Rising Authoritarianism in Evangelicalism

As I was laying in bed, gazing up at the beautiful painting that my extraordinarily talented mother painted me, I couldn’t help but notice a paradox within the picture.

There lay a stunningly beautiful predator.

Peaceful.

Serene.

Yet.. a predator nonetheless.

The image is so symbolic of far too many shepherds in our time; wolves in sheep’s

clothing, of whom Christ so earnestly warned….

“[I]t has also been my sad observation that… ‘Authoritarianism’ has risen among some pastors and officeholders such that whole churches seem to be little more than idol worshippers of ‘the great man’ and the ‘omnicompetent elders’. Instead of wounded shepherds victimized by their flock, we now have the specter abroad of wounded sheep victimized by the very men called to feed and protect them.”

Pastor Steven Martin, IRBS Theological Seminary, 2016

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In the Book of Revelation, we find reference to a damnable group called the Nicolaitans, or Nicolaites.

 

 “But you have this to your credit: You hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”

Letter to the church of Ephesus, Revelation 2:6

 “But I have a few things against you, because some of you hold to the teaching of Balaam who taught Balak to place a stumbling block before the Israelites so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality.

“In the same way some of you also hold to the teaching of Nicolaitans.

“Therefore repent! Otherwise I will come to you shortly and wage war against them with the sward of my mouth.”

Letter to the church in Pergamum, Revelation 2:14-16

 

While little is known of the Nicolaitans via Scripture, there are clues to why they were so hated by God.

St. Irenaeus wrote [1]:

The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John… as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.”

Confirming Irenaeus’s words, Hyppolytus of Rome noted Nicolaus’s departure from sound doctrine, along with his indifference towards sexual immorality and the consumption of food offered to idols [2].

Etymology also aids us in our understanding of the hated Nicolaitans [3]:

“The Greek word for Nicolaitans is Nikolaites (Strong’s Concordance #G3531), which is three words combined. Niko or Nikos is defined as “a conquest, victory, triumph, those who are dominate over the defeated.” Lai or Laos in the word means people. The “tes” or “ton” of the word simply represents the word “the.” Taken together, the word Nicolaitans means the conqueror of the people (which, in this case, is the church of God).”

This view considers the Nicolaitans as the forerunners of the clerical hierarchy superimposed upon the laity and robbing them of spiritual freedom” [4].

Given the close association of the Nicolaitans to Balaam in Revelation 2:15, we see “descriptive in each instance… an evil teacher who had influence over the people and brought them into bondage to heresy,” a seduction of the people into the pagan culture, and an embrace of pagan society’s hierarchy [5].

 

Thus, we can reasonably assume that the following descriptions capture the essence of the Nicolaitans, their character, and their sins:

♦The Nicolaitans were a people who exploited Christian grace as a license to indulge the flesh, as a release from an obligation to adhere to moral laws; a people who “attempted to establish a compromise with the pagan society of the Graeco-Roman world that surrounded them,” [6].

♦“In its ecclesiastical setting, Nicolaitans means the bishops and prelates of the Church have gained a triumphal victory or conquest over the laity. Members are compelled and forced to submit to the arbitrary dominion of men who have become that thing which the Eternal hates. The Apostle Peter warned that those who were leaders among God’s people were NOT to dominate over the faith of others but rather exhort them to do right (1Peter 5:1 – 3).

“The teachings and preaching of this group is also variously defined as a hierarchy, the power of dominion, or as the establishment of a government by ecclesiastical rulers.

“The doctrine of the Nicolaitans is the teaching that there is a strict hierarchy within God’s church that must be respected by all. Ranks and levels are created in order to maintain power and control so that, ultimately, the lowest level of the church (the members) can be ruled over and taken advantage of at any time. The whole system feeds on competition and strife among those who consider themselves Christians,” [7] and that this system allowed for the perpetuation of doctrinal error [8].

While our knowledge of the Nicolaitans is based on edified theory, informed by etymology, historical writings, and scriptural clues, we do have certainty in knowing that both points 1 and 2 regarding the hated Nicolaitans are scripturally-identified, scripturally-condemned sinfulness.

This sinfulness serves as a useful analogy to that which is occurring in our time…

As a pastor, I am becoming more and more aware of how easy it is for me or any church leader (or a husband) to drift into an unbiblical abuse of authority.  It happens slowly and often without notice and before we know it, we can be found “lording it over” our flock.

Pastor Jeff Crippen of Christ Reformation Church, Crying Out for Justice, 2012

What do the Nicolaitans have to do with American Evangelicalism of the 21st Century?

It doesn’t require the skill of acute observation to detect the obvious: increasing numbers of Evangelical leaders are embracing, promoting, and, by natural extension, leading the flock into bondage of a disfigured Pauline Theology of Grace and other Libertine theological heresies, attempting to reconcile Christianity with the secular culture. (See Nicolaitan point #1 above.)

However, it is the flipside of the Nicolaitan coin (see point #2 above) about which this post is concerned: the essence of Nicolaitan authoritarianism is quietly rising and gaining strongholds within American Evangelical churches, doctrines, and theories/application of ecclesiastical polity.

