Tuesday, October 19, 2010

spiritual authority and obedience

I have been asked to address several topics in this blog. The topic of spiritual authority and obedience is one of them. Before going into more detail in subsequent posts, I just wanted to give an overview of my thoughts on the subject. And I cannot overemphasize that these are my opinions on the matter. I will do my best to support my assertions and conclusions with properly exegeted (interpreted) scripture, but in the end, these are just the thoughts of another man. As with all my posts, I do hope that you find some benefit in the following.

Sadly, it has been my experience and observation that those teaching on the need for obedience to spiritual authority have done more harm than good to the body of Christ. A popular writer and speaker wrote a book and developed a video series in recent years on the subject of the "covering," or authority structure that God established for his people in the Bible. I have not seen the video series or read the book myself, so I cannot comment with great accuracy about what the author said or intended. However, multiple people have told me things they have learned from the videos, and others encouraged me (several years ago) to use the video series in the church that we had started. I chose not to use the videos. I believed then, and I believe even moreso now that the author's understanding of spiritual authority and obedience missed the mark. The author is very knowledgeable (I have read other books by him) and sincere, but I believe he is a product of his environment, and so propagates what he knows, and has not treated the topic objectively or properly.

The real harm I have seen is that the video series has been used by church leaders to manipulate church members into submission (so my critique may be more because of the use of the material rather than the material itself). Of course, when I say that, I do not believe these leaders have malicious intent. On the contrary, I believe they feel obligated to teach their congregants the importance of obedience to authority, and they saw this as a good tool to that end. The problem is that this use of spiritual authority is unbiblical. Or perhaps I should say, it is "extra-biblical." It goes beyond what scripture teaches.

One thing I saw many years ago was that I put myself in a very dangerous place when I told people that they had to "obey" me because I was their spiritual authority. For one thing, I was an incredibly flawed human being. For another, I wasn't any more spiritual than anyone else. And God had not called me to tell people how to live, or to otherwise control them. What's more, I had seen the abuse of authority by too many leaders over the years. It was amazing to me how many of my ministering peers and leaders spoke of drawing lines for their people because "people need (and want) lines drawn for them." They also spoke of not wanting to lose "control" of their congregations. People needed good strong teaching in order to keep them in line, to motivate them (read "manipulate" them), to get them to submit, was the logic. People in every church I had any association with were constantly demeaned for not "submitting" to leaders--for having "bad" or "rebellious" spirits. Interestingly, these "bad" spirits were indicated by congregants questioning the leaders. I began to see that people in these congregations were in a no-win situation. They didn't have a voice, and too many had lost their identities. People entered our churches with great intelligence, great ideas, great talents and abilities, great energy, and great intentions. But slowly their personalities would change as they learned to submit and not question authority. They learned to keep their opinions to themselves (unless their opinions were othewise valued and welcome), or they were marginalized, or they left. I still grieve when I think of what I was a part of and what I witnessed. And I have since developed a hyper-sensitive radar (good or bad I don't know) for abuses perpetrated by those with spiritual authority.

These are complicated issues, and I have only given a smattering of problems I saw with the topic, and I am sure I have only raised more questions with what I have related so far, rather than answering any.  I will go into more detail in later posts, but I did want to get the ball rolling tonight. Suffice it to say, that I do not believe that disagreeing with or even disobeying a church leader (any church leaders) equates necessarily with disobeying God. Someone might disobey God while disobeying a leader, but the two are separate matters, in my opinion. I also believe that living in the kind of systems that either overtly or covertly teaches this type of spiritual authority ("Obey me because I am God's leader in your life") is detrimental to the individual and to the body of Christ as a whole. It is detrimental to the individual on spiritual, emotional, psychological, and even physical levels. It squelches a person's God-given gifts, talents, and personality. And therefore, the body of Christ does not get the benefit of all of these wonderful diverse characteristics that make each of us unique. It is sad to me, and it doesn't need to be. I hope this and subsequent posts will encourage you to consider your own situation or the situations of those you know, and give you strength to be yourself again. You are greatly loved by the One who made you--by the One who made you YOU. God bless you this week.


