Fear and control – keeping a church on track or preventing maturity?

Did Jesus mean it to come to this?

I believe Fear and Control is one of the most insidious and harmful characteristics of many churches today.

Read on to see what I mean, and why.

Heirs of the kingdom

The religion of the Old Testament tended to emphasise the vast difference between people and God and the sin of the people. Priests were special people, set apart to teach, lead and represent the people to God and God to the people. God was loving, but also scary and mysterious, and the religious rituals performed by the priests emphasised this.

But some of the prophets foresaw a time in the future when things would be different and people would know God in a new and more familiar way. Jeremiah prophesied (31:34): No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.

The prophecy is fulfilled!

The New Testament shows us the fulfilment, in Jesus’ teaching and the coming of the Holy Spirit, when priests would no longer be needed, and all God’s people would be equal in status and in their ability to know God.

Leaders are not to “lord it over” others

“A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.'” (Luke 22:24-26)

Be wary of those who claim to be “teachers” over you

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8)

Don’t judge or correct others about non-essential matters

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. ….. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. …. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.” (Romans 14:1, 4, 13)

Jesus gave us the Spirit so we would know and understand

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12)

The task of leaders and teachers

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants ….” (Ephesians 4:11-14)

So we can see clearly that God’s intention is that all of us can be taught by him. While teachers are important parts of the body of believers, their aim must be to see us all mature so we can know God ourselves, and serve him as the Spirit guides us.

Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow

Unfortunately, the reality is often very different to the Biblical teaching.

People make messy church

People are messy. We all have different habits, likes and dislikes. We want to do things “our” way. We sometime act selflessly out of love and compassion, but just as often we react irritably or selfishly. We encourage each other and we let each other down.

So a church of people will inevitably be messy. There will always be someone needing attention, and someone else seeking it. People will complain, often about trivialities. We’ll get wrong ideas about each other, or about God. We’ll argue, sometimes more like enemies than brothers and sisters.

Not only that, sometimes with the best of motives people take off enthusiastically with hare-brained schemes and ideas that can become a distraction.

It shouldn’t be this way, but it often is. Christians are at various stages of maturity, sanctification, ability and willingness to serve.

Paul certainly experienced all this. His letters, especially those to the Corinthians, address many problems of immaturity, wrong belief and wrong behaviour. And sometimes good intentions misdirected.

The organised church fights back

So it is understandable that churches might want to keep a lid on messy church, for several reasons. It makes church much more pleasant if contention is kept under control, it is especially easier on leaders and pastors. Contention and disunity can harm a church’s ability to reach out to the community around them.

But there are other, understandable but less worthy, reasons to try to control dissent and independent thinking.

Pastors and leaders can be an insecure bunch in the modern church. In some churches, pastors’ jobs can be terminated if the congregation is unhappy with the ministry, or even if they are made to feel uncomfortable. Ministers whose self esteem is dependent on apparent success (as humans being measure success, generally by bums on seats) will want to avoid rocking the boat, especially of offending long serving and generous laypeople in the congregation.

Other pastors develop an inflated sense of their own gifts and importance, whether that be thinking that their preaching is necessary for the congregation (others may not preach the pure word!), or their spiritual connection to God via the Holy Spirit is prophetic and totally necessary for their church to walk with God.

For others, what they fear is departure from the norms and dogmas of their particular brand of christianity. Even if these are non-core doctrines about which their is no clear consensus, and which therefore shouldn’t be allowed to cause division, pastors and denominations can fear allowing diversity, especially if they think it challenges their teaching authority, or the doctines that distinguish them from other denominations.

Church leaders often fear diversity, and so they seek to control it.

And so various approaches are adopted to keep control.

Stifling discussion and ideas

Pastors can use their authority to stifle ideas they don’t approve of. They can claim expert knowledge of the Bible or special access to the Holy Spirit to clamp down on dissenting opinions and approaches. They can use scare tactics and accuse people of being unfaithful to God’s word or rebellious against God’s ordained leadership.

Sermons are an ideal teaching method, even though we know they are not very effective in teaching or transforming, because they stifle dissent and give the preacher almost total control over what the congregation hears.

Controlling discussion

Discussion will of course occur, in private conversations and small Bible study groups. But it can be controlled to achieve the desired outcomes. Written Bible studies, and study leaders, can stifle or control discussion to lead people towards the approved teachings and way of thinking.

Sermons and Bible study notes can be written to only present the favoured side of doctrines and viewpoints which christians don’t all agree on, so laypeople don’t get to explore ideas and develop their own understanding.

Controlling who makes decision and does ministry

In some churches, the Senior Pastor or the Bishop has almost total control, and he (is it always he?) can ensure that all teaching and all decisions are in the hands of “approved” and “safe” people. Perhaps everyone who teaches or leads, even in children’s or youth ministry, has to have done some designated qualifying course and/or attend an approved Bible study group.

In more democratic churches, lobbying and manipulation can ensure that dissidents are rarely elected to key positions.

Understanding the mind of God??

All of this is understandable, and no doubt sometimes necessary. But there is good reason to think it is not God’s way.

The Bible dignifies human beings with an amazing status. We are “made in God’s image” (Genesis 1:26), and he is not ashamed to call us his sons and daughters (Hebrews 2:11). Jesus calls us his friends (John 15:13-15). I take the “image of God” to mean we have personality, the ability to reason, an ethical sense, the ability to make choices that affect the physical world, the ability to love and be altruistic, and so on.

