Authoritarian in Disguise
“It sounded so good, he really must be passionate about God.”
Hard to believe when I think about it but those were the words I used when describing my first experience with Pastor Jake*, the new pastor at the church I was serving at. I did not think at the time that this man would be the biggest hindrance to my Christian Walk for the next four years of my life. Taking away any subjectivity I had and turning me into a black and white thinker, I did not know at the time that this would be the man who would emotionally and spiritually abuse me and the church that I loved.
The problem was two-fold. 1.) The man had a nasty habit of telling God what He could and could not do. He twisted scripture to condemn and demoralize the believer. “He (Rob) serves a very small god who he keeps in a box” my dad said after hearing him preach for what would be the last time (dad got a job at a different church the next week). Jake* even went so far as to tell us that “Doubt and Despair” are sins, the former of which is still an area that I struggle with black and white thinking. 2.) Jake was by all definitions of the word, an Authoritarian, and his anger was evident even when addressing kids who “acted out” in church. The night he ran me out of the church he told me more than once to “Shut up” because I “did not have the knowledge they did.” They tore me down and drove me out of the church, praise God since then I have been reconciled with the church body there.
Now, I love the Church, especially the body of believers that I currently have the joy of spending time with on a weekly and daily basis. The problem is leaders or pastors or professors like Rob are a dime a dozen, they keep their own close circle, they split churches and all the while you have the people who say; “Oh he must really have a passion for Jesus and a heart for God.” Let me share three trends in authoritarian leaders.
Here we go; 1. Don’t Mistake Passion for a Heart for God. Henri Nouwen tells us that the world will know the truth of Christianity when we live and work together. Most Authoritarian leaders have closed inner-circles, they will hardly go out of their way to serve someone who isn’t in their inner-circle unless there is a crowd around. They may also stand behind the pulpit and rant and rave against sin, giving you anecdotes to deal with your personal sin, tearing you down with a heavy law with little to no grace. They will spend an hour and a half telling you what you can’t do before they build you up at all. It may seem like passion for you and for Christ but when Christ tore down his followers for something it was always with a note of encouragement, and his criticism was always constructive. The only people Jesus disarmed and tore down were the Sanhedrin (Matt. 15 comes to mind). A teacher or pastors job is to equip and build up, not chastise women for wanting to be Youth Pastors or tearing down the men they don’t really know because they didn’t agree with them.
No 2.) When Questioning leads to Punishment. The event that got me kicked out of the church was my questioning of the pastors handling of a discipline situation with the youth group. I won’t go into details but I will tell you after talking to members of the youth I discovered that I was right to question the handling the situation. I was met with accusations and threats by the leader who told me to “Shut up” and “Stop justifying my actions.” I couldn’t question this pastor, doing so turned out to be suicide because in his mind he was right, he was better than me and I was a stupid college freshmen home on break. Questioning an authoritarian leader can result in outright abuse, repeated questioning can leave one very disillusioned and without a church.
No 3.) The Shepherd and the Cowboy. “Jake’s a cowboy” my dad said. “Oh I agree” our friend Steve Martin, author of the book The Heresy of Mind Control, said after my encounter with the pastor. What dad meant was that there are two types of pastors, the shepherding kind, who lead the sheep (John 10, Psalms 23) and the cowboy kind who get out and drive the flock off a cliff. Authoritarians are normally the latter, they want you to reach the same conclusion that they did. They want to drive you to a “higher level” of understanding. Force feeding you spiritual meat when all you’re ready for is milk. I heard a guy say last week “You need to be getting rid of sin, working so hard that you get blisters on your fingers.” But if some Christians do that then they will end up hating themselves, and possibly even God. It’s better to let the Holy Spirit do the work of conviction, not the pastor.
As much as some would like to believe the pastor is not the hand of God. Instead the pastor is a vessel, a builder, a shepherd. His job is to improve the flock, to help the flock to “put on love, which binds all things together” (Col 3:16). The Authoritarian will only cause division and a depressed flock. If you’ve been influenced or hurt by an authoritative pastor it is possible to regain your spiritual life, it is possible to leave behind black and white thinking and regain your subjectivity. Contact a cult deprogramming center like Wellspring and start to discover the God who’s heart beats for you.
If you’re a leader who lives on the side of authoritarianism, give up your leadership position and diffuse whatever it is that causes your authoritarian habits. Surrender it all to God and let Him do the transforming work. You may find that you, and your congregation is more free, and has a deeper love for one another.