  1. This is definitely a problem for church goers. If the church leadership's view of any given scripture(s) is supposed to be agreed with regardless of any personal convictions to the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of fear and resentment. Fear that you will be looked down upon for having your own opinion, and resentment for going along with a teaching you sincerely believe to be in error, just for the sake of "obeying." What about the Bereans? Seems that if he didn't want us to question anything, we'd be pretty easy prey for all those false teachers we were warned about in the epistles. I also think that the idea of "spiritual authority" needs to be properly defined, since it can be abused.

  2. Jon
    I don't know who the author is that you referenced, but I do have a question? How can you say you think the author missed the mark when you haven't read what the author wrote?

    Then a general comment on the post. My observation of the human experience is that we tend to get on a pendulum. The pendulum swings too far one way, and in reaction we swing it too far the other way. I'll agree that there has been much abuse of spiritual authority by those in authority. But I also think there has been much abusing of those in spirtual authority by those who aren't. My reading of Acts as an historical text, and the Epitsles as doctrinal texts leads me to believe that God, for reasons I do not understand, has chosen to use the flawed imperfect vessels of humanity as subordinate leaders in His church. Peter (1 Peter 5) writes about Elders taking their oversight seriously. Peter himself (Acts 5), acts as God's mouthpiece and pronounces a sentence of death on Ananias and Sapphira while Paul (Acts 13) prounces blindness on Elymas the sorcerer. If a pastor did that sort of things today I suspect it would be the lead article in Charisma and would generate all sorts of "pastoral abuse" comments. "How dare he judge?"

    Then of course there are instructions, such as Titus 2:15 "...encorage and rebuke with all authority..." or Heb 13:17 " Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you." Seems to be that both the historical record and the doctrinal guidance indicate that authority in the church goes far beyond mild suggestions that can be ignored with no consequence.

    Looking for balance...Ken Mandley

  3. Hi, Ken. I appreciate your comments as always. First, I think the author missed the mark according to what others have told me--and how I have seen his instruction used. By the way, the author is John Bevere. He is a good author, and I have enjoyed his writings in the past. When that video series came out (while I was still ordained), the way it was being used really bothered me. Too many of my peer ministers were prone to demanding strict obedience already. This only reinforced their position--at least the way they used it did. And congregants who shared with me what they learned and how it was presented, only further served to make me concerned about the content (FYI: these congregants were excited about the content--but in a masochistic kind of way). In my opinion the use of the material in these videos was decidedly unbalanced and unhealthy.

    One bit of content that people shared with me was how David submitted to Saul--without question--and how God, rather than David, dealt with Saul; thus proving the need to submit and allow God to deal with your leaders. First, I believe this is a very poor interpretation of events. More than that, its conclusion is dangerous on multiple levels. David didn't sit still while Saul threw spears at him. But this seems to be the take-away from the videos. Again, I am not necessarily disagreeing with John Bevere (because I haven't reviewed the material), but I do strongly disagree with the use and application of the material as I observed it. Hopefully, this explains a little better what I was cryptically alluding to in the post.

    The texts you cite are some that I want to discuss in the next couple of posts. I will be anxious to get your feedback on those.

  4. Having not read anything he wrote on the topic or seen the videos, I can't comment directly. Indirectly, most everything I've seen from him has been pretty Biblically grounded so it would surprise me if he was overboard on this. But, it's possible. It's more probably that heavyhanded autocrats are using his writings to validate their own desire to be "rulers over God's people." There are many truths that can easily be manipulated by unscruplous self-serving wolves in sheeps clothing. That doesn't mean the truth is any less true.

    On the David and Saul application...Learning to apply the "touch not God's annointed" priciple actually helped me live thru a very difficult several years when I thought that my then pastor was theologically wrong, personally unethical, and generally not much of a shepherd. Learning to accept that God is big enough to take care of His under-shepherds was a major area of learning for me. While David didn't sit still while Saul the spears, he didn't the the spears back either. There's the balance thing.

    Looking forward to your next posts on the topic