Breaking Free From the Spirit of Control

by | Nov 11, 2009 | Blogs, Fire in My Bones

Here are six ways to identify an unhealthy leadership style in a church or ministry.

My world was shaken 20 years ago this week. On Nov. 10, 1989, one day after German protesters tore down the Berlin Wall, a Christian ministry I had been a part of for 11 years also fell apart.

Maranatha Campus Ministries was a vibrant outreach to college campuses. It was founded in Kentucky during the Jesus movement by a passionate charismatic couple, Bob and Rose Weiner, who eventually started churches on more than 50 American universities. In its heyday in the Reagan era, students from Maranatha took the gospel around the world.

“Authoritarian leaders know how to control people through manipulation … In such a church no one is allowed to ask questions.”

But with all our good intentions and youthful zeal for evangelism, the ministry did not survive. We had a flawed, authoritarian leadership model, which was made worse by a lack of mature advisers. When Maranatha’s young pastors grew up and realized the ministry had an unhealthy and oppressive structure, they voted to disband. The churches either went independent, merged with other groups or closed.

Meanwhile, the many young people who had been discipled in Maranatha had to deal with their own unique form of post-traumatic stress disorder. They woke up and realized that Maranatha had been influenced by the Shepherding Movement, which taught that all Christians should be submitted to personal shepherds who dispense advice and approve all decisions.

The Shepherding movement, which had broad influence in many charismatic churches, collapsed around the same time. Because I lived through that era, I am hypersensitive to the way a spirit of control works in a church. And I can assure you that controlling attitudes will destroy a ministry. Here are six obvious signs that a spirit of control is at work:

1. Little or no accountability. There is safety in the multitude of counselors (see Prov. 11:14). There is much less safety—perhaps even danger—when a leader does not bother to seek counsel from a diverse group of his peers, as well as from gray-haired men and women who have the wisdom that comes with age. If a pastor or church leader isn’t open to correction, he is headed for a train wreck.

2. Spiritual elitism. If there is a spirit of control in a church, people are usually told that their group is superior. Supposedly they have special spiritual privileges from God, along with “exclusive” revelation. If people choose to leave, they are shunned or branded as renegades. Sometimes, in extreme cases, people are even cursed if they leave. (Last week when I was in Hungary I learned of a charismatic church that publicly curses people when they quit the congregation.) This cultic behavior inflicts unimaginable emotional suffering and also divides families.

3. An oppressive atmosphere. Authoritarian leaders know how to control people through manipulation. In some cases, this control may simply take the form of subtle suggestions and persuasion. In the most abusive situations, it may come in the form of threats, legalistic demands, unreasonable requirements or false doctrines. In some cases, especially in charismatic circles, it can come through misguided personal prophecies or mystical visions.

In such a church no one is allowed to ask questions. Spiritual heaviness lies like a thick cloud over the congregation, and few believers manifest genuine joy because they are overburdened by feelings of guilt and fear.

4. Angry domination. Tyrants are surprisingly similar. Because they want to control their surroundings, they often blow up when people do not conform to their demands. Yet the Apostle Paul taught that church leaders should not be “violent” or “quarrelsome” but “self-controlled” and “gentle” (see 1 Timothy 3:2-3). Later he instructed Timothy that the Lord’s servant “must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:24). You will always find lots of anger wherever there is a controlling spirit.

5. Individual guidance is discouraged. The Bible teaches that every Christian has direct access to God through one mediator, Jesus Christ. Every believer can hear God’s voice personally and should expect to receive God’s guidance.

In authoritarian church situations, however, members are not encouraged to seek God’s guidance themselves. Rather, they are urged to conform to the preferences of the leader or the group. In some cases, leaders have actually taught their congregations to seek counsel and specific approval from a pastor before making major decisions. Thus church members develop an unhealthy dependence on a man in order to function spiritually, and their ability to trust God is diminished.

This kind of control is emotionally crippling. For many who submitted to the philosophy behind the Shepherding movement, it took years to recover from the loss of decision-making ability. They relinquished their wills and lost their identities because they viewed absolute obedience to their spiritual leaders as a Christian virtue.

6. Women viewed as inferior. Some churches today permit the ordination of women, even as senior pastors or bishops, while others maintain that Scripture does not permit women to hold these positions. Apart from these differences of opinion on biblical interpretation, it should be noted that authoritarian churches usually discourage women from pursuing any genuine role in ministry. Women are viewed as useful only in their functions as wives and mothers, and they are not encouraged to step beyond these confines to pursue ministry opportunities.

