I’m trying to figure out how to distinguish between authority and authoritarianism. Any help you can give me would be much appreciated because while I think I can tell the difference, I’m finding it difficult to define the difference. I think I know it when I see it, but can I explain it to someone else? Not so easy.

But let me take a stab at this and please jump in with your own suggestions and corrections. I’ll begin with some broad definitions:

Authority is the lawful use of lawful authority: God, the church, the state, or a business has given someone the right to govern and guide your life in a certain area, and that authority is being exercised in the right areas in the right way.

Authoritarianism is the exercise of unlawful authority: It’s someone who has not been given any authority over my life trying to rule and run my life, or someone who has authority in one limited area of my life, trying to rule and run other parts or every part of my life.

Authoritarianism is also the unlawful use of lawful authority: Someone takes the authority they’ve been given and abuses it by exercising it in ways that only benefits them and usually damages me.

I’m sure you can come up with better definitions, but how about we try to put together some marks of authoritarianism. What does this look like? How do I recognize it? How do I know if I’m being authoritarian or just exercising legitimate authority? How do I know if I’m being a victim of authoritarianism? Let’s see if we can build a description of “Mr Controller.”

1. Mr Controller is power hungry. He’s always trying to get more control over your life. He’s never satisfied with knowing what he knows about you, but always want to know more. He’s never content with power in one or two areas, but wants power in every area. He gets his biggest thrills from ordering other people around and making them feel subservient.

2. Mr Controller never suspects he may be abusing his power. He never says, “Please let me know if I you ever think I’m overstepping my bounds.” He has little or no awareness about his own tendency to misuse power.

3. Mr Controller gets easily and terribly offended whenever anyone questions his authority. “How dare you speak to me like that!” “Do you know who I am?” Any questioning is viewed as insubordination, rebellion, disrespect, etc.

4. Mr Controller thinks of himself more as a King than a servant. He rarely thinks or asks “How can I serve you?” Instead, his prevailing attitude is “How can I rule you?” He’s out to gain more control not to give more help.  He empowers himself rather than others.

5. Mr Controller threatens when threatened. Whenever his authority or power is questioned or challenged, even when it’s done humbly and appropriately, he warns of unpleasant consequences for the questioner. He certainly never pauses to ask, “Did I exceed my authority? Did I handle this correctly? Have I made a mistake?”

6. Mr Controller keeps a long record. His position of power has enabled him to build big memory files on his “victims,” which he does not hesitate to use (or hint at using) when necessary.

7. Mr Controller tells rather than teaches. He orders people around without explaining why. “Just do it!” He doesn’t take the time or make the effort to explain himself or his “guidance.” He prefers law and sanction to teaching, instruction, and motivation. He’s afraid that if he teaches principles and aims at changing the heart, that people will then work out things for themselves rather than be dependent upon him for everything.

8. Mr Controller clings to power. Unlike true leaders who love to train other leaders and delegate power to them, he clings to power and refuses to let go. Because, of course, no one is as wise and competent as he is.

9. Mr Controller hates to be controlled. He’s often resistant to anyone being in authority over him or telling him what he should be or do. He’s often a vociferous critic of other sources of power and authority around him. He figures, “If I can weaken him/her/them, I strengthen myself.”

10. Mr Controller lacks self-control. This is his weirdest characteristic. You’d think that such an addiction to control would produce a deeply disciplined person. Not at all. Most controllers have major deficits in the self-control department. Perhaps it’s because they are so busy interfering in other people’s lives that they neglect their own. Maybe it’s because they find it easier to direct and discipline others than themselves. I don’t know, but watch out for this. Behind most authoritarian personalities is usually a lack of biblical authority, often manifested in bad morals or bad temper.

Oh, yes, and there’s a female version too!

  • Shawn Anderson

    Thanks for this. I think the Larger Catechism has some helpful thoughts and relevant Scriptures in this subject in the 5th Commandment, Q123-33. http://www.reformed.org/documents/wlc_w_proofs/

    • David Murray

      Excellent. Thanks for the reminder,

  • Dean

    Good thoughts and a very important subject.

