Entirely foreign to every sentence of the Bible is the concept that spiritual leadership is a place of power. Though this concept is widely embraced, it is entirely contrary to Scripture. Sadly, it seems to me that a great many Christians and even a great many Christian spiritual leaders have in one way or another failed to understand this. In a typical Bible-preaching evangelical church in the United States, the pastor of the church is not uncommonly regarded by a healthy percentage of its members as the president and/or CEO of the church. Sadder still, this is often how pastors in local churches have come to view themselves.
The problem is, this idea does not come from the Bible. Pastors are not the presidents, CEOs, nor high-powered executives of the local church. Pastoral ministry is not a place of power. The pastoral office is not endowed with any special authority and pastors are not a unique caste of Christian. They are simple shepherds, appointed by the churches in which they serve to do exactly that; serve. Yes, to lead the church (1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12), but not by way of unilateral decisions and micro-management of every church activity and executive orders sent out from a board room table. Rather, pastors are called to lead the church by way of humble, relational, prayerful, sacrificial service that seeks the personal good and spiritual growth of each member, a growth that will be evidenced by an ever-increasing love for the true and only Head of the church – Jesus Christ himself.
Consider Peter’s call to pastors in 1 Peter 5; a key passage that outlines the responsibility of every pastor in every church and describes the kind of leadership a pastor should give to the congregation of Christians in which he serves.
Pastoring by Way of Non-Domineering Oversight
…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 Peter 5:2-3)
There are at least a few terms here that are worth our attention.
Shepherd the flock…
The image of faithful pastoral ministry given here is one of “shepherding.”
Shepherding sheep is about caring for, feeding, and protecting sheep. Leading them to pasture. Keeping them from wandering off into danger. Searching out those that have wondered off. Protecting them from wild animals and thieves. Guarding them from other sheep. This is what a shepherd does, and all at personal risk.
When this image is applied to pastoral ministry, it’s about feeding Christians with the Word of God through faithful teaching, preaching, counseling, encouragement, and correction. It’s pointing out errant ideas that would lead Christians astray from the truth. It’s going after Christians who have wandered off into sin; confronting them and seeking to restore them in love. Shepherding the church is about dealing directly with divisive people and keeping false teachers and false teaching out of the church. It’s praying for the well being of the members of the church. It’s working to promote and preserve unity in the body. And it’s doing these things all at personal risk.
The ultimate example of a true shepherd is one who lays down his life for the sheep – what Jesus embodied through and through. Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd” in John 10:11-14 and says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” A good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep. He does not use the sheep to prop himself up. He does not use them as a platform for his ministry. He lays his life down for theirs.
Whatever images the phrase “exercise oversight” brings to the modern pastoral mind; that of a high-powered executive who manages all the business of the church; that of an operations manager who hires and fires employees and moves staff people around at will; the phrase is included in 1 Peter 5:2 simply to flesh out the command to “shepherd the flock of God.”
“Exercising oversight” (episkopountes) in 1 Peter 5:2 modifies the command to “shepherd the flock” (poimanate). Shepherd is the main verb and exercising oversight modifies that main verb. Alexander Strauch explains:
“Shepherding is the figurative expression for governance, while overseeing is the literal term…to shepherd the flock requires oversight – the overall supervision and watchful care of the flock.” (Strauch, Biblical Eldership, p. 243)
Exercising oversight in the church is about watching over the overall health and direction of the church. It’s serving as a guardian of the church. It’s watching out for threats to the members of the church and for situations that require pastoral help and intervention (since not everything requires this help and intervention, after all). It’s doing these things like every good shepherd of sheep does. Exercising oversight in the church is not a distinct responsibility from shepherding., as if shepherding is the relational side of ministry and oversight is the business side of ministry; exercising oversight in the church is itself a pastoral function and pastoral responsibility.
That’s why Peter goes on to explain the way he does the required manner in which a pastor should exercise oversight in the church. There are three phrases that describe the way in which every pastor should exercise oversight in the church; “not under compulsion, but willingly,” “not for shameful gain, but eagerly,” and “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” It’s that third phrase I’d like to focus on here.
Not domineering over those in your charge…
To “domineer” is to rule over someone by overpowering them. Domineering over people is to influence them by gaining control over them. Throwing your weight around. Leading by force and by command. Forcing your agenda upon other people. Peter is calling all pastors to resist all urges to become autocratic leaders.
The problem Peter is telling pastors to avoid here is the problem of abusing our authority. He’s calling us to put to death the craving for control in the church and the longing for power over other people in the church. He commands pastors to refuse to lead in such a way that your word must be regarded as law among the members of the church.
It is worth remembering the hatred of God for domineering, autocratic leaders. Remember his word to the autocratic leaders of the Jews in Ezekiel 34.
The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them….Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds. (Ezekiel 34:4, 10)
To say it simply: Men who long to be in control of God’s people; men who love being in charge; men who crave positions of authority, have no place in pastoral ministry.
