Autocracy, totalitarianism, despotism. The words alone make us cringe. History is littered with tragic abuse of peoples and cultures at the hands of tyrannical coercion. One need not travel far on a historical timeline for evidences of autocratic control over people. Dictatorial agendas have played out in much abuse under controlling leaders. And sadly, the church is not exempt. Heavy-handed church leadership does its far share of damage too.
However, our human nature can tend towards overreaction. We can label things “controlling” which are not. Loving shepherding can be mislabeled dictating. Administering Christ’s care can be confused as controlling. Biblical discipleship can be accused of despotism. Encouragement can be falsely called exploitation. And these are not insignificant accusations. But too often, these serious allegations are lobbed at faithful, loving Christians administering needed care to one another, thus they are erroneously cautioned of controlling boogeymen. But these boogeymen have outstayed their welcome among God’s people and in the church, and for that reason, they need to be shooed away.
Here are 8 controlling boogeymen we need to shoo away:
- Encouraging others to obey Scripture.
In response to another’s faithful encouragement towards obeying Scripture, this boogeyman sometimes counters, “Don’t try to control me. Let me get there on my own and walk in that when I’m ready, on my timing, and in my way.”
But our Chief Shepherd has not designed that we “get there” on our own. In fact, we won’t ever get there on our own, if, by “there,” we mean obedience to our Lord. The path of “getting there” is not meant to be a private endeavor, but a community nudge. Walking in God’s commands is not a solo-venture of subjective self-discovery, but corporate project of objective self-denial. Thus, people who will not let me get their on my own is God’s ordained means for me to get there. I need people who will exhort me every day, lest I grow hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and fall away from the living God (Heb 3:12-14). If people let me get their on my own, I won’t get there.
This boogeyman wants people’s praise but not their proximity. Progressing in obedience is not a lone-ranger journey void of community inquiry, but a family-endeavor, accompanied with exhortation propelling us towards the right direction. Too often we want affirmation simply on the grounds of being on a spiritual journey, whatever the journey might be. But encouragement towards obedience is both the means of walking the path and the path itself. We can no more do without corporate nudge than a car can without combustion and a steering wheel.
Encouraging another towards obedience is encouraging towards the noblest human movement: loving the Lord. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). So nudging each other is an act of great love, lest we veer hazardously close to leaving “our first love” (Rev 2:4). And if “anyone who does not love the Lord…is to be accursed” (1 Cor 16:22), then we must not be left alone.
Even in matter of “freedoms,” or “gray areas,” it’s not inherently controlling to encourage another to err on the side of self-denial and humility. That’s loving and humble. The Apostle Paul anticipated this particular line of thinking: For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13).
- Being passionate about others’ progression in Christlikeness.
This boogeyman can intimidate with threats such as, “Don’t be on me about spiritual growth. I don’t need you to play the Holy Spirit in my life.”
But God’s people need to stop playing this “don’t-play-the-Holy-Spirit-in-my-life” card. Like morphine, it’s often a bad thing that works too well. This boogeyman works with self-destructive success, because, after all, who wants to pretend that they are God and who of us dares seat himself as Sovereign? So it becomes the go-to, works-every-time rebuttal to chase away much-needed one-anothering in our life. And in doing so, ironically, we’re not welcoming the Holy Spirit’s work, but shooing him away.
Certainly some do attempt to play the Holy Spirit. Doing so comes from a belief we can be the heavenly power to convict of sin and conform to Christ. But it probably happens less than we think.
Too often this boogeyman propagates self-issued permission slips for spiritual-plateauing and tolerated sin. The result is an (apparent) sanctified self-quarantine from healthy, one-anothering, local church life. And therein is the problem. The boogeyman issues a license for self-permitted spiritual isolation which inevitably stuns the joy of spiritual maturation. In doing so, he can be especially damaging because his deceptive tactics, so far from permitting the Holy Spirit’s work, prohibits it. “It’s between me and God” really just means “it’s between me and me.” But “he who separates himself seeks his own desire, he quarrels against all sound wisdom” (Prov 18:1). So the “don’t-play-the-Holy-Spirit-in-my-life” is mostly a sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors.
Before we prosecute others for pneumatological identity theft, let’s ask something like: “Are you trying to be the Source of my conviction, repentance, and fruit-bearing or just an obedient instrument in his hands?”