This authoritarianism isn’t limited in scope, only affecting those who fit into the first point of Nicolaitan sinfulness. Rather, it is equally present – perhaps even more so – among some of the more vocal leaders presently claiming to be contending for the faith and for doctrinal truth; among many who declare themselves to be standing up for the Gospel.

This Romanesque, hierarchical movement towards the Nicolaitan “conquering of the people” has mostly gone unnoticed; a hiddenness which my posts in this two-part series aim to remedy.

As for you, O son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word from My mouth and give them warning from Me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ but you do not speak out to dissuade him from his way, then that wicked man will die in his iniquity, yet I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you warn the wicked man to turn from his way, and he does not turn from it, he will die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life.

Ezekiel 33:7-9


Before I continue, I wish to be clear:

Authoritarianism is a problem facing all denominations of American Protestantism. It is not exclusive to the Evangelical denominations. However, Nicolaitan-Romanesque authoritarianism has, traditionally, not made the significant headways that it is now. For this reason and out of a deep, agape love for my fellow Christians, I am compelled to address this issue in the context of its subtly growing influence within American Evangelicalism. I am in no way singling out any denominations for the purposes of disparagement, nor to imply this problem exists in isolation within a few variants of American Christianity.

Additionally, this article should not be misunderstood as a condemnation or denial of true God-ordained and God-designed authority, nor of our role in voluntary submission to those who truly follow Christ. Rather, this article details the co-opting of Scripture to elevate authority to an unhealthy and unholy level of domination; the manipulating of His flock; and the hijacking of believers’ fellowship with God through the instituting of an abusive ideology of spiritual feudalism which requires our servitude to mortal men.

Lastly, the examples used must be researched on your part. As I regularly do, I again implore you to be a Berean: Do NOT believe me. Do NOT trust me. Instead, check my work and see to it that I have been truthful. Check the Scriptures. Examine the context.

And, may God bless you!

Genuine Christians want to obey Christ.  If Scripture calls us to obey our leaders and submit to them, we want to do it because we want to please our Lord, and because we know it must be for our good.   We will all admit that as sheep, we need to be shepherded – fed, protected, and so on.  There are wolves out there looking for lamb chops and it takes a seasoned shepherd many times to spot them in their disguises.  We want to be in a real flock of Christ.  But this genuine desire can also make us prime targets for abusive leaders if we are not careful.

Pastor Jeff Crippen of Christ Reformation Church, Crying Out for Justice, 2012


Christ’s Model: Our Servant, Our Shepherd

Although Christ never gave His disciples any specific instructions for church government, leaving it up to His people to determine, He did, without doubt, provide divine guidance which upended the contemporary concept of leadership, rank and greatness. He distinctly exhorted the disciples to exercise their authority in sharp contrast to the ways in which the Gentiles exercised their authority.

To His disciples, Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many,” (Matthew 20:25-28).

From the Barnes’ Notes on the Bible [9]:

The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them – That is, over their subjects. “You know that such honors are customary among nations. The kings of the earth raise their favorites to posts of trust and power they give authority to some over others; but my kingdom is established in a different manner. All are to be on a level. The rich, the poor, the learned, the unlearned, the bond, the free, are to be equal. He will be the most distinguished that shows most humility, the deepest sense of his unworthiness, and the most earnest desire to promote the welfare of his brethren.”

Minister – A servant. The original word is deacon – a word meaning a servant of any kind; one especially who served at the table, and, in the New Testament, one who serves the church, Acts 6:1-4; 1 Timothy 3:8. Preachers of the gospel are called minister’s because they are the servants of God and of the church 1 Corinthians 3:5; 1 Corinthians 4:1; 2 Corinthians 3:6; 2 Corinthians 6:4; Ephesians 4:12; an office, therefore, which forbids them to lord it over God’s heritage, which is the very opposite of a station of superiority, and which demands the very lowest degree of humility.

Peter, reinforcing Christ’s instructions while addressing a group of elders, said, “Do not be bosses over the people you lead. Live as you would like to have them live,” (1 Peter 5:3).

Paul reinforced this edict in his second letter to the Corinthians. He wrote, “Timothy and Silvanus and I have preached to you about Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” adding, “We are not the boss of your faith,” {2 Corinthians 1:19, 24).

Anyone assuming a role in church leadership is expected to be a living example of humble servitude, one who continually earns the respect and honor of God’s heritage with the provision of loving guidance; an attentive shepherd feeding and protecting the flock.

Jesus Christ said, “I am the good Shepherd.”

Any person in a position of leadership must strive to be Christ-like, emulating His example; must truly exercise a sacrificial love for Christ’s sheep!

“[S]hepherds… walked ahead of their sheep, leading them on and calling them by name to follow them to green pastures and cool waters. The sheep followed because they had come to know and trust the shepherd’s faithful care and loving concern for their well-being. It was the shepherd who slept in the doorway of the sheepfold to guard the flock by night. It was the shepherd who fought the bear, the lion and other predators. It was the shepherd who protected the flock from the thief. It was the shepherd who stayed awake that the sheep might sleep in peace. It was the shepherd who left the ninety-nine safe to search for the lost sheep. It was the shepherd who gently led the nursing ewes and their young, not cursing them for being ‘weak, slow and consumed with mundane matters’. The Bible surely uses such images to depict a sacrificial and empathetic love for the sheep on the part of the shepherd,” [10].


