This post originally appeared April 17, 2013 on the “Enjoying God” blog by Pastor Sam Storms. Pastor Storms is a fellow Dallas Seminary grad, taught at Wheaton College, and currently is the Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. I find this post the clearest treatment of pastoral domineering that I have read. Check out the original post here. Pastor Storms is unlikely to remember, but I met him once at Wheaton College at my sister’s graduation. I am glad that my friend Lisa Robinson over at Theo Thoughts made me aware of this post.
In his instructions to Elders/Pastors, Peter insists that they must not lead for love of power, which is to say they must not “domineer” those in their charge but rather be “examples” to them (v. 3b).
How might a pastor or elder “domineer” his flock? In other words, what makes a man a pastoral bully? Here are some ways.
A man can “domineer” or “lord it over” his flock by intimidating them into doing what he wants done by holding over their heads the prospect of loss of stature and position in the church.
A pastor domineers whenever he threatens them with stern warnings of the discipline and judgment of God, even though there is no biblical basis for doing so.
A pastor domineers whenever he threatens them with public exposure of their sin should they not conform to his will and knuckle under to his plans.
A pastor domineers whenever he uses the sheer force of his personality to overwhelm others and coerce their submission.
A pastor domineers whenever he uses slick verbiage or eloquence to humiliate people into feeling ignorant or less competent than they really are.
A pastor domineers whenever he presents himself as super-spiritual (his views came about only as the result of extensive prayer and fasting and seeking God. How could anyone then possibly disagree with him?).
A pastor domineers whenever he exploits the natural tendency people have to elevate their spiritual leaders above the average Christian. That is to say, many Christians mistakenly think that a pastor is closer to God and more in tune with the divine will. The pastor often takes advantage of this false belief to expand his power and influence.
A pastor domineers whenever he gains a following and support against all dissenters by guaranteeing those who stand with him that they will gain from it, either by being brought into his inner circle or by some form of promotion.
A pastor domineers by widening the alleged gap between “clergy” and “laity.” In other words, he reinforces in them the false belief that he has a degree of access to God which they don’t.
Related to the former is the way some pastors will make it appear that they hold sway or power over the extent to which average lay people can experience God’s grace. He presents himself in subtle (not overt) ways as the mediator between the grace of God and the average believer. In this way he can secure their loyalty for his agenda.
He domineers by building into people a greater loyalty to himself than to God. Or he makes it appear that not to support him is to work at cross purposes with God.
He domineers by teaching that he has a gift that enables him to understand Scripture in a way they cannot. They are led to believe they cannot trust their own interpretive conclusions and must yield at all times to his.
He domineers by short circuiting due process, by shutting down dialogue and discussion prematurely, by not giving all concerned an opportunity to voice their opinion.
He domineers by establishing an inviolable barrier between himself and the sheep. He either surrounds himself with staff who insulate him from contact with the people or withdraws from the daily affairs of the church in such a way that he is unavailable and unreachable.
Related to the above is the practice of some in creating a governmental structure in which the senior pastor is accountable to no one, or if he is accountable it is only to a small group of very close friends and fellow elders who stand to profit personally from his tenure as pastor.
He domineers by viewing the people as simply a means to the achieving of his own personal ends. Ministry is reduced to exploitation. The people exist to “serve his vision” rather than he and all the people together existing to serve the vision of the entire church.
He domineers by making people feel unsafe and insecure should they desire to voice an objection to his proposals and policies.
He domineers by convincing them, ever so subtly, that their spiritual welfare is dependent on his will. To cross him is to cross God!
He domineers by misinterpreting and misapplying to himself the OT command: “Don’t touch God’s anointed.”
He domineers by building a culture of legalism rather than one of grace. People are thus motivated to embrace his authority and bow to his will based on extra biblical rules that supposedly are the criteria for true spirituality.
He domineers by arguing or acting as if his movements and decisions are ultimately determinative of the spiritual welfare of others (cf. 2 Cor. 1:23-25).