Pastor friends, do we get this? Do the members of the churches in which we serve believe that we get this?
Surely you’re not even remotely close to being a domineering pastor, right? How would you know?
How do you know if you are a domineering pastor?
Here are fifteen characteristics of a potentially domineering pastor:
- He does not often delegate ministry tasks to others, because he sees himself as the only one who will do things correctly.
- He micro-manages the ministries of others.
- He fails to carefully distinguish between his opinions (which do not possess divine authority) and God’s Word (which does). All of his counsel is communicated as if it is divinely authoritative.
- He is unwilling to have an idea that he feels strongly about voted down by others.
- He seldom (if ever) asks for honest criticism and input from other people in his church. (And the words “in his church” are key.)
- His fellow leaders and church members are fearful to offer him correction.
- People are not eager and joyful about serving with him.
- His fellow elders do not feel free or welcome to disagree with him.
- He corrects people harshly and not gently or patiently.
- The people around him feel great pressure to please and agree with him.
- The people around him feel great pressure to conceal his flaws and sins.
- He can get away with obvious sins without any challenge or correction.
- He does not have any meaningful redemptive relationships in the church.
- He often inserts his opinion into matters of relatively little importance.
- He frequently overrules the decisions of other ministry leaders.
I am sure there are other characteristics of domineering pastors that I’ve overlooked here. Feel free to offer them below to help round this list out.
It may be worth taking this list of characteristics and asking a handful of people in the church if they see any of these characteristics in you. It is far better to be a domineering pastor and come to realize it before you see Jesus eyeball to eyeball, than to be a domineering pastor and continue uninterrupted all the way to the Final Day. Better to repent now, than to be exposed against your will later.
Reflections & Reminders for All Pastors
I’d venture to say that every pastor has various sinful tendencies within himself that if left unchecked, could bear the fruit of sinful domineering down the road. That being the case, we would do well to remember a few things, lest that ugly fruit begin to grow on the branches of our ministries.
- Remember that you are not the head of the church.
There is only one “chief Shepherd” of the church, and it is not you, brother. You know who it is. It’s the Lord Jesus himself.
You are not the president of the church, nor the CEO of the church, nor the operations manager of the church (even if you are technically the operations manager of the church). You are not the boss of the church. You are not the king of the church. You are not the head of the church. Jesus is. And you’re not him.
Your church isn’t your church. It’s his church. It’s not commissioned to make disciples of you; it’s commissioned to make disciples of him. It’s not called to obey your word; it’s called to obey his word. How easily we forget this stuff. But let’s not forget this stuff. Ever. It is the difference between growing a church and growing a cult.
- Remember that you are a sheep yourself.
You need shepherding just as much as anyone else in the church. You baaa just as loud as all the members of your church. This is the vast difference between actual shepherding and spiritual shepherding. An actual shepherd is not a sheep. He is a creature that far surpasses sheep in worth and in dignity. That is not the case in the church. Spiritual shepherding is carried out by spiritual sheep. Jesus is the only pastor who surpasses the church in worth and dignity, and he voluntarily became one of us to represent us on the Cross. It shouldn’t be that hard for us then, to relate to the flock that is among us.
- Remember that you will give an account for how you shepherded God’s flock.
Peter makes this point in 1 Peter 5:4, reminding us that Jesus is coming back for his bride. The writer of Hebrews reminds us similarly that on the final day we are going to give an account for how we cared for his people (Hebrews 13:17). That should send a shiver down our spine from time to time. This is no game. If we don’t care for the church with a gentle, patient hand; Jesus will not be very gentle with us on the day he returns to the world. Pondering that with all seriousness has a way of making the pastor’s heart softer toward the church.
- Remember that the flock is not there to serve you. You are there to serve the flock.
Jesus reminds us of this in a general way in Mark 10:42-45, where he says,
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I appreciate what author Craig Hamilton says in his excellent book (so far, though I’m not even halfway through it yet) Wisdom in Leadership. In the chapter “Servanthood is greatness” he writes,
“This is the core of Christian leadership in practice. You want to be a disciple of Jesus? That’s a great thing. You want to be a leader? Good. You want to be a great leader? You want to be the greatest? That’s good too. Be a servant. Be the greatest servant. Serve everyone you can. Everyone you meet. Be all about others; be in it for others. Do everything you can to grow and develop others. Servanthood is the mark of the Christian leader.” (p. 53)
Amen to that.
In summary then, don’t be a domineering jerk of a pastor. Serve the church. Love the church. Get good at pointing away from yourself and pointing straight to Christ in all that you do. Remember, you are not the Lord of the church; Jesus is. The church is not your church; it’s his. If you are a pastor, take your ques less and less from the leadership models set by business executives and military leaders and organizational gurus, and instead study the example of Christ, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That’s the way to avoid being a non-domineering pastor.