Domineering or Gracious Giving: A Perspective of Pastoral Abuse and Its Correction

James 3:1: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

The task – the privilege – of being one who pastors the flock of God is the most rewarding work that a man can be called to, for it is a work of those who “keep watch over (the souls)” (Hebrews 13:17a) of those they have been gifted, by God’s sovereign grace, to tend and feed that portion of the flock of Christ of which they have been made undershepherds over (John 21:15-17).

Yet, very often, the very men who are called to such can look to the Scriptures and overemphasize the part of their ministry that calls for those under them to obey and submit to them, as stated in the first part of the Hebrews passage cited above, with the result that those under them will not do so in a manner that is with joy, but rather with groaning, and as a result, it is not only of no advantage to the sheep they are charged with protecting, feeding and teaching, but will become a burden to the entire portion of the flock they are charged by our sovereign God to shepherd, and as a further result, a burden to them. The reason such a thing has happened is readily apparent, as with any sin (and yes, gracelessly overemphasizing the obedience and submission of the individual and collective sheep of the flock, by any Christian elder, is sin that they will have to give an account for); grace, rather than being apparent in the leader’s disposition in preaching, teaching and counseling, is downplayed in favor of a legalistic approach to portions of the Scripture (for some, all of the Scripture). (Hebrews 13:7b)

This is a grievous, egregious sin on the part of the Christian pastor, for it does harm to those whom our Lord shed His blood and had His body broken for, and ultimately harms the entirety of that congregation they are to be shepherding (1 Corinthians 12:26a).

For those who may be unwittingly doing such harm to individual sheep under their stewardship, they must know, according to the Scripture, they are causing them to stumble, and hurting their entire flock in doing so; however, there is a Scriptural corrective for this problem, but first, let’s look at the cause.

THE PROBLEM STEMS FROM LEGALISM WHICH IS SIN

Legalism, as any pastor knows, is a sin; in a pastoral role, it is the sin of applying portions of Scripture to those under them – whether singly or as a congregation – in a manner that is devoid of love, because it stems from the flesh, and therefore, is not a product of that fruit of the Spirit  which is to epitomize the Christian leader’s life and example, in word and conduct, not only before that flock they’ve been given stewardship over, but those who are watching from outside the Christian venue. Such legalistic conduct and words lack this fruit of the Spirit, and provoke those under the elder’s care to partake of such things as enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions and divisions, which may lead to even more apparent sins of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-26). For those who are to be giving an example to the flock that models the risen Christ, they must look to themselves first, and see those under them, by that grace which saved and preserves not only them, but the members of the body which they are to shepherd, with those fruits of the Spirit mentioned in the above cited Galatians passage – to do otherwise does not only invite disaster, it insures it. Too often in these situations, grace is missing, so there cannot be that fruit of the Spirit which comes from God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Rather than showing the flesh as being crucified, such an attitude of legalism by the pastor (s) of a local flock glorifies the flesh, and explicitly denies and disobeys the command of our Lord and God to regard no one according to the flesh, which is to say that, in doing so, they are not only looking at the member (s) of their flock according to the flesh, but the risen, glorified Lord of themselves and their flock after the flesh, which plainly shows that the (freely, grace-given) love of Christ is not that which is controlling the elder’s example before the flock they have been charged with protecting from harm; instead, rather than paying special attention to care for the flock of God among them, they are harming that flock, and themselves, for they are living for themselves, no matter what religiously moral spin they may mentally or emotionally seek put upon such conduct. Such legalistic, fleshly application of the Scriptures over which the Spirit of God has made them overseers discounts His grace, the blood of the covenant He shed for that flock, one and all, and because it is of the flesh, rather than Spirit endowed grace that results in a love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith, missed the aim of the charge, or gracious responsibility of stewardship, the elder (s) have been given by the Spirit of grace (2 Corinthians 5:14-17; Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 1:5).

THE CORRECTIVE STEMS FROM GOD’S GRACE

In 1 Peter 5:5-6, we read this instruction to those under the elders:

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you…

It should go without saying that these instructions to those younger members under the elders should be modeled by the elders themselves who have charge over the flock of Christ which is under them, and in the first three verses of this same chapter of 1 Peter, we see that this is true:

1 Peter 5:1-3: So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

This is why we started our article out with James 3:1, for many desire to become teachers without realizing that a stricter judgment will be required of them as overseers of the blood bought flock of God; consequently, let us look more closely at this passage of Scripture from the first three verses of 1 Peter 5.

First, however, let us look at what was said to the flock under those who are to shepherd the flock of God among them; specifically, with regard to the humility that stems from the love of God given by grace to regenerate believers.

 John Gill, in his Exposition of the Entire Bible, puts is like this:

Not in office, as if inferior officers to bishops were here intended, who ought to be subject to them; for elders and pastors are the same with them, nor is there any other office but that of deacons; nor younger pastors and overseers, such an one as Timothy was; not but that a deference is to be paid, and proper respect had to such who are of greater age, and longer standing and experience, by younger brethren in the ministry; nor such as are only younger in years, who ought to rise up unto, and honour hoary hairs, which may be done where subjection is not required, as here; nor such as are young in grace and experience, since there are little children, young men, and fathers in the church; but all the members of churches in common are here intended, as distinguished from their officers; for as pastors and overseers were, for the most part, chosen from among those that were senior in age, so the members generally consisted of the younger sort…

Thus, those who are younger are not necessarily so in age, although that may often be the case; however, this regards any who are not elders, shepherding the flock. We must remember, however, that exhortation to the flock, from Hebrews 13:17, that they are to submit and obey in such a way that is not only consistent with this humility, but also, that this humility, by which God gives grace to the humble, is first and foremost of all modeled by the overseers (Hebrews 13:7; Philippians 3:17; 1 Timothy 1:16; 4:12).

