Abuse and the church – leaders and members

What should a healthy relationship between church leaders and church members look like? Hebrews 13:17 says:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Whilst Peter writes:

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,[a] not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;[b] not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

There is a mutual and reciprocal relationship between elders and the congregation. In fact, I believe that all leadership happens within the context of mutual submission because we are all told to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). 

Leaders therefore do have authority. They are to lead in the church and congregation members are to submit willingly and joyfully. The opposite of tyranny is not anarchy. Indeed it is in the context of anarchy where true leadership responsibilities are abdicated that tyrants, bullies and abusers find the freedom to seize power over others. Church life should be characterised by joyfulness and not by a weary struggle. Leaders should not feel that they are having to drag, cajole and compel the congregation. There should be a sense of willingness to follow. Church members should love their leaders.

But this also means that there are responsibilities for leaders and the way that they are to lead.  They should be looking out for the needs of others not themselves and they should not domineer, cajole, compel. Church members should experience their relationship to their leaders as a joyful thing too.  Leadership is about serving.

How do we protect against bullying and abuse from leaders? Well abuse tends to happen when people step outside of the authority they have been given or use methods that they should not.

What authority to elders have in the church? I believe it is specifically a teaching authority. The key competency required of an elder is the ability to teach. This means that they lead and instruct not through force of personality, fear or position in the hierarchy. Rather they lead by teaching God’s Word. Things are best not when the leader demands obedience but through patiently opening Scripture equips the whole body so that they may come to unity of mind as they seek God’s will.   This also means that we don’t blindly follow their teaching. Even good teachers are fallible. We should consistently be checking out what they say by looking at Scripture ourselves. If we think they are mistaken we should go to them. Good leaders will be teachable themselves and willing to examine God’s Word. Leaders who step outside of this authority and seek to impose their own deas, theories, dreams and ambitions on the church are tyrants.

What methods have we been given to lead the church with?    Peter tells us to be examples.  We should model growth, love, grace and gifting in our own lives. 

This means that the responsibility of church members is first to pay attention and engage with the teaching of God’s Word, and second to follow the example set by godly leaders. 

In a church where leaders dominate, where they rely on other things to get their way, fear, pity, charisma, hierarchy, claimed visions, pictures and words of knowledge something has gone wrong.  In churches where humility, respect, love and joy are missing, we are in trouble.

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