Biblical Restraints on Spiritual Authority

When studying through Ephesians for By His Wounds You Are Healed, I was particularly struck by this quote from John Stott on the authority figures in Ephesians 5 and 6 – “ it is not the exercise but the RESTRAINT of their authority which (Paul) urges upon them.” This is very true. Apart from Christ, we see in the curse in Genesis 3 that the man oppressively rules over the woman. But in Ephesians 5, Paul puts specific limits around the husband. He’s limited by CHRIST. He’s to love sacrificially with Christ as His example. Masters of slaves are given similar limits. Serve sacrificially like Christ. If Christ wouldn’t do it, neither do you.  And parents are given a particularly limiting phrase – do not provoke or exasperate your children.

Historically speaking, authority figures in Christianity are always the last to see their sin. That’s been the norm in every church and parachurch organization with which I have experience (and I have a lot of experience). It’s why I believe so strongly in the church government of a plurality of elders. Everyone needs accountability, and the higher you are in the authority food chain, the MORE you need accountability. The most dangerous person in all of Christianity, in my humble opinion, is the unaccountable senior pastor.

In terms of the restraint of parental authority, I have heard precious little over the years to Christian parents on how NOT to exasperate your children. I have heard tons on children obeying their parents. But the reason Paul commands parents not to provoke their children is because Christian parents WERE provoking their children. The reason Jesus warned against causing a little one to stumble was because there were people doing that very thing. And Jesus says to let the children come to Him because His disciples were preventing kids from coming to Him in that very moment. In other words, the instructions are given because they address a legitimate problem. The first step to correction and obedience is to understand the ways we fail this. The problem is that Christian parents often DO exasperate their children. Many pastors DO create stumbling blocks for children. Just like Jesus’ disciples, some modern followers of Christ see children as a distraction and would rather usher them out a room than facilitate their access to God. It is a real problem even among those who sit in churches (like the one at Ephesus) or who figuratively sit at the feet of Jesus (like His disciples).

I came across this story today – a classic example of a church authority structure putting a massive concrete stumbling block in front of one to whom they were called to point to Christ. The comments after the article are telling. True to Biblical warning, such actions cause many to stumble, doubt their faith, and dismiss the church. I’m tempted to react in retaliatory anger. “****ing expletive!! You have made my job of representing Christ in my community 500% harder with your blankety blank behavior.” But one thing constrains me from that response. And it’s my understanding of the doctrine of the Church as presented in Scripture. The Church is a mess.  To be blunt (as Scripture is), she’s a whore.  So when she participates in disobedient practices that harm someone, I remember that she has done that from her earliest history. You may argue the group in question in the article isn’t REALLY part of the church. But that is a simplistic diversion from the truth – even those of us firmly in Christ believing the true gospel are capable of pretty bad things. It’s grace because we deserve something so different. And this story reflects that truth quite brilliantly. I have hope that gospel grace can redeem and transform even this bit of perversion of God’s plan for His people in general and pastoral authority in particular. If I didn’t have that hope, I’d be sunk. But that transformation requires FIRST the acknowledgement of the sin. It requires repentance – confession that includes honestly admitting the sin as God defines it. It absolutely will not go away any other way.  The options are repentance or destruction.  I am confident that something good CAN come from this in the Body of Christ. But it will not happen, it could not possibly happen, until those involved first REPENT.

Perhaps the larger problem than what the church authority structure did in that situation was what the parents allowed in that situation. Who knows where they were?! (And if you do know, don’t tell me because it’s none of my business). And while it is not my business to know why the parents abdicated their responsibilities in such a way, it does make me think. I have written several articles on parenting our children the way God parents His. My boys are young, so I’ve only just begun wrestling with this on my own. But here are a few older articles on gospel centered parenting if you are interested.

Discipline v. Punishment
The Rod
Parenting Our Children the Way God Parents His

P. S. I want to give a shout out to our church’s children’s ministry. I am daily thankful for the informal and formal positive peer pressure and constructive teaching I receive that equips me to value my children as God does and parent them in ways that reflect His grace centered adoption of me.

17 Responses to Biblical Restraints on Spiritual Authority

  1. Anonymous May 26, 2010 at 1:19 pm #

    It's frustratingly common for rape victims to be poorly treated by their Christian “brothers and sisters.”

    When i was raped, I came to countless older, mature christian women for help and advice. Each and every one- professors at bible college, women at church, family members- cast blame in my direction. No compassion, no help.

    Since my experiences, God has enabled me to help other girls in similar situations- all with the same story. They were raped, and when they found the courage to tell someone, they were told that they were lying, or that they were at fault, or they were just flat-out ignored.

    I know this is outside of the purpose of your post today, Wendy, but the outrageous actions of this church are extreme, but at the root, not uncommon. Which is exactly what makes it so infuriating.


  2. Beth May 26, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    Possibly your best post ever, and that's saying something. I'm angry at the silence from the people within the “movement”. These actions are indefensible.

  3. Wendy May 26, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    Thanks, Beth!

    Liz, I'm sorry that was your experience. Conservative churches are going to have a controversy on their hands that eclipses that of the Catholic Church if they don't quickly acknowledge sinful patterns and correct it immediately.

  4. Anonymous May 27, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    Be very careful… I am from Concord and attended Trinity for years. Although I was not in that part of the state or in the church at the time this took place, my dad was on the deacon board. The story is not what it appears from a liberal media bias. Proverbs 18:13 would be a good verse to review at this time.

