By Steve Corgan
The abuse of spiritual authority has been present in the church ever since its inception. Paul dealt with it, Peter admonished the church about it, and Jesus said that he hated it. The best way to avoid victimization by abusive authority is to understand how it works so you can recognize immediately when you’re in a controllers tractor beam. In this article I will give you enough information to do just that.
In Revelation 2:6, the Lord commends the church at Ephesus saying, “Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” According to the Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, one of the meanings of Nicolaitans is “people over comers.” What were the deeds of the Nicolaitans that Jesus hated? Apparently they were people in the church whose ambition and practice was to overcome or subdue others. They were people conquerors, obsessed with subjecting others to their control. Today we call this kind of person a control freak. Families, the business world, and sadly the church world are plagued by people conquerors.
Paul dealt with people conquerors in his letter to the Galatians. The Judaizers weren’t satisfied that the redemptive work of Jesus was enough. They were teaching that there was something you must do in addition to trusting Jesus in order to please God and make your salvation complete. In their case it was circumcision. Ephesians 1:6 says that God has made us accepted in the Beloved. We can do nothing to make God love us more than He already does. And we can do nothing to make Him love us any less. He’s already decided to accept and love us with a perfect, unconditional love.
Paul says about the Judaizers that, “They eagerly seek you, not commendably, but they wish to shut you out, in order that you may seek them.” (Galatians 4:17, NASB) In order to gain control over the Galatians, the Judaizers told them that their salvation wasn’t complete. Their tactic was to convince people that they were still on the “outside” in order to make them want to become part of “their group.” What was their purpose? They illegally used the law to snare people in a web of religious control and manipulation. They were people conquerors. I use this same verse, Gal. 4:17, to teach my children about cliques. A clique is a small, exclusive group of people (emphasis on the word exclusive). The primary satisfaction in belonging to a clique is realized by excluding others from it. The idea is to create the illusion that you have something really cool and awesome going on. Usually just the opposite is true. The allure or attraction to those on the outside of the clique is based on this illusion and the desire to “belong” that is fostered because of being excluded. It is childish, but it’s all too common among Christians.
Nicolaitans thrive in this ambiance because you can control people if you convince them that you’ve got something they don’t have access to unless they coddle up to you and play the game. But I want to proclaim to you that there is no elite or privileged group in the body of Christ. If you’re in Jesus, you’re in THE GROUP, and it’s not an exclusive one, but an inclusive one. It’s for whosoever will. You don’t have to indulge manipulators and control freaks. Paul said in Colosians 2:8-10, NASB, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority.” You are complete in Jesus. You don’t need the validation, acceptance, recognition, or approval of any man to make you complete. You are accepted in the Beloved and complete in Him. What more can any man offer you? If you’ve been manipulated into seeking man’s approval, you may have fallen prey to a people conqueror system of control. Galatians 5:1 NASB says, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.”
Don’t let the people conquerors impose their control on you.
The Shepherding Movement
I was involved the shepherding movement of the 70’s and remember it vividly. There was erroneous teaching that an elder or pastor was positioned by God in a person’s life as His governing agent. I’ve found that people conquerors often believe they have a calling, gifting, anointing, or superior revelation that qualifies them for ruling over others. In the shepherding movement it was presented as God’s plan to protect people from themselves and the devil. They were taught to submit to leadership as a “covering.” However, that premise set the stage for an unhealthy, codependent relationship in which a person depended on someone else for his or her relationship with God. Asking, “Who is your covering?” became the equivalent of saying, “Who controls you?” This is a bold infringement on the relationship Jesus died to give us. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “there is only one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.”
Those leaders presumed to know God’s will for people concerning areas wherein He usually deals personally with an individual, such as whom to marry, where to live, where to work, and the timing and direction for one’s ministry and calling. It’s true that there is great wisdom in Proverbs 11:14 that says, “in a multitude of counselors there is safety,” but through the guidance of the Holy Spirit we must ultimately discern Gods direction for our lives. No human can take His place. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, would be with us to lead and guide us, and I’m reminded of the wisdom of “Mr. Pentecost,” David DuPlessis, who said, “The Lord is my shepherd, and no shepherd is my Lord.”
