The Core of Abusive Authority

I am dismayed to meet so many people who have felt abused by their church leaders. I regularly hear stories of pastors who lie, steal, manipulate, and commit sexual immorality, and the stream is too steady for me to dismiss the stories as slanders from a disgruntled few. Why is this kind of abuse so common?

The emergent conversation is tackling this question, but not, I think, from the right point of view. A leitmotif among emergents is the pompous preacher, the angry know-it-all who uses the Bible to control people. By heavy implication, those who practice biblical exposition are guilty of being Pharisaical and power-hungry.

This man, many seem to be saying, is the problem. The preacher has too strong a tendency to abuse people. He needs to be cut down to size.

To a large extent, I agree. But how do we shrink him?

I believe that the only way a pastor can avoid abusing his people is to submit himself to the authority of scripture. The reason abuse is so common in churches is not that biblical exposition is too prominent, but that the Bible has been systematically ignored in churches -- honored on leaders' lips but not in their hearts.

I try to implement several principles to constrain my heart as a leader.

  • Let the text pick the topics. I often assume that I know "what my people need," but I really don't know. It's all too easy for my favorite practical issue, or my favorite doctrinal focus, to become "what my people need." To undermine my assumptions, I try to work in a strict exegetical fashion -- deriving topics from passages, not seeking passages for topics. For instance, if I pick the topic, "Jesus Provides For Our Needs," I might use the feeding of the 5,000 from Mark 6.33-44. But what would the topic be if I let Mark choose?
  • Preach texts, not points. Too much of what passes for application today is actually generalization. For instance, the preacher goes from the feeding of the 5,000 to the sweeping principle, "Jesus provides." He then has to "illustrate" the principle, using "real life examples," because he's stated it too broadly. But the miracle is already a real life example. Mark was specific: the disciples were hardening in unbelief, and Jesus repeatedly confronted them (Mark 6.51-52). Preach Mark's text, and listeners will appreciate how Jesus teaches us to depend on him.
  • Reason together. If I'm going to declare that Jesus teaches us to depend on him, I have to show not just that my declaration is consistent with Mark 6, but that the teaching is Mark's burden -- that it is Mark's point. Showing that crucial fact requires reasoning. It requires some analysis. It requires time. The tricks of salesmanship are simply not up to the task.

Sticking to these principles helps drain my preaching of willfulness. The principles bend me back into submission to the scriptures.

It is not a surprise that abusive leadership has followed the decline of biblical exposition. If leaders set the agenda for their churches, if leaders allow themselves the privilege of sloganeering rather than reasoning, if leaders feel they can lard their sermons with stories and call it being practical, then the leaders have freed themselves from accountability to God's word. Tyranny will follow.

The core of abusive authority is lawlessness in the leader's soul.