Temporal Lordship

Yet, for many church leaders today, leadership is all about position/rank and authority: it’s about the power of a few being lorded over the many.

These are the Nicolaitans of our times.

In the minds of individuals such as these, the mere possession of a leadership position is means for the automatic attainment of power and authority, and the unwavering admiration and allegiance from the flock.

Title means everything to the Nicolaite, setting him apart and above the rest.

In truth, “underneath the raging ego of the leader is a suffering person who fears being unimportant,” [11].

Such a papal pastor, for example, will often self-servingly employ selective Bible verses, placing an exaggerated emphasis on the authority granted him in scripture and on his own giftedness or qualifications as one who is “God-appointed,” while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of a submissive and passive laity.

To this end, he will utilize the “terribly poisonous misconception claims that God has a special calling only for certain people and everyone else needs to find something ‘unspecial’ to do” [12]. Yet, “[t]his special anointing or calling is often nothing more than the pathological need to be valued or esteemed. It also takes some of the power that should be attributed to God and gives it to the toxic minister” [13].

The resulting relationship between this Nicolaite leader and his subjugated laity is rigidly top-down.

He is not one to sleep in the doorway of the sheepfold to protect Christ’s the sheep.

“But if the watchman sees the sword coming and fails to blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes away a life, then that one is taken away in his iniquity, but I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood.”

Ezekiel 33:6


Unconditional Obedience

A leader of the Nicolaitan persuasion is often eager to view “Old Testament texts related to authority in the theocratic nation particularly applicable to his pastoral position!” [14].

The New Testament is also fair game.

Hebrews 13:17 is a favorite verse employed by the “conquerors of the people.” It reads:

“Obey your leaders and do what they say. They keep watch over your souls. They have to tell God what they have done. They should have joy in this and not be sad. If they are sad, it is no help to you.”

This is an exhortation (accredited to St. Paul) to the Jewish Christians – and to the rest of us by extension – to show their religious leaders “proper respect, and to submit to their authority in the church, so far as it was administered in accordance with the precepts of the Saviour,” [15].

It is important to note that this “obligation to obedience does not, of course, extend to anything which is wrong in itself, or which would be a violation of conscience,” [16]. As St. Paul emphasized, “The people must search the Scriptures, and so far as the ministers teach according to that rule, they ought to receive their instructions as the word of God, which works in those that believe,” [17]. See Acts 17:11.

As Pastor Jeff Crippen of Christ Reformation Church pointedly remarked [18]:

“Now, the moment a pastor or elder ceases to exercise this overseeing ministry in accord with… qualities of Christ-allocated leadership, they cease to be true shepherds – at least in the particular case in which they err.  And thus, they lose any authority as they are functioning outside of the boundaries Christ has established for them.”

Tellingly, one’s Berean duty as a Christian and the limitations on one’s unwavering obedience to religious leaders will be omitted from the Nicolaite’s sermon on Hebrews 13:17.

While a countless number of faithful, honest ministers may mistakenly leave this portion out of their sermons, the Nicolaite acts with absolute intention.

If the existence of false shepherds is even acknowledged at all during these sermons of subjugation, properly edifying instruction on the limitations of unquestioned obedience will go without mention.

Instead, you may be treated to systematic catechizations regarding your God-commanded and God-pleasing duty to submit and obey the God-ordained leaders of your church. With elevated emphasis on your call to obedience and submission, such behavioral conditioning sessions orated from the pulpit may include statements to the effect of, “Now notice… There is no qualification to that [25]

This is a lie of omission – which is, yes, a lie.

Remember, “The people must search the Scriptures, and so far as the ministers teach according to that rule, they ought to receive their instructions as the word of God, which works in those that believe,” [19]. Throughout the Bible you will find that there is only one being to which you are expected to show blind, unwavering allegiance, unqualified obedience: the one, triune God.

To clear away any roadblocks to establishing superiority, the authoritarian, Romanesque leader will emphasize his authority as a God-ordained, as a special anointing, and he will then proceed to associate a parishioner’s act of obedience to him as being an act of obedience to God.

If parishioners don’t keep up the appearance that the “value the minister enough to submit to his or her dictatorial rule, God’s anointing is called in to make sure everyone understands that any waver of support is really a waver in faith in God,” [20].

“A controlling leader may also attempt to instill a sense of obligation by reminding his congregation of everything he has done for them,” [21].

So, lest parishioners be tempted to forget the many great sacrifices of their Nicolaitan superiors who selflessly look after their souls, regular reminders are dutifully proselytized to the congregants, so often characterized as the ever-wayward sheep.

Yet, Jesus, our Good Shepherd, whom all religious leaders should strive to emulate, warned His flock to beware of false teachers:

“Look out for the teachers of the Law. They like to walk around in long coats. They like to have the respect of men as they stand in the center of town where people gather. They like to have the important seats in the places of worship and the important places at big suppers. They take houses from poor women whose husbands have died. They cover up the bad they do by saying long prayers. They will be punished all the more” (Mark 12:38-40).