And God’s way seems to be to allow us the freedom to grow into that image (Romans 8:21, 2 Corinthians 3:17, Galatians 5:1, James 2:12, 1 Peter 2:16), even if it is messy and chaotic along the way. We are freed from the burdens and rules of the Law so we can follow Jesus in the way of the Holy Spirit (Romans 7:6, 2 Corinthians 3:6).

Jeremiah 31:31-34 indicates that this has been God’s plan from the Old Testament through to the New. He doesn’t want slaves or servants who obey out of fear or duty, he wants sons and daughters, friends, responsible Spirit-filled disciples who each know God and follow Jesus out of love.

This is a profound and amazing truth, far beyond our desserts but offered to us by a loving God. We should be stopping and reflecting on that amazing grace, but let us move on to the implications for leadership in the church.

Leaders who work to God’s plan

So the New Testament gives instruction on how leaders should play their part in discipling and equipping God’s people. (Some of these are repeats of passages we looked at earlier, but they are worth repeating.)

Fear is a bad motive

Apparently the Bible says not to fear, in slightly different words, over a hundred times. 2 Timothy 1:7 says explicitly that God’s Spirit is given so that we need not be fearful or timid. Fear is not a good motivation.

Don’t be bossy

Jesus said: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; …. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-26)

Authority has to be used very carefully, or it can easily be abused. Leaders are primarily to be servants.

Don’t do all the ministry but train everyone to do it

“Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Ministers or pastors should see themselves more as coaches than as star players.

Don’t make rules about non-core matters

“Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. …. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. …. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (Romans 14:4, 13, 22). This was said in the context of practices (acceptable foods to eat, especially the eating of food that had been offerings in pagan temples) that were much argued over in the early church.

Do some of the non-core doctrinal matters that have divided christians and denominations really matter? Or do they get in the way of unity and cooperation in our main tasks of loving God, loving neighbour, making disciples and building God’s kingdom?

There is a place for discipline

Young christians will, like children, require discipline and direction (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:12-13), but the aim is for them to reach maturity where they can stand on their own feet spiritually (Ephesians 4:13-15, Hebrews 5:11 – 6:3).

Use the gifts of the Spirit

Paul makes it clear (Romans 12:4-8, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12-14) that all the gifts are important for his church to function, and no-one has anywhere near all the gifts. And in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 he gives a picture of how many different gifts can be used when christians meet together. He even suggests that if someone is giving a teaching and someone else has something from God to say, the first speaker should defer to the latter. Imagine that in church! The prepared sermon being put aside for someone else to speak!!

Getting the balance right

At present, too often churches have ministers who control the teaching, and congregations who are passive consumers. It is a vicious circle as one feeds off the other. The congregation may be less involved because the minister controls the teaching via sermons which keep them passive. The minister may feel he (occasionally she) has to control and do everything because many in the congregation are too busy, won’t commit to ministry or are not equipped or reliable.

We need to break out of this pattern. We need a balance between order and chaos, between control and freedom, between autocracy and democracy.

We need to allow and invite the Holy Spirit to do his work of guiding, correcting, teaching and empowering – both ministers and lay people – until all know the Lord as mature believers.

Then there will be no “lay people” for we will all be ministers. (Ideally at least!)

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

🤞 Don’t miss a post!!

Subscribe to receive email notification of new posts. Read more about
Subscribing & unsubscribing.


  1. This is an extraordinarily insightful essay. I say this not because it is from you in particular, as I think you are always very thoughtful and sensitive, but because it is very well thought out and helpful in understanding church dynamics and teaching, and is almost certainly Spirit of God inspired.
    My one critical comment is this. Yes, “in Jesus’ teaching and the coming of the Holy Spirit,,,, priests would no longer be needed [in the exclusive tribal-group sense because everyone can now fill that role], and all God’s people would be equal in status and [perhaps not?] in their ability to know God.” Priests under the Old Covenant were not people who knew God better but were people designated as intermediaries between God and the people, functioning as those God chose to bring people into acceptable relationship with him through the offering of sacrifices.
    Jesus, according to Paul (Eph. 4:11), “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers,” so I’m thinking God still thought his newly redeemed and Holy Spirit endowed people needed teachers and prophets to interpret who God was to other believers, and evangelists to proclaim the God who they had encountered and experienced in Christ. Yes, there is a prophecy of a time when no teachers would be needed and God would instruct everyone directly without a need for teachers, but apparently during the Church age that wasn’t yet the case.
    Furthermore, the New Testament (NT=New Covenant teaching) doesn’t quite say that priests are no longer necessary, but that all of Christ’s followers were to be considered “priests of God, a nation of priests” So, what you say isn’t quite what the NT says, perhaps? Christ made all things known to the apostles but not necessarily to ever one who claims to be a believer in him. Christ’s followers are intended to be Priests of God to those coming to faith, who then when more fully mature also become priests of God, intermediaries proclaiming the Gospel of atonement, in order to bring others into relationship with God.
    I pray this is somehow helpful.

  2. HI Richard, thanks for you positive comment.
    Yes, I think I pretty much agree with what you say. I didn’t mean to say that there are no differences in gifts, nor that teachers, pastors, evangelists, prophets and apostles are unnecessary, and I tried to make clear that we should welcome all the gifts of the Spirit, so if that wasn’t clear, your words are helpful thanks.
    The main point is that differences in gift and function shouldn’t lead to power imbalances, and gifts should always be used to build others up, as Ephesians 4 says.
    It is good that on this we can be more or less thinking the same. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *