I’ve been writing and podcasting about authority and how it’s been abused, specifically in the Gothard/IBLP context. For some, I imagine my choice to focus on abuses of authority has seemed a bit edgy, an odd choice in an era where church authority is already under a lot of attack. Why join those finding fault with the church instead of focusing on all the good that should be defended? At what point are we simply reacting along with the rest of our culture?
I’m writing this post because these are valid questions. For all the dangers of top-down, unloving leadership, there is a strong pull in the other direction. If some need to be convinced that any abuse of authority in the church comes close to home, others bristle when they hear words like “authority” and “submission.” I’d argue that both groups need the same thing: a reminder of how beautiful but radically different biblical authority really is.
Let’s start by looking at Scripture. There’s a pivotal moment during Jesus’ ministry when the disciples are arguing about which one of them will be the greatest. Here’s what Jesus says:
The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.Luke 22:25-27 ESV
This is a stunning reversal, one that certainly took the disciples by surprise. But Jesus is highlighting the way his people are different from the world—they don’t use authority to boss others around. It wasn’t only his explanation here that promotes this new ethic, though. At the very center of the gospel is Jesus, the Son of God, humbling himself in human form and becoming obedient to the death of the cross (Philippians 2:7–8). When our faith is in Jesus and modeled after him, it becomes difficult to justify harsh displays of leadership, precisely because Jesus lived such a radically different way.
It wasn’t only Jesus who modeled this kind of humble leadership. Take the Apostle Paul, a man who certainly spoke with authority, yet endured tremendous suffering and deprivation for the sake of the gospel. In his epistles he appealed to the Law and Prophets and argued carefully for his positions. He evidenced deep care for the church, not an aggressive “do as I say” attitude.
There are also passages in the epistles that speak specifically about how leaders in the church should function. Here is Peter:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.1 Peter 5:1–3 ESV
And Paul, in his letter to Timothy:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.1 Timothy 3:1–7 ESV
Far from justifying authoritarian behavior, these passages describe leaders who are thoughtful and humble. Both passages also point out what leaders of the church are not: domineering, violent, quarrelsome, conceited, looking for personal gain, or forcing their way on the church. It’s a refreshing view of leadership; even the title of “shepherd” denotes a tenderness that should ultimately mirror the sacrificial love of Jesus.
It’s important to note, though, that these passages are hardly suggesting that we no longer need authority in our lives. Jesus and the NT authors still affirm the need for authority structures in the context of a community of believers. When critiquing top-down displays of control, we can’t forget that believers aren’t meant to exist in isolation. In our modern age where truth is increasingly seen as subjective, it’s easy to take on a “just me and Jesus” attitude that misses the need for the wisdom of others in the church. Passages like Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 talk about the diversity of gifts within the church and how they are meant to increase the maturity of the body. In essence, we need each other, and it’s normative for God to speak to us through others in the church. This doesn’t only apply to hearing from those with official positions; we are all to “submit to each other out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). It’s with this understanding—that our walk with God is partly mediated by our relationships with others in the church—that we approach practical questions about the functions of authority.
Interestingly, roles of church authority are closely connected to maturity level. If chosen according to instructions in 1 Timothy 3, church leaders will be among the most spiritually mature in a congregation. (All elders should be spiritually mature, but not all the spiritually mature will be elders. There is also a gender limitation to eldership, but this doesn’t imply that the women are on average less spiritually mature than the men.) Certainly the office itself warrants extra respect from the rest of the church, but much of this comes back to the extra responsibility—and time commitment!—that rests upon the leaders’ shoulders. We don’t choose leaders because there’s something magical about having a title, but because we acknowledge our need for godly wisdom from mature believers. Much abuse of leadership stems from emphasizing the position at the expense of the need for Christ-like love and mutual respect. Here’s Francis Schaeffer:
There needs to be an order of office, but in every single office that is presented in the Scriptures there is the personal emphasis within the legal concept. In the church the elder is an office-bearer. But both the preaching elders and the ruling elders are “ministers,” and the word “minister” is a personal relationship, it does not speak of dominance. There is to be order in the church, but the preaching elder or the ruling elder is to be a minister, with a loving personal relationship with those who are before him, even when they are wrong and need admonition.1
It’s hard to state too strongly how important these kinds of relationships are. Deep down in the hearts of those who react to bad authorities, I believe there is a longing for an older, wiser person who can provide loving direction. This is biblical! The disappointment and alienation that comes from authorities who’ve failed to provide this connection is also very real, which is why we should feel compassion in place of frustration when relating to the disaffected. While some people who reject authority are walking away from godly, loving environments, probably the majority have been hurt because right desires for relationships were never met. Sometimes it isn’t controlling leaders that cause people to react, but passive ones who don’t take enough time to care.
Reaction is dangerous and in this case no one is immune. If we want to defend proper biblical authority, we need to avoid the temptation to offhandedly dismiss hurting people who have valid complaints but have made poor personal decisions. Sometimes we aren’t actually defending biblical values but merely reacting to cultural trends we don’t like. We represent Christ far more effectively when we own our mistakes instead of making predictable cheap shots at our critics. (This is just as true for those who seem to instinctively find fault in all authorities!) Sometimes the church will have to own mistakes that were first criticized by outsiders. If done right, this won’t be because we feel the pressure of society, but because we actually care about biblical values!
It’s also important to recognize that some critiques of the church aren’t valid, and are indeed influenced by cultural trends that we should resist. This stood out to me when I was watching Shiny Happy People.2 In this docu-series, many weaknesses of Gothard and IBLP are criticized, including some of the same tendencies I’ve reviewed in my prior posts. But the filmmakers—and some of the participants, although not all—are disillusioned with Christian ideas about authority more generally. For some, a critique of Gothard is a chance to critique complementarian theology and biblical sexual ethics, which are seen as being the true culprits at the root of everything. And some people on the series are simply angry, venting in a non-redemptive way that I found off-putting. In this way, the series represents a lot of what conservative Christians dislike about mainstream culture—and not without reason!
Most of us have internal biases that make us likely either to critique too much or too little, not to mention different life experiences that inevitably color our view of the church. But wherever we find ourselves, the biblical plan of authority should serve as a beautiful picture that brings needed balance. Some need to be reminded that biblical leaders should not use their position to dominate others in a top-down “worldly” style. Others need to be reminded of the value of structure in a church, and the limits of seeking God by ourselves. But all of us, regardless of our place in the church, can learn from Christ’s example of selfless love and humility.