Absolute Loyalty

As the authoritarian church leader measures his success in membership numbers and Sunday service headcounts, his insecurities may lead him to “actually develop a doctrine in order to stop people from leaving,” [22].

He “may preach sermons about unconditional loyalty, using the biblical stories of David and Jonathan, or Elisha and Elijah,” [23] or even use Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.  By using examples like these, the leader can “actually gain “biblical” grounds to control even the personal areas of his parishioners lives,” [24].

For example, ask yourself if the below excerpts from a sermon emphasize loyalty to God or loyalty to an individual (emphasis mine) [25]:

“Real loyalty has such yearning for the individual that it hates anything that affects negatively that individual, the object of that love. In other words, we could say, in a simple vernacular, loyalty sticks up for whoever it’s loyal to.”

“…these false apostles came into the church; they started criticizing and undermining the integrity of Paul, and people started buying into that stuff. That is overt disloyalty. There’s no zeal there. They should have run to his defense. They should have jumped on the bandwagon to defend him immediately.”

“Loyalty means you have a yearning for that individual; you mourn whenever you do anything at all that could harm that relationship, because it’s so precious, and where your longing and your yearning and your desire for that object of your loyalty is so strong that you literally go to battle to defend that person against any attack.”

“I hope you’re loyal to your church leaders that way.”

“[Loyalty is] the beginning of [restoring] the grieving pastor’s joy.”

You want to crush your pastors, be disloyal to them.”

“And God, who comforts the depressed, has his way of sending comfort. But nothing is as comforting as loyalty. To the one who is loyal to God, you must give your unwavering loyalty.”

Tragically, “[t]his kind of preaching causes church members to seek a position of favor with the pastor rather than a proper desire to ‘please God and not man.’” [26]. It is within this Nicolaitan, ecclesiastical environment, that parishioners are led into pursuing the honor of men, at the expense of their personal relation with the Lord.

The misguided loyalty of the congregants to their supreme leader only “allows the delusions of the leader to grow and destroys the faith of the loyal. The result may be financial or spiritual bankruptcy,” [27].


“Why, Grandmother! What big teeth you have!”

Little Red Riding Hood

Hunting Sheep

While “[a] true shepherd realizes that the people in his congregation don’t belong to him — they are God’s flock,” the authoritarian believes the sheep to be his possession, as many Christians have learned upon attempting to switch churches [28].

Believing that their power extends to the personal lives of believers, some churches have taken a decidedly cult-like turn.

In a frightening move that is far more characteristic of the Church of Scientology and the Mormon LDS than of a Christian church, more and more Evangelical churches will track members who leave their congregations, even sending letters to ex-members’ new churches.

This subject has even found its way into sermons, appearing to manipulatively function as cautionary tales for the passive audience of parishioners [29]:

“According to Hebrews 13 I have to give an account to God for you…. [A] person will leave… and we will try everything we can to track them because we feel responsible for their spiritual life and so we hear that they end up in a church in another place and so it may come down to a letter that says ‘we think this person was at our church until so-and-so and now we think they’ve gone to your church, we’re not sure,’ that’s very difficult. And we may get a letter back and say that the person you think was in your church who you think is in my church I don’t think is in my church. How can we be responsible for shepherding?”

Let me be clear: this is not normal or acceptable behavior. Period.

If a romantic relationship between two people ends, it is unequivocally inappropriate for one of the two to “try everything to track” the other down. It is also unequivocally inappropriate for one of the two to send letters to several people in hopes of learning who may or may not be the other’s new romantic companion.

The same rule applies to churches.

This is not shepherding: it’s stalking.

It’s predatory.

It’s wrong.

According to several sources, this wildly misguided and/or malicious practice is found most frequently in churches which require a membership covenant.

Such leaders have forgotten that they are to love the believers under their care; not hunt them down in reminiscence of a Jew named Saul (St. Paul).

[NOTE: it is fully appropriate for one church to warn another if a member to poses a risk, such as a known sexual predatory undoubtedly would.]


In November of 2016, a woman named Marie became the victim of a campaign of letters from the Nicolaites occupying positions of leadership in her church, Heritage Bible Chapel (HBC).

Not long prior, Marie had informed the church that she had signed divorce papers. Marie and her ex-husband had already undergone Christian counseling due to her ex-husband’s abuse of Marie. The counseling had not succeeded, which lead Marie to sever the abusive relationship.

Displeased by the divorce, the elders of HBC repeatedly insisted that Marie and her ex-husband re-marry, regardless. The elders declared that until she and her husband reconciled, Marie would be living in sin. The leaders also expressed dismay that Marie had not asked their permission before proceeding with her divorce.

In September of 2016, Marie submitted a formal letter of resignation of her voluntary membership from Heritage Bible Chapel.

On October 14, 2016, Marie received a letter from HBC stating [30]:

“The covenant that you entered into when you became a member does not permit you to resign during circumstances such as these.”

