"Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that a Christian leader, because of title or position, has moral authority over another Christian."
"The church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century is losing its power to transform lives because of an infatuation with spiritual and moral authority that pastors take over people," writes Wade Burleson in his recently published book Fraudulent Authority: Pastors Who Seek to Rule Over Others. Wade has been serving as lead pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Oklahoma for nearly 25 years.
In Chapter 1, Wade calls attention to a terrible problem that is plaguing a growing number of churches. He explains:
Authoritarianism in the church has become the biggest challenge Christians face in the 21st century. So-called "spiritual authority" in leaders who demand people submit to their will and ways in the name of God, is tearing at the fabric of legitimate New Covenant Christianity. Church leaders present themselves as the vicars of God, spokespersons for the Spirit of God, and the human embodiment of Divine truth. This fraudulent spiritual authority–the basis for Christian leaders "ruling over" other Christians–permeates much of the modern evangelical church structure.
Have you noticed how the "elder-led" model of church governance is being heavily promoted, especially in New Calvinist circles? 9Marks, which strongly advocates for elders, provides this warning on its website:
Biblical church leadership is important because without it, God’s people are like sheep without shepherds.
Really? As Wade Burleson aptly points out:
Governments have authority. Kings have authority. Presidents have authority. Leadership in these systems of governance comes from those sitting in positions of authority. The church of Jesus Christ was never designed to operate in this manner. Jesus explicitly taught in Matthew 23:8-11 that the only person who rules over Christian communities is the Lord. He is our Teacher. He is our Leader. He is our Instructor.
And what about the third person of the Trinity? Why do those who heavily promote 'elders' so rarely mention the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers?
When Dee and I launched this blog almost eight years ago, we began expressing our concern about church polity changes, specifically: a move away congregationally-led churches toward those that are elder-led. It's a trend that is growing by the day in Christendom. Someone who recently read Wade's book has expressed similar concerns in the following Amazon review:
I have been intrigued by how many churches there are that are abandoning congregational forms of government and placing all authority over church life into the hands of few individuals. This practice is particularly perplexing in two kinds of congregations: those that have been congregational (Baptist) in the past and those that are upstart non-denominational congregations. In the former, congregations are abandoning their historical roots for a system that empowers a very few. In the latter, the few that are empowered have no denominational over-sight to keep them in check. One of the great travesties of these systems is that frequently those in power require membership contracts of their congregations that place certain leaders in authority over others. Wade takes these issues on from a Biblical perspective and shows how we are all equal at the foot of the cross.
Wade Burleson goes on to explain that Christians emulate pagans when they turn their homes, churches, and organizations into 'structures of authority' where everyone is coerced into submitting to someone else's authority rather than to Jesus Christ. Instead of New Covenant believers being equals, Old Covenant forms of authority are imposed on 21st century Christians.
So what are some of indicators of Fraudulent Authority within Christian organizations and churches? Wade Burleson lists ten of them:
1). There is never any freedom to question leaders
2). Leaders often make claims of having special insights from God, insights that others are unable to possess.
3). Disagreement with leaders is deemed a sign of the devil's influence in one's life.
4). Events are designed to bring attention and praise to leaders rather than equipping others to do the work of the ministry.
5). Any concept of equality is immediately labeled rebellion or the result of a "liberal" demian of the Bible.
6). Authoritarian leaders are only comfortable around like-minded leaders; thus, there is an unofficial 'speaking tour' where only imperial, authoritarian leaders share the platform with each other.
7). The measure of success becomes the number of people who follow the leader ("It must be God! Looks at how many come to hear me speak!")
8). If a person leaves the community or church, the problem is always in the person who leaves, not the leadership.
9). Leaders who wrongly perceive themselves as those "with authority" insulate their lives by demanding absolute loyalty through giving large financial benefits to their closest 'advisors.'
10). The ultimate end of this kind of Christian leadership is always more; more money, more power, more followers, more publicity, more, more, more…
In Chapter 2: The Infatuation with Church Authority, Wade shares an email he received from someone who attends Stonebriar Community Church, where Chuck Swindoll serves as Teaching Pastor. The email stated:
I attend Chuck Swindoll's church in Frisco, Texas. This past Sunday he indicated that the biblical way to choose Elders is for them to be hand selected by the existing elder board (slowly, carefully, with many investigations and with God's leading). He specifically called out Southern Baptists indicating that the Bible does not sanction congregational voting for elders/deacons and specifically that women cannot be elders. What are your thoughts?
Make no mistake, this is a growing trend in Christendom. When my younger daughter was entering college in the fall of 2010, she asked my husband and me to go with her to check out a church that was close to campus. It was part of the Acts 29 Network. At the beginning of the worship service, the lead pastor stood before the congregation and named a couple of men whom he (and probably a couple other church leaders) had decided should serve as elders. There was no input from the members whatsoever! They were to trust their leaders.
One of the major points Wade Burleson made in response to the anonymous person who sent the email was this:
When a "group of men" hand select those who are to have so-called spiritual authority over the church, then positions of authority in the church are created-an action strictly forbidden by Christ…The #1 problem in the evangelical church revolves around the desire of evangelical men to grab hold of spiritual authority in the church. Jesus Christ said the pagans "bestow titles and give positions of authority," but He said to His followers "it shall not be so among you!" (Mark 10:43)
Wade further emphasized that Jesus Christ is the Head of His church, not these leaders who are mimicking Old Covenant Judaism in form and function.
In our upcoming posts, I plan to share what Wade has to say about a very important topic discussed here at TWW – Church Covenants.
Hint: Wade Burleson (who pastors a large Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma) shares a handful of reasons NOT to sign such a covenant!