    Ecclesiastical authority is very limited. Pastor/elders do not have the authority to go beyond the limits of where God has already spoken. For example, when elders discussing subject/controversy X they must first determine if God has revealed His will on subject/controversy X. If they determine that God has not not revealed His will they have no authority to speak where God has not spoken.

    The only caveat in my mind would be where elders are addressing the circumstances vs elements of worship. For example, they can “authoritatively” determine church starts at 9:30 (circumstances), but have no authority to declare children below the age of eleven may not take communion (element) because the Bible is silent.

    However, if an elder body determines that God has declared His will about children under the age of eleven taking communion then Scripture proofs must be provided proof to the congregation to demonstrate their authority to rule on the matter.

    What I think the Bible does not permit is for an elder to vote on an issue based on his personal preference on a subject. The Bible does not grant elders this level of authority and once personal preference becomes the basis for ruling they have become an authoritarian.

    I do not believe this is a mainstream view on the subject. If you disagree with my view please let me know so I can come more in harmony with God’s Word.

  • Bob_Schilling

    Dean made the good point that should be added to the initial three broad principles:

    - All human authority is limited.

    And having added that critical point – it leads directly to another sign of authoritarianism:

    - Mr. Controller reluctantly admits that all human authority is limited, and in practice acts as though isn’t.

    I’ve had this discussion with some other pastors in the past:

    “The Bible teaches that if a lawful human authority forbids us to do what God requires, we must disobey them. It also teaches that if a lawful human authority requires us to do what God forbids, we must disobey them. But it’s also important to add, that if a lawful human authority goes beyond their jurisdiction and commands us in an area over which they are not given delegated authority – we MAY disobey them.” When I’ve gotten to that third caveat, I’ve seen some men, who now I would describe as “authoritarian” – begin to squirm a little. In fact, on a couple of occasions I’ve had respond, “Well, I hear what you’re saying there brother – but I would never publicly teach that – that is a big can of worms to let out, and you will have lots of problems on your hands.”

    For my part – I tell you, this is not good. When men see a principle to be true, but deem it unwise to inform the “flock” of such a principle – because they might misuse it or abuse it, etc., that is a controlling, and unwise man. It is seriously as wrong to add to the word of God as it is to take away from it. Christ alone is Head of His Church. He alone has universal authority. I cannot tell a man in my congregation that he is sinning if he joins the armed forces; I cannot tell a member of our church that he cannot leave and join another church (granting that there’s no disciplinary actions going on); I cannot forbid my wife from listening to a certain radio program or reading a certain book – I am not her LORD. I can forbid my son or daughter, while in our home and underage to read or watch certain things. My wife is not my child. Men wisely lead their wives – they do not “lord it over them.” Oh the counsel of Peter to Elders: “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3).

    There’s a lot more to say on this single point – but men who chaff under the concept of their authority being limited; and as you mentioned, Leaders who find it difficult to submit to other men who are their lawful authorities in other spheres of life – these men are authoritarian, “Diotrephes-like” (3 John 9), and ought not to be elders in the church of Christ. My two bits.

    Great post David.

  • Joseph Kamps

    This is a great topic!
    I appreciate your humility in this and in many previous blog postings.

    Not sure I would be able to help you define it any better than you have already done, but I love to spitball.
    In some ways ecclesiastical authoritarianism is unique from all other forms of authoritarianism. For example, I own my own company and am therefore an authority. I may run my company any way I see fit as long as it is run ethically, legally, morally and so on. If an employee steals from me, for example, I can fire him and never bring him back into my employ. Even if he asks for forgiveness and shows that he really means it, I don’t have to hire him or her again. The phrase “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” is here operative.
    But not so the church of Christ I believe. Assuming the necessary qualification of being discerning and wise as serpents, in the church, the phrase would more aptly be stated “fool us once shame on you, fool us twice shame on you, fool us three times shame on you…” Etc.
    This must be very difficult and I can easily see why men would struggle with the temptation to take the reins from Jesus for a bit and exercise some authority where they have not been given any.
    Being a man under authority is no easy task. It’s been known to cause a person to sweat, as it were drops of blood, at the mere contemplation of Gods will for you