Such a low view of women leads men to treat them as God-ordained sex objects or drones equipped to perform only menial tasks. Women who have leadership gifts are branded rebels or “Jezebels.”

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, similar walls of communist control fell in rapid succession until the entire Soviet Union broke apart. Yet walls of spiritual bondage still exist today in so many parts of the church—and the ghosts of the Shepherding movement still haunt us. We are called to be emancipators, not enslavers. As we seek to build healthy churches, let’s remember these words from Galatians 5:1: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (NASB).

J. Lee Grady is editor of Charisma. You can find him on Twitter at leegrady.

 

CHARISMA NEWSLETTERS

Stay up-to-date with current issues, Christian teachings, entertainment news, videos & more.

The latest breaking Christian news you need to know about as soon as it happens.

Prophetic messages from respected leaders & news of how God is moving throughout the world. 


MORE FROM CHARISMA

How Divine Wrestling Changes Our Identity

How Divine Wrestling Changes Our Identity

All of us at some point will hit a place of getting the wind knocked out of us. We all experience unexpected detours and times when there seems to be no way out. But there is One who lives in us, the Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us the strength to overcome obstacles....

Spirit-Filled Pastor: How Does God Lead Us Today?

Spirit-Filled Pastor: How Does God Lead Us Today?

Whether it is the Spirit leading or forbidding in the book of Acts, or the Spirit leading throughout Christian history, it’s clear that the leading of the Spirit is important. In the Old Testament, it appears that the Spirit of God could be withdrawn completely from...

Joyce Meyer: Keys to Winning Your Race in Life

Joyce Meyer: Keys to Winning Your Race in Life

Everyone has a race to run. That just means we all have a life to live. The apostle Paul says in Hebrews 12:1 (NIV), “Therefore...let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for...

Prophetic Word: The Lord Says, ‘I Am the Consuming Fire’

Prophetic Word: The Lord Says, ‘I Am the Consuming Fire’

God says that during this season, He is turning up the heat, finding the gold and bringing His refining fire. Job makes a powerful statement of faith as he says of the Lord, "When he has tried me, I shall come out as gold." God knew Job's heart and Job knew the heart...

What Is ‘The One Thing’ God Wants From You?

What Is ‘The One Thing’ God Wants From You?

In 1971, I was invited to spend one month in Singapore at a new institute that had been started by John Haggai. It was still in the formative stages then—a place where Asian church leaders would be trained and challenged to witness for Christ. Today, more than 40...

37 Prayers for the Suffering Persecuted Church

37 Prayers for the Suffering Persecuted Church

It was a Pentecost bloodbath and most Christians never heard about it. More than 50 Christians were killed in one of the deadliest terror attacks on Nigerians this year. Scores of gunmen rushed in to kill Christians in the midst of worship. All told, over 360 million...

RECENT ARTICLES

Prophecy: A Window of Time Has Opened for Believers to Preach the Truth

I was rejoicing and praising God on Friday, June 24, 2022, for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, knowing that an ungodly decree was overturned and one national curse was broken. I heard by the Holy...
The Man Who Spent 23 Minutes in Hell: The People I Saw in Hell

The Man Who Spent 23 Minutes in Hell: The People I Saw in Hell

In 1998, God gave me a life-changing vision of hell. I receive many questions about my experience from people all over the world, but one question I'm often asked is, "Who did you see in hell?" There are others who say they've had an experience like mine, and they...

The United States: Birthed in Prophetic Symbolism

The United States: Birthed in Prophetic Symbolism

One of the most amazing facts about the Founding Fathers of our nation is this: The one referred to as the "voice" of the revolution (John Adams) and the one referred to as the "pen" of the revolution (Thomas Jefferson) both died on the same day—July 4, 1826—exactly...

Why Did God Give ‘This’ to Me?

Why Did God Give ‘This’ to Me?

It’s a question I frequently hear. It’s one I’ve asked. And maybe it’s one you’ve asked, too. The question is, “God, why did You give this to me?” This can be any number of issues, from emotional or psychological struggles to symptoms or sicknesses, disabilities or...

No Evil Can Stop What God Has Planned

No Evil Can Stop What God Has Planned

I sense it. And I perceive a growing number of people in massive proportions sense the increasing momentum of power and might worldwide. Something is on the horizon—something more eerie and ominous than what the people of the world have ever before experienced. Even...

Pin It on Pinterest