On Tyranny

The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.   1 Peter 5:1-4


A friend of mine, a Reformed pastor, once told me about one of his early pastorates.  There was an influential woman in the congregation who held strong opinions about what went on in her church, and she was vocal in expressing herself.   By the time my friend arrived on the scene, the members understood that you stayed out of this lady’s way if you could.  However, my friend had a hard time doing that – she cut a pretty wide swath.  After he’d been pastor there for a time, this sister concluded that he was the wrong man for her church and she lost no time in telling him so.  Eventually she went so far as to physically accost him and demand to know when he was going to leave.  Although his session (which – surprise – had been tolerating her behavior for years) was unable to deal with the problem, his presbytery was able to step in and sort things out, though not without difficulty.

This woman undoubtedly felt that what she was doing was good for her congregation.  The fact that my friend had been called as pastor by the whole church (and not just by her) didn’t faze her in the least.  In her mind, the only thing that mattered was her opinion, and she was used to having her way.  She had become a tyrant among the sheep, bullying them and the shepherds, all the while believing that she was doing something good.

I’ve heard of other congregations in which an individual or family was able to hold a church hostage through similarly potent opinions.  These churches resembled dysfunctional families in which people think they’ve successfully adapted to a relative’s bad behavior when, in fact, they’re merely enabling and encouraging an abusive person.  It’s puzzling to find this kind of behavior in Reformed churches, yet it happens.

Recently, I ran across an article by Tim Keller that touches on this problem of tyrant-sheep in a different context.   Although Keller was discussing how change takes place in churches of different sizes, his remarks also shed light on why churches sometimes allow outspoken people to impose their wishes on everyone else.  In “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics” Keller writes,

“The smaller church by its nature gives immature, outspoken, opinionated, and broken members a significant degree of power over the whole body. Since everyone knows everyone else, when members of a family or small group express strong opposition to the direction set by the pastor and leaders, their misery can hold the whole congregation hostage.  If they threaten to leave, the majority of people will urge the leaders to desist….  Leaders of small churches must be brave enough to lead and to confront immature members, in spite of the unpleasantness involved.”

Keller’s analysis is basically a sociological one: that in small (which he defines as < 200 people) churches, relationships are so intertwined that people tend to prefer placating bad behavior over making a scene or risking the loss of a disgruntled person.  But if the elders of a church are doing their jobs faithfully, they will lovingly confront members whose behavior has turned into bullying.

When I hear about these kinds of conflicts, I can’t help thinking of James’ words:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:13-18)

In my experience, church conflicts often arise simply because of over-sensitivity or poor communication.  It would be a mistake to assume that every disagreement is the result of a serious spiritual problem.  But when a member falls into a chronic pattern of demanding to have his or her way, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a spiritual problem present that cries out to be addressed.


If Keller’s anaysis is correct, tyrant-sheep may be fairly common among confessional Reformed congregations, which are often smaller than 200 people.  I can’t say for certain whether this is true, but it’s plausible.

But if tyrant-sheep have slain their thousands, then surely tyrant-shepherds have slain their tens of thousands.

A few years ago I listened to a man talk about his experiences in a Reformed church.  The elders made some decisions that were questioned by a few church members.  His elders responded by excommunicating those who “sinned” by questioning their actions.  Other members, when they expressed concern that these people had been treated unfairly, were themselves excommunicated for contempt.  The church was nominally Presbyterian, but in practice that wasn’t the case: the story struck me as more Kafka than Calvin.  Yet since then I’ve heard of other Presbyterian churches imposing censures on members for little more than questioning a session decision.  In a legitimate presbyterian church, members have the right to respectfully appeal session decisions or judicial actions without risking reprisal.  There is little doubt that the people who were treated this way were deeply wronged.  When overseers behave in this manner, they can lay waste to whole churches.

Still, it’s easy to see how this kind of abuse develops.  Our culture is highly individualistic and anti-authoritarian.  In an effort to counteract worldliness, churches may run in the opposite direction and encourage leaders to take their authority to un-Biblical extremes.  The exercise of authority in such cases begins to extend into areas where the elders have no business making rules.

Sometimes, I suspect, shepherds can become tyrants through incompetence.  They know that they possess authority, but they don’t know how to use it properly.  Perhaps they do a poor job of communicating, and when the sheep respond with confusion, their actions are misinterpreted as insubordination: any sheep not blindly following the leader is assumed to be a trouble-maker.

There can also be a kind of tyranny that arises when elders see the sheep making decisions that are likely to be bad for them.  Personally, I find that as an elder I often have to remind myself that there are situations that I can’t “fix;” otherwise, I’m tempted to act too aggressively.

As an elder, you can’t keep people from making decisions that are within their authority even if you’re pretty sure that the decisions are bad ones.  You can’t suspend someone from membership for doing something that is unwise or foolish, but not immoral.  You don’t actually have the power to make anyone do anything, in fact; you have only the powers of moral suasion and Biblical church discipline.  Once you step beyond those, you’re probably doing something that Christ hasn’t given you the authority to do.

The topic of tyranny in the church was brought to my mind a few months ago while reading my friend Ed Robson’s book, Dear Young Shepherd: A Guide to the Gentle Use of a Pastor’s Rod and Staff.  In reflecting on 27 years of pastoral ministry, he warns against both pastoral and parental forms of tyranny and notes that pastoral tyranny is “common.”  What has intrigued me since then is the observation that tyrannical behavior must not be rare in Reformed circles, because I keep encountering contemporary Reformed pastors who mention it as a problem.

In writing about “The Kind Husband” in his wife Mary’s book, The Law of Kindness, Joel Beeke warns husbands to provide their wives with “biblical, tender, servant leadership, not ruthless authoritarianism….We are to be the head, not the fist.”

In his sermon on Galatians 5:1-26 entitled “Called to Freedom,” Pastor Edward Donnelly observes,

“In some parts of the Reformed church in general, there are men who are too heavy-handed, too intrusive, too domineering. They pronounce on matters which are none of their business, they intrude into personal family areas which are not their domain. The tragic irony is that there are too many Christians who want to be dominated, who want a pope, who want to be under someone who will tell them when to blow their nose and when to get up and when to go to bed….”

In cases of tyrant sheep, there is shared culpability: the tyrants are responsible for their actions, but the church members who make excuses for them and the elders who fail to admonish them must bear the blame, too.  In the case of tyrant shepherds, the elders themselves ought to bear the blame (WLC #151).

Apparently, whether one is a sheep or a shepherd, it is too easy to become a benevolent despot. Remembering the need for balance, the limits of church government, and our accountability to the Chief Shepherd are all essential if we are to avoid slipping into well-intended tyranny.

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