  5. Wendy May 27, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

    I looked up Proverbs 28:13 by accident as I attempted to look up Proverbs 18:13.

    13 He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

    Certainly Proverbs 18:13 applies as well. But I'm afraid the ministry of this church and the leaders associated with it will be destroyed if they do not honestly assess the problems with their response, confess it, and correct it for the future.

    The objective undeniable fact is that a minor was raped by someone twice her age in the church. Even if it's “just” statutory rape, we live in a culture that defines that as rape for a very clear reason. It's illegal, and adults go to jail for it (forcible or not). Adults are expected to be the adults, no matter what the temptation from a minor. My boys can provoke me in whatever way they may, but I still will get arrested if I punch them in the face. Because I am the adult.

    There are any number of extenuating circumstances that exacerbated the situation. But Biblically, there is no extenuating circumstance that excuses parents and church support structure sending her away. These moments are the crossroads of faith for a young person. It is THIS MOMENT that Paul calls us to walk in a way that is worthy of the gospel. When you walk in a way that is worthy of the gospel, you bear long in love. You engage in unconditionally loving support more than ever before. I'm supportive of gospel centered support of the perpetrator and his family as well — but that needs to happen in the context of lawful persecution of a crime.

    What troubles me deeply is the insinuation that there are extra facts unknown by all that make it ok to NOT prosecute a 30 something for sex with a minor. And there's NOT!! There are no facts that excuse that. There is no temptation that God will not make a way of escape. And the implications of our views of children and women that allow some type of justification of both this act and the failure to prosecute it are troubling.

  6. Anonymous May 27, 2010 at 7:14 pm #

    Wendy, is there a way I can get in touch with you privately? I greatly respect your viewpoints and would like to continue this discussion.

  7. Wendy May 27, 2010 at 8:23 pm #


    I am the only person who reads that account and will keep correspondence in complete confidence.

  8. Paul May 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    Isn't it amazing how when a newspaper reports on abuse of authority within the church, rather than righteous anger and the perpetrators being held to account, we hear warnings of “beware the liberal media bias”?

    Just thinkin' out loud.

  9. Anonymous May 28, 2010 at 2:55 am #

    Stories are multifaceted. Story tellers spin. Everyone has to remember this.

    Here is a link to Trinity's response:

  10. Wendy May 28, 2010 at 3:39 am #

    They need to stop defending themselves, humbly examine themselves, and do their best to repair what was done wrong. Obviously, SOMETHING went wrong. A known sex offender sat under their leadership unprosecuted for 15 years. Something went very wrong under their watch.

    Back to the main point of my post — it's not particularly about this church or its pastors. The point is that God is clear in the New Testament that spiritual authorities are to restrain themselves. I repeat Stott's quote, “It is not the exercise but the restraint of their authority that (Paul) urges upon them.” This particular case seems a weird juxtapostion — the restraint of authority against the adult while excessive authority is used against the child (at least from her perspective). She seemed to feel controlled, not supported. As my husband often says, perception is reality for the one who perceives it. If nothing else, I hope church leadership recognizes that even if it held the best of intentions, it's actions at some points and lack of action at others were mistakes. And the fact that it has all exploded in everyone's face 15 years later is clear evidence that something was poorly handled.

  11. Quivering Daughters May 28, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

    Excellent article. Thank you for biblically addressed abuse of authority; I know this is a difficult subject because raising this issue draws fire from others who assume you have a hatred of authority, or have a rebellious heart. Just keep speaking truth, and the Lord will move in the hearts whom He wills.

  12. Quivering Daughters May 28, 2010 at 5:29 pm #


  13. Wenatchee the Hatchet May 28, 2010 at 7:42 pm #

    To say that media spin stories in light of a case like this becomes a double standard if Protestants only express concern about media spin when the allegations of sexual abuse aren't Catholic. We as Protestants end up looking like the pot calling the kettle black when we plead spin-doctoring in cases like this. Catholics are not necessarily wrong to say that the reason the Catholic church makes the news more often is not because they suppress the truth in these cases but because they actually tend to report these complaints more often. Of course, unbelievers don't care, it still looks like pleading down rape on the basis of the victim being too alluring or dismissing complaints as mere criticism of the church without grounds.

  14. Wendy May 28, 2010 at 11:59 pm #

    Thanks, WtH. I think there always is a bit of bias among reporters who aren't believers. But Christians often don't understand that the thing that most undermines accusations against you are humility and confession.

    “Why, yes, we did fail this girl and our congregations by not fully recognizing the sin against her. If he had committed armed robbery against another church member or had murdered someone, we would have handled it very differently. Our mistake was we failed to recognize that sex with a minor, even consensual sex, is as serious and unacceptable as armed robbery.”

    I get that they may have had uninformed attitudes 15 years ago. But as God sanctifies His bride and roots sin out of her, the larger universal Church is becoming increasingly aware of the need to protect children diligently in terms of sexual molestation. If this church can't admit their mistakes, it's going to destroy them and everyone associated with them — fair or not.

  15. bobbixby May 29, 2010 at 6:25 pm #

    Wendy, you're right and your comments are right. Thanks for posting on the matter.

  16. Persifler June 2, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    Remember the words of Lord Acton regarding the issue of Papal Infallibility:
    “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

  17. Wendy June 8, 2010 at 9:13 pm #

    The current pastor at the church in question has posted a sermon on the front page of the church website that is a much more humble response than anything I have read up to this point. In fact, it actually makes me hopeful that some gospel reconciliation may take place.