Authoritarianism in the Church

by John Yoder on October 3, 2015

(This important article, on the abuse of authority in the church, was originally published in the Founders Journal by Pastor Steve Martin.)


The Problem

A tragic and dangerous trend can be observed in some contemporary evangelical churches. While standing against the lawlessness and anti-authority mood of this generation, some conservative, Bible-believing churches have drifted into deadly authoritarian tendencies. This sad phenomenon is increasingly becoming publicized and well-documented (see suggested reading list at the end of this article).

Why is this happening? What kind of attitudes engender authoritarianism in a church? Whose fault is it? What can be done about it?

Before proceeding any farther, some definition is in order. For the purposes of this article, “authoritarianism” is defined as an abuse of the authority given by Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit and revealed in God’s Word which the office holders of the local churches are to exercise. It has been my observation that this abuse of authority usually takes on one or both of the following forms.

First, the sin of authoritarianism exists when pastors and other office holders speak with binding authority where God Himself has not spoken in His written Word. If God has not pronounced on the subject, it is a usurpation of the Creator. A pastor may rightly proclaim “Thus saith the Lord” when preaching against idolatry, adultery, greed, marrying an unbeliever or any other violation of the express commands of God. That is his duty and God help the man who “cuts and trims” texts to speak smooth words to his flock. But the pastor has no warrant from Christ to speak with the binding authority of God’s imprimatur to issues upon which the written word of God is silent.

Second, the sin of authoritarianism exists when pastors and other office holders usurp the Lordship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people by deciding the will of God for them where Scripture is silent. Church officers may not declare the will of God for God’s people on such choices as one’s career, choice of Christian mate, choice of lawful employment, place of living, schooling they attend, etc. without becoming surrogate deities. Flocks of sheep with paralyzed decision-making faculties reveal exposure to shepherds who played God with them. Thus the sinful tendency revealed in John Milton’s wry observation (“New presbyter is but old priest writ large”) returns to haunt churches. And even more sadly, some idol-worshipping sheep love it to be so.  (For the rest of the article click here.)

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