    One of the reasons authoritarianism might be difficult to pin down is because it’s motives are so varied.
    It may be that the person wants to be the boss and throw his weight around. But it also might be that this person has a legitimate fear that if they do not act in such a way very bad things will happen. For example, a man might have a reasonable fear that the Romans are going to arrest and possibly do great bodily harm to the messiah. Well then, he’d better get out his sword and cut peoples heads off right? On the surface we wouldn’t necessarily think that Peter was acting in an authoritarian way, but I think it fits the description.
    Paul says that putting confidence in the flesh (read: controlling things that God has not given you control over) is setting up a righteousness of our own. “Php 3:2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision;
    Php 3:3 for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh,”
    What is a pastor to do who has warned certain people in his congregation of a lifestyle that he believes to be unwise (lack of discernment, not being there for their kids etc) when after years of repeated warnings and admonitions they still seem oblivious to their elders pleadings? How about snipe at them from the pulpit? How about making snide sarcastic remarks about them to other people?
    This touches on another reason I have seen for pastors to become authoritarian, and that is the fear of man. It’s much easier to make potshots at a group of people or individuals from the pulpit than it is to lovingly exhort and reprove them privately at their side.

    • David Murray

      Joseph, I think what you describe in a business is a lawful use of lawful authority.

      The pulpit sniping is abuse of authority, no question. And yes, as always, the fear of man is involved in this too.

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  • Dean

    Bob, thank you for your thoughts. I think it is very good for a congregation to know when they MAY ignore the authority of the elders. The authority of Christ may never be ignored, but the opinions of man may be.

    Joseph, this is Dean Bekkering. I was very happy to see you post on Jane H facebook page and to read your testimony of how Tim was instrumental in your spiritual life. He was a great man and I am glad you are walking with the Lord. Thanks be to God.

    “But it also might be that this person has a legitimate fear that if they do not act in such a way very bad things will happen.”

    I suspect the original goal of most all of this type of authoritarianism stems from good motives. The Pharisees were zealous for things of God and out of that zeal set up boundaries for themselves. These self imposed boundaries were more re-stringent than God’s laws. I believe many examples in church history can be given where good motives gave rise to bad practice. An early example is the creation by the church of the hierarchy of Bishops to really interpret God’s will because ordinary elders where not always trustworthy.

    In one sense this is authoritarianism is not as bad as other forms of authoritarianism, but I believe it is more destructive because it is more subtle and sinister.. At its core is man’s pride where he determines he is wiser than God. It is also a lack of faith in Jesus’ ability to lead His Bride.

    What starts off out of good intentions to strengthen the church ultimately ends in weaker Christians. Just as our welfare system is built on good intentions history has shown that it is enslaved people to poverty. The devil has witnessed the radical change when people hit rock bottom and call out to God in faith. Rock bottom can occur in a variety of forms, poverty or the consequences of poor decisions, but elders must let not retard the spiritual growth which so often accompanies hitting the bottom. In other words the church is not made up of pre-teens who must be protected every time they cross the street, but as teens who need to learn from their mistakes.

    • David Murray

      Yes, a lot of authoritarianism can stem from good motives. Doesn’t make it right, of course.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com/ SC

    Sounds like a narcissistic person with an antagonistic bent. This is important for young ladies to know about misguided attraction to Mr. Controller. You might be interested to look at a helpful profile of an antagonist, http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/03/06/warning-dangerous-people-in-the-church/

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com/ SC

    Another point. I will use this as a discussion item with our parents of teens group. We are reading a book titled, “Losing Control and Liking it” by Tim sanford.

  • Natalie

    Mr. Controller can actually come across as a “good guy” too. He covertly manipulates through guilt and shame – and uses the Bible or church teachings to control. In my experience, the one fool-proof way of detecting a controller (or any unhealthy person), regardless of whether they do their thing overtly or covertly, is that they absolutely can not admit to any specific wrong-doing. You can not give them feedback in their life without their turning the blame on you, defending themselves, giving 5,480 reasons why they had to do it, etc..

