When I was in a cult I believed that my pastor’s claims to authority obligated me to obey him. I accepted what he said uncritically. I thought he spoke for God.
Today, I understand that when I blindly obey someone who claims to have spiritual authority I put myself at risk of spiritual abuse.
Evangelicals can avoid spiritual abuse if leaders recognize their role as servants of the truth and if followers recognize their own responsibility to cultivate critical thinking.
Spiritual authority requires three things to function in a healthy manner: truth, trustworthiness, and accountability. Each of these topics deserves its own future post. For now, this summary will suffice.
1.) Healthy Spiritual Authority Requires Truth
In order for someone to claim spiritual authority they must base that claim on veracious authority, i.e., reality according to the true revelation of God.
For example, a prophet who claimed to speak for God in the Old Testament was required to prove his authority by whether or not what he prophesied came true. If it did not, the people were not to listen to him or be afraid of him (Deut. 18:20-22). It was not enough for a prophet to claim that he was a prophet and therefore people should follow him. Nor could he threaten people with violence in order to make them follow him. His only sign of authority was veracity: Did his words come true, or didn’t they?
Veracious authority cannot coerce others to follow it. Bernard Ramm, former dean of the theology school at Baylor, notes that:
“Veracious authority may not use physical force, as that would be self-defeating. Its force is an ultimatum: ‘Follow these principles and you will discover truth; disregard them and you will wander in the labyrinth of error.’”
The New Testament strongly emphasizes truth as a qualification for spiritual leaders (cf. Acts 20:28-31; 1 Tim 3:9; 2 Tim 4:2-4; Titus 1:9, 10, 14). If someone claims to have spiritual authority but does not speak the truth of God according to God’s revelation—regardless of what position that person may hold in a church or how much punishment they threaten—he or she is making an illegitimate claim.
This requires critical thinking from God’s people. Says Bernard Ramm, “God’s revelation is a revelation of Truth, and therefore the authority of God can never call for the stultification of the intelligence.”
Indeed, mindless obedience by followers can lead to an increased susceptibility to spiritual abuse. Ramm asks:
“How can we avoid the tragedy of mistaking the voice of man for the voice of God? For millennia human voices have been raised that have claimed to speak with the authority of God. What is merely a human voice must not deceive us. We must be most demanding in our process of differentiating the voice of God from the voice of man.”
2.) Healthy Spiritual Authority Requires Trustworthiness
The second aspect of spiritual authority is trustworthiness. Spiritual leaders are not born with authority, nor can they appoint themselves to a position of authority, nor can they threaten to punish people who don’t recognize their authority. Instead, they must qualify to be spiritual leaders through trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is proven by competence and godly character.
Competence is the first component of trustworthiness.
When Paul lists qualifications for positions of spiritual leadership in the church, he includes several areas of demonstrated competence. He says that elders must be worthy of respect. They also must be people who manage their own households well, keeping their children under control with all dignity, for “if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim. 3:5). He adds that spiritual leaders should also have a good reputation with people outside the church; they must be tested prior to attaining leadership; and they must be faithful in all things (1 Tim. 3:7, 10-12). In the book of Titus, Paul adds that spiritual leaders must demonstrate competence to teach God’s truth (Titus 1:9).
Spiritual authorities, according to these passages, must demonstrate competence in social, religious, economic, and familial spheres of life.
Character is the second component of trustworthiness.
Just as a spiritual leader’s competence in life should be obvious to the people around him or her, so too should their godly character be evident to people in different spheres of their life.
Paul lists a number of godly character traits as qualifications for spiritual leaders in the church. These traits are not optional; they are the standard. Traits required of a person in order to qualify as a spiritual leader include being above reproach, monogamous, temperate, prudent, hospitable, sober, gentle, peaceable, not pugnacious, not greedy, mature in the faith, humble, dignified, truthful (1 Timothy 3:2-8); not self-willed, not quick-tempered, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled (Titus 1:6-9); eager to serve voluntarily and not under compulsion, not lording it over the flock entrusted to their care, and clothed with humility (1 Peter 5:2-5). By demonstrating these godly characteristics, spiritual leaders become examples for those who follow them (1 Peter 5:3; Heb. 13:7).
Followers must evaluate a person who claims to have spiritual authority by these New Testament qualifications—not just in a formal setting such as an ordination meeting, but on an ongoing basis as he or she lives life within a church community.
While no leader can ever achieve perfection, the overall trend of a Spirit-filled authority’s life over the long term should be increasing wisdom (skill in living, i.e., competence) and spiritual fruit (godly character).
3.) Healthy Spiritual Authority Requires Accountability
Spiritual authorities are accountable both to God and to people.
My former pastor used to say that only God could call a pastor to account. Ironically, the very passage he used to justify that statement–Hebrews 13:17–is also the key passage for the concept of accountability by spiritual leaders. It says in part, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account” (italics added).
