When a scriptural principle is incorrectly applied, or applied with a wrong spirit, the result is spiritual death. Nothing illustrates this problem more clearly than the way the Pharisees and temple leaders imposed the Law of Moses upon the Jews. What began as righteous principles that were intended to pave the way for Jesus Christ became a ministry of death, used by the Pharisees as a weapon against the Lord Himself. No principle in the Christian age has more potential to be used in the same way against the intentions of God than the principle of authority and submission. What shepherds and ministries must learn is that the authority they have been given to assist God’s people on their journey into His Kingdom will become oppressive when those shepherds and ministries assert their authority because of a mandate, instead of leading by example.
In human terms, all authority is the result of a mandate. When leaders are appointed by an organization, or elected by a body of people, authority is assumed by reason of a mandate given to them by the organization or by the electing body. Christian groups organize themselves in this same way, submitting themselves to leaders who have either been appointed by other leaders, or who have been elected by the congregation. Popes and kings have always ruled by mandate, both of which believe they rule by reason of a divine mandate. Popes consider themselves infallible representatives of Christ who sit in the seat of the Apostle Peter. Kings believe they rule by divine right. When a person has a mandate, particularly when they believe it is a divine mandate, there is no need for them to lead exemplary lives. After all, they have the right to assert themselves regardless of what they are personally. This is the very reason why popes and kings throughout history have become corrupt and immoral, and yet parade around as if they were God’s representatives. They believe that a divine mandate has given them the right to do so.
Whenever religious leaders assert control by reason of a mandate they do so because they believe that either God or God’s representative has appointed them to a particular position. When they do this, they become subject to the same corrupting influences as kings and popes. Their leadership will eventually assume an oppressive tone, because their spiritual character is no longer the source of their authority; the source of their authority is the mandate itself. A true godly ministry, however, has spiritual authority because of their nature, not because it has been granted to them by mandate. Jesus possessed no mandate. He was never officially recognized by any of the religions of His day, yet His ministry was indisputable. The Pharisees and temple leaders all believed they possessed a divine mandate. They were officially recognized, and yet their recognition meant nothing to God. The shepherds and ministers of the Kingdom are like Christ Himself. Their authority is not the result of a mandate; it is the result of what they have become in their hearts. Understanding this, it becomes apparent why the Apostle Peter characterizes shepherding in the following way:
Believers give themselves to Christ because He gave His life for them. Our trust in Christ is implicit because He set an example of sacrifice. A person’s relationship to a shepherd should be no different. The trust a shepherd garners from the sheep should be the result of the faithful way that shepherd walks before the Lord. Sheep give their lives to a shepherd because they realize that like Christ, that shepherd has laid down his life for his sheep. Whenever shepherding is exercised on another basis, the result is oppressive since shepherds become lords instead of examples. The Pharisees and temple leaders behaved that way toward the rest of the Jews. They became men of elevated social status, who loved the prestige their religious positions afforded them. Yet Christ had compassion on those poor Israelites over whom those false shepherds exercised authority “…because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).” The sorry state of any church is the same when the pastors and shepherds fail to lead by example, and instead rely on the weight of their mandate, which is the root of all religious position, to enforce their oversight. Eventually, the members of that church will become distressed and dispirited. Ultimately God will intervene and remove those men from authority.
Peter was careful to emphasize how elders were to exercise oversight. They were instructed not to “lord it over” those allotted to their charge. This term “lording it over,” refers to the assumption of a superior position. Christ is often referred to as “Lord and master,” or “King.” All of these terms imply right of ownership over another individual. They imply superiority of position. But, Christ never exercised any of those rights and privileges. In fact, He said that he who was greatest must become servant of all. One who is a servant has an entirely different attitude toward those he or she serves than one who oversees because he or she has been granted a superior position. A ministry is not superior to his charges. A spiritual counselor cannot council as if he was issuing orders. Everything that is ministered should be submitted as if it were being related to one who is the master from one who is the slave. The real question is who serves whom? Do the sheep serve the shepherd, or does the shepherd serve the sheep? Paul answers this question in Philippians, when he writes:
Divine order should never be taught in a way that turns the requirement of submission around, imposing submission upon the congregation with respect to leaders, yet ignoring the submission the leaders must have with respect to the congregation. Whenever divine order is exercised in that way, it breaks down into a hierarchy that is bereft of all spiritual authority. To a large extent this is what has happened over the millennia to the Christian church itself. What began as the body of Christ has become stratified into a hierarchy of religious positions, and when that occurred all of the power and authority of the New Testament Church described in the Book of Acts evaporated. Religious positions are always the result of an assumption of authority by people who believe they have received a divine mandate. Religious positions do not serve, they rule just as did the papal monarchies after the collapse of the apostolic church. Whenever authority is exercised because of a right it becomes a representation of everything Christ was not. True spiritual authority is always vested in an individual because of their spiritual character. True spiritual authority is always an attribute of a person who serves, not a person who rules.
How does a slave lead? Slaves take orders they do not issue them. This is a difficult question, because it exposes the contradiction between human leadership and divine leadership. Human leadership is rooted entirely in the assertion of status, while divine leadership has another basis. Why did Christ lay His life down and die on the cross, instead of asserting Himself like a king (which He was), ordering His angels to dispatch the Romans and boot the Pharisees from power? He was demonstrating one of the most basic of all spiritual principles, one that few religious leaders ever grasp. Christ did not have authority because He asserted His right to assume a human throne; His authority arose from His submission to the Father and the faithful way He carried out the Father’s intentions for His life. The authority of any ministry originates the same way. A person has no authority merely because he or she asserts a divine right to authority. Spiritual authority is the result of the faithful way they carry out the will of God.
Thus shepherds, ministries and elders must take care in the way they exercise their oversight over the flock. Men and women in positions of oversight should endeavor to be examples, not mere leaders who hand out directives like little pontiffs. When a person walks carefully before the Lord, just as Jesus faithfully carried out His ministry without asserting His right to a throne, then he or she will have the kind of authority that can effect real change in the lives of people.