I’ve responded recently to Christian leaders complaining about authoritarian leadership by observing that there are plenty of people out there who are willing to complain that church leaders are authoritarian.
What provokes this tends to be when Christian leaders give a clear exposition of Scripture with application that requires God’s people to respond to obligations of holiness that he sets upon us through his word. It also tends to be the accusation banded about when churches begin to apply the type of church discipline described in 1 Corinthians 5.
I suspect that many of the very pastors who authored and signed a letter last week warning the government against authoritarianism will at some point have been accused of authoritarianism and seeking to control themselves.
I don’t want to go over the specifics of the COVID-19 debate again today but rather to respond to the types of situations were pastors are called authoritarian, controlling or even abusive. What we have seen over the past few years is that there have been plenty of examples of pastors who have slipped into authoritarianism and bullying. The Fletcher, Smyth, Timmis and Discroll cases all provide warnings of this danger.
However, there are times when the accusation is deeply unfair, where authority has been mistaken for authoritarianism. How can we tell the difference? Well, authoritarianism is about the desire to exercise control that trumps freedom. I would expect this not to be seen in a few cases but to be the hallmark of how the leader consistently behaves. He is likely to be impervious to challenge and may well have found ways of creating structures that protect him from challenge and accountability.
On the other hand, all church leaders have to exercise authority. I like to describe this as a teaching authority for elders. Authority is about what the leader has permission to say and do, it is about authorisation. In this case, the pastor’s concern is that the congregation should not be wanting to know his opinion but rather what God thinks.
Whenever a pastor has to challenge someone to stop sinning and warn about the contexts. Whenever leaders have to ask the church to exercise discipline, it is highly likely that they are not being authoritarian but are exercising the rightful authority God has given them.