The main focus of the initial installment of our discussion was the matter of hyper-authoritarianism in general and how easy it is for the most principled spiritual leaders to cross over the “thin line of leadership” between leading and lording, discipling and dominating, coaching and coercing, to operate in “foul ground” without even realizing it. In this part, we begin turning our attention to some of the whys and wherefores of ecclesiastical predomination.
Of course, as was pointed out in the Part 1, there is nothing new about authoritarian abuse by spiritual leaders. In any age, there is no shortage of unscrupulous religious dictators bent on self-aggrandizement facilitated through personal kingdom-building purportedly “in the name of the Lord.” Nevertheless, while it is not indigenous exclusively to our time, due perhaps to the move toward organizational ecumenicism commonly referred to today as “networking,” there is little doubt that it is more widespread than ever before, to the point that sadly the term, “ubiquitous,” now applies. Unfortunately, today there is little difference between the ecclesiastical and the secular realm with respect to corruption. And, after no small number of years of studying this phenomenon, I have concluded that the primary cause is nothing more sophisticated than base greed fueled by the oldest and most powerful human propensity which God Himself testifies is the ROOT of ALL evil — “the love of money.”
Moreover, whatever the premise and psychology behind it, the sad historical record is that few of the corrupt and covetousness-crazed ecclesiastical autocrats alluded to herein are ever heedful of the criticisms or pleas of their fellows to turn back from such blatantly aberrant behavior, thus we will not engage here in the futility of attempting to convince them to do so. What is written here is primarily for those sincere, honest, earnest, upstanding, and conscientious leaders who may realize from the reasoning offered herein that unwittingly and unintentionally from time to time they have transgressed the invisible line between leading and lording. The majority of that ilk, we are persuaded, will follow the leading of the Spirit to discontinue any unscriptural and improper leadership techniques, methods, and methodologies.
Most reasonable ministry professionals, if forthright, would agree that ecclesiastical predominance and authoritarian abuse exists in nearly every branch of the Church—denominations, modern protodenominational associations and “networks,” as well as among independents—and in far too great a quantity. Regardless of the “checks” against such errancy supposedly inherent in an “established” ecclesiastical hierarchy, every honest minister knows there exists—between the sequestered and secluded air-conditioned offices of organizational headquarters and the salt mines of the local church—a cavernous void rife for subtile selfish-ambition, self-aggrandizement, and corruption by unscrupulous church-leaders.
As earnest as organizational officials may be about their role of “overseeing,” it has limitations. A local church-leader so disposed can construct a partition around the affairs of that local operation, buttressed by servile and intensely loyal church cronies, that is quite difficult to “see over.” Despite genuinely believed, eloquently articulated, and convincing pontifications describing the purported fail-safe system of accountability in place between the senior church leader and headquarter officials, the unsavory reality is that a leader could be a drunkard, womanizer, wife-beater, child-molester, swindler, and egregious authority-abuser, without anyone at headquarters ever knowing until a cataclysmic public eruption occurs. Indeed, the increasing public scandals of this sort involving high-profile ministers lading the news-media these days is testimony of that reality. Impersonal hierarchical governance will never be a safeguard against these potentialities. Only down-to-earth, real relationships with real mutual accountability based on a balance between “the God-kind of love” and the standard of “God-kind of living” among equals having different functions and responsibilities can ensure against inappropriate behavior and improper practices by church leadership.
The stark truth remains, even in these days of supposed increased human knowledge, political systems by their very nature, whether secular or ecclesiastical, are fertile breeding grounds for corruption. As long as the Church insists on mimicking the world’s way of star-worship and undue exaltation of its leaders, and coronating them with inordinate and undue political and monetary deference and “power” attributed to royalty, we will continue to subject ourselves to such ecclesiastical corruption and public chagrin. For, as Lord Acton so aptly observed, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” By no means are the hallowed halls of the Ecclesia a safe-haven from that adage.