The letters continued…

In November of 2016, Marie received another letter from the HBC’s Nicolaitan leadership pushing the boundaries of Romanesque control over voluntary membership even further. Below are some excerpts of that letter [31]. Notice they too use Hebrews 13:17 as justification (emphasis mine):

“You may view the affairs of your life as a purely private matter. But the scriptures paint a very different picture… We know that the Lord will not let our significant sins go unanswered, promising to discipline us as a father… For our part, we take our responsibility as under-shepherds very seriously as ‘those who keep watch over your soul and will give and account’ and we are praying that you will respond with submission to the authority of Christ in your life (Hebrews 13:17).”

Any authority that we exercise in dealing with this matter with you is in submission to God’s clearly revealed will as we seek to shepherd the sheep that God has entrusted to us, humbly and faithfully calling you as a wandering sheep to return to the loving arms of the shepherd (Eze 34:4-10, 1 Peter 5:1-4).”

“It is our prayer… to draw your heart back to the Lord. This would be demonstrated by recognition of your sin, repentance of your sin, and reengaging toward the goal of reconciliation in your family.”

“[I]f you will not reengage in conversation or repent of your own sinful response then we are called to continue to pursue you… Because you have ‘refused to listen,’ then the next step that Scripture outlines is that we are to ‘tell it to the church’ which entails sharing sufficient, but not exhaustive detail of your sinful choices with our HBC membership so that they might pray for you and join us in seeking your repentance and restoration (Matthew 18:15-17).”

To continue to pursue former members in this way is an abuse of authority.

Nothing about Christ’s teachings involves the coercion of involuntary participants.  

Regardless of whether, or not, the leaders in the case of Marie acted out of good intentions, the result is the same: shepherding becomes lording.

A church that is truly healthy, “will not allow genuine pastoral concern to cross the line into manipulation or control” [32].

Sadly, it is “[u]nder the guise of” God-ordained authority and of pursuing God’s will that “many individuals have compromised their faith and fallen into a trap that did nothing but establish one person’s [or group’s] authority above any earthly accountability” [33].

“A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land. The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own authority.”

Jeremiah 5:30-31


Nickels and Numbers

Another examples of predatory behavior by an insecure leader abusing his spiritual authority is the obsessive focus upon “nickels and numbers.” To this end, the authoritarian nose counter will contort the exhortation of Hebrews 10:25.

The verse reads:

“Let us not neglect meeting together, as some have made a habit, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day [of His return] approaching.”

For example, Thom S. Rainer, who is the current President and CEO of Lifeway, has suggested churches methodically raise the expectations of what it means to be a church member, and to begin institutionally, systematically monitoring the attendance of each and every single church member in order to raise attendance numbers [34].

In a salute to the public school system, all absentees are to receive an inquiring telephone call to their home.

Pastor Kevin DeYoung, who is also a board chairman for The Gospel Coalition, has used Hebrews 10:25 to imply that church attendance is reflective of one’s salvation as a Christian. Thus, has encouraged Christians to ask themselves these 5 questions (emphasis mine) [35]:

1. Have you established church going as an inviolable habit in your family?
2. Do you plan ahead on Saturday so you can make church a priority on Sunday?
3. Do you order your travel plans so as to minimize being gone from your church on Sunday?
4. Are you willing to make sacrifices to gather with God’s people for worship every Sunday?
5. Have you considered that you may not be a Christian?

After all, DeYoung explains, “The danger of legalism and false guilt is very real. But so is the danger of disobedience and self-deception,” (emphasis mine) [36].

Wording such as that above is extremely manipulative and has no place in the Body of Christ.


“Does the servant get thanks for doing what he was told to do? I am sure he does not. It is the same with you also. When you do everything you have been told to do, you must say, ‘We are not any special servants. We have done only what we should have done.’”

Jesus Christ to His followers, Luke 17:9-10

Thou Shall Not Question

For any “conqueror of the people” [37], it is “considered rebellion when someone questions decisions that are made or statements that are said from the pulpit,” and any rebellion is considered as “threats to the pastor’s ‘God-ordained’ authority,” [38].

This is indicative of a leader who is filled with pride, and yet deeply insecure and fearful of rejection.

On the one hand, the Nicolaitan has defined his entire identity on his title. He operates out of fear: the fear of losing his importance and the fear of competition.

A Nicolaite’s duality as both insecure and prideful may find its way into sermons or other communications. This can often take the form of tiny, little bread crumbs of error and/or manipulation, sprinkled about, inconspicuously laying in plain sight…

He may toss in a weighted, insinuating remark.

He may manipulatively frame things in a two-choice, “either-or” manor.

He may draw you in to becoming dependent upon his approval for your own salvation.

For example, carefully read the below statement, considering the behaviors noted just above (emphasis mine) [39]:

“If you have a faithful pastor or church leader who exemplifies the qualities of a shepherd, let him know how much you appreciate his labor on your behalf (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12). It will be a great encouragement to him to know he’s making a spiritual difference in your life.

And if you’re a believer who rejects the biblical authority of the local church and won’t submit to your pastor or church leaders, you need to do a careful, thorough examination of your heart. What’s behind your rebellious spirit? What sin are you harboring that’s keeping you from submitting to godly authority? Are you sure you’re truly saved at all?”

