A Few Previous Thoughts on Church Leadership Authority

kinnon —  July 16, 2011 — 8 Comments

In light of my previous posts on the on-going Sovereign Grace Ministries calamity, allow me to reference this earlier writing of mine on leadership “authority.” These thoughts are from a discussion of Hebrews 13:17

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Too many “leaders” see authority as a position attained via title. They translate the word as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience”. It’s a power word – submit or else.

Mark Driscoll in a January 2009 NYT article title, Who Would Jesus Smack Down, was famously quoted as saying that people who dared challenge his authority were “sinning through questioning” – this during the church process of consolidating the power in the church to “Driscoll and his closest aides“. It would appear that MD would translate authority as the right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience – “break(ing) their nose(s)” if necessary.

But authority can, and in my not humble but accurate opinion, should be translated as the power to influence or persuade others because of one’s recognized knowledge about something and experience practicing it with a high level of efficacy. (Note that this is a Kinnon translation based on a number of others.)

Unfortunately it is both via experience and research that I can write that the church seemingly overflows with narcissistic leaders who live to exert power and control. (Follow Alice down the rabbit hole that is the People Formerly Known as discussion if you’d like to do your own research.) It matters little what cheering section of the theological pool these people are in – they are in it for the power. Let me reinforce this: because I use a Driscoll example does not mean that I believe his particular section of the theological pool has any higher percentage of narcissists than the mainline, emerging, RC, EO or the 90,000 variations of the evangelical church. (One of the positions people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder – extreme narcissists – are attracted to is church leadership. It is one of the best places to practice irrational authority unchallenged – as these leaders convince you they are on a mission from God. If you learn best via pictures – this might help.)

GuyMegaphoneOnChair Perhaps it is a knee-jerk reaction then, when I read or hear church leaders insist on authority – and use terms like discipline rather than discipleship. Who speak of themselves as shepherds and their followers as sheep. (Though technically, biblically correct – too often this is twisted into stupid, smelly sheep being owned by their respective “shepherds” as this attests. I should note that Pastor is the Latinate translation of shepherd.)

But Matthew 20:25-28 is still the true test of Christian leadership. You are a leader with authority if you serve, rather than are served and value your position as last rather than first amongst the sheep – of which you are one.

Authority is earned. Respect is given – rather than demanded.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

8 responses to A Few Previous Thoughts on Church Leadership Authority

  1. Enjoy your blogs–you post some good stuff.
    Won’t say much re SG as I don’t know enough of the background–I am a bit of an outsider to all this as I am on a different continent. I have listened to C J Mehaney via podcast and have found much of his stuff helpful–same with Joshua Harris. An observation I would make is that many are (rightly) calling for greater accountability from certain individuals while pouring scorn on the concept and practice of accountability within the church community in general–“sin sniffing ” is the term Ive come across. It is easy perhaps to throw such terms about somewhat facetiously but I don’t think we should forget that sin is both serious and self deluding and while the process of holding christian brothers and sisters accountable is highly problematic and open to abuse, it is biblically mandated. None of us like to be challenged and often we will pay lip service to the idea of accountability so long as it does not apply to us. There may well have been abuses in SG
    and clearly people feel hurt but it is a baby

    and bath water scenario–God is never
    glorified when the church stands back and
    allows the lives of believers to be eaten up
    with sin without intervention. That is not
    grace–it is abandonment surely. I have
    experienced this in my own situation –over
    here there is little interest in the life of the
    mind in even the most evangelical circles. I
    have seen in my own family how the failure to fully recognize and confront the corrosive effects of sin has caused havoc–it has cost me my marriage (long story) and I would have given my right arm for some “intrusive” intervention from my local body of believers. None of this justifies abusive leadership but real pastoral care will always involve risky intervention, “reformed” or not–and this will always be open to abuse/misrepresentation. Your points on pastoral authority are well made but re the comment about discipleship\discipline –surely they are not at odds? Sorry I have gone on a bit and forgive me if I have strayed off topic. G Bless.

