When Christian leaders become control freaks.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 June 2022

Some years ago I read an article, written to Christian leaders, about how to make sure your small groups don’t go heretic. I guess that was a big concern for the author.

I don’t know how valid a concern it is; when you put people in charge of a small group, shouldn’t you have pre-screened ’em to make sure they’re not heretics? But then again, when we’re talking about the H-word, you do realize there are a number of Christians who are really loose with that definition: They think every error we make about the bible and Christian doctrine is heresy. And, yes, they actually wanna police every error.

This is why you’re sometimes gonna find a church with no small groups at all. Or a few—but every single group is either led by the head pastor, or must have the head pastor in attendance. It’s not that the church doesn’t want (or need!) small groups; it’s that Pastor must be there to directly supervise, because “the shepherd’s job is to protect the flock.”

Yep, it means Pastor’s a control freak.

And there are a lot of churches run by control freaks. Because they don’t believe it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to lead us to truth; Jn 16.13 they’re pretty sure it’s the pastor’s job. They might acknowledge it’s the Spirit’s job… but either the pastor’s pretty sure only he knows how to hear the Spirit correctly, or he doesn’t actually know the Holy Spirit ’cause he thinks the age of miracles is over. So either he, or his wife, or some very trusted lieutenant, has to be at your small group meeting. As your “covering.” Just to make sure.

Yeah, this behavior is far more fearful and cultlike than Spirit-led.

Two of the Spirit’s fruits are gonna be fearlessness—you’re not gonna worry about every little thing, ’cause you trust God to have your back—and self-control. Not pastor-control, self-control. The Spirit’s trying to develop our ability to govern ourselves. When others won’t let us do that, and insist they gotta wield the reins because no one else can do it properly, it doesn’t help the Spirit any!

Control-freak behavior is a character flaw, and if your entire church leadership is structured in such a way that the pastor controls absolutely everything, it means your pastor is deficient in self-control, grace, patience, and often love: They’re too afraid of what may happen, to love the people they gotta serve. You may realize these character defects disqualify people from leadership; you might also notice these defective pastors are pretty good at concealing this fact, or changing the subject (or even the definitions) whenever it comes up.

So if you’re part of a church like this, what can you do about it? Sadly not much. Control-freak leaders rarely listen. So yeah, you’re gonna have to start looking for a better church, whose pastor trusts the Spirit to handle the reins. And the whip.

Screen your leadership!

Heresy is a legitimate problem, but the solution isn’t paranoid pastoral vigilance. It’s actually quite simple: Screen your leaders.

No, this isn’t being a control freak; it’s being prudent. Everybody in every position of church leadership—from the head pastor to the assistant janitor—oughta agree with your church’s faith statement. (Which hopefully includes all the basic creedal stuff in Christianity.) Ideally they should even be able to explain it in their own words. Especially those who wanna teach stuff: You want them perpetuating only the gospel—not their favorite weird ideas which don’t necessarily jibe with bible.

Some churches don’t actually think this is important. Why should an assistant janitor need to have orthodox theology? (Duh; for the same reason a waiter like St. Stephen would.) Sometimes they’re not even sure a bible study leader would need to have orthodox theology: “All you need is good curriculum, and that does all the teaching. Anybody can follow curriculum! So all we actually need in a bible study leader, is someone who can host the group at their home.” But that’s just foolish: When you lead a bible study group, regardless of curriculum, people are gonna assume you know bible—and if you don’t, you can really mess these people up. Do you realize how many cults began as “mere” bible studies?

So every church should screen its leaders. And by leader I mean anyone who’s been put in charge of anything in the church; people, groups, or inanimate objects. If you’re in charge of nothing more than stacking chairs, you’re a leader. Assistant janitors totally count.

Some churches foolishly don’t screen everybody. Just the folks with the title “pastor.” Maybe teachers. But everybody else gets a free pass: If anyone volunteers to do something, they’re so thrilled to get anyone to volunteer, they just hand ’em the keys and never ask questions. You can play piano?—congratulations, you’re the worship leader!