Quite often, a church leader operating with this type of imbalanced control will have convinced himself that he is the only one who is capable of accurately interpreting Scripture, the only one who can correctly hear God.

He believes himself to be a sort of divinely-called superhero, and he needs for you to believe so too.

However, as noted in Toxic Faith [40]:

“This premise contradicts the teaching that God has a special plan for every person’s life. In a healthy church, a pastor will encourage individuals to minister as they discover talents and gifts that can be used in serving God. The minister of pure faith will encourage everyone to consider themselves special in the eyes of God. Each person has a very special place of service designed by God, and each person should be encouraged to find it…

This special anointing or calling is often nothing more than the pathological need to be valued or esteemed. It also takes some of the power that should be attributed to God and gives it to the toxic minister.”

Unfortunately, any leader who, in Romanesque fashion, uses the claim of divine direction to counter “rebellion,” creates a perilous situation for his congregants. “This type of claim concerning divine direction is very dangerous. It places the leader above all others. Challenging the authority or accuracy of the leader is equated with challenging the very Word of God,” [41].

Like several of the leaders found in the Old Testament, the modern Nicolaite leaders, “[c]onsumed with their own ambition… have convinced the people that their power is divine. Yet in reality, these false prophets are merely wielding their self-imposed influence for personal gain, claiming they speak for God,” [42].

Or, as Thomas Watson described, “Creatures that have been saved by the sovereign grace of the Creator, put into the service of their fellow creatures and commanded to herald the good news of Divine pardon and deliverance may all too quickly forget that they are but clay pots made out of ‘proud dust,’” [43].

For Christians trapped in this environment, the personal fellowship of individual believers with their Lord and Savior is thus abdicated by a manipulative leader and exchanged for a relationship with a man.


“Now the Bereans were more noble-minded than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if these [Paul’s] teachings were true.”

Acts 17:11

Defaming Discerning Sheep

What is discernment? Why is it important?

“Discernment may be simply defined as the ability to biblically decide between right and wrong, between truth and error, between good and evil.  The New Testament teaches in 1 Corinthians 14:29, Philippians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 5:21, and in 1 John 4:1, that it is the responsibility of every Christian to exercise discernment.  Failure to discern between error and truth leaves the Christian immature, and vulnerable to false teaching and deception.”

A Study of Authoritarian Church Leadership and The Individual Freedom Of Church Members

Because the authoritarian, the Nicolaitan, is woefully insecure, he constructs around him a system which he can control.

Sure… Such leaders may pay lip service to “accountability” and so forth. However, just as many artists reused their canvases, the surface of what “seems to be” often hides what truly “is.” Thus, there is created an illusion of accountability [44]:

“There may be a board of directors, elders, or deacons, but when the authoritarian ruler picks them, he or she picks people who are easily manipulated and easily fooled. What appears to be a board of accountability is in fact a rubber-stamp group that merely gives credibility to the leader’s moves. These board members become the co-conspirators of the persecutor and permit the toxic leader to persecute without interruptions.”

The papal leader is thus threatened by elements beyond his tightly controlled boarders.

And so, with tragic consequence, the Nicolaite will discourage individual discernment and defame those who dare confront error within both the immediate and the wider body of Christ.

Allegiance to the all-knowing, God-ordained “authority” thus “requires overlooking the truth must be pledged daily. When that allegiance evaporates, the confrontational workers or church members are labeled as outcasts and rejected by the organization. In this way they are forced to rebel, since the organization allows no room for disagreement,” [45].

Co-conspirators have been known to go so far as to have innocents wrongfully arrested and escorted away, by police, from denomination-wide events [46; 47].

All “outcasts who challenge the delusion of the system are discredited immediately,” [48].

An insecure leader clinging to control may use slanderous words towards the sheep publicly object to the heretical statements by “Big Name” Evangelicals and, thus, are challenging the status quo, pejoratively referring to them as, believers pretending to be ministers by putting aRev” in front of their name or women who add “pastor” to their website moniker. Craziness!” [49].

The prideful Nicolaite may feel besmirched by the spiritual oversight of bloggers as well, especially of the feminine variety: in one instance classifying female Christian, “women bloggers, ‘mostly amateur discernment experts who are housewives and homeschool moms’ who are ‘shrill’ and out of line in their critiques of popular ministries,” [50].

Such leaders have been known to characterize female Christian bloggers as disobedient for sharing God’s Word and offering up a critique as is her right under Scripture [51]:

“…it’s not fitting for a woman who has no teaching authority in the church to raise a public objection against a teaching elder whose office is recognized by the church. That’s not to say the pastor is infallible or above critique, and there is (of course) a proper venue for a lay woman to share her concerns or ask her questions, but a blog on the Internet is not that venue. If any woman fancies herself a gift to the church as a guardian of sound doctrine because she thinks she has a special “gift of discernment” that entitles her to go online and write insulting epithets against a duly ordained and divinely-called pastor, She is seriously mistaken and grossly out of line–and she is an embarrassment to propriety and feminine modesty.”

Of course, the leader who is only interested in “conquering the people” who disagree with him is quick to backtrack, making exceptions for those who agree with him:

I didn’t have the Sola Sisters in mind when I said that. I appreciate most of what I have read at your blog” [52].

