Ministerial Pitfalls and Abuses
A topic like this requires explanation so as not to be misunderstood. Quality ministers are of eminent importance in the lives of believers. Outstanding ministers like Hal Lindsey, Joe Cameneti, David Kirkwood and many others were strategic to my spiritual upbringing, which isn’t to say I necessarily agree with any of them on every jot & tittle. I don’t, but that doesn’t negate their monumental contribution to my spiritual health.
Furthermore, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 says that believers are to “respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord…[and to] Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” We are to respect those who are over us in the Lord, which refers to fivefold ministers, like pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11-13). The reason it says to respect those who “work hard among you” is because it’s impossible to respect lazy ministers. For instance, I can’t respect ministers who are obviously lazy when it comes to the teaching and preaching of God’s Word. Think about it, roughly 50% of every church service is devoted to the ministry of the Word, which is necessary for the feeding, inspiration and growth of believers. As such, you would think that ministers would be prepared before they teach or preach and that they’d serve with all their hearts (Colossians 3:23), but sometimes—too often—I observe ministers just winging it, and you can always tell. This is laziness and it’s impossible to respect ministers who give lazy sermons, whether at a home-styled fellowship, a mega-church or anywhere in between. Speaking of winging sermons, this itself is a form of abuse, albeit the passive kind. How so? Because those who teach/preach the Word are obligated to feed believers so that they might mature, not fill the air with hollow sermonizing (1 Peter 5:1-4).
Notice that 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 says believers are to respect ministers who work hard and are “over you in the Lord.” These people are over you in the Lord. They’re over you at the fellowship you’re a part of, but they’re not over you in matters of style and taste, like clothing, hair styles, food, romantic interests or types of music, movies and recreation. They’re over you spiritually, not over you in areas of personal taste. Also, the passage says to hold hard-working ministers in the highest regard “because of their work.” Respect them for their work—their calling and anointing from God—and not in regards to items of personal taste. If you think a minister has bad taste in women, too bad, it’s his choice. If you don’t like her choice of vehicle, it’s none of your business. If you don’t like the way he prefers to dress at church, at home or when he’s out and about, too bad, mind your own business. Amen.
The Four Pitfalls of Ministers
The four pitfalls of ministers are 1. sexual misconduct, 2. greed, 3. arrogance and 4. legalism, which is sterile religiosity (pick up a copy of my book Legalism Unmasked for more details; here’s the eBook version). It’s no surprise that the first three correspond to what the Bible says are the three categories of sin: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). Two well-known ministerial scandals in the late 80s correspond to the first two: Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker. All believers, of course, have to be wary of these common pitfalls, how much more so those who aspire to be leaders?
Examples of Ministerial Abuse in the New Testament
Paul founded the Corinthian church on his second missionary journey. He stayed in Corinth for at least a year and a half feeding the believers the Word of God before venturing off to other areas (Acts 18:11). Two or three years later Paul heard some disturbing news about the church so he wrote them a few letters of instruction, encouragement and correction. The epistles known as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians are the two surviving letters. Notice Paul’s comments in this passage:
You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! (20) In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. (21) To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!
2 Corinthians 11:19-21
During Paul’s absence some arrogant authoritarians rose up and were abusing the believers. He blatantly calls these corrupt leaders “fools.” Paul then details five ways in which the authoritarians were abusing the believers:
- “Enslaves you”: This refers to a general atmosphere of bondage, including excessive rules that quench the spirit of freedom in Christ.
- “Exploits you”: ‘Exploit’ means “to use selfishly for one’s own ends.” This likely refers to excessive demands for financial support in light of the fact that the same Greek word is used in Luke 20:47 to describe Jesus’ denouncement of legalists’ “devouring widows’ houses”.
- “Takes advantage of you”: This refers to all manner of manipulation, including intimidation and social pressure.
- “Pushes himself forward”: This refers to lording it over people with an authoritarian spirit, something which fivefold ministers aren’t supposed to do.
- “Slaps you in the face”: Apparently the legalists resorted to physical abuse to humiliate the believers, but this could also be a figurative reference to humiliating abuse in general. Either way, both are wrong. Abuse is the misuse of power.
