A Study of Christian Authority

Christian Leadership vs. Worldly Leadership

There is a great deal of unhealthy teaching and practice in the Body of Christ today regarding spiritual authority and submission. This relates directly to a misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian Leader. In this article, the author will show that there must be a difference between the leadership methods used by the world and those of the Church.

God’s Ideas of Leadership are Not the Same as Man’s

Let’s look at the Scripture in the sidebar. It’s a familiar story, but many of us miss the teaching opportunity that Jesus used. The disciples of Jesus were maneuvering for “position” in the Kingdom of God. They assumed the Kingdom to be similar to human kingdoms, with powerful men exercising authority over the citizens and slaves. Jesus told them, in effect, that they completely misunderstood the way things worked in God’s Kingdom.

Naturally, the other disciples were annoyed that the “Sons of Thunder” were trying to gain more power than the other disciples. Calling them together, Jesus tells them that there is a difference between the way the world works and the way the Kingdom works. The world’s leaders “exercise authority” (KJV “dominion”) over them. Look at Vine’s definition of katakurieuo, the Greek word for the phrase. This phrase is used in three situations, all bad. It is the nature of the unregenerate world, not the Kingdom of God. Jesus said “not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave”. The Apostle Peter also warned Christian Leaders against this sort of behaviour.

“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; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1 Pet 5:2-4 NIV, emphasis added).

In his first letter, Peter uses the same word, katakurieuo, to describe how Christian Leaders should not behave towards those “under their care”. In his second letter, he appears to address those who failed to follow his advice. He begins chapter two warning against “false prophets”, and speaks very forcefully about their sin. Then in verse 17 he says,

“These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error.

They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity– for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.” (2 Peter 2:17-20 NIV).

These “false prophets” (verse 1) were Christian Leaders whose lives were characterized by secrecy (v.1), greed (v.3), slander of celestial beings (v.10), “reveling in their pleasures” (v.13), adulterous seducers (v.14). They appealed “to the lustful desires of sinful human nature” (v. 18) “They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves… for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.” (vv. 18-19). They had fallen into sin, and their sin was “covered up” by their abuse of power. Peter was very clear as to their spiritual condition in the next verses.

20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. 22 Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.” (1 Peter 2:20-22 NIV)

They directly disobeyed Peter’s exhortation to be “eager to serve, not lording it over those entrusted to you” (1 Peter 5:2-3 NIV). And Peter says that it would have been “better for them not to have known the way of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:21 NIV).

In the Matthew passage (Matt 20:20-28 NIV), Jesus distinguished this tendency to domination from the requirements of leadership in the Kingdom.

Jesus contrasted Gentile (read as: “the world’s”) leaders exercising authority over their “subordinates” with the way of the Kingdom: service. The service of leadership in the Kingdom was not a superior “position”, but an attitude of that of a slave. The leaders of the church ought to have the attitude that said, “I am your slave, brother”, to the congregation. In Peter’s letters, he first instructs the leaders to serve the congregation as willing slaves (verses 2-4). It is only after that that he similarly instructs the others to be submissive.

“Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up” (1 Pet 5:5-6 NIV).

This author wishes in no way to diminish the responsibility of believers to be submissive. There is no room for arrogance or complete self-autonomy in the Body. But the Scriptures clearly teach that there is a difference between the ways the world behaves and the way in which the Church should behave. In the Church, leadership is humble. Leadership means servitude. Note that verses five and six come after verses two through four which exhort the leaders of the church to be humble shepherds.

The Servant Leader

So if “exercising authority” as a leader is wrong, what is the “right” way to lead? First, we must look at Jesus’ example. Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives us a vital clue to Jesus’ example of leadership.

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place” (Phillippians 2:6-9 NIV).

Jesus led by humbling himself. He had every right to command, to coerce, to dominate, and to take authority over the entire world. He was God. But his “success” came from humility. Revell’s Bible Dictionary offers this warning under the heading, “Authority”:

“Since even Jesus was careful never to claim a coercive authority over people who are free moral agents, then mere humans in positions of spiritual leadership must be even more careful not to claim such an authority… it is not now and never has been right for those in spiritual leadership to attempt to compel a response which, to be meaningful, must be a free choice” (Revell 115).

A leader must not coerce obedience. He must lead by the example of his excellence in conduct and devotion before God. He must not be concerned with his own power, wealth, position, ability to command respect, or the number of people on whatever lists he might have. His only concern is to serve his brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were very clear:

“You are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:8-12 NIV).

Jesus directed his followers to avoid those titles of respect that might cause them to “think of themselves more highly than they ought” (see Romans 12:3 NIV) because they were to operate under a completely different paradigm than the world. Jesus said, “you have only one Master and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8). Where does the hierarchal model fit in Christian Leadership? Jesus seems to say it doesn’t.

Lawrence O. Richards writes in “The Teacher’s Commentary”:

“While the secular ruler is above those he leads, Jesus said, ‘Not so with you’ (v. 26). Instead of relational distance, there is relational closeness. The Christian leader must seek to be one with those he or she is called to serve.

“Instead of ‘exercising authority’ as a ruler who demands and enforces conformity, the Christian leader is to abandon coercion. Jesus said firmly and plainly, ‘Not so with you’. Force, manipulation, demand – all are ruled out in the way by which the servant leader exercises Christian authority. Outward force can produce conformity, but it can never product that inner commitment which moves people to choose to follow Jesus.

“How, then, does the servant lead? By serving! The secular ruler speaks the commands, but the spiritual leader demonstrates by his example the kingdom way of life into which he is called to lead others. No wonder Peter picked up this same theme… (1 Pet. 5:2-3 NIV) By serving, the Christian leader demonstrates the greatness of the love of God, and gently motivates others to follow him.” (Richards, 576, emphasis added)

So What?

