Friday, June 24, 2011


24 June 2011


Every few months, I hear reports that another reputable Christian church or ministry has been taken over by a group operating in an authority-abusing manner. No denomination or area of service seems immune. It happens among Charismatics, Catholics and Baptists. It happens to mega-churches, TV ministries, small churches, mission communities and student groups. Young denominations and old ones. Liberals and conservative (outwardly Biblical) Christians. Every time it causes massive pain to those involved. The institution they trust the most abuses their trust. It has little to do with formal doctrine - and most such groups are outwardly orthdox and subscribe to Biblical statements of faith.

It is not that the everyone in the group becomes cult-like, but that the levers of power come under the control of an elite who hide scandalous information from the rest; and intimidate and bully anyone who asks probing questions they don't wish to answer. Most of the members are ordinary people like you and me who continue faithfully tithing, attending, obeying, listening and trusting their leaders. They have been helped by the organisation, see its public good work and don't want to believe anything negative about it.

The cult-like authoritarian group is parasitic on the healthy organisation. They take its money, volunteer time and power relationships with which they have been entrusted and abuse them.

Almost always, the core structure includes a strong manipulative senior leader with two key men behind him. His right hand man is a bully who intimidates and threatens anyone who vaguely disagrees with the senior leader. His left hand man is a smooth, cool public relations man who smooths over any offence caused and helps maintain the reputation and relationships of the ministry leader. Thus any bullying or half-truths can't be traced clearly back to the manipulative senior leader, as he can always disclaim responsibility for whatever they do or say on his behalf.

Around this core are gradually added loyal close supporters who are told half-truths about what is going on in the ministry. Around them are numerous others who unknowingly serve the unhealthy core group. Anyone who disagrees with the core group or cooperate with its secrecy and bullying is gradually pushed out of the leadership structure - using any excuse possible. Over time independent thinking people and those who wish to govern it in an ethical, biblical, lawful, constitutional manner are pushed out and replaced with 'yes-men'. Eventually, a blindly loyal authority abusing group controls the church or ministry and it is very very hard to get back to healthy governance. Those who disagree are attacked with false allegations - often embellished half-truths - and threatened with discipline or if they are employees, they are fired. Slander is spread among the leadership against those who disagree with the new authoritarian direction without proper biblical investigation. They are treated as guilty until proven innocent and if they do prove themselves innocent, then new slander will be manufactured.

Such groups are extremely difficult to deal with using normal church discipline (Matthew 18 and 1 Timothy 5:20) methods since they continually abuse such processes to reverse them by counter-attacking the prosecution/whistleblowers, intimidating witnesses by threats of lawsuit or verbal attack etc. See more strategies at: When challenged, they become utterly ruthless.

Nevertheless, superficially, the ministry appears to be doing good work and have the blessing of God. Members don't want to believe evil about the organisation, since they rely on their leaders to test what is true versus what is false. The organisation becomes like a family to them. They have a lot to lose by leaving the organisation and realise that if they oppose the leadership, they will probably have to leave, so they don't believe or even want to examine evidence that is costly to believe.

Now if you think this applies just to fringe wacco, doctrinally heretical organisations - sorry no. This dynamic happens to good churches and ministries very quickly and quietly. They can be taken over by such groups in a few years. It could be happening under your nose to your own church or organisation. Further, the fact that you still have a leader you trusted for a long time is no guarantee, because the pattern is often that a good leader falls secretly into sin, for example he has an affair or embezzles money. Then he tries to keep up the appearance of good preaching and leadership while trying to turn the loyalty of key leaders from Christ to himself personally. People get promoted on the basis of personally loyalty to the leader rather than their true spiritual maturity.

If the group does became doctrinally heretical, then usually only the inner circle are told the new doctrinal teaching initially and it is not preached publicly. Eventually when the inner cultic group has seized complete control, they may go public with their new doctrine. But usually such groups, when they are in error don't actually care about the eroneous doctrine for its own sake. They care because they want to be 'more right' than everyone else by having their own special doctrinal distinctive. Acts 20:29 "I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.". Most commonly, errors are designed to give more power to the inner group - such as a teaching that the leader and his inner circle are the only ones who can really hear from God, are the only ones anointed by God and everyone else should blindly submit to them.

The fact that someone has been hurt by a particular group is not evidence of cultic authoritarian behaviour. People are hurt by every church and ministry. Sometimes leaders make mistakes and one has to hurt people to enforce biblical church discipline. Sometimes for example unrepentant homosexuals will accuse a ministry of cultic behaviour, but actually they need to repent. What is a feature is that the discipline does not follow biblical due process, but rather follows 'kangaroo court' bullying. They are usually soft on those in gross moral sin and very hard on innocent people who ask difficult questions. Such groups usually do not respect their own constitutions except in public situations where everyone is watching and it is put on as a show.