Passion and encouragement towards sanctification is no more playing the Holy Spirit than diligent care to water and fertilize one’s garden is tyrannical crop coercion. A desire for one another’s progress in Christlikeness is akin to a desire for greater intimacy with and joy in Christ. Paul loved the Galatian church so much that he likened his desire for their spiritual growth to labor pains (Gal 4:19). So far from controlling, it’s loving.
- Encouraging professing believers to become a member of a local church.
This boogeyman often objects, “I don’t need to sign a paper to be in God’s family. I’m already a member of the global body of Christ, so don’t try to control me by becoming a member of your church.” But he has spoken far too much.
One of my mentors once said he shepherds people towards local church membership by requesting they open their wallet and get out their keys, then asks how many gas, bank, gym, and store memberships they have. And doubtful we scheduled a 30-minute appointment with First Interstate or Gold’s to help them see how controlling they are for soliciting our consumer loyalty.
So why would we mindlessly express loyalty to a place which sells toilet paper and tortillas but not the church of God? Something is amiss. The boogeyman has been too successful. Persistent resistance towards local church membership should alarm us that there likely lurks some spiritual cancer in us.
But, next to trusting in Christ for salvation, whole-hearted embracing of local church membership is about the best thing we could do for our soul. Shepherding believers towards membership at the local church level is encouraging them to express horizontally what they are vertically. Why flinch at that by labeling it controlling?
But the boogeyman is shooed away, by, among other things, this: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account” (Hebrews 10:17). Are local church leaders requiring sin by requesting membership? Of course not. Then it’s best for us to walk in Hebrews 13:17 by joyfully becoming a member. Further, leadership’s sobering reality of giving account to Jesus for our souls mandates that we aid in their reckoning on that day by membership. So it’s no more domineering to shepherd God’s people towards commitment to one local church through membership any more than it is to get a social security card, birth certificate, and one pediatrician for a child after his birth into a family.
- Encouraging someone to faithfully serve in the local church.
In response to requests to embrace the privilege of serving in the church, this boogeyman might say, “I don’t feel led to do that ministry. And it’s controlling to push me towards doing so.”
But serving in the local church is one of the great privileges for which the Holy Spirit has birthed us. “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). We are saved to serve. We are gifted to give.
Plus, when people in our local church nudge us to serve in a ministry, and even serve hard, they are nudging us towards personal greatness: “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Mark 10:43). So far from being oppressively coerced and controlled, we’re being lovingly propelled in Christlikeness. A nudge to own a ministry is a nudge to partake in the noblest cause in history. You might be nudged in a less-than-ideal ministry direction, but that’s ok. Serving in itself, whether or not it precisely corresponds to one’s giftedness, is nevertheless categorical greatness in the eyes of our Lord. When I’m encouraged to faithfully serve in the church, I’m not being controlled, but cared for.
- Encouraging a professing Christian to make local church gatherings a priority.
This boogeyman sometimes barks, “There’s no command that says I need not go to church all the time to be a Christian. I can worship God wherever, whenever. Don’t try to control me.”
But nothing could be further from the truth. The corporate gathering is the high-point of the week; the climactic feast to rejuvenate and refresh God’s people. He eagerly desires to bless us as we gather. Despite the numerous ways we may blatantly or unintentionally fail to honor Christ throughout each week, that does not hinder his zeal and ability to forgive, strengthen, and give us lift off as we gather corporately to both worship and prepare for a week of being salt and light. The corporate gathering is God laying out a banquet for us in the form of thought and knowledge, illumination and comprehension, conviction and grace, wounding and healing, repentance and transformation, and in mercy, peace, and joy. So calling on one another to prioritize gatherings is merely steering God’s people to enjoy great blessing. If asking someone to prioritize the corporate gathering is controlling, then so it is to prioritize an all-you-can-eat steak and lobster banquet.
- Asking congregations to obey the called and qualified leadership in a local church.
Few things chafe against this boogeyman like calling for submission to qualified local church leadership. He may protest, “I am called to obey God, not men.”
To be sure, if church leaders are coercively demanding or heavy-handed, the boogeyman is real and should be shooed away. Leaders do not get to demand obedience, but set followable examples in self-denying service to the flock among them. And they too are subject to Hebrews 13:17 towards one another. In fact, they ought to set the example.
