Supreme authority, infallibility, and preeminence are typically qualities we would attribute to God, and not to those who are serving in the ministry of the local church.
Yet in many local churches, the pastor has been elevated to a place that more resembles the Roman Catholic pope than a biblically qualified pastor. When this leadership dynamic exists, it creates a culture of abuse, oppression, and manipulation. The focus is always on the man and his vision, and not the Scriptural intent of God for his church. This issue has been a plague upon the church, the black church in particular.
How do we know if a pastor is behaving more like a pope? What are the warning signs we should be on the lookout for?
The first warning sign has to do with authority. God does call men to lead within the church, but the problem arises when there is a fundamental misunderstanding concerning the purpose of authority. Pastors do have authority to govern within the local church, but rooted in loving service, not in domination. The proper use of this authority lends itself to lovingly serving the Lord’s church with the gifts and talents he has so graciously given. In Paul’s epistles, you will find he spoke more like a devoted father willing to spend himself for the benefit of others, and not his own.
You will also find the sovereign lordship of Jesus over his church presented with stunning clarity. Jesus Christ must be faithfully proclaimed as the head of the church and those who serve in ministry as his servants. Paul said it best: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). We are seated in the heavenly places with Christ as believers, but Christ does not share his place as the head with any man.
The second warning is the issue of infallibility. To be infallible is to be incapable of making mistakes. Any time this quality is attributed to anyone other than God himself, there is grave danger. Even the wisest, most seasoned pastor will still make mistakes from time to time. The work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification is ongoing, and any pastor who denies this is denying the grace of God.
The task of shepherding God’s people is daunting and filled with numerous difficulties. As the pastor leads, he needs the grace and mercy of God just as much as those under his care. This is why we should pray earnestly and consistently for our pastors. Whenever the impression is given that the pastor is incapable of doing wrong, it creates an atmosphere conducive to abuse. If the pastor can do no wrong, then he is not to be questioned. There have been so many broken lives left in the wake of this deception. No man is worthy of blind obedience and allegiance.
The final warning sign is when the pastor has become preeminent. What I am addressing here is the elevation of the pastor to a place Jesus clearly spoke against. Matthew 20:25-28 says, “Jesus called them (the Disciples) to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 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 your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In some churches today, we see the opposite. We see men surrounded by servants and armor-bearers attending to their every need. Some pastors don’t even seem capable of carrying their own bibles. The pastor of the local church does not hold a position of preeminence over the people of God; he fills a role marked by servanthood empowered by the grace of God. Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ is the preeminent one.
God sovereignly and graciously uses imperfect people to do the work of the ministry. He places us in the body to function within the framework of the unique identities we have been given in Christ. It is important for us as pastors to recognize our need for his grace, mercy, and wisdom.
The Pastor’s role is to serve God’s people for God’s glory. It is indeed an honorable position. However, we must always ask ourselves this question: Have we attributed certain qualities to a man that are rightfully God’s and God’s alone?