There is a fine line between the healthy and unhealthy use of power. At any time, even the best of leaders can begin making decisions that increasingly put their own interests before the needs of others.
The misuse of authority, however, is not always subtle. History tells the stories of countless leaders who boldly acted as if their position placed them above real accountability.
Biblical examples of misused power
In Bible times, the sons of Samuel used their appointments as judges of Israel to take bribes, pervert justice, and accumulate personal wealth. Later, God’s choice for the first king of Israel, Saul, abused his power in an effort to kill the man chosen to be his successor. When David became king, he misused the authority of the throne of Israel to commit adultery with the wife of one of his officers. Then David conspired to have Bathsheba’s husband killed.
Centuries later, a little-known church leader named Diotrephes misused his position by denouncing others to elevate himself. He was so protective of his own position that he would not even welcome the apostle John into his congregation (3 John 1:9-10). We don’t know how Diotrephes publicly explained his lack of hospitality. But privately he might have assumed that all he had done for the church entitled him to unchallenged prominence in the group.
The principle and the red flags
In biblical times and now, abuse of authority involves a harmful and destructive pattern of leadership that diverts organizational power for personal use at the expense of others.
A culture of fear. Such abuse of authority thrives in a culture whose people fear one another. Leaders are afraid of losing power. Subordinates know the danger of confronting those in authority. Loyalty is emphasized to distract from what is really happening. Mutual intimidation lies just under the surface of what seems safe to talk about or question.
A culture of confusion. In church or parachurch groups, leaders sometimes use spiritual language that implies they have a private line to God. The result is that the group learns to hear the teaching or prayerful decisions of leadership as if they were listening to God. Such confusion leads to trouble.
A culture of control and exclusion. When spiritual overseers are not held accountable to fair process and well-defined checks and balances, they can impose their will in ways that go beyond their rightful sphere of control. Such leaders may remove a noncompliant person from the group, not for the sake of the organization but as a means to protect their own leadership. By threatening exclusion for noncompliance, leaders can require submission in matters that are more personal than public, more cultural than biblical, and more arbitrary than fairly reasoned. Ironically, abusive leaders often suggest that their own accountability to God places them above criticism and question, without granting the same freedom to others.
In the noise and commotion of such abuse, phrases like “touch not the Lord’s anointed” or “obey them that have the rule over you” are used, not to promote a healthy fear of the Lord but rather an unhealthy fear of men.
A better example
Jesus’ example of leadership is a corrective to such abuse of authority. In His kingdom, leaders think and act like servants. They hear the questions and cries of those who are hurting. They give others the consideration they want for themselves.
In Jesus’ kingdom, elders and deacons do not correct someone else without first working on their own faults (Luke 6:39,41-42). They remember the Lord’s words: “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
One leader’s inspired counsel
Listen to what one of Jesus’ understudies tells us. Watch for the value the apostle Peter puts on heartfelt service. Note that he wants both elders and church members to serve God not by coercion but because they desire to. Peter writes to fellow elders, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
Spiritual shepherds are not to “lord it over” the flock of God. Just as overseers, elders, and deacons are not to be pressed into service, neither are they to intimidate, shame, or compel others to serve, to give, or to follow. Even when confronting false teachers, representatives of Christ are not to be authoritarian in style, but “gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
Sooner or later, therefore, we need to realize that we don’t honor even the most trusted spiritual leaders by believing everything they say. We give them their rightful place when we weigh their words, ask important questions, and dig into the text of their message for ourselves.
The New Testament record of Acts honors the citizens of Berea precisely because they did not passively accept what they were taught by Paul and Silas. Instead, our record of the New Testament church says of the Bereans, “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
The implication is clear. God does not give His leaders power and authority to control anyone, but to speak a truth that sets people free.
Father in heaven, please help us to love and reflect the leadership of Your Son. Teach us to follow Him by listening to the questions and cries of the weakest among us, while reserving strong words only for those who are using their authority at the expense of those they have been called to protect.
Father, may those of us who are in supportive roles learn to respect those who are leading, while also learning to think for ourselves. Please give us hearts that are ready to hear Your Word, eager to learn, and ready to express, by our actions, the truth and grace of Your Son.