If you are constantly reminded that you, as a Regenerate Believer, are “under” a Christian Leader, that you must obey them no matter what, that they are the source of “correct” interpretation of Scripture, or that your feelings, opinions, and questions don’t count, then you are submitting to an ungodly authority. That doesn’t mean the leaders are bad, just deceived. They are using the world’s system to administer the church, even if it is promoted as “Christian” or “Bible-based” or “Spirit-filled”. They are, unfortunately, operating under the prideful and unscriptural idea that they are on a “higher level” than you, closer to God, and better able to hear Him than you are.

My advice is first to pray. God will speak to you through prayer, the Bible, circumstances and other believers.

Second, study Scripture to understand how the Church is to behave. Look at Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount), Matthew 20-23, and the books of 1 Peter and 2 Peter, looking for words like “leader”, “minister”, etc. Use a concordance to help you study Christian Leadership from a Biblical perspective.

Third, consult with a variety of other believers, both “fulltime” and lay believers. The Holy Spirit resides in all believers, and he may very well speak to you through them. Ask Him to clarify to you what the truth is. Secrecy is a characteristic of an ungodly authority.

Fourth (and with caution), you can use the Internet to read other people’s opinions. You must use discretion, the Bible, and the leading of the Holy Spirit to discern truth from lies, but there is a lot of truth available. Try the following addresses to start:
http://www.caic.org.au/zabusive.htm and http://www.spiritualabuse.org/. These are resources to help people determine if the congregations that they are in are unhealthy. That doesn’t mean that the people are bad or even that you should leave, but it may trigger something in your spirit if you’ve thought, “something’s just not right here”, but were afraid to even think about it.

As you pray and research, the Lord may move you to action. This action may involve speaking to your leaders, other believers within your congregation, or other believers that you trust outside your congregation. If your leader is a humble servant of God (or desires to be), then you may be able to humbly point out some Scripture to him, and he will appreciate the correction. If he is more interested in his own power, then you will probably meet with extreme resistance.

If he is completely closed to what God is showing you, he may brand you as “rebellious” or “unsubmissive” or even worse. Make sure that your heart is humble before God. Ask Him to examine you. Don’t assume that you have the absolute truth. But understand that the Scripture has to take precedence over his ideas or teaching. Many leaders are themselves in rebellion to God because they are attempting to take a position that actually belongs to God. If this is the case, pray, asking God to show you what to do next. He will guide you.

Paul wrote to the church at Galatia, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery,” (Galatians 5:1). It is my hope and prayer that we all will be free to choose to obey our Master and Saviour, Jesus Christ, “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

©2000 Jason Friesen


Key Passage:

Matt 20:20-28 (NIV)

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (emphasis added)

DOMINION (HAVE… OVER) 2. katakurieuo ^2634^, kata, “down” (intensive), and No. 1, “to exercise, or gain, dominion over, to lord it over,” is used of (a) the “lordship” of gentile rulers, <Matt. 20:25>, KJV, “exercise dominion,” RV, “lord it”, <Mark 10:42>, KJV, “exercise lordship,” RV, “lord it”; (b) the power of demons over men, <Acts 19:16>, KJV, “overcame,” RV, “mastered”; (c) of the evil of elders in “lording” it over the saints under their spiritual care, <1 Pet. 5:3>. (From Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, emphasis added)

MINISTER 1. diakonos ^1249^, “a servant, attendant, minister, deacon.” 2. leitourgos ^3011^ denoted among the Greeks, firstly, “one who discharged a public office at his own expense,” then, in general, “a public servant, minister.” 3. huperetes ^5257^, properly “an under rower”, “a seaman” (a meaning which lapsed from the word), hence came to denote “any subordinate acting under another’s direction”; in <Luke 4:20>, RV, “attendant,” KJV, “minister” it signifies the attendant at the synagogue service; in <Acts 13:5>, it is said of John Mark, RV, “attendant,” KJV, “minister; “in <Acts 26:16>, “a minister,” it is said of Paul as a servant of Christ in the gospel; so in <1 Cor. 4:1>, where the apostle associates others with himself, as Apollos and Cephas, as “ministers of Christ.” Note: Other synonymous nouns are doulos, “a bondservant”; oiketes, “a household servant”; misthios, “a hired servant”; misthotos (ditto); pais, “a boy, a household servant.” For all these see SERVANT. (from Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, emphasis added).

“The notion of rank in the world is like a pyramid; the higher you go up, the fewer there are above you whom you must serve, and the more you are served by those beneath you. All who are under serve those who are above, until you come to the apex, and there stands someone who has to do no service, but whom all the others have to serve.

“In the kingdom of heaven, however, the figure is exactly reversed. The pyramid is upside-down. The Son of Man lies at the inverted apex of the pyramid. He upholds, and serves, and ministers unto all, and they who would be high in his kingdom must go near him, at the bottom, to uphold and minister to all they can uphold and minister unto. There is no other law of precedence, no other law of rank and position in God’s kingdom.”
— George MacDonald, (Compiled and edited by Michael R. Philips) pp. 123-124.

Except where noted, the HOLY BIBLE, New International Version is used throughout. © 1984 International Bible Society. Used by Permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Works Cited:

MacDonald, George, Discovering the Character of God. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1989.

The Revell Bible Dictionary, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1990.

Richards, Lawrence O., The Teacher’s Commentary. Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1989.

Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985.

See Also:

Johnson, David & Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1991.

Enroth, Dr. Ronald M. Recovering from Churches that Abuse. (free online book in HTML)

Martin, Stephen. The Heresy of Mind Control. (free online PDF)