Now, an elder clothed with humility will, by God’s great grace, cause those they are modeling the image of the risen Lord of glory and speaking the Word of the Spirit of truth to also be clothed in that same humility, by that same gracious endowment of our triune God (2 Corinthians 13:14), for such is to be the norm, not the exception, in the church of the most holy God.

In the elders who are shepherding the flock of God that is among them, since they are partakers in the glory that is to be revealed, for this not to be of the flesh, but of that love that issues from the proper purpose of love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith, which is all considered in the word “aim” in 1 Timothy 1:5 – the results are encompassed in the words and actions so controlled by God in the elder (s).

The overriding principle to look at in 1 Peter 5:1-3, therefore, is that gracious control of the Spirit of God, and this leads to willing, eager, and non-domineering shepherding of that portion of the flock of God over which He has made them overseers, so let us examine those three key words in brief.

Willing simply means to be desiring to carry out the discharge of the duty of overseeing and shepherding the flock without being forced or coerced to do so, and such is only possible by that grace of God that not only effectively calls and sanctifies all believers to be conforming into the image of the Son of God; however, one can be willing from a sense of self-importance, which is to say, pride of position, and the warning that goes out to all believers of God must especially be heeded by His flock’s overseers (Galatians 6:3it would be prudent to consider verses 1-10 for context). Self-importance, which is pride that comes only from the flesh, is not of the Spirit of God, and so cannot give the example of the risen Lord because of the lack of the power of the Spirit of the risen Lord in such a fleshly attitude. Such an attitude leads to interpreting, exegeting and applying the Scriptures of our gracious God in a legalistic manner that shreds, instead of feeding and protecting, His sheep, as it considers them according to the flesh which, as we said above, must consider the Lord after the flesh in order to do such a terrible thing. The proper form of this willing must be of God’s grace, or it is pompous pride, and will damage both the shepherd and the sheep.

The eagerness in this passage is very like that willing we have just written about above, but the emphasis would be on desire; it should be enough here to mention that such eagerness can also be of the flesh or of the Spirit, and the measuring stick which will show such eagerness for what it is by simple comparison of those fruits of the Spirit that show the aim – that is, the stated purpose and result – which we have looked at in 1 Timothy 1:5.

Now, we used the negative prefix for domineering in our passage from 1 Peter 5:1-3, in order to emphasize the opposite of the negative (the negative prefix cancels out the negative meaning of the word, making it mean the opposite), but let’s look at the word as it appears in the text.

Domineering carries the sense of ruling and reigning over as a monarch or government leader, to which our Lord Jesus said to the first leaders of His church that He used as the foundation to build it, 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 (Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus Christ, the preeminent Son of God incarnate, could have compelled servile obedience of all, yet He did not; furthermore, even risen in glory (as we have considered that we are not to look at Him after the flesh anymore in 2 Corinthians 5:16), He is yet serving us before the Father as He mediates for each and everyone of His saved sheep (1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 9:15). Yes, He serves the Father, but He also still serves us even glorified, to the end that we will receive the promised inheritance, and this should be an astounding and humbling truth for all Christians saved by His matchless grace who have received that eternal Spirit in their regenerate natures by which their Lord and God offered Himself to purify their conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14); how much more this is to be true of those who have the charge to oversee, shepherd, feed, protect and be channels of that Spirit given grace to those under their charge!

A pastor who is domineering cannot discharge anything of the Spirit, for such a man grieves and quenches the Holy Spirit of the living God, with the inevitable results that those sheep such a overseer is entrusted with are wounded.

We have mentioned it a couple of times, and given the understanding of the word aim in the particular passage, but let us look at the outcome of that heart of the pastor which is to reflect the heart of their Lord and Savior by letting the Scripture speak plainly:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5).

Such cannot be done without the supply of grace from the Holy Spirit; there will be no love, gentleness, meekness, humility or true faith from the pastor who is domineering over the flock, and the strictness of judgment that is required of those who lead and teach the flock will be even more strict of such an one, for those who live according to the flesh will see the final death, after having injured the sheep for which our Great Shepherd gave Himself.

We realize that there are those who are truly of Christ, in pastoral positions, who may be doing this without full realization that they are doing so; for them, the corrective discipline of God will lead them back to the path of righteousness that is only possible to walk by that grace of God which saved, sanctifies, and ultimately glories not only them, but all believers. Such as are His in the role of an elder who are doing this may be disciplined in such as way as to prevent them from being an elder – it has happened more than one time, and thank God for His faithfulness to keep raising up His gifted men, and taking down those who wrongly use and abuse the office.

In conclusion, we ask a simple question to all those who are at present elders in a church of Jesus Christ where they are to protect, lead and feed the sheep they are undershepherd over, by His sovereign grace: Are you working in such a manner, by the grace of God, that those under you are growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, with resulting godly and holy lives attesting to this fact?

The sheep of Christ you are entrusted with are the primary yardstick to view the divine power of the Head of the church that is flowing through you to the members of His body of which you are stewards (Ephesians 4:11-16). We do not mean those members who are fleshly of themselves, being contentious and divisive, but those who have made the good confession of faith, who look to you as the channel for that grace of God which comes through proper preaching, teaching, protection from false doctrine and counseling unto godly living day-by-day.

It bears repeating:

Acts 20:28: Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

In His grace, love, fellowship and peace – Bill

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About Bill H

I am currently a teacher/elder at On The Way Reformed Baptist Church. We are a 1689 London Baptist Confessional church, believing this Statement of Faith most accurately reflects the great doctrines of Scripture. The church may be contacted by those interested in learning more about our church, we may be contacted at the following email accounts: hm1374012@gmail.com or marcelle19@gmail.com
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