    • Andrew,
      Too often discipline (especially in cult-like structures like SGM) is seen as the “leadership” having special status for command and control. Discipleship is true discipline from within a relationship of mutuality – even if one is older/more mature in the faith. The Shepherding Movement – which SGM most closely looks like – was all about leaders having “command and control” over their followers. Or, I should say, that’s what it became. It began as a desire to disciple the body.

      • Thanks for that. My impression from listening to J Harris and also Mahaney was that mutuality was what was envisioned. Clearly in practice it may have been very different. Sad.

        have been different

      • The key point that few mention that makes this work is that the leaders get to define what is sin.

        In the SGM culture, when you read the stories of those who left, you see such ridiculous charges such as a ‘look of pride’ will be rebuked as sin. Or a lack of “self suspicion”. I am serious…that was a big one. It is all vague and minutia. And the minute you ask for specifics, you are rebellious and ‘unteachable’.

        These accusations and repenting could take months of meetings.

        Seriously, the Soviets could not have devised a better command and control system.

  2. Reminds me that the Latin word auctoritas means influence or reputation. Driscoll and the Hebrews 13:17 absolutists are thinking of something else, imperium. Think of the English cognates for that one…

  3. To take this to another level, the Hebrews passage that you quote is a twisted translation. The word “authority” does not show up in the original Greek in any sort of form and is added to bring the passage into alignment with the translator’s ecclesiology. This is probably the clearest verse in the NT on the relationship between the leader and the follower but its the result of manipulation.

  4. Authority is earned. Respect is given – rather than demanded. This is true even for those that have or want leadership positions in any church. It does not apply only to the pastor. The culture in many churches promotes the top down authority structure and it infiltrates throughout. The larger the church, the more candidates there are.

  5. Very interesting sharing. Sharing my own experience with authoritarian leadership style in church. I was from an independent church in Southeast Asia, my ex-church has around 600 members. It was quite big previously. My pastors adopted the top-down authoritarian approach to managing the church. There are a few very weird authoritarian practices.

    1) Serving as a leader. In order to serve in the church ministries we were advised to study in the bible institution that the church has created. This institution took 7 years to graduate with a Masters degree. It means at least 2 nights a week of commitment on top of our full time jobs. If you do not study in the bible institution you are not allowed to serve in the music ministry or become leaders in the church. As a leader you will be harshly disciplined if you do not obey fully what your leaders has advised you. Obedience is a mandate. Those who clearly obey fully are often praised at the pulpit and given important positions in the church.

    2) Activities. If you are the leader, you are to lead and shepherd your members. On top of that you are to organize activities for outreach etc. Everyone in the church is so busy and filled with activities that we have no time for friends outside the church. If you are active outside church, the pastors will advise you to involve church friends in your activities.

    3) Courtship. In university we were advised not to get romantically attached to fellow believers in the fellowship. Although it is an advise, the leaders will bring it to the extreme by giving lots of counseling for those who did get attracted to one another and started dating. This caused a lot of stress to the members who are attracted to one another.

    4) Recommended approach to courtship. Firstly you are not allowed to go single dating with the person B. The recommended way to express interest in B by telling your leaders and let the leader check with your centre pastor. The centre pastor will then check with B’s centre pastor. B’s centre pastor will check with B’s leader. Reflecting any interest shown then the message will be passed back to you. In the end… most of the church’s couple either breaks this code of conduct, find partners outside the church, match-maked by the pastors or stays single in the church.

    I have since left the church. I am very fearful of committing in another church fully. I don’t know if it is abuse of leadership but I certainly fear to be in a church like this. Why do the leaders put loads of weight on their sheep that was not even mentioned by our Lord Jesus? I pray for perseverance to all my friends who are still in that church. I pray for God’s healing upon all my friends and I who had left.

    Authoritarian church leadership does not work. Rigidity in leadership only stifles growth. Do away with manmade rules. Respect is earned not demanded.


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