 “…first of all to lowly women did the Lord appear, and the apostles themselves had to go to school, to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to learn that great truth, ‘The Lord is risen indeed.’”

Charles Spurgeon

The Nicolaite is quick to poke fun at the street preacher, entrenched among the lost sheep, referring to him or her as “Pretend Pastors” and “Alarmists” who call out that “the sky is falling” [53; 54; 55].


Discouraging Evangelism

Through his insecurity and pride and inner need for “specialness,” the papal preacher or elder may even insist that only those permitted to address concerns regarding heresy within the Body of Christ are those such as himself, claiming that only pastors have “been given a heavenly charge to preach the Word. The laity are not given that duty,” [56].

Wrong.

Really, really wrong.

Evangelization: isn’t that what Evangelical churches are supposed to be about?

“But the word of God increased and multiplied.” (Acts 12:24)

 

“And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.” (Acts 13:49)

 

“So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” (Acts 19:20)

As a matter of fact, when the persecution of the Church in Jerusalem began, the Apostles stayed in the city while the many Christians scattered and brought the Gospel to other nations.

And that day a great persecution arose against the church that was in Jerusalem; and all the believers were scattered . . . those who were scattered passed through everywhere, PREACHING THE WORD OF THE GOSPEL” (Acts 8:1, 4)

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that arose concerning Stephen went through Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word . . .

But certain men among them who were Cypriots and Cyrenians came to Antioch and spoke to the Greeks, PREACHING THE GOSPEL OF THE LORD JESUS. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed . . .” (Acts 11:19 – 21).

Despite Scripture and despite of the way in which the early church functioned (valuing and depending upon the Christian individual), the authoritarian pastor will invoke his “specialness” and his “authority” to separate Christians into two separate classes of people: the chosen kings and the measly subjects.

And, since only “the elect” are permitted to be Bereans under this man-made Nicolaitan system of injustice, manipulation, and lies, the “laity” should passively, submissively “Leave th[e] heavy lifting to us pastors boys” [57].

“Remember that God does not call the equipped; He equips the called—and as Christians, we are all called to share what Christ has done. Some of Christ’s last words on earth were, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Sharing our faith isn’t just a suggestion, it’s a command. And God is with us when we obey Him.”

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association


Heavy Lifters or Light Weights?

Such men, drawing upon their “authority” and “anointing” and “super fantastic weight lifting skills” are, in reality, little more than cowardly, “do-nothings.” They are the maintainers of the status quo, whatever that may be.

These are the same heavy lifters who allowed apostasy to not only take root within the churches, but to flourish!

And they expect your admiration?

Ha!

How many lambs have been carried away by wolves under their watch?

How many lambs have been carried away by wolves under their watch?

How many lambs have been carried away by lambs under their watch?

How many???


Reality Check From a True Heavyweight

Richard Wurmbrand was a minister in Romania before and after the Communists took over. He was jailed and tortured for his faith in Our Savior Jesus Christ and he later wrote the amazing book (you should totally read it), “Tortured for Christ.”

The below, highlighted excerpts are from Wurmbrand’s book [Chapter 1].

1

2

Are we to expect that the Christian leaders in America are not as human as those in Soviet Romania? Are we to expect our leaders so be super human and immune to such ideological seduction?

Are we supposed to just leave the work of sharing Christ to the world and forfeit our discernment to those “pastors boys”?

Of course not!

After all, “[i]ndividuals who gather around a ministry of true faith use their talents to reach out to people and serve God. They fit in their talents and abilities where God can best use them. In a toxic-faith system, talents and abilities are used to meet egotism of the leader, line up to assist in serving the persecutor,” [58].

Sadly, were Wurmbrand and his wife alive today, the Nicolaitan lords would even condemn their work in the underground church, for operating outside of the Nicolaians’ control.

3

There are Christians presently trapped under the thumbs of “omnicompetent” church leaders.

The effects upon the sheep are visible and discomforting.

And, as the sheep are God’s heritage, we mustn’t let this issue pass us. Therefore, the effects of such a imbalanced system upon Christ’s flock will be the dedicated subject of the second part of this series.

May God bestow His blessings upon you until we meet again.

 

CITATIONS:

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies. Retrieved at: http://gnosis.org/library/advh1.htm

[2] Hyppolytus of Rome, The Refutation of All Heresies. Retrieved at: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/hippolytus7.html

[3] BibleStudy.org, The Nicolaitans. Retrieved at: http://www.biblestudy.org/basicart/why-does-god-hate-practices-of-the-nicolaitans.html

[4] John F. WalvoordThe Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966), P. 58.

[5] Encyclopedia of the Bible, Nicolaitans. Retrieved at: https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/encyclopedia-of-the-bible/Nicolaitans

[6] Ibid. [5].

[7] Ibid. [3].

[8] Ibid. [5].

[9] Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Matthew 20 Commentary. Retrieved at: https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/matthew/20.htm

[10] Pastor Steven Martin, Authoritarian Shepherds and Idol-worshipping Sheep, Abuse of Authority in the Church, IRBS Theological Seminary (2016). Retrieved at: http://irbsseminary.org/abuse-authority-church/

[11] Steven Arterburn & Jack Felton, Toxic Faith, WaterBrook Press (2001), P. 153.