Nevertheless, this boogeyman exists. If allowed to persist, he propagates self-destruction in the name of self-liberation. The good of the local church is, in part, realized in receiving the command to “obey and submit to your leaders” (Heb 13:17). How? Because embracing this (assuming qualified leadership) ensures personal safety under the care of the Lord through the care of his under-shepherds. As I come under qualified leadership, then, I’m coming under the Lord’s safe-haven. His leaders guide me through the perils of life. As Christ’s ordained means of progressing in the faith, they serve as much-needed navigators away from spiritual danger and towards glory so as to avoid self-destruction. And I can walk in the freedom with the understanding that they are keeping track of my soul since “they will give an account” for me.
- Exercising care over who serves in positions of church leadership.
This boogeyman can create a stir by saying, “So-and-so is nice and some of us have benefited from them, so why can’t he be in leadership? That’s controlling of you leaders to require that criteria for eldership/leadership.”
Granted, it is possible to turn the elder board into an “us-four-no-more” club. Certainly an error can be made of going beyond biblical criteria for leadership. Nevertheless, since leadership set the pace of the church, care for their qualification is of utmost importance.
It’s interesting to consider that Paul’s disciple, Titus, in a godless, gluttonous culture, was given nearly 20 criteria for elder qualification which were polar opposite of Cretan culture (cf. Titus 1:6-9). That might seem spiritually unattainable; like too much, and therefore, controlling. And Timothy was not only given similar criteria for Ephesus (1 Tim 3:1-7), but, in the context of care for appointing leaders, further exhorted: “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others” (1 Tim 5:22). One might suppose Paul would’ve lowered the standard for leadership in those churches. But he did not. And few of us care more for the good of souls and the church than the Apostle Paul. These kind of criteria ensures God’s best for souls, and thus, it’s anything but controlling.
Furthermore, we inquire about the reputation and criteria of, for example, our dentists, physicians, and kid’s teachers. Thus, exercising care over who is and is not in a position of local church leadership ought to be all the more a concern. Carefully monitoring the door into church leadership is not controlling the church, but caring for her.
- Shepherding and confronting sin, including to the point of church discipline.
This is another area where the boogeyman might counter with the “Don’t play the Holy Spirit” card, or protest along the lines of, “Don’t judge me. You’re being pushy. Quit trying to control me.”
Now, this assumes we are confronting actual sin and not preferences. Confrontation becomes controlling when we confront non-sin as sin.
But insofar as it’s sin that is being addressed, in no way is that person playing the Holy Spirit. Rather, they are obeying him. They are not supplanting the Holy Spirit, but submitting to him. Further, the Apostle of grace prescribed confrontation of sin as a critical administering of soul-care (i.e. 1 Cor 5:2, Gal 6:1-3). For those reasons, this boogeyman can be especially harmful.
We need God’s people to be pushy. Sin is dangerous. It’s deception is even more dangerous. And hell is a big deal. So, few things are more loving than people in my life who will forcefully push me from hell’s edge. It’s like Spurgeon once said:
“Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”
Would to God that more people loved us enough to be pushy and controlling in that sense. Again, doing so is loving. “A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy” (Prov 29:1).
Further, those tragic cases of church discipline (“If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” Matt 18:17) can neither be labeled “tyrannical coercion.” In fact, they are quite the opposite. When local church leadership obediently follows through with this command, they are, in effect, saying: “Lord, we do not control the church, you do. You love her very much. Thus, as stewards of your blood-bought elect in this local body, we continue to acknowledge your control, while not pretending to have control, by obeying this command. Please, would you grant repentance to this erring individual we love.”
So this boogeyman is exactly that. There are few more precarious position than to be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Thus, confronting sin is no more controlling than throwing oneself into the sea out of love to rescue a drowning man.
Having said that, there is a real sense in which being controlled is best case scenario for us. In fact, the whole of the Christian life is about being controlled: “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Cor 5:14-15, italics mine).
That is the control which we are to pursue and come under: the love of Jesus Christ who gave himself to satisfy the wrath of God in our place. But in no way does this kind of control constitute tyrannical coercion any more than being freed from sin does. This is liberating control. It’s living by the Spirit. It’s freedom. Everything the NT writers call us towards is being increasingly controlled that we might be increasingly free; and being increasingly constrained that we might be increasingly propelled.
So, where tyrannical coercion and lording-it-over exist, we must expose and eradicate it. But not all that stirs in the Christian closet has substance. It might just be a boogeyman needing to be shooed out the door, so as to warmly welcome the controlling love of our Savior.