Paul then points out in verse 21 that he never resorted to these types of fleshly tactics when he established the church. Why didn’t he? Because Paul was a godly minister and not one poisoned by arrogance and legalism.
All five of these practices are typical of authoritarians and are condemned in Scripture. Please be aware of each and don’t tolerate it if any should surface in your fellowship.
Pastors are NOT Supposed to “Lord it Over” people
Concerning “lording it over” believers, notice what the Bible says:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: (2) Be shepherds [pastors] of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; (3) not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (4) And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
1 Peter 5:1-4
As you can see in verses 2-3, the New Testament condemns the practice of pastors “lording it over” others outright. “Lording it over” means to try to control or subjugate people in the sense of being the ultimate authority. The passage says that pastors are to serve as “overseers” and not lord it over those entrusted to their care. In light of this, whatever else ‘oversee’ means, we can be sure that it doesn’t mean to lord it over people.
It’s important to understand how spiritual leaders are to oversee others so we don’t allow them to oversee us in the wrong way. Ministers are to oversee in two ways: in a protective sense and in a directive sense. They are protective in the sense of guarding people from false teachers and their false doctrines, not to mention wolves in general, whether legalists or libertines. They’re directive in the sense of directing the affairs of the assembly and giving people their God-given vision for the ministry. This includes giving believers the encouragement and opportunity to excel in their gifting and calling within the framework of that vision. Needless to say, overseeing in these senses has nothing to do with lording it over people.
There was a big church in my area where the pastor had an overtly authoritarian spirit. I know because I heard many of his sermons on radio and cassette. This pastor had an overwhelming air and it was easy to see why people would follow him, but I didn’t sense any love or joy in his words. I later developed a friendship with someone who attended this church for a season. Some of his relatives and friends were members, but they were so wowed by the pastor’s natural leadership qualities that they failed to see his potentially harmful spirit. My friend, on the other hand, wasn’t so wowed. He said he visited the church many times before deciding not to stay. He told his relatives and friends, “He’s a charismatic speaker and all, but I just don’t see any love or joy there.” It wasn’t much later that the church had two mass exoduses over a period of about a year. By this point the church had a bad reputation in the community and it never really recovered. The pastor died prematurely a dozen years later.
Before the breakdown and decline of this church there were red flags of authoritarianism everywhere: congregants had to get the pastor’s approval for large purchases, like a refrigerator; if someone left the church his or her relatives and friends were instructed to cut all ties; people were encouraged to quit their well-paying jobs and start their own businesses; men with longer hair were pressured to cut it and maintain shorter hair length; the entrance gates were closed and the doors locked during services; believers were discouraged from going to the restroom during the ridiculously long Sunday services; individuals were literally screamed at in front of the congregation if the pastor thought they were going astray; etc. If you ever saw the excellent 1980 film Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, this church was bordering on being that authoritarian.
Since the Bible plainly teaches that pastors are not to “lord it over” believers, they have no business telling congregants where to work, how to wear their hair, what kind of car to buy, what kind of clothes to wear, what style of music to listen to, what kind of movies to watch, etc. They’re not the final authority in believers’ lives, God is. The believer should simply be fed the Word of God and encouraged to develop a relationship with the Lord. This includes teaching them important principles of wisdom like how to guard their hearts as the wellspring of life so that negative, evil things don’t get planted in their heart (Proverbs 4:23). As they grow they’ll naturally make their own decisions about these types of things. By the way, I’m not saying that pastors shouldn’t encourage modest apparel.
Authoritarian Tactics: Bluster, Intimidations and Insults
Arrogant authoritarians typically resort to bluster, intimidation and unnecessary insults in confrontations, even casual ones where you’re simply discussing biblical topics. A couple of ministers I met, for instance, had the tendency to “prove” their points through bluster or intimidation rather than what the Bible clearly and consistently teaches. When you come across these types you have to resist the temptation to stoop to their level. Ignore their covert (and sometimes overt) insults & intimidation and simply focus on the relevant biblical data. When they see that you won’t submit to their manipulations they’ll either 1. get more insulting and abusive or 2. end the discussion one way or another (if it’s an email exchange, for example, they’ll simply refuse to write back under the assumed guise that they’re “too busy”). In cases of the former, continue to resist the temptation to respond in kind and focus on what the Word of God teaches in a balanced fashion, interpreting Scripture with Scripture. Only revert to tough love tactics if led of the Holy Spirit to do so, which Jesus did on occasion (e.g. Matthew 23:13-33).