Bucking The System
In a “Nicolaitan” system the most severe abuse takes place though when someone rejects the counsel or opinion of the leader. A dissenting opinion or point of view is intolerable because it poses a threat to the controller’s power base. In the book, “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse,” the authors, Johnson and VanVonderen, say,
“You know we must never disagree with the pastor on his sermons—and if you do, you will never be trusted and never be allowed to minister in any capacity in this church. In this case, the unspoken rule is: Do not disagree with the church authorities —especially the pastor—or your loyalty will be suspect. Rules like this remain unspoken, because examining them in the light of mature dialogue would instantly reveal how illogical, unhealthy and anti-Christian they are. So silence becomes the fortress wall of protection, shielding the pastor’s power position from scrutiny or challenge.” pg. 67
“In some churches there is an unwritten and unspoken rule that says, ‘It is better to be nice than honest’…If you speak about the problem out loud, you are the problem…The truth is, when people talk about problems out loud, they don’t cause them, they simply expose them.” (pg. 68)
Control of people and situations must be maintained at all costs. Therefore the controller will put a negative spiritual spin on the dissenter’s liberty. Public admonitions about Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16:32), the danger of challenging (touching) Gods anointed, and threats of Gods impending judgment on those with a “critical spirit” are designed to manipulate and intimidate people into line through fear. The term “critical spirit,” by the way, doesn’t exist ANYWHERE in the scriptures. This designation is liberally used by people conquerors to label and suppress anyone who challenges the legitimacy of their control or questions what is wrong with the abusive Nicolaitan system. The truth is, when the prevailing atmosphere in a church (or home or business for that matter) is one of suppression and control through fear, intimidation, paranoia, coercion, fear of reprisal, and the fear of rejection or exclusion, you can be sure that the people conquerors have set up shop. The Lord hates their deeds.
Johnson and VanVonderen go on to say, “The next characteristic of spiritually abusive systems is that a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. We’re not talking about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to a given organization, church, or leader. A common way this is accomplished is by setting up a system where disloyalty to or disagreement with the leadership is construed as the same thing as disobeying God. Questioning leaders is equal to questioning God! After all, the leader is the authority, and authority is always right. This causes people to misplace their loyalty in a leader, a church or an organization… The third method of calling forth misplaced loyalty is the threat of humiliation. This is done by publicly shaming, exposing, or threatening to remove people from the group. In the abusive system, it is the fear of being exposed, humiliated or removed that insures your proper allegiance, and insulates those in authority. You can be ‘exposed’ for asking too many questions, for disobeying the unspoken rules, or for disagreeing with authority. People are made public examples in order to send a message to those who remain. Others have phone campaigns launched against them, to warn their friends and others in the group about how ‘dangerous’ they are.” (pg. 76, 77)
In contrast to the above scenario, think about how our Heavenly Father deals in our lives. He doesn’t intimidate, coerce, dominate, or manipulate us. His Spirit is called the “Comforter,” not the conqueror nor controller. He loves us into doing His will. 1 John 4:18-19, NASB, says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love (Him), because He first loved us.” Romans 2:4 says “it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance.”
Peter’ s Exhortation
Peter exhorted leaders in 1 Peter 5:1-3, saying, “Therefore, I exhort the elders… shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” The word for “lording over” means to subdue, overcome, and hold in subjection. Peter’s admonition clearly and intrepidly exposes and reproves the deeds of the people conquerors. Leadership is through example, and not by lording it over people.
The term codependence was first used to describe the complexities of the relationship that develops between alcohol or drug abusers and their family. The family members become abuse victims because of the physical, behavioral, and psychological consequences of the chemical addiction, thus making them codependent on the substance. Eventually the notion of codependence was broadened to include other kinds of dysfunctional relationships. A typical example is a woman unable to get emotionally free from a romantic involvement that has become physically abusive. In spite of the violence and abuse, she finds herself addicted to the relationship even though it has become the antithesis of love. The addiction isn’t to a drug but to an abusive person and relationship. (Of course the dynamics of this example are much more complex than I’m able to describe here). The victim will typically use all manner of illogical excuses to justify continuing in the abusive relationship. In much the same way, Christians become codependent to abusive authority when they wrongly believe that it is part of God’s plan or purpose for their life to submit to this authority. But remember, the Lord hates the deeds of the Nicolaitans.
Dysfunctional Family (Church)
The church is first and foremost a family. When spiritual authority is abused the relationships within the church family become dysfunctional. The family no longer functions as God intended. People fear mans opinion more highly than Gods. Often the life of the church revolves around a man and his personality rather than the person of Jesus Christ. When the members praise the pastor or preacher more often than Jesus as the reason for their allegiance and involvement, that’s a sure indication that something is wrong.
Luke 22:25-26 in The Amplified Bible says, “But Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles are deified by them and exercise lordship [ruling as emperor-gods] over them…But this is not to be so with you; on the contrary, let him who is the greatest among you become like the youngest, and him who is the chief and leader like one who serves.”