While such problems occur in every denomination and ministry type, they are hardest to rectify in the new popular Charismatic leader type of ministry since it usually has few checks and balances to hold them accountable when they become a problem

What makes dealing with such problems doubly difficult is that there are not many church authorities you can go to in order to complain about such behaviour. Many senior church authorities are themselves compromised in either participating in religious mafia-style bullying tactics against their own members or turn a blind eye to their own leaders who they know are ethically compromised. Thus, just as Herod and Pontius Pilate were enemies before the trial of Jesus, they became friends afterwards (Luke 23:12). So in many cases, sadly compromised pragmatic church leaders will support eachother against accountability - because they also don't want to be held accountable. The favour mafia-style elitist church and ministry governance as a matter of principle. They will happily preach 'servant-leadership' from the pulpit, but don't practice it themselves. In the criminal world, mafia bosses in one area will support and work with those in another, but another time fight eachother. The same with the religious mafia in the church. They may disagree doctrinally, but they all like authoritarian elistism and will support eachother to defend their power. In Africa, we see democratically elected leaders defending neighbouring ruthless dictators against public pressure.

Such dynamics are not new. They occurred in New Testament times and will continue to occur in future. John writes in 3 John 1:9 "I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. 10 So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church." The apostle Paul warned 2CO 11:13-20 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light... In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face."

In many cases, organisations which have gone unhealthy in the manner described above eventually slowly lumber back to a more healthy form of governance. It can happen. It does happen. We should patiently work for such reform and not write off every ministry that has been afflicted with ungodly leadership.


* Pray for protection for your ministry and for God to raise up righteous leaders and remove unrighteous ones.
* Do your part to speak up and promote biblical, ethical, constitutional godly governance.
* If you hear allegations against someone, investigate them carefully before repeating them - else you could be participating in slander.
* Make distance from leaders you know operate in a bullying and secretive manner.
* Be prepared to suffer - taking a stand for righteousness will be costly.
* Focus your efforts on your objectives. Since there is so much corruption and ungodliness in churches and ministries today, there is a risk it can be overwhelming.
* If you are affected by such an unhealthy group, form a counter-group for those opposing the cultic behaviour and learn from other organisations that are fighting similar battles.




Historically, the debate over church government has been over how to divide
authority in the church between three categories of authorities: leaders
outside the local church, local church elders, and the local church
congregation as a whole. There are numerous different systems but they are
divided into three main categories: The Episcopal system gives most
authority to leaders outside the local church; The Presbyterian system gives
most authority to local church elders; while the Congregational system gives
most authority to the ordinary members of the local church as a whole.

But this article does not debate which of these is best. All of them were
developed over the centuries to include many checks and balances in response
to the problems faced by the churches - and in particular the problem of
sinfulness of human church leadership. The Episcopal systems tended to
develop detailed regulations which tried to protect the rights of members.
The Presbyterian system developed a system of appeal courts in which errors
could be corrected. The Congregational system focused on local church
constitutions which allowed all members a voice and the right to question
administrative actions.


Nevertheless, in the last 30 years a new system of church governance has
arisen which has been adopted by most of the younger denominations and many
other ministries. This new system as explained by its proponents is based
not on rules, but on relationships. It allows freedom for the Holy Spirit
to move, without being bound by the traditions of men. It allows anointed
men of God the freedom to pursue the vision that God has given them, without
being slowed down by church committees. It is much more efficient than any
of the olds systems. The success and superiority of the new system is
demonstrated by the rapid growth of the ministries which use it. And
furthermore, its proponents claim, it is more biblical. Where in the Bible
they ask, do you see the church taking a vote on anything? So surely then
voting is unbiblical? Surely, rather, the anointed man of God who can hear
God better than anyone else in the church, should just do whatever God has
told him to do. Anyone who disagrees with the anointed leader must be
opposing God and sowing division and rebellion. Sometimes he might call
himself an apostle or a prophet - which sounds very Biblical.

These younger denominations are mostly the fastest growing. In the 1980s,
they were a novelty. Today, they have grown big enough to be taking the
lead and draw a much larger percentage of young adults than the older
denominations. In the not too distant future they will probably outgrow the
older denominations, which are governed by the old systems of Episcopal,
Presbyterian or Congregational governance.


