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Unquestioning Loyalty to Pastoral Leadership the Mark of a Cult
Updated May 8, 2008 (first published September 10, 1999)
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
For church leaders to demand unquestioning loyalty is a perversion of biblical truth and is the mark of a cult. The Bible gives authority to pastors and elders (Heb. 13:7, 17), but that authority is not unlimited or unquestionable. Those who demand blind obedience from their people are cult leaders. Consider the following description of the authority that was wielded by James and Ellen White in the early days of the Seventh-day Adventist cult:

“ELDER AND MRS. WHITE RAN AND RULED EVERYTHING WITH AN IRON HAND. Not a nomination to office, not a resolution, not an item of business was ever acted upon in business meetings till all had been first submitted to Elder White for his approval. Till years later, we never saw an opposition vote on any question, for no one dared to do it. Hence, all official voting was only a farce. The will of Elder White settled everything. If any one dared to oppose anything, however humbly, Elder White or wife quickly squelched him. LONG YEARS OF SUCH TRAINING TAUGHT THE PEOPLE TO LET THEIR LEADERS THINK FOR THEM; HENCE, THEY ARE UNDER AS COMPLETE SUBJECTION AS ARE THE CATHOLICS” (D.M. Canright,
Seventh-day Adventism Renounced, 1898).

This description was given by a man who was a faithful member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for 28 years and who became one of its top leaders. D.M. Canright knew James and Ellen White intimately. He left the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1884 and became a Baptist pastor in Michigan until his death in 1919.

THE FRIGHTFUL FACT IS THAT THE ABOVE DESCRIPTION OF THE PERVERTED AUTHORITY THAT WAS EXERCISED BY JAMES AND ELLEN WHITE IN THEIR ADVENTIST CULT PERFECTLY DESCRIBES THE AUTHORITY THAT IS EXERCISED BY SOME FUNDAMENTAL BAPTIST PASTORS. If I were to publish Canright’s description of perverted church authority without including the names of James and Ellen White and without explaining who this describes and when it was written, some church members in independent Baptist churches would be tempted to write to me and charge me with libeling their own pastors!


There are two problems that I see pertaining to pastoral authority in fundamental Baptist churches today: One, there is rebellion against pastoral authority on the part of some church members; and two, there is misuse of pastoral authority on the part of some pastors.

Pastors have God-given authority. God’s word says, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). Church members do not all have the same authority in the congregations. Pastors have ruling authority, and those who are not pastors are to submit themselves to this authority. Sadly, there is widespread rebellion against pastoral authority. Many people who leave
GOOD fundamental Baptist churches do so because they do not understand or they refuse to submit to biblical pastoral authority. They think they have just as much right as the pastor to make decisions in the church, but that is not true. We have dealt with this in articles such as “SEVEN KEYS TO FRUITFUL CHURCH MEMBERSHIP” (see the Church section of the End Times Apostasy Database at the Way of Life web site --

At the same time, the authority exercised by a pastor or elder is to be distinctly different from that exercised by leaders in the secular world, and there are pastors who are abusing their authority. That is the focus of this article. Consider the biblical characteristics of proper and godly pastoral authority.

FIRST, THE PASTOR’S AUTHORITY IS A MINISTERING AUTHORITY--the authority of a shepherd (Mark 10:42-45; Acts 20:28; 2 Cor. 1:24; 13:10; Titus 1:7; 1 Pet. 5:2). The authority of a pastor is strictly for building up and protecting God’s people and work. It is not for his own pleasure and design.

“But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and THEIR GREAT ONES EXERCISE AUTHORITY UPON THEM. BUT SO SHALL IT NOT BE AMONG YOU: BUT WHOSOEVER WILL BE GREAT AMONG YOU, SHALL BE YOUR MINISTER: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

“NOT FOR THAT WE HAVE DOMINION OVER YOUR FAITH, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand” (2 Cor. 1:24).

“Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to THE POWER WHICH THE LORD HATH GIVEN ME TO EDIFICATION, AND NOT TO DESTRUCTION” (2 Cor. 13:10).

“For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; NOT SELFWILLED, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre” (Titus 1:7).

“Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind. NEITHER AS BEING LORDS OVER GOD’S HERITAGE, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2).

SECOND, THE PASTOR’S AUTHORITY IS A SUBMISSIVE, HUMBLE AUTHORITY--the authority of a steward (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 3:9; 4:1; 12:7; Tit. 1:7; 1 Pet. 4:10; 5:3-5).

“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

“For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, ye are God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9).

“Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1).

“But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal” (1 Cor. 12:7).

“As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10).

“Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:3,5).

The pastor is to rule under the direction of the Lord Jesus Christ, not by his own mind or will. The church is God’s property; the people are God’s people; the work is God’s work. The pastor is merely a steward or caretaker.

Contrast this with the ministry of proud, willful Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9-10) who lorded it over the flock and who quenched the spiritual ministry of men of whom he did not approve even though their ministries were scriptural.


First, he demands unquestioning loyalty and does not teach the people that his authority is restricted and does not encourage the people to test him by God’s Word. He emphasizes certain passages that refer to one aspect of pastoral authority (such as Hebrews 13:17), but he ignores the passages that limit his authority (such as Mark 10:42-45; 2 Cor. 1:24; and 1 Peter 5:2). This is the way that all false teachers misuse the Bible. They develop doctrines from pet verses that appear to support their views while ignoring or explaining away those verses that disprove their views. Second, he wants people to be dependent upon him for direction in life and ministry instead of being dependent upon the Lord Himself. He makes the people feel that they cannot make important decisions and know God’s will without him. Contrast this with Acts 13:3-4, where it was the Holy Spirit who guided the church at Antioch and called Paul and Barnabas to their missionary work.

Third, he exalts himself before the people.

Fourth, he ridicules his associates, making them look small in the eyes of the church members, thus increasing his own prestige and authority and decreasing theirs.

Fifth, he uses an Old Testament pattern for church government to bolster his demand for unquestioning loyalty. He compares himself to Moses, Joshua, and David, failing to note that the New Testament pattern of church government is dramatically different from that of Old Testament Israel. The nation Israel was a kingdom, a theocracy. The New Testament church is the body and flock of Christ. The human leaders in the churches are not lords or potentates or generals or presidents, but are humble shepherds. The Lord Jesus Christ left no doubt about this (see Mark 10:42-45).

THIRD, THE PASTOR’S AUTHORITY IS A KINDLY, LOVING AUTHORITY--the authority of a father (1 Th. 2:7-11).

The pastor is to have a godly, loving, tender, sacrificial consideration for the welfare of the people. His rule is not to be an overbearing, self-serving type of rule.

“But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children: So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us. For ye remember, brethren, our labour and travail: for labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God. Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe: As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children” (1 Thess. 2:7-11).

One of the marks of a cult is the way people are treated when they refuse to follow the leadership unquestioningly or when they leave. When D.M. Canright left Adventism after 28 years, he was treated like a fool and an evil man. All friendship and kindness was withdrawn by the Adventist leaders. They even lied about him mercilessly for many years afterwards. This is a mark of a cult. People are only treated kindly and lovingly if they submit to the doctrines and “authority” of the cult’s leaders; if they question the leadership or if they leave the church, they are fair game to be treated without mercy.

This is exactly what we find in some large (and small but would-be-large) cult-like independent Baptist churches. As long as people unquestionably submit to the pastor, they are treated kindly. As soon as they question his leadership and leave, the kindness is removed and they are treated unkindly.


“For though I should boast somewhat more of our authority, which the Lord hath given us for edification, and not for your destruction, I should not be ashamed” (1 Cor. 10:8).