    In other words, they are the sole authority in their own lives as well as in yours. It’s devastating, and I think it’s prevalent in the Church. I also see God waking people up to this kind of destructive behavior and doing something about it.

    Many women are hiding in emotional agony and shame within their own homes under the headship of husbands who can’t break free of this on their own. Women who want so badly to honor their husbands and bring glory to the Name of Jesus in their marriages – yet are confused and broken by the subtle control. If they speak up, they risk being accused of dishonoring their husbands and ruining their reputations. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Love turns the other cheek. They should try harder to be a better wife and not upset their husband so much.

    These are the things that keep them locked up – and that ensure their husbands will not get the help they desperately need to become like Christ.

    Thank you for talking about this issue. I hope you’ll talk about it more, because there are layers to uncover that go very, very deep.

    • Kim Anderson

      Yes, yes, yes. I am married to a man like this and I do not know what to do or where to turn. He is only getting worse and I see the effect on my children – I worry what kind of husbands my sons will become and what kind of men my daughters will be attracted to. He snows any pastor I’ve tried talking to. The only counseling we tried was turned against me and somehow even his affairs were blamed on me. I could not submit more. I can talk to no one about this, which isolates me even more than the subtle isolation my husband has put on our family. I do not know how to be a godly wife to a husband who abuses his authority in ways the Church cannot see. Oh God, give me joy in the midst of suffering.

      • Bob_Schilling

        Kim – you need some help – there are always two sides to a story – but hearing your words, you’re alleging some very serious stuff – It is not good when a man does the things you’re alleging and gets a pass in the church – we have seen it; please pursue some biblical counseling with a reputable biblical counselor. We can try to send you some links or contacts – if you google Grace and Truth Community Church in Vancouver, WA.

        • G. Jackson

          Marriage counseling is for marital problems. “CONTROLLING” behavior is not something that just shows up when someone gets married. It is a personal problem that can be deadly, spiritually as well as physically. Church folk that don’t know the difference somehow expect the wife’s behavior to somehow change him. Unbelievable and dangerous. Not in your wildest nightmare can people imagine the danger, the constant persecution, and the fear she lives in from day to day, because you want wait and hear the other side. It’s not a marital issue! It is a dangerous mental issue! Whether male or female. When will the saints wake up? How many women have to suffer and die because we don’t know what to do? A controller is a charmer. If you spend a few minutes talking to him, you come away thinking he is just a great guy. Isn’t that just like the devil..then he goes home and gives her pure heck. Hopefully she survives it and gets out before it’s too late.

          • Bob_Schilling

            You’re making way too many assumptions G. I’m well aware of the problems surrounding this issue – and the caution with which we need to proceed – especially with a brief comment online. Hopefully Kim seeks out the help she’s being offered and advised.

      • L

        Hi Kim,
        Eight months ago I left my husband, Mr. Controller. Unfortunately, I had to report him to the police, too. Please pick up the book, “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage” by Leslie Vernick and head over to her website. I found that many websites can be men-bashing, husband hating forums, even from Christian women, but I have found that Leslie is very respectful and hopeful while being realistic. Up until days before I left him, I hadn’t told a soul about what was going on in our home. Abuse is far more than just physical, and as a matter of fact, it’s the emotional abuse that seems hardest to overcome. And when you are married to Mr. Controller, he has access to part of your life that say, Mommy Controller or Boss Controller don’t, if you catch my drift. My husband is also still at his church and they are receiving “great blessing” from his ministry while he makes up lies about me and denies everything. The road is hard, and I am so sorry. But submitting more is not the answer. He will only ask for more, things you cannot give and things you are not ever told to give Scripturally. Please pick up that book, try to see a counselor (marriage counseling with a controlling person is never advised for the reasons you know first hand) and I will be praying for you. You are not alone. The Lord weeps for you. And He is on your side.

