Vale of Tears

Fallout from Controlling Church



Fallout from Controlling Church

Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds.
And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do,
but encourage and warn each other,
especially now that the day of His coming back again is drawing near.

Hebrews 10:24-25

If the loss of a spouse is by far and away the sharpest grief most of us are likely to experience, loss of a job and moving house also rank high in the “Top Ten Stress Factors.” Neither should we underestimate how much grief can be caused by difficulties in the local church. Of all the many sufferings Paul experienced, none taxed him more than his concern for the fledgling churches.

Besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger?
2 Corinthians 11:28-29

Every caring pastor finds himself assailed by such concerns, but I want in this section to consider the hurt and grief that so many in the Body of Christ experience when they are pushed, or pulled into a mould that does not fit them, and where they feel misunderstood and even intimidated by their leaders. If this comes on top of other griefs that they are carrying, then they may indeed find the church a hard place in which to bleed.

As surely as some churches exalt grace to the point where people effectively do what they want, others create a culture in which constant control and manipulation press down to keep people in line. Born of insecurity on the one hand, and pride of ownership on the other, such attitudes foster legalistic traits and an “empire-building spirit” that severely curtail the freedom of the Holy Spirit.

The process by which churches and organisations become taken up with their own vision and concerns, rather than with the best interests of their members, is a subtle but serious one. When everyone and everything is sacrificed in order to fulfil the vision, the Lord often has to go to extreme lengths to rescue people from what may have become a hot house and a trap.

Such difficulties are equally as common “the other way round.” All too many Godly leaders find themselves constantly thwarted by the demands of certain controlling people in their congregation. Whether the fault lies primarily in the leaders or the led, all such tendencies need renouncing.20

Some years ago we spent a most unhappy period in a church where the leader’s domination of his flock caused us untold agony of heart. Week by week we would ask God to keep our hearts free from any judgmental attitude, but would emerge feeling far worse than when we had entered the building. We hated seeing people being whipped into line, and told in no uncertain terms where the door was if they didn’t agree with all that was happening.

Attitudes such as this are abusive, and right on the verge of being cultish. How can effective ministry develop within the Body of Christ when everything revolves around the leader’s whims and dictates?

The irony is that most of these leaders mean well. More often than not, their understanding of what Church ought to be sounds fine when talking to them on their own. It is when they are “up front” that a controlling spirit manifests itself, demanding such performance and compliance that it causes intense grief and distress to sensitive souls. It was certainly a relief to us when the Lord finally gave us the green light to move on!

Since when did “servant” leadership mean treating the congregation as slaves? God is looking for leaders who empower without controlling and who, like Jesus Himself, are full of both grace and truth (John 1;14,17).21

Where such love and grace are lacking, and control is present, leaders are prone to rein in promising works of the Spirit, precisely because too much is happening away from their immediate control.

In John’s second and third letters, the apostle passed on to specific friends some of the pearls of wisdom that God had given him.22 In the second letter (the only one in Scripture that is specifically addressed to a woman) John reiterates his call that we should love one another.

Since this is something that comes more easily to women than to men, this might seem self-evident, but John is using the opportunity to warn her not to allow her loving heart to blind her to error. If false teachers come to the fellowship, she must not allow them into her home, or do anything to encourage them. It is the clearest of warnings couched in the mildest of rebukes. With supreme skill, John focuses on how a woman’s greatest strength can become a potential weakness, allowing real error to creep in beneath the radar.

John’s third letter, equally as brief, also touches on the subject of hospitality: a vital subject in those days before Travel Lodges, when Christians were the only people willing to accommodate visiting preachers. John commends Gaius, a generous-hearted elder who had been supporting godly teachers. At the same time he warns against Diotrephes, a dictatorial church leader, who rejected the teachers John had sent to him. Full of his own self-importance, Diotrephes was so hot on “truth” (as he perceived it) that he was actually expelling any Church members who remained willing to receive John’s messengers.

If you have been on the receiving end of the sort of control and intimidation that occurs only too often when a man’s strength becomes his weakness, the example of Diotrophes will resonate loudly. Such coercion often develops when a group of leaders are so intent on building a “successful” church or organisation that they hold the reins of authority too tightly, unable to trust others, or to release them into their giftings.

If you sense that your leaders are more interested in increasing the size of their church than in developing healthy relationships, you will almost certainly be carrying a heavy load of grief in your spirit May you have the grace to handle this creatively, rather than allowing it to crush your spirit. More than we perhaps appreciate at the time, God often trains us by putting us alongside less perfect leaders because we learn so much from their poor example and wrong attitudes. Apart from anything else, it makes us determined to live in a different spirit ourselves!

If you come to the conclusion that you need to move away from an environment that has become too controlling, be prepared for squalls! Controlling bodies do not easily give up their prey, even going so far as to imply that people who leave are dooming themselves to fruitlessness. If God is calling you to move on, however, you cannot afford to allow any threat or intimidation to hold you back.

All such tensions are doubly unwelcome in that they have no business to be anywhere near the Church. The fact remains, however, that a significant number of people opt out of Church altogether each year because they are unable to differentiate between following the Lord Jesus Himself (whom they instinctively warm to) and knowing how to cope with the dictates of “leaders with attitude”.

Despite the many pressures and frustrations, the answer is not to stop meeting altogether. Church is still the place where God disciples His children, and from which He reaches out to the world. That is why it is so important to pray for God to raise up strong but sensitive leaders, and to work towards establishing structures that facilitate growth and godly experimentation. God wants us to enjoy being Church together!

Finally, I would like to conclude this section by returning to the different strengths that men and women bring to the Body of Christ. We are seriously incomplete without each other!

In all too many churches, however, the exclusively (or predominantly) male leadership has crushed the beauty and creativity the Lord has invested in women. If this is true for you, please don’t harden your hearts against us. Can you find it in your heart to forgive what we have done to you? If so, the Lord will hopefully find ways to develop all He has in mind for you to be and to become.

Reflect and Pray

Father, where I have have been coerced and confined –
please lift the dead weight of oppression off me.
Where false prophecies and controlling words
have been spoken over me –
remove their effects right now, I pray.

But where I have been guilty of controlling others,
set people free from what I have said and done,
and help me to affirm people better,
and to relate to them in more Christ-like ways.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.


20 John Paul Jackson reveals important spiritual dynamics that may be at work in such situations in Unmasking the Jezebel Spirit (Kingsway). I have posted a detailed review of this book.
21 You can read my publication on leadership Out Front here.
22 Following godly counsel can save us so much grief! You might find Dr James Richard’s book Stop the Pain (2001, Whittaker House) helpful in this respect.