[12] Ibid. [11], P. 148.

[13] Ibid. [11], P. 148-149.

[14] Phil Newton, How to Diagnose and Treat Pastoral Authoritarianism, 2016, Founders Ministries. Retrieved at: https://founders.org/2016/09/01/how-to-diagnose-and-treat-pastoral-authoritarianism/

[15] Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Hebrews 13 Commentary: Retrieved at: https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/hebrews/13.htm

[16] Ibid. [15].

[17] Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, Hebrews 13 Commentary, Retrieved at: https://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/hebrews/13.htm

[18] Jeff Crippen, The Abuse and Limits of Pastoral Authority, A Cry for Justice (2012). Retrieved at: https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2012/04/20/the-abuse-and-limits-of-pastoral-authority-by-jeff-crippen/

[19] Ibid. [17].

[20] Ibid. [11], P. 147.

[21] Mike Fehlaur, Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part 2, (2001). Retrieved at: https://www1.cbn.com/warning-signs-of-spiritual-abuse-part-two

[22] Ibid. {21].

[23] Ibid. [21].

[24] Ibid. [21].

[25] John MacArthur, Restoring the Grieving Pastor’s Joy, Part 1. Retrieved at: https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/47-48/restoring-the-grieving-pastors-joy-part-1

[26] Ibid. [21].

[27] Ibid. [11]

[28] Ibid. [21].

[29] John MacArthur, Commitment to the Church. Retrieved at: https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/80-130/commitment-to-the-church

[30] Heritage Bible Chapel Admonishes Former Member Repent or Else…., The Wartburg Watch. Retrieved at: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2016/12/16/heritage-bible-chapel-admonishes-a-former-member-to-repent-or-else/comment-page-1/

[31] Ibid. [30].

[32] Ibid. [21].

[33] Ibid. [11].

[34] Thom S. Rainer, #1 Reason for Decline in Church Attendance, (2013). Retrieved at:  https://thomrainer.com/2013/08/the-number-one-reason-for-the-decline-in-church-attendance-and-five-ways-to-address-it/

[35] Kevin DeYoung, The Scandal of the Semi-Churched, The Gospel Coalition (2013). Retrieved at: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/the-scandal-of-the-semi-churched/

[36] Ibid. [35].

[37] Ibid. [3].

[38] Ibid. [21].

[39] John MacArthur, Membership is Submission, (2013). Retrieved at: https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B130121/~

[40] Ibid. [11], P. 148.

[41] Ibid. [11], P. 147.

[42] Mike Fehlaur, Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part One, (2001). Retrieved at: http://www1.cbn.com/warning-signs-of-spiritual-abuse-part-one

[43] Ibid. [10].

[44] Ibid. [11], P. 151.

[45] Ibid. [11], P. 211

[46] ERLC Allegedly Has Dallas PD Toss Pastor From SBC Meeting After He Questions “Revoice”, Pulpit and Pen (2018). Retrieved at: https://pulpitandpen.org/2018/06/13/erlc-allegedly-has-dallas-pd-toss-pastor-from-sbc-meeting-after-he-questions-revoice/

[47] Thomas Littleton, LIVING LIKE A REFUGEE IN THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CHURCH: Why SBC Leaders Turned to Lying and Abuse Over Revoice in Dallas SBC 2018, (2018). Retrieved at: https://www.worldviewweekend.com/news/article/living-refugee-southern-baptist-church-why-sbc-leaders-turned-lying-and-abuse-over

[48] Ibid. [11], P. 211

[49] Steve Camp (Pastor), Twitter, (2018). Retrieved at: https://twitter.com/PastorSJCamp/status/1068717602938241024

[50] “amateur discernment experts who are housewives and homeschool moms” ~ tell us what you really think, (2011). Retrieved at: http://thatmom.com/2011/11/18/amateur-discernment-experts-who-are-housewives-and-homeschool-moms%E2%80%9D/

[51] Ibid [50].

[52] Phil Johnson, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Discernment Divas, (comment by Phil Johnson in the comment section), Pyromaniacs, (2011). Retrieved at: http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2011/10/first-blast-of-trumpet-against.html

[53] Steve Camp (Pastor), Twitter, (2018). Retrieved at: https://twitter.com/PastorSJCamp/status/1068191537530580992

[54] Steve Camp (Pastor), Twitter, (2018). Retrieved at: https://twitter.com/PastorSJCamp/status/1068161366589083649

[55] Ibid. [54].

[56] Ibid. [53].

[57] Steve Camp (Pastor), Twitter. Retrieved at: https://twitter.com/PastorSJCamp/status/1068328013572521984

[58] Ibid. [21], P. 157-158.

[59] Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ, The Voice of Martyrs Inc. (2017).

3 thoughts on “Rising Authoritarianism in Evangelicalism”

    1. Thank you for commenting. I appreciate your point of view, though I do not share it in this instance. I interpret the “Graham/Pence Rule” not as authoritarian, but as a simple method for avoiding circumstances that may feed into human temptations, with the goal being the preservation/continuance of marital fidelity.

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