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Spiritual Authority and Power Abuse

A Reader's Response to "Leadership Ethics"

The pain in LL’s voice was heart-wrenching. As the new evangelist at her church preached “Deeper Truth,” the wounds in her church also deepened, until it finally split apart. I’ll call those who followed the evangelist, Truth Church and those who stayed, Love Church.

Truth Church / Love Church

Unfortunately, this evangelist misused a highly respected version of Christian theology to bludgeon believers and lacerate the sheep. It took time for me to help LL distinguish between this otherwise good theology and the harsh, shriveled, and depraved aberration of the evangelist.

LL had been a lay leader in her church since it began 15 years ago, walking many people through life crises, helping them find mercy and grace in Christ.

She herself has suffered for her faith, yet found grace to forgive, taking up her cross to follow the One who forgave from the cross. Others look to her as a mature believer with a pastoral heart and common-sense wisdom in Christ.

Finally, LL was forced to decide which way to go. She chose to accompany some friends bewitched by “Deeper Truth” to Truth Church. But she quickly grew uneasy with the evangelist’s skewed teachings, especially when he announced:

Jesus elevated Truth above his own family (Lk 8:21). Truth is more important than Love.

For a year she tried to play his game, but her wisdom and maturity threatened him. The longer she stayed, the more he criticized her.

At last, he forced LL to step back from leadership for three months. She complied. Then, when she offered to serve again, he railed at her and publicly shamed her. Still, she didn’t leave, lest others stumble. She forgave, prayed, examined her heart for sin, and tried to love him in Christ.

He resorted to slandering her, trying to turn her own friends against her. He refused to speak to her or even look at her, in a church now shrunk to 25 people.

At last, she knew it was time to go. She rejoined Love Church. Their warm welcome healed much of her pain. Although 60 people crammed into a tiny room, the church was full of joy and affection, exalting the Lord Jesus. Within three months it had grown to 100 and moved to a larger facility.

Meanwhile, the evangelist scolds people at Truth Church if they attend other churches, because he alone preaches “Truth.” All other churches are false.

One-by-one, he is driving people away, attacking them for falling short of his perverse idea of truth. Instead of helping people grow in Christ, he berates them for lacking “deeper” theological knowledge.

Nevertheless, he roars, “You can all leave! I will still preach the Truth!”

Three Characteristics of Power Abuse[1]

Thank God for thousands of healthy, Christ-exalting churches in China. However—as the 2019 summer issue of ChinaSource Quarterly (CSQ) shows—Christian leaders sometimes abuse their power. Power abuse is marked by at least three characteristics:

  • Hyper-Centralized Leadership: Just as this leader forced LL out of leadership, abusive leaders take steps to eliminate input from others and reduce organizational restraints on their power.
  • Unchallengeable Ideology: Abusive leaders use distorted “Christian” ideologies to serve their own agendas, denigrating other perspectives, even if they are orthodox.[2]
  • Enforced Collective Conformity: Abusive leaders pressurize others into conformity to their own ideology and praxis. Conformity is idealized and rewarded; diversity is demonized and punished.

Power abuse is devastating on a personal level. The Eastern Lightning (Almighty God) Cult is one example.

If it gains traction, ideological power abuse can produce chaos in churches (like LL’s church) and even in society. The Taiping Rebellion (1845—1864)[3] with its militaristic perversions of Christian doctrine, resulted in the deaths of 20 million Chinese, because Hong Xiuquan saw himself as the younger brother of Jesus sent to punish evil. Bad theology has consequences!

In the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics (1618—1648), when each ruler decided the theological orientation of his own people, war, famine and disease reduced entire populations across Europe by 20-50%.  Halfway through the chaos, in 1627, a German theologian named Rupertus Meldenius, voiced an essential principle in theological discourse that we all need to embrace:

In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.[4]


Six Barriers to Finishing Well

Leaders who eliminate restraints on their own power in order to enforce collective conformity to an unchallengeable ideology have started down the path of power abuse, one of six barriers to finishing well identified by J. Robert Clinton.[5]

Graphic is from J-Mentors: Contemplating Jesus in Light of His First-Century Context, a small-group curriculum being developed by D. Michael Crow. 

In the case studies in this CSQ, power abuse ranged from mild to serious. Some cases were due to immaturity, inexperience, and lack of education. In other cases, deeper perversions such as sexual abuse, prevailed.

Five Keys to Finishing Well

Effective leaders who finish well exalt Christ as Lord of all. Thankfully, Clinton’s research also identified five keys to finishing well. Leaders who finished well embody at least four of these five qualities (cf. Clinton 1999:6):[6]

  1. Perspective: they viewed present ministry with a lifetime perspective, learning from their own experience, and from that of others, about how God shapes leaders over a lifetime.
  2. Renewal: they experienced special moments of intimacy with God, which included new challenges, fresh vision, and divine affirmation. God met them, often in response to extended times of spiritual discipline. 
  3. Disciplines: they utilized spiritual disciplines in their hunger for God, as well as other disciplines for living a balanced life. Without these, leaders may plateau spiritually or fall into sin (1Corinthians 9:24-27).
  4. Mentoring: those who finished well usually had 10-15 mentors over a lifetime who advised, supported and challenged them. Leaders who refuse accountability are on the path toward failing to finish well.
  5. Learning Posture: they developed a lifelong learning posture. As aged Daniel studied Scripture, God imparted one of His greatest messianic revelations (Daniel 9). As Paul faced death, he told Timothy, “When you come, don’t forget the books!” (cf. 2 Timothy 4:13). Refusal to learn is a precursor to finishing poorly.

May you and I speak the truth in love, repudiate power abuse, and finish well for the glory of Christ!


  1. ^ My PhD dissertation (Spiritual Authority across Cultures: Leadership, Culture and the Holy Spirit) includes a section on power abuse among Christian leaders. The dissertation explores spiritual authority in light of the cultural dynamics of Asian and Western leadership expectations. If you would like to read the first chapter (free), click here. To purchase the dissertation, first copy the UMI Publication Number (9990819), then click here.
  2. ^ Note: It is crucial to distinguish between primary doctrines (such as the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, his death and resurrection, salvation by grace through faith) and secondary doctrines (church administration, worship styles, liturgical forms, and other non-salvific doctrines).
    Primary doctrines are non-negotiable and life-giving when preached to exalt Christ in the power of the Spirit. Elevating a secondary doctrine to the status of a primary doctrine is a form of idolatry that is divisive and destructive, because it exalts some secondary teaching over Christ himself. It is characteristic of power abuse.
  3. ^ Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son:​ The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan​. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company​, 1996.
  4. ^ Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 7. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910, p. 650.
  5. ^ Cf. Clinton 1999:401-402; 2007: Article on Finishing Well: Six Characteristics, footnotes 1 and 2. By J. Robert Clinton. Clinton’s Biblical Leadership Commentary. Altadena, CA: Unpublished manuscript (1999) and John: Jesus’ Incarnational Leadership (Articles: Finishing Well: Six Characteristics) in Clinton’s Biblical Leadership Commentary Series. Altadena, CA: Unpublished manuscript (2007). 
  6. ^ J. Robert Clinton, “Three Articles about Finishing Well” in Clinton Biblical Leadership Commentary, 1999,
Image credit: Jasmin Dreher from Pixabay
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MC (pseudonym) has worked with Chinese believers for over 40 years.View Full Bio

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