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What you are about to read comes from a Southern Baptist pastor in Oklahoma. He’s writing about conservative — not necessarily orthodox — churches.
However, the same characteristics can be found in ‘liberal’ — most mainline Protestant — denominations as well, including the Anglican Church. In those situations, the more undoctrinal vicars and parishoners try to persuade the orthodox 39 Articles of Religion believers to ‘get with it’ because ‘you’re so conservative’. The vicar can ridicule you, other members ask questions about your beliefs and, frankly, it’s more trouble than it’s worth, especially when the services are non-liturgical and the sermons bear little relation to the Gospel reading for the day. Lutheran excommunications also take place, resulting in a sad severance of faithful believers from their church congregations by postmodern local celebrity clergymen out for their own glory, not Christ’s. I have also read of small Evangelical groups in America where this occurs; one woman thought she was among like-minded Bible-believing friends only to find that they ostracised her from their group for being too conservative. So, the knife cuts both ways.
Without further ado, the Revd Wade Burleson, who has come up against unbiblical complimentarians (‘federal headship’) clergy in his own denomination, has these thoughts. Excerpts below are from his blog post ‘Our Problem Is Authoritarianism and Not Legalism’ (emphases in bold are mine, the italics his):
The church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century is losing its power because of an infatuation with authority. It is authoritarianism, not legalism, that has become the biggest challenge Christians face. William Bausch, church historian par excellence, has correctly written, “No cultic priesthood is to be found in the New Testament. Yet we are importing Old Testament Levitical forms and imposing them on Christian ministry.”
The world has established systems of governance with imperial forms of authority, governance similar to that of the Hebrews in the Old Covenant. The Hebrews looked–and the world looks–to positions of authority for their leadership. Webster’s defines authority as “the power to influence thought, opinion, or behavior by convincing force or control” …
The church of Jesus Christ was never designed to operate in this manner. Jesus explicitly taught in Matthew 23:8-11 (read it for yourself to see) that the only person who rules Christian communities is the Lord Himself. Under Him, we are all equals. He emphatically rejected the world’s system of top-down governance by declaring, “It shall not be so among you” (Mark 10:43). “The greatest among you shall be your servant“ (Matthew 23:11). There is no emphasis in the New Testament on authority that is derived from any “office” or position. Let me repeat that again: Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that a Christian, because of title or position, has moral authority over another Christian. The idea of an ‘office’ of authority in the church, like that of the office of ‘President of the United States,’ simply does not exist. Christ alone has the position of authority in the church and He has no vicar on earth but His Spirit, who resides in the life of every believer.
The King James Version unfortunately translates the Greek word diakonia as “office” in Romans 11:13, but diakonia is always elsewhere properly translated as “service” or “servant.” Christians serve others and any leadership in the church flows from this selfless service and oversight of others; pagans seek offices that grant authority so that their leadership (lordship) over other people is inherent to their positions or titles. Christians morally persuade others by our love and grace; pagans morally coerce others by their positions of authority. When Christians act like pagans, they turn their homes, churches, and organizations into structures of authority where everybody is coerced to submit to the authority and control of another person in a higher ‘position’ of authority. The equality of New Covenant believers in Christ is lost because Old Covenant Levitical forms of authority are imposed on Christian ministry.
What are the signs imperial authoritarianism in the church? The following are ten indicators:
(1). There is never any freedom to question the leader.
(2). The leader often makes claims of having special insights from God, insights that the laity are unable to possess.
(3). Disagreement with the leader is deemed a sign of the devil’s influence in one’s life.
(4). Events are designed to bring attention and praise to the leader rather than equipping others to do the work of the ministry.
(5). Any concept of equality is immediately labeled rebellion or the end result of a “liberal” denial of the Bible.
(6) Authoritarian leaders are only comfortable around like-minded leaders; thus, there is an unoffical ‘speaking tour’ where only imperial, authoritarian leaders share the platform with each other.
(7). The measure of success becomes the number of people who follow the leader (“It must be of God! Look at how many come to hear me speak!“)
(8). If a person leaves the community or church, the problem is always in the person who leaves, not the leadership.
(9). Leaders who wrongly perceive themselves as those “with authority” insulate their lives by demanding absolute loyalty through giving large financial benefits to their closest ‘advisors.’
(10). The ultimate end of this kind of Christian leadership is always more; more money, more power, more followers, more publicity, more, more, more…
The people of Christ are beginning to awaken to the abuses in the modern church. Whereas I thought it important in years past to challenge the legalism prevalent in the Southern Baptist Convention, I have become utterly convinced that the major problem in modern Christendom is authoritianism, not legalism. Ask yourself if you are in a place of worship where there is always a fresh, radical presentation of the freedom and equality of individual followers of Christ. If not, consider leaving, because in the end you will find your Christian community was never really about Christ or His people at all.
