The local church: a place where the Word of God is preached, the gospel is proclaimed, saints are edified, and Christ’s ordinances are observed as believers gather together. Jesus stated that His kingdom would reside in the hearts of men and women. The local church, then, is the consulate of the kingdom in a foreign land, as it is the body through which the Lord’s work is carried out.
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:
The Word of God says that Christ has gifted the local church with a pastor to shepherd the flock by teaching, correcting, growing, and edifying them. Yet unfortunately, in some churches, this relationship has mutated into something far more sinister. Instead of a loving shepherd, we see a pastor that functions more as a cult leader or dictator. Sometimes this flows out of the church body, looking for a dynamic personality to follow and revere. Other times it flows from the pastor, desiring to be followed and revered. The signs that this insipid phenomenon has developed in a church are not unlike marks of a cult or totalitarian regime, so prepare to be uncomfortable if you recognize some of these red flags in your own local assembly.
This phenomenon takes a church that should be Christ-centered and instead makes it man-centered. Like many cults and regimes, it often begins with a disdain for long-held ideas and long-standing institutions. Never mind what the local body has believed for decades and what Christian faith and practice have held to for 2,000 years. It’s a new day with new ideas, and the old system simply has to go! Maybe the whole denominational affiliation gets jettisoned. Maybe it’s less dramatic. Perhaps you’ve heard something like this: “We don’t identify as fundamentalists anymore.” (One might ask when “we” made that decision.)
These new ideas and doctrines are usually catered to a particular demographic. The leader has a strong desire to attract a certain type of person (just like him, more than likely), and everyone else is dragged along for the ride or left behind. As such, there is a discomfort or disdain toward the majority of those outside of the chosen demographic. There is little respect for the church’s history and experienced saints. Sure, he may pay lip service toward them, but the words are, well, just words. The spirit of God dwelt so strongly on the prophet Elisha that even after his death, his bones raised a dead man whose body touched them when he was buried in Elisha’s tomb. But today, the faithful layman in the church will find himself unceremoniously put out to pasture just by virtue of being over 50. That’s because the Holy Spirit is not allowed to have any place or voice here. As we examined before, our hypothetical church is man-centered, not Christ-centered. Often, you’ll find the pastor usurping the work of the Holy Spirit. He enlightens. He teaches. He convicts. He’ll never come out and say it, but he is convinced the congregation is too stupid or ignorant to receive any spiritual enlightenment unless it comes from him.
From here, things grow more sinister. Because the church must be sold on this New Order, a propaganda machine is put in place. Tearing down the church’s history? Infecting the body with bad doctrine? Quietly making seasoned servants of God disappear because of their age or resistance to change? Don’t worry…there will be a list of talking points delivered in bright, happy tones to assure you everything that is obviously happening isn’t happening, or at least is actually a good thing!
But what if the propaganda doesn’t convince you? Be careful, because the pastor-dictator absolutely cannot tolerate questioning or criticism. Nazi Germany had the Gestapo. The Soviet Union had the KGB. Chances are good the Cult of the Pastor has something very similar–an entire network of spies, thugs, and hit men to report and respond to dissent and disloyalty. Their eyes and ears are everywhere. Look for the pastor to begin filling key positions and offices in the church with his loyalists and yes-men. Anything that isn’t 100% sycophantic is considered “negativity” and “discord” and must be put down, usually with all the grace and maturity of a three-year-old. A spiral that is allowed to continue will result in church members being attacked publicly from the bully pulpit over concerns addressed in private.
I Timothy 3:1-7 outlines the qualifications for a pastor. If you’ve been blessed with someone who embodies these traits, thank God. If you instead see examples of pride, wrath, manipulation, and malevolence in the situations we’ve examined above, it’s likely your local church has devolved into a man-centered cult, and you must prayerfully consider what should be done to escape it or bring an end to it.