What Lording Over God’s Heritage Looks Like?
Bad leadership can be found in any organization or institution. It can be found in secular or religious groups. It can be found in families or corporations. Abuse of power and people is nothing new, but in Christian ministry it is especially hurtful and ugly.
When it comes to biblical leadership, God is pretty clear how He wants His people loved and led. He’s specific about not “lording over” His heritage —His people (1 Peter 5:3). The word “lord” refers to subjugating or exercising dominion over (like a little king in a little kingdom.) God is very strong in Jeremiah and Ezekiel 34 in warning and indicting pastors for misleading and mistreating His flock. Take a look:
Jeremiah 12:10 “10 Many pastors have destroyed my vineyard, they have trodden my portion under foot, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.”
Jeremiah 23:1 “1 Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD.”
Jeremiah 23:2 “2 Therefore thus saith the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the LORD.”
Ezekiel 34:4 “4 The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.”
Time for a spiritual gut check. Am I loving or Lording? Am I leading God’s people or driving God’s people? What does “Lording leadership” look like? Here are a few thoughts:
Lording leaders ask for sole authority or “veto power”—this non-biblical term is also a non-biblical principle. “Veto-power” is a simple, subtle grasp for total control over another’s decisions. The biblical principle is in Proverbs 15:22 “Without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counsellors they are established.” God never tells us to put our decisions in the hands of any one single human being. Another form of this is a leader who desires to be the “only counselor” (or who wants to control “who” the other counselors are) in a given situation or circumstance.
Again, God tells His people to have a multitude of counselors. That’s to protect them from being misled—or worse, exploited or leveraged toward a private agenda. More than once in the last 38 years of my Christian walk, an individual counselor/leader has been wrong about God’s will in my life. Thankfully, the multitude of counselors proved a safe policy in those instances.
Lording leaders over-emphasize their authority—the need to continually restate “who is in charge” is a fear tactic and a sign of insecurity. It’s poor leadership. I once had a pastor, for a brief time, who taught on pastoral authority nearly every service. Oddly, it worked. People feared him, but they also resented him. “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:3) Servant-hearted, secure leadership shouldn’t need to continually reassert itself.
Lording leaders usurp other authorities—often this leader will leap over scripture, over parental authority, over other God-appointed structures to achieve its ends. This can happen when counseling a young person without parental involvement. It can happen when counseling a married individual without the spouse’s involvement. One of the most dangerous things a spiritual leader can do is get out of place in the God-given chain of command—it brings tremendous vulnerability. Biblical leaders respect God’s order and God’s principles of authority. (See Ephesians chapters 5 and 6)
Lording leaders are angry or brutish—“brutish” is a Bible term meaning to “burn with anger toward.” Throwing a public temper-tantrum or venting in public is not preaching. It’s more like a verbal beating! God is pretty clear that this is not how He wants His people treated. Jeremiah 10:21 “For the pastors are become brutish, and have not sought the LORD: therefore they shall not prosper, and all their flocks shall be scattered.”
Does God’s Word reprove, rebuke, and exhort? Sure. Does it call forth passion and courage? Sure. Does it offer correction and instruction? Absolutely. But there’s a difference between passionate preaching and mere bullying or berating. A sheep can intuitively feel the difference between a blessing and a beating. After hearing 36 years of Bible preaching, before being a lead pastor, I know when I’ve been blessed and when I’ve been beaten.
Lording leaders emphasize law over grace—Jesus called it “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mark 7:7) Paul called it “strivings about the law” and said they were “unprofitable and vain.” (Titus 3:9) Again he called it “frustrating the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21) and attempting to be made “perfect by the flesh.” (Galatians 3:3) Simply, people do not grow by force. They grow by grace. That’s God’s formula.
Forcing my personal standards onto others doesn’t make them spiritual or mature. It merely makes them appear so externally, and causes them to compare themselves to others—measuring themselves by other Christians. It’s more man-driven than grace-driven. Grace, on the other hand, will genuinely produce, from the inside, what external conformity can never produce. Grace produces a changed heart that truly DESIRES to honor God—out of love, not obligation. Biblical leadership doesn’t merely coerce behavior and quick conformity, rather it cultivates growth with patience and reliance upon the Word of God and the Spirit of God. It places the impetus for change into the hands of God’s Spirit at work internally.
Lording leaders under-estimate the power of God’s Spirit—There is a line in compelling people to obey and honor God. I don’t know exactly where it is, but I know when I’ve crossed it. There’s a line where my role as pastor ends—it bumps up against individual will, accountability, and priesthood of the believer. At that line, my role doesn’t attempt to badger God’s sheep forward. At that line, the Holy Spirit says, “This is where I work, so back away.” My place is to preach and teach the Word, not control the will. My place is to lovingly lead, not to manipulate or coerce. The Holy Spirit does a MUCH better job at growing God’s people by God’s grace! Change that isn’t produced by God’s Spirit is not real or healthy change—and for that reason it isn’t sustainable or strengthening. Manufactured change is exhausting and discouraging, while spiritual growth is energizing and joyful! “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16)
Lording leaders lead by fear, shame, guilt, or man-induced pressure—There is more than one kind of fear. Fear (reverence, awe) of God is always biblical. Fear (phobia) of hell is a healthy fear for a lost soul. Fear (phobia) of mishandling a leadership role is a healthy fear (1 Timothy 5:20). But an internal culture of fear—fear of man—is not a healthy culture, especially in Christian environments. “The fear of man bringeth a snare…” (Proverbs 29:25) Yet, for many leaders, fear is the number one tool used to motivate people to do otherwise “good things.” God never gives us a spirit of fear. (2 Timothy 1:7) Therefore, those called to love and lead His people shouldn’t impose a spirit of fear or intimidation.
Lording leaders don’t want people to think—Some leaders over-reach and want to “do your thinking for you.” This is not biblical. God calls us to think—and gave each of us a mind and free-will to do so. Christian cultures that restrict thinking and shun questions are never healthy. Truth never fears investigation. Truth is always bolstered by deeper thinking. Thinking is never a threat to truth. So ask questions. Explore doubts. Dig deeper. As Jesus said to Andrew, “Come and see!” (John 1:39) Check it out! Do the research! Don’t be afraid of growing in the truth.
New Testament saints were applauded for searching the scriptures to “see whether those things were so. “…they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
Lording leaders want absolute authority and no accountability—God never intended for any leader to lead in a vacuum. Leaders who attempt to do this usually crush their “followers” and end up self-destructing. The painful stories are too numerous to count. Why do we fail to learn from this broken model? As a leader, I need other leaders—godly men around me—to provide wisdom, insight, accountability, prayer support, encouragement. Biblical leadership is not a solo thing, but a team thing.
Do your own research. See the plurality of leadership in both Old Testament Israel and New Testament Church—you’ll find plural words like elders, pastors, teachers. Every church had a team—a key leader (like James) surrounded by other pastors, teachers, leaders. God’s plan is healthy and still works. “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers…” (Acts 13:1) See also Acts 6.
Leader, do you desire to lead biblically? Do you respect God’s process and plan? Do you reverence His heritage—His people? Do you honor His blue-print for leadership? When His sheep are well-cared for, His Word is honored, and His name is glorified.
Lead, but don’t lord. They aren’t MY people or YOUR people, they are GOD’S people. And God’s people can only have one Lord.
Any Lord less than JESUS is always oppressive to God’s sheep.
Jeremiah 3:15 “15 And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.”