Jesus criticized the Gentiles because they deified their kings. God doesn’t want the church to make little gods of its leaders like the world does with Hollywood, entertainment, and sports celebrities. Forming personality cults around preachers and the gifts God gave them is akin to deifying them. To the contrary, our leaders should not only be like us, but they must become like the youngest and the one who serves. Leaders in the Body of Christ shouldn’t be an elite group living aloof, separate lives apart from the rest of us. No, they’re to lead by example as Peter said. By definition that means living among us with a lifestyle of transparency and accessibility that we can all relate to. Disingenuous movie star image, style, and personality belong in Hollywood. We don’t need little gods to lead us. The church doesn’t need leaders who have so insulated themselves from the church family that their lives are no longer relevant. We need real people we can touch and see.
How To Get Free
If you are a victim of an abusive people conqueror system then to some degree you’ve become dependent on that system and/or an individual for your relationship with God. This codependency can become an emotional, psychological, and spiritual addiction. That is why the Lord hates the deeds of the Nicolaitans. They usurp His place of Lordship in believers lives. Like the battered woman I mentioned earlier, you might see the abuse, but there’s fear that you can’t make it without the abuser. In fact a frequent practice by abusive leaders is to convince their followers that they can’t make it outside of their “covering,” and, they can usually produce a list of those who tried and failed. You may be tempted to justify or excuse the abuse by reciting all of the “good” things the abuser has done. Or the abuser may remind you of all the good he has done. But these things are just further evidence of manipulative abuse and codependence. Healthy relationships don’t function this way.
The greatest challenge to your freedom will come as you begin to dismantle the lies of the Nicolaitan stronghold that has been formed in your mind. You do that by replacing the wrong paradigm for relationships that is in your heart. A good place to begin is by meditating on the truths that I’ve shared in this article. Jesus came to set you free and give you liberty. There is only one mediator between you and God, and that is Jesus Christ. There is only one person designated to lead you and guide you into all truth, and that is the Holy Spirit. These truths will renew your mind, fortify your inner man, and eventually lead you to a place of experiential victory and freedom.
You will also need to sever your relationship with the abusive system and find a church with a healthy leadership, relational, and family environment. Leaving is often the most difficult phase of this process because of the feelings of abandonment experienced when dealing with the realization that many of your friendships were only political. When you are no longer willing to submit to the same belief system, those you once considered family and friends will likely shun you. Shunning the defector is one of the unwritten, unspoken rules that your friends may be unwilling to break, even at the price of treasured friendships. Feeble excuses may be offered like, “We agree with you and see the problem, but …” Pressure to divide the Body of Christ along lines of human loyalties is a work of the flesh described in Galatians 5:20 as “factions” in the NASB, and literally means sectarian or partisan. The truth is your “friends” fear the consequences more than they hate the system. This is a good time to pray for them and their own deliverance from the Nicolaitan stronghold.
A common tendency I’ve observed is the codependent victim wants to “save” the abusive leader from him/herself. But this is a trap and just another dimension of the codependence. If you get caught in this trap, your Christian life begins to revolve around what you wrongly perceive as your self-sacrificing mission from God. What really happens though is you put your own life in a dysfunctional holding pattern and the codependence actually worsens. You become even more codependent than before because now this person and their dysfunction dominate your relationship with God. The goal of the people conqueror is to keep you under his/her control. If this can be accomplished by giving you hope that you can change things from within the abusive system, the people conqueror will be happy to accommodate you. One of his basic motivations is control and you are playing along.
Remember the hypothetical woman I referred to before? This is exactly the trap she is in. But in her attempt to be the savior of the relationship she only becomes a willing participant in the codependency and abuse. You don’t help a drug addict by participating in his addiction, nor do you help the abusive lover by becoming his punching bag. In the same way you don’t help the abusive leader by submitting to his authority. In fact by continuing participation in the relationship you actually help establish and perpetuate the Nicolaitan system. Remember, the Lord said he hates their deeds.
At some point in your healing process God will undoubtedly lead you to pray for the leaders and friends you left behind. Often leaders are codependent victims of the same people conqueror system. This is why your prayers are so important; to tear down this stronghold in their minds and emotions, praying that the eyes of their understanding be opened.
God has a unique and special plan and purpose for your life. Your destiny isn’t just to be a worker drone in the kingdom of the people conquerors. Your life, ministry, and gifts can flourish in an atmosphere where your God given uniqueness, individuality, and gifting is celebrated rather than suppressed. Stand fast in the liberty Jesus bought for you and be not entangled in a yoke of bondage. Like Jesus and the believers at Ephesus, abhor the deeds of the people conquerors!