Maybe it’s our European lineage, or maybe it’s just a basic human propensity, but the American Church seems to have this inexorable need for a de facto ecclesiastical aristocracy from which it is not willing to repent. Like Israel in the day of Saul, we clamor for our kings and our queens after the manner of the other nations of the world. We are even willing to render unto our Caesars a superabundance of our personal resources in order to have royalty through whom to vicariously live a life of opulence, ease, and privilege. Like the nations of the world, we just plain want our kings. They need not even subjugate or conquer us to gain aristocratic ascendancy, for we freely and wantonly bestow it upon them. Speaking about the need for a single world leader who would have the political cunning and charisma to preside over a one world order, a senior United Nations official quipped to reporters some two decades ago now, “Give us a super-leader, be he devil or Divine, and the world will follow!” Likewise, this seems to be the collective clamor for Christendom as well. And, the worldwide, ever-expanding move toward the false unity of ecclesiastical ecumenicism taking place in the institutional churches is certainly further evidence of that religion-related proclivity.
So it is not only base lusts of crazed charlatans that leads to authoritarian abuse, but rather it exists and even flourishes also because of the unredeemed fleshly desires of those who are willing to be subjugated by charismatic beguilers spewing forth Utopian promises of grandeur. Let’s face it, somewhere in the human psyche is the desire for Oz, a new Garden of Eden, heaven on earth—call it what you will—we long for it, even Christians, who theologically should know better. Little wonder then that even the “elect” can be so easily deceived by new-age “New World” philosophies and vain promises. Unredeemed humanity and unenlightened Christianity alike crave Utopia now, in this life, in this present world-system—never mind that it is antichrist-ruled—rather than have to endure the temporary duresses requisite to the manifestation of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.
Besides having a general dislike for learning, mankind, as a whole, is intellectually and spiritually lazy. The majority of people don’t want to have to study, to read, to seek, to investigate, to ruminate, to mentally assimilate, to pray—we want someone else to do all that for us, because it requires too much effort and cuts into the time we allot to leisure, pleasure, and entertainment. Thus, what most people are looking for is not merely a spiritual shepherd—someone to teach and guide us in the ways of God, but a guru, a dalai, a priest—a religious mediator to do all the “spiritual stuff” for us, and then just tell us what we should believe and do.
The fact of the matter is, especially in a free society, there would be no authoritarian subjugation if there were no one willing to be subjugated by self-aggrandizing despots. Without question, in the case of many, their tacit acquiescence to predomination is purely a matter of intellectual and spiritual laziness coupled with general apathy. However, in those cases where a very defined and definitive system of deliberate domination and control has been instituted, there is another dynamic at work—selfish ambition.
Indeed, at bottom, it is selfish ambition, both on the part of the subjugator, and, ironically, the subjugated as well, that drives hyper-authoritarianism. The subjugator is bent on building a private kingdom wherein he or she is exalted and exulted as lord, master, and supreme-ruler. And, the subjects are enticed into becoming a participant in the grandeur through promises of shared ascendancy and personal aggrandizement, which appeals to and appeases their own selfish lusts for superiority.
Where it is employed today, the nuts and bolts of ecclesiastical group-predomination, virtually without exception is a kind of multi-level, pyramid authority structure, or polity. It is identical to the M-L-M (multi-level marketing) schema so popular today in the business sector, wherein each participant recruits other participants, all of whom formulate his “downline.” Supposedly, each participant’s downline is his personal pipeline of income reaped from the efforts of his recruits as well as each of theirs, and so on down the line. The basic hypothesis is that this pyramid-shaped structure intrinsically produces exponential and near effortless synergism equating ultimately to perpetual residual income. Essentially, it’s the modern, sophisticated version of the old chain-letter.
Two things that should alert thinking observers to the impropriety of these types of structures apparently escapes the notice of many. One is the fact that pyramid schemes, though most M-L-M have found crafty ways to circumvent it, have been deemed by every state in the U.S. to be illegal, essentially because the postulation of synergism is fraudulent except in the case of those in the first few levels at the apex of the pyramid. The second is that the pyramid, as evidenced by the pyramids of occult-rife Egyptian heritage, is the very signature and icon of the occult and its ultimate author, Satan.
