The Abuse and Limits of Pastoral Authority
Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Recently I have been thinking much about the nature of pastoral/church authority, because I am encountering cases in which Christian women who are the victims of abuse are also being abused by their pastor(s) and churches. We have discussed in numbers of other articles how Christians and church leaders so often react to a victim’s request for help with an abusive spouse, but here I want to deal with a specific aspect of that reaction. Namely, the all-too-common abuse of power and authority over the victim on the part of her pastor and elders.
Genuine Christians want to obey Christ. If Scripture calls us to obey our leaders and submit to them, we want to do it because we want to please our Lord, and because we know it must be for our good. We will all admit that as sheep, we need to be shepherded – fed, protected, and so on. There are wolves out there looking for lamb chops and it takes a seasoned shepherd many times to spot them in their disguises. We want to be in a real flock of Christ. But this genuine desire can also make us prime targets for abusive leaders if we are not careful.
Notice the Scripture above that we are instructed to submit to our leaders – for they are keeping watch over your souls. Furthermore, they are to do so with the full knowledge that they are going to have give an account to the Chief Shepherd for how they cared for His flock. These are the marks then of a true shepherd, functioning as Christ has commanded. They shepherd us for the good of our souls, and they shepherd us as Christ would shepherd us. Notice that a true pastoral ministry works to our advantage, and furthermore it produces joy in our pastors because they see us growing in Christ.
Now, the moment a pastor or elder ceases to exercise this overseeing ministry in accord with those two qualities of Christ-allocated leadership, they cease to be true shepherds – at least in the particular case in which they err. And thus, they lose any authority as they are functioning outside of the boundaries Christ has established for them. Remember: the only reason any human being has authority is because it is granted by the Lord, and it always has its limits. For a pastor, those limits are defined by the Word of God. It is the Word of God that gives a pastor his authority — which really is never vested within him himself, but in the Word of God. Pastors only have authority — this is true of every Christian as a matter of fact — as they faithfully adhere to and speak the Word of God. The Church’s authority does not reside in the Church, or in any office-holder in the Church, but in the Word of God. We say “thus says the Lord,” not “So say I.” So, for instance, the only reason we can tell someone that unless they repent and believe in Christ they will die in their sins is because that is the Word of God.
As a pastor, I am becoming more and more aware of how easy it is for me or any church leader (or a husband) to drift into an unbiblical abuse of authority. It happens slowly and often without notice and before we know it, we can be found “lording it over” our flock. When, for example, a pastor stands in his pulpit and says “you have no right to divorce, ever, for any reason. If you come to us (he and his elders) we are going to tell you…..” — he is speaking in an abusive manner. He has lost his authority. He is lording it over his people. You can hear it in the way he is talking “down” to them, with a tone of “WE” dictating to “YOU.” Let me give you another example of this.
A survivor of over two decades of terrible abuse at the hands of her “husband” goes to her pastor for help, and is told that both she and her husband need to come for counseling. In the course of that counseling, the pastor tells her that she “must” submit to a number of rules that he is establishing for her. For example:
- She is to obtain the pastor’s approval for any books on marriage that she is reading
- She must obtain the pastor’s permission before seeking counsel from anyone else
- If she does not abide by these rules she may find herself under the discipline of the church
- She has no right to separate from nor divorce her abuser
- She is to speak to her husband in such and such a manner
I am being told by abuse victims in numbers of cases that this is how they are being “shepherded” by their pastors. And I believe them. Why? Because I can see in myself the temptation to slide into this very same kind of abuse of authority, thinking I am working for her good and for the glory of Christ. But there is nothing glorifying in any of this.
What is the difference between genuine, biblical shepherding of God’s people, and the abuse of power? Many of you will have some thoughts on this, but let me just suggest at least one aspect of it. A shepherd of Christ’s flock becomes an abuser of Christ’s flock when he ceases to bring the truth of the Word of God to bear upon a situation, and starts insisting that the flock do what he himself commands. We become abusive ourselves when we speak “down” to the flock, as if our authority resided in us personally. We may dupe ourselves into thinking that we are “preaching the Word” but in fact we can end up merely “preaching our word.” In my opinion, pastors and churches today who are laying the load of the “permanence view” of no divorce ever, no remarriage ever as long as a spouse is still living, are guilty of this abuse. They have come forth from their holy counsels and announced “thus saith the Lord,” to their flocks, when the Lord has not spoken it at all.
To those faithful shepherds of Christ’s flock who labor and strive to be true to His Word and watch over the souls of their charges, blessings upon them. Unfortunately, these kinds of shepherds seem to be growing harder and harder to find.