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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
A nervous church member has just been asked to step into the pastor's office after church. He knows what the pastor wants to talk about. Recently, he privately expressed reservations about the pastor's plan to sell the church building and relocate the congregation to another community.
As they sit down, the pastor launches right into his subject. He declares that this church member, by questioning his plans, has been guilty of "challenging the authority of the pastor," and is "destroying the ministry of the church." For hours, he lashes into the culprit with angry, embittered, emotional accusations, epithets and putdowns. In conclusion, the member is admonished that he needs to demonstrate his repentance by doing whatever his preacher tells him to do.
The dazed church member mutters some weak apologies, staggers out and heads home, tail dragging behind his legs, while the pastor rubs his hands together in satisfaction - another recalcitrant follower has been brought under control. But in the weeks to come, his smug triumph turns to dismay and consternation as he realizes that the whipped church member has not returned to services, and will never return. He has joined a mass exodus of long-time members who have left that church, sending attendance and offerings down to dangerously low levels.
That church and its members have become casualties of the doctrine known among some Baptists as "preacher rule" - the notion that the pastor is to be an all-powerful. dictator over the members, who are bound to follow and obey him fully in all matters of faith and practice, blindly and without question. Is this idea scriptural?
The favorite proof-texts for preacher rule are Hebrews 13:7 and 13:17, which are instructions to church members, that they should obey those who rule over them. Many commentators regard 13:7 as an exhortation to emulate the faith of Christian leaders who have died and "ended their conversation," while 13:17 clearly refer to living spiritual leaders.
The teaching of Hebrews 13:17 must be taken in context with all that the New Testament teaches on the subject. First, it is addressed to church member, and does not confer on pastors a divine right to be a dictator or a bully. In Matthew 20:25-27. Mark 10:42-44. Luke 22:25-26 and 1 Peter 5:3, pastors are specifically for-bidden to exercise lordship over their flocks, like worldly leaders do. The exhortation of Hebrews 13:17 is given with the understanding that those who receive it will be under a proper New Testament ministry of servanthood and example-setting, not a worldly, tyrannical. Hitler-type dictator.
Second, most Baptists will agree that church members are not under any obligation to submit to a pastor who is a false teacher of any kind. If we are not obligated to obey a liberal or Roman Catholic priest, surely we are not bound to abject servitude to a pastor using the Baptist label whose doctrine or practice has veered from the New Testament standards, including the command that preachers should not lord it over the flock.
Third, the Apostle Paul advised his converts not to submit themselves to an abusive ministry, 2 Corinthians 11:19-20. If the Corinthians were not expected to submit themselves to pastors who would bring them into bondage, devour their substance, exalt themselves and beat up on their followers, why should any Baptist church member today be expected to knuckle under to such tactics?
Fourth, if the pastor establishes himself as an unquestioned dictator and can say "I am the church" just as French King Louis XIV said "I am the state," then the New Testament principle of congregational rule is nullified.
If the pastor’s will is to be taken as law and no church member can dare question it, then the cherished Baptist principle of congregational rule becomes a dead letter, and one has to wonder why God made provision for it In the New Testament, if the pastor is meant to decide everything anyway.
Today's Bible-thumping bullies and tin-horn tyrants in the pulpit claim more authority for themselves than the Apostles did. In doctrinal matters, the Apostles never said, "You must accept whatever I teach, no matter what, without question, based on my personal authority, because I say so." Paul specifically renounced such grandeur of authority in Galatians 1:8, and we are not told that he ever rebuked the Bereans who searched the scriptures to see if what Paul said was so. Acts 17:11.
What about the claim that a pastor must be obeyed in all his directives over the believer's lifestyle and personal actions? Peter disclaimed any authority over his members' finances and property. Acts 6:4. In 1 Corinthians 16:12, we find that Paul asked Apollos to go to Corinth on a special mission, and that Apollos refused he just didn't feel like going. Apollos was not rebuked by Paul, but he would have been bitterly denounced as a miserable rebel in some churches today which have embraced the lordship model of leadership which Jesus condemned. (If Jesus is the Lord and head of each true church, Ephesians 5:23, then who is in charge of a church where the pastor is barking commands and demanding absolute obedience? Has not that pastor usurped the Lordship of Christ?)
Preacher rule is a dangerous heresy that should be rebuked, reproved and opposed whenever it rears up its ugly head within Baptist ranks. Most of the readers of this article will be personally aware of one or several churches that have been wrecked by pastors who attempted to establish a coercive, abusive dictatorship over their congregations. The dictatorial preacher is a self-centered man who caters to his worldly desires under the guise of true religion and feeds his own ego instead of his flock, thus negating by his way of life the central Christian principle of self-denial, Luke 9:23.
An even greater tragedy takes place on the foreign mission field, where some American missionaries, ostensibly sent to attract converts to true New Testament Christianity, instead drive nationals away from the truth and the true church by their unscriptural, domineering methods. Such false shepherds end up scattering the flocks that they were sent to gather at such great expense, and bring down reproach upon all Americans while sowing the seeds of bitterness against the Christian religion of which they have given such a false representation.
Some preachers would like to follow Elijah and Elisha as role models, calling down fire or wild bears to destroy those who rub them the wrong way, but we no longer live in the theocracy of the Old Testament prophets. We are now in an age where believers live under Christian liberty and where all citizens enjoy religious freedom, including the freedom to avoid preachers and religions that make themselves obnoxious. We would do much better to emulate the example of Christ and His Apostles, who while on earth dealt gently and tenderly with their followers, leading them by example rather than by harangue and military-style commands.
Some charismatic churches have earned for themselves a bad press by their version of divine-right-of-pastors, which they call "shepherding" or "discipleship." It is time for Baptists to speak up and renounce such unspiritual and anti-scriptural tactics, and to let it be known that we respect the freedom, individuality and Christian liberty of those who affiliate with our churches.