There is a very thin line between leading and lording, discipling and dominating, coaching and coercing. So thin is the line, it is at times and in certain scenarios nearly indistinguishable.
Indeed, church leaders commonly cross the divide without even realizing it, and are much chagrined upon discovery of their transgression. Moreover, many find themselves alternately on one side or the other of the line at different times. For the majority of sincere, upstanding, and ethical ministers, transversing — or transgressing, as it may be — the line is altogether unintentional, and when they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side, they cannot remember when, how, or even why the misstep occurred. Unfortunately there are also ministers not of this upright ilk, who intentionally and indeed unabashedly leap over the boundary line to operate in "foul territory" as their habitual modus operandi.
The role of leadership, regardless the arena, is intrinsically complex. Certainly, because of human fickleness and unpredictability it is an art, not an exact science. Even for the most masterful, leading free-willed humans often resistant to the very premise of being led is a tenuous and slippery slope. The particular kind of leadership ministers are charged with exercising is especially formidable, in that the ministry is, at bottom, the arduous and precarious discipline of behavior-modification.
Further complicating the task, as every minister is painfully aware, is the fact that for church leadership professionals ministry is also their livelihood, their means of support for themselves as well as their families. While at first thought this may seem to be tangential, rather it is central. For, the unfortunate fact is that like most other areas of human endeavor, financial reward and unredeemed personal ambition are primary motivators to those who transgress the boundaries of Scriptural propriety to lord over the flock entrusted to their charge. Regardless of how sophisticated the world becomes, the love of money, as Divine Sophistry reveals, remains the root of all evil.
In the case of leaders who purposely and knowingly choose to be dominating and controlling dictators over associates and God's sheep in order to build their private kingdoms, the sad record is that precious few are influenced toward repentance or change by the criticism or pleas of fellows. Though those of this ilk always seem to be plentiful, nevertheless, there are also many sincere and earnest leaders who functioning in the fray leadership often is, err on the foul side of the line. With many of these, the transgression is unwitting and unwilling. That is to say, they don't realize they are engaging in improper domination and control, nor do they mean to, but are merely trying to fulfill as best they know how their responsibility to lead.
Frequently, especially in the case of organizational church leaders, they tutored under other leaders on their way to becoming leaders themselves. As a result, many ministers merely mimic, at least partially, the methodology and methods of their mentors or some leader with whom they are impressed. The theory of mentoring, of course, is certainly Scriptural, however, it is also incumbent upon those who are being mentored to evaluate the Scripturality, ethicality, and effectuality of the methodology and methods employed by their mentors. Nowhere does Scripture advocate or condone "blind" obedience or obeisance of spiritual leaders, regardless of their status and stature.
On the contrary, God commands all believers to examine all spiritual postulations carefully, holding fast to that which is good, and abstaining from every form of evil (1 Thes. 5:21,22). Moreover, the Holy Spirit termed the Bereans "more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica" because they examined the Scriptures daily themselves to evaluate the veracity of the things being preached by the greatest of all God's theologians and messengers, the Apostle Paul, and his associates as well (Ac. 17:10,11).
While the Holy Spirit calls evaluation of teaching, or doctrine, "noble-minded," leaders who dominate followers, invariably call it "rebellion" when their adherents engage in it. Instead of teaching their followers to study the Scripture themselves in order to scrutinize what they and other ministers are teaching, they essentially insist their followers simply accept and believe what they tell them Scripture says and means, and to merely do what they tell them to do. Of course, that very proposition by Dark Ages Church leaders contributed greatly to twelve hundred years of apostasy.
Jesus' Great Commission charged all ministers to "make disciples...teaching them to observe all that I commanded you..." (Mat. 28:19). The word "disciple" means "learner." Jesus was saying that the task of ministers is to make or compel believers to become "learners" through the medium of teaching, which is systematic and specific instruction, not just generalized preaching. To put it another way, the role of ministers is to teach people to become learners. Unfortunately, this concept is novel to many believers as well as ministers. To paraphrase a familiar idiom regarding secular education, the Church should be the highest institute for the highest (i.e., spiritual) learning.
Still, the task of ministers does not end with teaching believers to be learners, but according to Jesus' exhortation extends beyond that to the task of "teaching them to observe." As James declared, we are not justified by what we have heard or know, but rather by what we do or observe. The job of ministers, as daunting as it may be, is not to merely teach believers to mentally assimilate abstract principles, but also to teach believers to obey and apply those principles in their lives. And, as any earnest minister knows, while teaching people to be learners is difficult, teaching them to be "obeyers" is even more difficult.
But, nothing exists in a vacuum, including ministry. What ministers are supposed to do according to Scripture and what they often feel they can do according to the situation in which they function often do not correspond. Besides being ministers, they are also husbands and fathers, and therefore have a legitimate as well as Scriptural mandate to properly provide for their families, just as any other head-of-household believer. Factor in the element that all active professional ministers to some degree are "elected" to the positions they hold in their immediate organization by the very people they are to minister to, and you have a major, ongoing dilemma which every minister knows all too well. The expression: "between a rock and a hard spot," may have no more apt application than the ministry — the "rock" being Jesus and His inflexible charge to ministers, and the "hard spot" being practical, personal ministry to intractable humans with an intrinsic propensity for spiritual non-compliance.
The result is another invisible line separating what a minister should be counseling, teaching, saying, deciding (et al.), and what the people are willing to tolerate, receive, accept, and allow from the minister. Ministers grapple with this very real predicament daily. From the perspective between what the people will allow and what God mandates, ministers are perpetually "damned if they do and damned if they don't."
Like the umpire, on every call, alternately, you have one team and its fans against you and the other team and its fans for you. It is never a win-win job, but always a win-lose job. Somebody is adamantly and vehemently against you on every call. That is just the nature of the job. A veteran major league umpire once bemoaned his was the only profession in which you must be perfect the first day on the job and then improve from there. Well, there is one other profession of that ilk — the ministry. But, the requisites of ministry are even more stringent than umpiring because in addition to having perfect knowledge and judgment, the minister is expected by his constituents to also be a veritable perfect replication of Christ Himself, totally devoid of anything human.
This Catch-22 is among the primary factors that cause even sincere, honest, earnest, and well-intentioned leaders to cross the invisible line between legitimate and illegitimate authority, and gradually gravitate toward domination instead of discipling, lording instead of leading, and coercing instead of coaching, coaxing, and convincing. And, as stated before, it often happens unknowingly and even unintentionally. The overwhelming majority of ministry professionals have no desire whatsoever of operating outside the bounds of authority, and would be appalled to find they have encroached upon "foul ground." In the continuation of this article, we will examine some practical tips for recognizing improper domination and control by church leaders.
Editor's note: This article is adapted from the book, CHARISMATIC CAPTIVATION, by Steven Lambert. The book exposes the widespread problem of authoritarian abuse in Neo-Pentecostal church-groups, and explains how it became infused into the very fabric, foundation, and functions of the Neo-Pentecostal church, arising out of a false movement known as the Discipleship/Shepherding Movement (1970-77).