    • David Murray

      You’re right Natalie. It is deep and deceptive.

  • Roger Ball

    If anyone’s interested there is an excellent book entitled Nasty People by Jay Carter that describes the Black Widow personality. These are control freak personality types who have an insatiable psychological need to invalidate everyone around them. They are always looking for ways to belittle, devalue, discredit, etc., others to their advantage; their personality revolves around character assassination and slander in order to feel in control and thus compensate for their insecurities and low self-esteem. It is also believed to be the most psychologically destructive force in society.

    • David Murray

      Thanks Roger. I’ll look this out.

  • Glen

    Great thoughts, Dr. Murray.

    Manipulation is certainly a common tactic in various forms for those trying to exert power and keep others in subjection to them. Guilt -tripping is a common tactic, especially when authority or the expression of this authority is questioned. Sarcastic self-pity (oh, so now I’m the bad guy!) comments are used at times.

    Some helpful resources I have come across are “Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men” by Lundy Bancroft. Secular, but very insightful. Leslie Vernick, in her book The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, deals with this topic also. Here is one quote I have really appreciated:

    Little gods always end up tyrants, because deep down the
    proud heart is an insecure god; it knows it’s broken. The proud fear that once
    you see their brokenness, you’ll reject them and leave.

    Self-centred pride is so often at the root of our sin.

    I would love to have further discussion on the Mrs. Controlling as well. I think the emasculation that happens when women (wives in particular) are controlling tends to be a topic that rarely is put on the table; however, in my counselling experience I have walked with many husbands who are beaten down with a “continual dripping”. Perhaps a common experience of this is when wives sincerely want their husbands to be better spiritual leaders in the home…then proceed to tell them how this is to be done. Another common occurrence of this is if a husband commits adultery and the wife continues to browbeat him with his offences.

    • David Murray

      Thanks Glen. Great points and I’ll look up these resources.

  • Nancy

    Another book (secular) that helped my daughter escape an abusive marriage is “The Verbally Abusive Relationship” by Patricia Evans. It so described her marriage to a passive/agressive, covert abuser. He was a pastor and came off in public as Mr. Perfect but was very different behind closed doors. I also read a helpful article in Jill Briscoe’s magazine, Just Between Us, from the Fall 2012 issue. The article was entitled “Behind Closed Doors.”

  • DMax

    I’m thankful for that last sentence. My first reaction to this post was that, from my experience, young men in particular seem to have such a hard time taking control over situations, especially in areas they have been given that authority- whether it be in the home or in the church. On the other hand, it is the young women that since the Fall have been fighting the that overwhelming urge to dominate and take over control of the family and church.

    Growing up in a feminized American culture (and a feminized church for that matter), I have so many insecurities as a man in demonstrating positive masculine qualities- like control! On every TV show and movie today men are emasculated and the moral tends to be that men should be ashamed of their masculine qualities and should be more passive. Taking control is a good God-given thing, and in order for wives to feel confident in submission they need to know that their husband is qualified and not afraid to take control of the family.

    I’m sure there are some that benefited from this post, but for me, the chronic push-over, I need to work more on taking control and doing it in a godly way!

    • David Murray

      Good point. No question, there’a another extreme as well. Seems like we are living in an age of extremes!

  • Ryan Scott

    So what if the wife is the controller? Where’s the resources for that? Why is it ALWAYS assumed that men are the jerk?

    • David Murray

      See last sentence.

      • Ryan Scott

        I read the last sentence, is that it? Seems everything is men based, was looking for an article or a book

        • David Murray

          Em, just substitute female pronouns for the male ones and you’ve got the article.

          • http://www.ceeusa.blogspot.com Paula

            I just sent this article to my sister to help her in dealing with a controlling woman in her life. I told her to sub in Miss for Mr. Not hard to do. Thank you for your thoughts. They are very enlightening and quite comforting to me. I was wondering if I was going crazy after observing the way Mr. X in our church behaves. So many people have left the church rather than deal with it and it’s becoming like a cancer. I appreciate your willingness to share YOUR struggle.

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