To whom must they give account? From other New Testament passages (2 Cor 5:10; James 3:1; 1 Cor 4:2; 1 Pet 5:4), it is clear that spiritual authorities must give account both to God and to fellow peer-leaders. And because God provides lists of qualifications for spiritual leaders (see scriptures in previous sections on truth and trustworthiness), followers also must evaluate their leaders to see if they have met these qualifications.
There are no spiritual authorities in the New Testament who sit alone at the top of an organizational chart.
The clearest New Testament model for ecclesiastical governance is a plurality of elders and deacons. Alexander Strauch devotes an entire chapter to the biblical requirement for a plurality of elders in his excellent book Biblical Eldership. New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace says that the “consistent pattern in the New Testament is that every church had several elders,” citing, among other passages, Acts 11:30; 15:2, 4; 16:4; 20:17, 28; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet 5:1-2, and especially Acts 14:23 where Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders in every church.”
The reason for a plurality of elders in the church is to provide mutual accountability among the leaders in order to prevent a single leader from going astray. Even the apostles were accountable to other apostles, as is evident when Paul confronted Peter (Gal 2:11-14) and when Paul submitted his teaching ministry to the scrutiny of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (Gal 2:-1-2).
Robert Greenleaf, author of the book Servant Leadership, says:
“To be a lone chief atop a pyramid is abnormal and corrupting. None of us are perfect by ourselves, and all of us need the help and correcting influence of close colleagues. When someone is moved atop a pyramid, that person no longer has colleagues, only subordinates. Even the frankest and bravest of subordinates do not talk with their boss in the same way that they talk with colleagues who are equals, and normal communication patterns become warped.”
Necessity of Critical Thinking
Critical thinking guards a Christian from submitting to false spiritual authorities.
The Bible has much to say about exercising discernment, critical thinking, and being on guard against false teaching from false authorities.
In the book of Acts, Paul commends the Berean believers because they searched the scriptures diligently to see if what he taught them was true (Acts 17:11). In Galatians, Paul warns the Galatian believers to hold fast to the revealed gospel and not to follow deceivers or anyone who preaches a different gospel (Gal 1:6-9). Indeed, the Galatian believers were not even to follow Paul himself if his message did not correspond to the truth of God.
Elsewhere, Paul warns against false teachers, false shepherds, false apostles, false prophets, and even false Christs (2 Tim 3:1-5; 2 Thess 2:1-12; Acts 20:28-32). He also tells believers to be on their guard, to be alert, to stand fast in the truth, and to have a mind cleared for action (Col 2:8-23; Eph 6:10-17).
Paul’s commands for alertness and clear-mindedness contrast with the misunderstanding in some churches that critical thinking equates to rebellion. Ronald Enroth says:
“When the mind and the values of knowledge and understanding are rejected, downplayed, and scorned as being ‘rebellious,’ the mind becomes subverted and the will is subdued into passivity, producing a dangerous phenomenon many refer to as ‘mind control.’”
Ten Steps toward Critical Thinking
In my former church, we embraced a counterfeit of critical thinking. Our pastor encouraged us to discern and evaluate all things. He even allowed us to correct certain factual errors he sometimes made when quoting scripture. What he refused to tolerate was any broad questioning of his teaching or character. He was God’s man, he insisted, appointed and gifted by the Lord to bring us into the light.
Consequently, we dared voice no contradictions to our pastor and our critical thinking focused outward at the world rather than inward at our own church. We became judgmental and condemning of outsiders even as we ignored serious discrepancies between our pastor’s behavior and biblical qualifications for spiritual authority.
How can a Christian develop critical thinking skills? Here are ten steps I wish I had followed:
- Pray for the Spirit of wisdom (James 1:5-8).
- Intentionally encounter diverse people and perspectives. Travel. Listen to podcasts from other preachers and teachers. Cultivate friends outside of your church circle.
- Zondervan’s Counterpoint series is an excellent way to study thorny theological matters. Scholars from each major position present their case on a particular topic, and the other scholars interact with those essays.
- Learn to dialogue instead of shutting down at the first hint of difference.
- Educate yourself about the world at large. Read foreign English newspapers. Subscribe to a blog (or ten). Think outside the box.
- Learning to think critically is like training for an athletic event. Find “trainers” who will stretch you, tone you, and give you a good workout. Ravi Zacharias always helps me to think more clearly (find his website here).
- Idolize no man or woman. Respect and admire, but put no one on a pedestal except for God.
- Do theology in community. Yes, discuss spiritual things in your own local church, but also engage with the Church universal, and the historical church. There are (and have been) wise Christians throughout the world who have thought well about God, other people, and themselves.
- Embrace mystery and give grace for “grayness” in disputable matters. Not every theological issue is critical for salvation. Really. As one of my seminary professors says, heaven will be like torn paper: it tears unevenly. We will be surprised at some of the people who made it in…and even more surprised by who’s missing.
- Relax. Enjoy being part of the Body of Christ and humble yourself to receive from other people, even people outside your church or denomination. If Solomon’s temple couldn’t hold all of the presence of God, neither can your little church.
Cultivating critical thinking will help Christians evaluate spiritual leaders honestly and will go a long way to preventing spiritual abuse by unqualified leaders.