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Religious Bullies and How to Avoid Them (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10)

As I've said many times, 2 Corinthians is a manual for Christian leadership. Paul would probably not have expressed it in precisely those terms, but much of his effort in this letter is designed to identify for the Corinthians the true nature of spiritual, God-given authority as over against the self-aggrandizing agenda of those who passed themselves off as "apostles" of Christ.

The Corinthians had been duped. They had been deceived by a band of intruders whose ultimate aim was self-promotion that often came at the expense of the very people they claimed to lead and serve. It was both confusing and heartbreaking for Paul that these whom he had fathered in the faith had now given their loyalty to men whose "leadership" was both overbearing and abusive.

You may recall the controversy surrounding George Barna's book, Revolution, and the three-part review of it that I wrote when it first appeared (see www.samstorms.com, Book Reviews). Those whom Barna called revolutionaries, typically people who had abandoned involvement in a local church, cited as several of the principal reasons their bad experience with pastoral one-upmanship, legalism, hierarchical structures that quenched the Spirit, the exploitation of authority to promote one's personal agenda, and just about every conceivable abuse and extreme in ministry that one can conceive.

Needless to say, I am as opposed to unbiblical perversions of pastoral authority as anyone. Nowhere, and in no way, would I ever endorse "church" life that fosters, encourages, or tolerates this sort of sinful behavior. But this does not mean that all spiritual authority is to be denied. The abuse of authority is never a legitimate justification for its abolition.

One need only read 1 Peter 5:1ff. to see the quality of character and leadership required of those who exercise pastoral authority. "Domineering over those" in their charge is explicitly condemned (v. 3). All of us are familiar (some, all too painfully) with instances of self-serving, religious bullies who exploit their title, pulpit, and ordination to promote their personal agendas and enhance their self-esteem.

As I wrote in my review of Barna's book, no matter how often or egregious the neglect of pastoral responsibility and authority may be, the inspired and infallible instruction of the New Testament remains unchanged: local churches are to be led by Elders who have been raised up by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28) and have fulfilled the qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. By all means strive and pray and aim for a humble, holy, Christ-exalting, sheep-serving leadership, but strive! I see not a syllable of biblical justification for abandoning either the principle of pastoral authority or the local church itself by appealing to some (or even many) who have abused it.

That being said, what ought genuine, Christ-given authority to look like? What is its aim? What should it always avoid? Again, Paul's words must be given their due:

"For even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be ashamed" (v. 8).

The time when the Lord "gave" Paul this authority was undoubtedly at his conversion and calling into the apostolate. But we are less concerned with the "when" than the "what", or perhaps better still, the "why".

Paul's purpose is beneficent. His authority has not been given to destroy others or to promote himself or his own agenda or to insulate his life from the demanding work of ministry or to increase his financial welfare or to insure physical comforts.

Of course, Paul isn't saying that he lacks the authority to discipline the unrepentant or that he would never speak words of judgment that are initially painful. As Carson has noted, "He is not restricting himself to a polite power-of-positive-thinking approach, committed above all to offending no one, not even the devil himself. Rather, he is insisting that the central purpose of the authority entrusted to him is the edification (the building up) of God's people" (67).

There are instances where Paul will destroy or tear down, as he's already noted in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 (where the same verb is used). Furthermore, sometimes one must dismantle a weak and shaky building to construct in its place one that will withstand the winds and waves of change and spiritual danger. "As in literal construction work," notes Harris, "‘demolition' may sometimes be a necessary prelude to the actual building process" (694). That Paul anticipated this may be required is evident from 2 Corinthians 13:10 where he warns them that, unless they respond to his admonitions, he may be compelled to take serious disciplinary action.

Yet, even in such a severe case as the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul instructed the church "to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh" (1 Cor. 5:5a), the ultimate aim of pastoral discipline was "so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (v. 5b; cf. Jer. 1:10; 24:6).

So what does Paul mean when he defines the aim of authentic authority as "building up"? I can't imagine a more important issue for the church today, especially given the proliferation of those claiming to be apostles [not to suggest that the office of Apostle cannot exist in any form today]. I have in mind those who are largely self-appointed, rather than anointed, who insert themselves into and over the lives of both local churches and individual Christians. They typically insist that not to submit to their directives is spiritual rebellion, or at least a sign of profound immaturity.

All too often the result is tragic, in which the voice of godly believers is muted and their contribution to the life of the body is suppressed. The "destruction" which Paul mentions in v. 8 may be of the individual Christian. They are shamed for not yielding to such "apostolic" oversight. They are marginalized from any significant involvement in the life of the church. Their growth is stunted and their zeal is quenched. And private, often routine decisions are dictated to them by "shepherds" who clearly overstep their bounds.

Or in many cases the destruction is more corporate in nature. Divisions, schisms, and religious cliques come to dominate the church scene. Elitism is common, where those calling for fidelity to the biblical text are branded as arrogant and argumentative and devoid of "revelatory" insights that allegedly come only to those who stand in special relationship to the Lord.

But Paul aims (as should we all) for the "building up" of both Christian and Church. He accomplished this in his ministry (and we should in ours) by teaching and preaching "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) and by shaping the minds and hearts of God's people in accordance with it. He built up believers by identifying false teaching that threatened to deceive and mislead them. He warned of the destructive consequences of heresy. He did not retreat from the often uncomfortable task of calling them to repentance and laboring to fashion their conduct in conformity with the revelation and character of God himself.

He built them up by strengthening their resistance to temptation, laboring for their joy (2 Cor. 1:24) so that the deceptive promises of the world, flesh, and the devil might lose their appeal when compared with the all-sufficient satisfaction found in Christ. He expended himself on their behalf in order to produce a depth of spiritual maturity lest they be thrown about by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14). He aimed in everything he did and said to facilitate their growth into Christ-likeness (see Col. 1:28).

Unlike his opponents in Corinth, he cared that they imitate him only so far as he imitated Christ (see 1 Cor. 11:1). His personal reputation was of no concern, nor his physical comforts, if only his spiritual children might be served and sanctified by grace.

Many reading this meditation are even now under the influence of self-appointed "leaders", not unlike those that plagued the church in first-century Corinth. If you are among them, I suspect that you are confused and disheartened, wondering how to properly discern the character and intent of such folk.

May I suggest that you simply ask yourself these questions: Do they foster unity or deepen division? Do they preach themselves or Christ as Lord? Do they promote self-effacing godliness or self-asserting worldliness? Are they wholly submitted to the authority of Scripture or do they justify their beliefs and behavior, as well as their expectations of you, by appealing to experience or supernatural encounters or new revelatory insights? Or again, to use Paul's words, are you and your church built up or destroyed by their actions?

Perhaps most important of all, when you look at them do you see Christ? Or is your perception of the beauty of our Lord obscured by the pretentious, self-referential and overbearing posture assumed by some person on a platform?

Sam