How Do Churches End Up with Domineering Bullies for Pastors?

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We are, sadly, familiar with pastors having to leave the ministry because of sexual impropriety. These incidents seem to occur with such frequency as to be barely newsworthy to a watching world.

But another, equally sad trend has developed in recent years: Pastors having to leave for bullying.

While we should be concerned by this trend, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The apostle Peter expected this possibility back in the first century. Writing to pastors, he warned that they shouldn’t be “domineering over those in [their] charge” (1 Pet. 5:3). But while domineering pastors aren’t a new problem, they do seem to be more and more evident in the Western church today. In some cases bullying goes on for many years, either unrecognized or unchallenged. Which raises some important questions: What leadership virtue are we mistaking bullying for? Which trait is such a priority that we aren’t even aware when it is deployed in an ungodly, and biblically prohibited, way? In short, why do we end up with bullies as prominent pastors?

CEOs and Generals

My observation is that this process plays out in slightly different ways on either side of the Atlantic. It is common in American churches to borrow leadership wisdom from the business world. The pastor is the CEO. His role is to bring success, often and especially measured in numerical terms: The church needs to grow in membership and giving. In the UK, it’s slightly different. The church tends toward a military model. The pastor is the three-star general who directs everyone to do the right things.

There is obviously much to be learned from both successful CEOs and also great generals, but both models can quickly become toxic. When either becomes the primary model for Christian leadership, is it any wonder that domineering pastors result? The pastor-as-CEO approach might foster entrepreneurialism and risk-taking, but it easily becomes results-oriented. The pastor-as-general approach might foster perseverance and grit, but it easily becomes task-oriented. One produces swagger: Their word is law because they’re economically indispensable to the church. The other produces presumption: Orders must be followed because the general “knows” what is best for every person. In each case we either tolerate or fail to see traits of bullying, because ministry ends justify ministry means.

No matter how dazzling in the eyes of men, loveless pastors vanish into nothingness in the sight of God.

But this must not be. Paul warns us about even superlative gifting wielded without love: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).

Paul doesn’t simply say that loveless giftedness is “compromised” or “diminished in effectiveness.” He doesn’t even talk about the resulting ministry, but only the person exercising the gifts—and they are nothing. Giftedness at the expense of character is never finally effective. No matter how dazzling in the eyes of men, loveless pastors vanish into nothingness in the sight of God.

Problems with Domineering Leadership

So we need to look closely again at what Peter says:

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:2–3)

Here Peter draws three contrasts about the work and heart of an elder: there must be willingness, not compulsion; service, not greed; and he must lead by example, not by coercion.

To domineer is to bring something into compliance by force. In the context of pastoral ministry, it happens when the flock assents to things by compulsion rather than by the work of the Spirit in their hearts. It involves the use of intimidation, threats, or bullying. There may be some connection with the previous contrasts Peter has just made: being domineering is a form of greed (“shameful gain”)—greed for power over others. And just as Peter has already said that an elder must serve willingly (v. 2), so too those who follow must follow willingly.

To domineer is to misunderstand the role of the pastor. Yes, there is a real authority attached to the office. The writer to the Hebrews tells us to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17). But he continues, “For they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The first part guards against anticlericalism on the part of the congregation, the second against authoritarianism on the part of the leadership. The pastor is to serve joyfully, just as the flock is to follow willingly. Although the pastor is set over the flock (1 Thess. 5:12), that is not his only relationship to it. Peter reminded us that the flock is not only “under you” (implying the pastor’s primary identity is one of hierarchical superiority), but also “among you” (reminding the pastor that he’s not above the flock, but is in fact a member of it).

To domineer is to be worldly. Jesus said, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them” (Mark 10:42). That is the way of the world around us, but it shouldn’t be true of the local church—“it shall not be so among you,” (v. 43). There is much we can learn from secular insights into leadership, but we must also recognize there is to be a clear contrast between how leadership is exercised in the secular world and how it is exercised in the church. We can learn from CEOs and generals, but pastors are not meant to be CEOs and generals.

We can learn from CEOs and generals, but pastors are not meant to be CEOs and generals.

To domineer is to go against New Testament’s teaching on church governance. Christians will have differing convictions about precisely how churches should be structured, but one thing seems incontrovertible from the Scriptures: Churches are to be led by plural eldership. The New Testament nowhere speaks of a church elder in singular terms. The church may have a lead pastor, but there is to be a plurality of those who share leadership responsibility. No one person is meant to be in charge. Now, it is easy to have plural eldership in theory and yet still have a pastor who rules the roost. The key is whether there is clear accountability and correction, and whether that can be—and actually is—executed.

Leadership Catastrophe

Being domineering is catastrophic for a flock. It seems effective in the short term—it gets things done!—but it is disastrous in the long term. What Paul says to the Romans about dealing with those “weak in faith” is instructive here. Those weak in faith (Rom. 14:1) abstain from certain foods or observe certain days even though God doesn’t require them to. But if this has become a conscience issue, they shouldn’t be coerced into changing their practice: “Whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).

Paul is highlighting a broad principle that applies beyond the immediate discussion about food and special days. Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

If a believer has certain doctrinal views or behaves in certain ways simply because a domineering pastor has coerced them to, then those views or actions are not proceeding from faith. It is not the Spirit of Christ who has brought them about, but the forcefulness of a leader. This is catastrophic because the believer isn’t being led by the Lord, but by man. Believing even the right things is no good if it is for the wrong reason.

The flock is to be led, yes—by beauty of example, not force of personality.

Antidote to Domineering Leadership

The antidote to being domineering, then, is to lead by example rather than by coercion: “Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3).

The flock is to be led, yes, but not by force of personality. The flock is to be led by beauty of example. Being domineering is bad leadership; and the answer to bad leadership is not no leadership but the right kind of leadership.

Again, there is authority in the office of being an elder (Heb. 13:17). There will be times when a pastor needs to call for that office to be respected and honored. But the people should be obedient to their leaders not because they’re terrified of them, but because they’re inspired and encouraged by them. Ultimately, it should be because the leaders point them to Christ by their example and spur them to their own love and good deeds.

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