I am grateful to Burleson for stating that people should leave dysfunctional, glory-seeking — toxic — churches.
This allegiance to and fear of the pastor (and, where applicable, his powerful elders) is one of the Devil’s best tricks. As Burleson says, it carries into the home, where members are ‘godly’ only if they do — DO — X, Y and Z in church and outside of it. It is an unholy combination of paganism and semi-Pelagianism!
Where’s the Cross? Where are Jesus’s suffering on our behalf and His words: ‘It is finished’? Those three words signified that He accomplished His mission to free us from sin. Christians have freedom in Christ Jesus. That is the whole point of Christ’s death on the Cross. Without it, we would have no salvation.
If you’re in a healthy congregation, you probably won’t understand the anguish, correspondence, doorstepping and phone calls that come with the toxic church. They can disturb a marriage and family life, too.
Most of the comments that followed the post expressed relief and gratitude for this refreshing and welcome biblical perspective. Here are just a few of them, with further clarification from Burleson himself:
DLF: … If you want your church to grow, you have to have a consistent message and “vision”. The Senior Pastor is the “vision caster”. Everything must serve the vision or it is not acceptable. Only thing is this is drawn from marketing and branding in the advertising business, not the Bible. I worked in the business world for many years. This is taught to managers in every major company all around the world. Unfortunately, it works because of human nature, but Jesus came to teach us a better way. The problem is that people are so immature as Christians that they don’t even realize what is going on. I dare say that many pastors don’t even understand what is going on. The quality of teaching in most churches is so poor that people are on their own if they want to learn about the Bible and the Christian faith. Most folks are not that interested, unfortunately.
Tom Kelley: Control, manipulation, and favoritism are often used by those in ministry with an authoritarian mindset to exercise tight reign over their own “kingdom.” Any expression of disagreement or viewpoints that are unpopular with the ones in charge or with their ardent supporters are disallowed or silenced. The leaders are also quick to seek sympathy for themselves by claiming they are being attacked. They can be critical and unsympathetic towards fellow believers, without attempting to reach out to people they know they have hurt. And they like to surround themselves with sycophantic personal favorites who will support and defend them no matter what they do.
Paul Burleson: I’m not Wade and won’t attempt to speak for him in any fashion, but, my thoughts are that the syntax, tense, voice, and mood of “peitho” in Hebrews 13:17 all shed light on the meaning of the author’s command to obey the leadership and it gives a far different understanding than is commonly talked about today.
The language indicates the submission of a believer is a result of an inner persuasion and not dictation or fear. Their obedience was not to be blind obedience, but a submission that comes by a thoughtful observance of those who are in leadership.
Wade Burleson: There is leadership within the church. But leadership always arises by giftedness, service and Spirit-empowerment. Any leader who demands influence and control because of his position has not arisen to leadership, but has grabbed tightly to a position and is holding on for dear life. Leaders who exert authority and control because of their position are the very ones who should be removed. And the only people to remove them are those they are controlling.
… Passages that speak of leadership in the New Testament are always in the context of giftedness and the presence of the Spirit (as seen in selfless service to the body).
Anonymous: … I was taught at a SBC church as a struggling newlywed and new mom that if my husband “led” me the wrong way, then I should still go along with it. The reason is that God would protect me and then correct my husband …
I was SO AFRAID of being called a “feminist” or a “liberal” or being told that I didn’t really love God or want to obey Him that I tolerated this teaching for a long time. I also did have a fear that the idea was right and that if I spoke out, things could get worse for me because God would be mad at me …
Christiane: ‘Authority’ may teach, it may offer guidance, and give direction, but for a Christian person, no ‘authority’ can ever take the place of his or her own moral conscience.
I wondered what was troubling me about this discussion . . . and it looks like perhaps for many who are not of my faith, there is little or no recognition of the supreme importance of informed ‘conscience’ as moral guide, within the whole tradition of mainstream Christianity.
Sallie: [to Anonymous] I really appreciated your story. I think you would be very surprised to know there are MANY MANY women out there in the same situation you are in. Scared to death of being known as a feminist or liberal. They know there is something wrong with what is going on, but the fear of the labels or being ostracized is so strong that they just keep silent.
Marc B.: [1 Peter 5] 2 Be shepherds 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.
As another commenter states, it is pointless to try and carry on a dialogue with certain pastors in these situations. In the meantime, focus on your relationship with Christ and quietly look for a new church.
Be warned, however, that this might take time. Do not despair but in the meantime seek a better knowledge of the Bible and improve your prayer life, asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Also see my post of February 09, 2012: A word of advice on joining and leaving a church