He domineers when he leads people to believe that their faith hinges (i.e., rises or falls) upon his life and decisions.
He domineers when he uses people as a means to his own satisfaction rather than enabling them to experience satisfaction in Christ alone.
My experience in 2 verbally abusive churches: The first I attended
for over 2 decades. I respected my pastor even when he started
acting strange by pointing fingers at me during sermons, obviously
trying to publicly humiliate me. It happened so much that over time I
knew I was not imagining it. Others saw it too, although everyone
was afraid to say anything….after all, he’s the pastor. I still don’t know
what I did to offend him…I came from another denomination, but after
being born again started attending that church. All I wanted to do was
grow spiritually, but instead of being taught how to live in victory, I was
always having to “dodge a bullet”, sitting further back so
he wouldn’t see me and humiliate me again in each service. I’m not
kidding, nor am I exaggerating. I only wish I was. After I left (God said
to “wipe the dust off my feet” and go) I looked for another fellowship.
I wanted a fresh start in a local church so I went to the next one.
The pastor, after 3 months, started doing the same thing as the
last one. This man was abusive. I had heard some things over the years
but I always need to see things for myself. This pastor had a
“word” for someone in the congregation, every Wed. night service. The
trouble is it was always the same people over and over again. They
were usually on staff or from prominent families in the church. (Probably
big givers)…..sometimes I thought those words were to keep them in
the church, depending on him, so they would not leave.) I believe in
legitimate prophesy, but I’m careful to discern when it’s truly from
God or not.
He liked to brag about how anyone of any color
was welcome through the doors of “his” church. He loved publicly
humiliating people as it gave (gives) him a sense of superiority over
others. If you didn’t want to be shamed, then do what he says.
After prayer I felt that the first pastor
got to him and told the same lies to him about me. Instead of the second
pastor coming to me and confronting me privately, he chose to believe
my former pastor and “discipline” me publicly without my prior knowledge
to any charges he had against me. I left shortly thereafter, as when I
went to talk with him biblically, one on one, he blew me off and would not
give me 5 minutes of his time. I guess I’m not “important” enough, even
though Jesus gave His life for me and shed His blood for me also. When I
emailed him instead with my concerns, his only reply was “Touch
not God’s anointed”…what they fail to realize is that David said that
about Saul; Saul did not say that about himself. And it was a physical
touch David was referring to. It did not mean that a leader is above
reproach. That’s how catholics feel about the pope/that he’s
This game that many in leadership are playing will some day come to
an end. Yes, God is healing me. I forgive both pastors.
But when someone says forgive and FORGET I have a hard
time with that. Forgetting is what
makes new victims of spiritual abuse. We keep forgetting and moving on
while leaving new people behind to deal with future abuse from these
same leaders. Thank God for those that deal with the problem rather than
sweep it under the rug. One thing I wish had happened..
that I would have listened to what others before me had said; I wish
I had paid more attention to the “red flags” I had in my spirit.
I know it was the Holy Spirit wanting to warn me. Though I have
discernment I wanted to find a new fellowship almost at any cost.
If several people tell you a church is abusive don’t think it’s honorable to
refuse to believe it or to blame the victim. It might be God trying to warn you.
Your blog was a glass of cool water after a long illness.
Sara Sluberski, make that a glass of cool water to drink and to wash the fog away from my eyes 🙂 Many of the points describe–with chilling accuracy–the type of behaviors and attitudes a former female leader/employer exhibited towards me…Baffling, bewildering, toxic behaviors….Narcissistic gasliighting, I’ve learned…
Thankful to the Lord that I have a relatively healthy support system of non-toxic people who believed in me and helped me get out before I suffered irreparable damage. I’d call this article great, except that the idealist in me would rather that these things wern’t real in the first place… Thanks, Steve.
I appreciate this post- and your blog. Coming to terms with the fact that you might be part of a cult- and for so many years- is not easy. Thank you for sharing.