How does the new system fit into the old grid of Episcopal, Presbyterian and
Congregational? It is closest to the Episcopal system, but trans-local
authority is not restricted by geographical boundaries but rather follow
relational networks. Furthermore, the senior leaders have often founded the
networks themselves and are not appointed by anyone else - and their
authority is not counterbalanced by other parallel senior leaders. So what
is the problem? The big problem is that there is generally no way to hold
these great anointed leaders accountable or to protect the rest of the
church from their errors. In many cases these are godly men whose lives
seem to be authenticated by the blessing of God on their ministry. The
problem is that human nature tends to be corrupted by power - and anyone
given too much power for too long, tends to abuse it - often abuse of power,
money and even sex. But even godly men make mistakes and those mistakes
gone uncorrected can do great harm to the church and to people's lives.

The 'new system' does not allow for correction of mistakes. Thus mistakes
tend to compound. While in the beginning such ministries showed rapid
growth and excitement, after a while mistakes start to accumulate thus
undermining the ministry spiritually from the inside. While initially,
being part of a rapid growing ministry was like taking a ride in a Ferrari,
later on the passengers discover that the Ferrari has no brakes - and they
end up bruised, beaten up and bleeding from the crash that will inevitably
come. The same story is playing itself out over and over with this 'new
system' of church governance. Sometimes the crashes make spectacular news
headlines in the secular press, but this is really the tip of the iceberg.
Insider leaders of such ministries know the multiplication of problems which
occur over time.


Protestants have historically criticized the Roman Catholic System of
governance (an Episcopal form) as being autocratic. Nevertheless, most of
these 'new system' denominations are much more autocratic than the Roman
Catholic Church. Within the Roman Catholic system, for example, Canon law
protects members who respectfully criticize the actions of the hierarchy,
including the Vatican. There are rights of fair trial for accused persons
and excommunication is only used for a narrow set of serious offences. In
the new system of governance, there is seldom recognition of the right to
freedom of speech, freedom of conscience or the right to a fair trial. Each
senior leader has within his own domain, considerably more power than the
Pope has within the Roman Catholic Church. They are generally governed by
the arbitrary dictatorial rule of powerful personalities. Protestants
commonly criticize the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope.
Nevertheless, within the Roman Catholic system, this infallibility is
restricted to the public pronouncements he makes on matters of doctrine,
which is usually just confirmation of a consensus of belief and traditions,
which have existed for a long time. Within the 'new system' of church
governance, the leaders are generally treated by their lieutenants as if
infallible in whatever they do and say or decide on an ad-hoc basis. Within
the Roman Catholic system, the Pope may be petitioned to answer questions.
Within the 'new system' churches, the leaders are protected from answering
tough questions. Thus the 'new system' Protestant church governance is much
much more autocratic than that of the Roman Catholic church.


It is important because Christian activism is based on the moral authority
of the church and the Christian community, which practices as well as
preaches the Word of God. In the 'new system', the senior leadership cannot
be held accountable to the Word of God, because they alone interpret the
Bible and cannot be held accountable to even consistently obey their own
interpretation. Thus as much as they preach the Bible, it is these
'super-apostles' who become personally the ultimate authority and not the

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, such ministries were the strongest in
speaking up on social issues from a Christian perspective. No longer. Most
of the time they now have nothing to say about the moral issues facing the
nation. We have lost our strongest supporters.

Why? In many cases, moral authority is lost because internal institutional
sin not properly dealt with. When a senior leader sins or starts to abuse
his power and he is too powerful for anyone to remove him, then he tends to
take the whole ministry downhill with him. Once sin is tolerated in senior
leadership, it becomes very difficult to motivate church discipline against
anyone else. The decline can be as spectacularly rapid as the growth.


This 'new system' of church governance is proved itself a disaster in one
ministry after another. Most of the time, such ministries have many other
features that are really good - and that is what draws people to them.
Often the preaching of the Word of God is strong; they are culturally
relevant to the younger generation, they often have a great range of
activities and social and evangelistic outreach - but governance problems
over time often cause them to unravel and go sour.

To stop more ministries going dysfunctional, we need a reformation of church
governance among the younger denominations and ministries. There are three
historically proven successful systems of church governance to choose from.
Numerous books and manuals have been written on church governance and
discipline to prevent these problems. The new denominations don't need to
reinvent the wheel. They can just go copy the constitutions and procedures
of the older established denominations and local churches.

Some younger denominations, realizing these problems have already started to
walk the path of governance reform back to historic proven systems of church
governance. Usually, the reform is initiated by the second generation of
leadership. Older denominations have shown themselves more than willing to
help and advise the reform process.

If you are in a 'Ferrari with no brakes' church or ministry, don't wait for
it to crash. If you are a senior leader, institute governance reform
yourself. If junior leader or ordinary member, do some research on your
church's accountability systems and compare it with older churches - and
urge your leaders to institute more checks and balances before things go
badly wrong.

Philip Rosenthal