Whatever the case, you must not tolerate or condone this kind of pompous abuse—tactics of bluster and intimidation—even if the minister has an impressive ministry and decades of experience. If the individual is truly a great man or woman of God then s/he has no business behaving in this manner. If it’s someone over you in the LORD you’re still obligated to correct. Of course, you should correct in a respectful manner, particularly if the person is older than you, unless the situation calls for a more blunt approach.
I’ve known big-time ministers who seem to have let it go to their head and are therefore rigid with the box into which they’ve put God (and themselves). If you happen to share a legitimate scriptural point that deviates from a dubious doctrine they’ve taught as gospel truth for decades they’ll get irate and rashly insult you. Mature believers don’t get mad when someone merely disagrees with them; they humbly and honestly turn to God’s Word and allow it to settle the matter in a thorough and balanced manner. In short, mature believers allow the Word of truth (John 17:17 & 2 Timothy 2:15) to reveal what’s true and what’s not true or what’s partially true. This’ll correct the other person. If he or she still disagrees then that’s his/her problem.
I’ve noticed, unfortunately, that too many believers—including fivefold ministers—don’t go by the authority of God’s Word, but rather by the authority of religious tradition and the forefathers or foremothers of their camp, whatever that might be. For instance, if you say something thoroughly biblical that disagrees with a religious slogan of their sect or what the founder teaches (or taught) they’ll immediately put up a wall and the case will be closed. Why? Because they respect the word of a human authority above the Word of God. People like this, no matter how great their position, are still locked into the childhood stage of Christianity (1 John 2:12-14) even though they may have a foot or hand in the next two stages. It’s frankly a puerile mindset.
Thankfully, I’ve known world-traveling ministers with impressive ministries who are incredibly humble. For instance, I’ve met some great ministers face-to-face to discuss scriptural topics and their humility was palpable. I’ve met with other ministers whose ministries are 1/50th the size of these, but who were noticeably arrogant about their supposedly great position and accomplishments, the latter of which weren’t very impressive. It’s impossible for these types to relate to fellow believers as equals and they therefore tend to speak down to them or intimidate, even if it’s subtle. I find it amusing whenever I see it, but not in a good way. They tend to posture and bloviate like they’re great men or women of God when it’s simply not the case. How do I know? Because, again, God actively opposes the proud but gives his favor to the humble. See for yourself:
“God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
James 4:6 & 1 Peter 5:5
The passage is in quotes because James and Peter are paraphrasing Proverbs 3:34. Consequently, the verse appears no less than three times in God’s Word—once in the Old Testament and twice in the New Testament. Do ya think the LORD’s trying to tell us something? He’s driving home that He resists the arrogant—opposes them—but extends favor and honor to the humble. If God resists and opposes the proud—including those who say they’re Christians and even function in the ministry—then he’s obviously not close to them, right? And if God’s not close to the person they’re obviously not spiritually mature because believers who are spiritually mature know and walk humbly before God.
Notice what this psalm says about the humble and the arrogant and how the LORD regards both:
Though the LORD is highly exalted, yet he pays attention to those who are lowly regarded (i.e. the humble), but he is aware of the arrogant (only) from afar.
Psalm 138:6 (ISV)
Arrogant ministers — no matter how long they’ve been in the ministry and how great their accomplishments — are not close to God, regardless of their claims otherwise. It is impossible for the LORD to be close to an arrogant person! God only knows such people from a distance.
Needless to say, mentors who resort to bluster, intimidation or insults in discussions disqualify themselves as mentors; they’re not worthy of your respect. FLEE from unworthy “mentors” who utilize carnal measures, like bluster, intimidation & invalid insults, or who show signs of envy & rivalry without repentance. If you don’t, you can be sure you’ll regret it one day.
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