Notwithstanding, there are a plethora of hybrids of this system being used very effectively in churches in America and around the world to expand their membership, from mainline denominations to independents, though all those employing it would adamantly and vociferously deny it. Nevertheless, it can hardly be denied that a staple of modern church “development” methodologies is the “small group” concept, which virtually all churches employ in some degree and form. In some churches they are called “cell groups.” Others call them “care groups,” or various other appellations. Whatever they are called, they are essentially small groups of only a few to fifty or a little more, who meet usually in someone’s house, usually the leader’s, for the supposed purpose of fellowship, prayer, and exhortation.
In itself, of course, there is nothing wrong with that concept, and indeed it is quite Scriptural, useful, and effectual in terms of practical ministry. In fact, it is in the small group setting, away from the ecclesiastical formality of the sanctuary where people can be real that real ministry takes place. After all, real fellowship and ministry cannot be achieved with the back of someone’s head, or in the hour or two of a church-service. Moreover, there is certainly much more to real fellowship and ministry than mere handshakes, chit-chat, and congregational prayer.
The main problem comes in the leadership of those small groups, and the status given those who host or “lead” them. Indeed, the essence of the problem is in whether the people in charge of these meetings are considered merely “hosts” or spiritual “leaders.” In many churches, those who host these meetings are considered and even called “leaders.” Sometimes the term is prefaced by the prefix “lay-“, nonetheless, they are given a status of being a “leader” of some echelon in the church polity, as well as varying degrees and forms of deference commonly attributed to that nomenclature.
Now the concept of deploying the laity of a local church in constructive and effectual roles of real and substantive function according to their God-given giftings and talents is an altogether proper, needed, even necessary, and certainly Scriptural concept (Rom. 12:3-13; 1 Pet. 4:10,11; et al.). However, where that concept goes awry in application is when untrained, ungifted, unanointed, untried laymen are all of a sudden dubbed “leaders,” and congregants look to them for counsel, Biblical answers, and direction for the diverse range of problems and needs believers typically encounter in their Christian pilgrimage.
When it comes to such spiritual input into the lives of God’s sheep who were purchased with the precious cost of the shed blood of Jesus, it is vital that it be: firstly, correct and Biblically-based; secondly, God-inspired; thirdly, prudent and pragmatic; fourthly, timely according to God’s timetable; and fifthly, presented in a constructive rather than destructive way. All of that requires experience and expertise. Summarily, the matter of speaking unto God’s sheep on His behalf is a fearful thing that should not be taken lightly. Nor, because of its extensive potential ramifications, should it be delegated to undeveloped, inexperienced, Sunday-morning spiritual “dabblers,” or spiritual “weekend warriors,” especially those steeped in self-absorption and a super-inflated sense of self-importance, seeking status, recognition, and ascendancy over others.
The problem with the multi-level downline or small group system instituted within the ecclesiastical mini-society also known as local churches is that by nature that system is fertile ground for such spiritual sophomorism and thus attracts the very people who engage in it. The very unfortunate result is two-fold. One, what in essence, to put it bluntly, is a bastardization of the ministry. True ministry is devalued, degraded, debased, and debauched, which is precisely what has happened on a large scale in many sectors of the Church today. Two, the sheep of those flocks are being subjected to a debauched, defiled, and, in some cases, a desecrated counterfeit of genuine ministry, depriving them of the benefit they could have derived from true God-ordained and -anointed ministry.
Almost without exception, where hyper-authoritarianism is occurring, such a small group system with lay-leadership is employed, supposedly to promote “church growth,” which invariably refers to growth in terms of size rather than spirituality. And, in these multi-level downlines the under-leaders are indoctrinated by the ultimate leader with certain patent hyper-authoritarian precepts and practices by which to “govern” the affairs and functions of their particular downlines. The under-leaders in turn pass those dogmas and doctrines onto the group they lead. The result is an entire church of participants in an infrastructure of unauthorized domination and control over its members that to them seems wholly proper and good because they were spiritually reared and trained in it, in some cases from the very beginning of their new life in Christ.
This is a dire development in our churches today that sorely needs wholesale correction, but it is only one of the many factors leading to authoritarian abuse and psychological enslavement in church-groups.
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