees saying, "I have authority because I am sitting in the chair of authority.  I speak ex-cathedra to you, binding you to accept and obey all of my words." Because scribes and Pharisees have no real authority, they have to assert their position.  They forget or ignore the model Jesus provided when He simply came and spoke the truth.  They forget that the basis of His authority was clearly not an office, role, or position, because He had none of these things.

Whenever or wherever we see a system or a person posturing or assuming a position of authority based solely on role, office, or position, we are dealing with a false basis of authority.  If a person's spiritual authority rests on the sole fact that "I am the pastor," there is a good chance they have taken that posture because they have no real authority.

Off to See the Wizard

Many will easily recall the story of "The Wizard of Oz."  Curious we can gain some insights about spiritual authority from this popular tale.  Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion go to the Wizard because they believe he has the power to give them what they need.  Dorothy needs to go home; the Scarecrow needs brain; the Tin Man needs a heart; and the Lion needs courage.  The Wizard sends them out on a quest to get the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.  If they bring back the broomstick, he will give them what they need.  They accomplish their mission by melting the witch and getting the broomstick, then return to the Wizard's place to ask him to deliver on his promise.  But, in fact, he is not expecting the return, and is quite put out at being held accountable to keep his promise.

Our heroes enter the huge chamber where the Wizard of Oz conducts his business.  They are met face to face by the Wizard himself, a big, scary head - not a real person, just a serious face, surrounded by billowing smoke and fire, making a lot of noise.  With a thunderous roar, the Wizard demands to know how these four dare to challenge him.  Here is the point: It's at this moment that Dorothy's dog runs over to a small room and pulls back a curtain, and what is revealed to us is a simple, flesh-and-blood man who has long been hiding behind a mask of power.  He operates behind a curtain pulling levers, making smoke, fire, and noise.  The result looks impressive but is only a facade.  Even when exposed he roars, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

The "Wizard" is in fact a power abuser.  He controls a whole city with a facade that postures power and punishes people for noticing.  In a kingdom where the problem was that the Wizard couldn't deliver, Dorothy and her crew became the problem for noticing there was a  problem.

It is sad to think how often religious power-brokers control the spiritual kingdoms with power facades.  They rain Bible verses on people about authority, submission, judgment, prosperity, or the end times.  They penalize people for noticing that "the man behind the curtain" is just human, with no authenticity or authority at all.

As a maddening, last lesson from the story, after all is said and done the Wizard tells them, "You already have what you needed all along."  They had risked life and limb for what they already had.

In too many Christian families and churches, Christians are told to jump through the spiritual-performance hoops to earn God's approval - something they already have for free because of Jesus' death on the cross.

You also might be interested in this article: 
"Because I'm the Pastor, That's Why!"

Chapter 9 - "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse"
by David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen
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