“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12).
A godly pastor’s objective is to build the people of God up in the faith so that they are strong and can stand on their own feet under Christ their one Head. He wants to see their spiritual gifts and callings developed to the fullest extend possible, and he wants to do everything he can to encourage them to fulfill their calling.


A pastor only has such authority as is delegated to him by God. Christians are never told to submit blindly to a church leader, but to submit to truly God-called men who are leading according to the Word of God. As the Apostle Paul said, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul could demand that others follow him because he was following Christ and was faithfully preaching the message given to him by Christ. Apart from that, even Paul had no authority. He warned the churches of Galatia that if even he were to preach any other gospel, they were to reject him (Galatians 1:8). Even in matters pertaining to his own associates, Paul’s authority was not absolute and unquestionable. When Paul “greatly desired” for Apollos to minister at Corinth, Apollos refused (1 Cor. 16:12).

A pastor’s authority is limited in the following ways:

(1) A PASTOR’S AUTHORITY IS LIMITED BY THE BIBLE. Hebrews 13:7 instructs Christians to submit to those who have spoken to them the Word of God. A preacher does not have authority in himself; his authority is the Word of God. If a pastor or teacher strays from the Bible, his listeners have no responsibility to follow him; he has exceeded his authority. The Bereans are praised because they carefully examined Paul’s preaching instead of blindly following a man (Acts 17:11). God’s people are instructed to “prove all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Every sermon is to be judged by those who hear it (1 Corinthians 14:29). A pastor does not have authority to lord it over every detail of the people’s lives. They are the Lord’s people, not the pastor’s. He is a humble undershepherd who is temporarily caring for the Lord’s flock. The people have the indwelling Spirit of God and He is their main teacher. “But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him” (1 John 2:27).

(2) A PASTOR’S AUTHORITY IS BASED ON HIS CALL FROM GOD (Acts 20:28). The elders of the church at Ephesus were appointed by the Holy Spirit. This is a foundational basis for spiritual authority. Christians are only to submit to men who give plain evidence that they are called of God. The pastor’s qualifications are clearly stated in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Many men are unfit to exercise pastoral authority because their marital status is not the example it should be (pastors are to be examples to the flock of God’s perfect will--1 Peter 5:3), or their wives are unspiritual, or because their children are unruly, or because they have a poor testimony in the community, or for other reasons clearly spelled out in the Bible.


“The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3).

Pastors have real authority in the church, but it is a different kind of authority than that exercised by the world. Note some of the differences as follows:

Scriptural pastors love the flock and lead by compassion, but lords typically despise compassion; they don’t encourage; they merely demand (1 Thess. 2:7-8).

Scriptural pastors lead by example, but lords merely make demands with little or no awareness or concern that they must model what they demand (1 Pet. 5:3).

Scriptural pastors know that the flock is not their own, but lords feel that they own the people and thus can control them according to their own will (1 Pet. 5:2, 3 “flock of God,” “God’s heritage”).

Scriptural pastors care more about the welfare of the saints than their own profit, but lords rule for personal gain and are not afraid to abuse the people (1 Pet. 5:2).

Scriptural pastors are humble and do not consider themselves greater than the flock, but lords exalt themselves high above the people (1 Pet. 5:2 “among you”; 1 Pet. 5:5).

Scriptural pastors aim to build up the people and free them to do God’s will (Eph. 4:11-12; 2 Cor. 10:8), but lords want to control the people and hold them down. The Greek word translated “destruction” in 2 Corinthians 10:8 is elsewhere translated “pulling down” (2 Cor. 10:4).

Brethren, we must submit ourselves to God-called pastors who are leading the churches according to the Word of God. We should follow them and encourage them and always give them the benefit of the doubt. Not to do so is rebellion and confusion.

We must also beware of men who exercise an unscriptural, cultic type of authority, regardless of what denominational label they wear. The Diotrephes mentality eventually led to the formation of the Roman Catholic Church, with its hierarchy of archbishops and cardinals and popes. We don’t need any more popes!

“But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

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