This is exactly how pedophiles slip into the Sunday school classes.

No, heretics aren’t as bad as pedophiles. But you see the problem: You can’t let just anyone lead. Whether it’s worship music, a bible study, a Sunday school class, handing out bottled water to passers-by, or cleaning sinks. Check everyone out before you put ’em in charge of things. Everyone. And if it turns out they have weird opinions—“Oh, I know how the trinity works! Jesus and the Holy Spirit are kinda like God’s fingers”—you’ll know better than to put ’em in charge of things just yet.

Y’see, newbies will assume if you have any responsibilities in a church, you must be some kind of trustworthy Christian. And in wise churches, this is exactly right!—the janitors do know Jesus as well as the pastors. (Sometimes better!) They can share him, they can teach about him, they can pray for people, they can even prophesy and cure the sick. They can do anything.

In foolish churches, they don’t bother with any of this. I once worked at a Christian camp where they hired brand-new Christians to be counselors. Said the sinner’s prayer?—good, you can be a counselor. Which was dumb. These counselors didn’t know anything! Yet in the second week of camp, one of our directors decided it’d be a good idea for the counselors to have devotional times with their kids—a little bible lesson, a little prayer, something. Newbies barely know how to do that for themselves, much less others—and naturally, the kids had questions. One of the counselors wisely realized he needed someone more knowledgable than he, and once he found out I was a bible college graduate, had me fill in for him. As for the other counselors… well I don’t know what they taught their kids. It’s only by the grace of God any of these kids chose to follow Jesus by the end of the week.

So if you’re anxious about heresy: Screen your leaders. All of them. If they’re good, you needn’t worry further: They’ll watch out for false teachings and heresy right along with the pastors, and correct it whenever they see it.

If you don’t screen anyone, I can certainly see why you’d be terrified of heresy hiding in every dark corner.

Control and faith.

Control-freak leaders might totally screen their leadership in this way. But they still won’t trust them. They still want to carefully, micromanagerially supervise everything.

For these folks, heresy isn’t really the issue. It’s the excuse they use for supervising everything. The real issue is a much deeper one: They lack faith. They don’t fully trust God is in control. They gotta be in control—of what people believe, do, think, behave. They don’t trust God, and they don’t trust his people.

And because humans are creatures of extremes, they get nuts. They get legalistic and cultlike. They don’t trust the Spirit, so they quench him. There’s little to no good fruit.

Lack of faith means they worry a lot—about heresy, about compromise, about demons, about evil outsiders who wanna sneak into the church and spoil things. They worry about fellow leaders—are they more popular?—are they plotting to undermine ’em and steal their ministry? (Remember how King Saul ben Kish was super paranoid about David ben Jesse?)

They worry about the government, or anyone else who has any power to stop their ministry. (Which is why they usually avoid denominations.) They worry about competition from other churches. They worry about the baggage-retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow. They worry, worry, worry.

Worriers need to step down and let someone else worry for a change—preferably someone who knows better than to worry, ’cause Jesus told us not to. Trouble is, they’ll forever worry about who to hand the ministry off to, and may have to die first. I’ve seen pastors who stepped down, only to step back up a few years later ’cause they didn’t like the way their successor was running things—and growing pains aside, the successor was doing just fine. But a control freak will go bonkers simply because things aren’t just so.

In certain cases this is a psychological issue, not a spiritual one. Such leaders need to consider counseling. They should see a therapist, and talk it over with someone who can diagnose them properly. If it’s not psychological, they can still talk over their issues with some sort of counselor, and sort out their issues and feelings and fears. But if their only purpose in leading others is because things ought to be done “right,” and not because they’re trying to point them to God, who really knows best… well, they need to stay away from leadership. Things need to be done God’s way, not ours.