Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

The Celebration of Tyranny in Pastoral Ministry

The Celebration of Tyranny in Pastoral Ministry

A few years back I attended a seminar on church growth. During one of the sessions, a church growth guru shared an anecdote from his ministry. He was the pastor of a large and rapidly growing church. But he’d noticed that their growth was plateauing. After some troubleshooting and evaluation, the growth guru identified another pastor on their team as an obstacle to expansive growth. In order to achieve megachurch numbers, though with deep regret, the guru decided he had to remove this pastor from the ministry team.

The above anecdote was shared as proof of this leader’s commitment to church growth, and possibly also to spur us on to similarly tough decisions. Because—if we want our churches to grow—we must identify and remove all obstacles to that goal. Even if those are people, from pastoral staff to faithful elders.

To my shame, despite feeling slightly uncomfortable at the time, I never raised my hand to object. Of course, much of my writing since has been an objection to the church growth movement and its principles, whether it’s the idea of cloning success or reframing faithfulness. Even though this anecdote was shared as a triumph, it’s little more than tragic pragmatism. Furthermore, reading Blaise Pascal’s Pensées recently helped me identify the spirit behind it: tyranny.

Blaise Pascal On Tyranny

In his Pensées, Pascal defines tyranny as “the wish to have in one way what can only be had in another.” Earlier he says it is the desire for power beyond one’s scope, to dominate with no care for order. To illustrate this description, Pascal shows that each of us have kinds of mastery or rule. The common folly, which Pascal bemoans, is the erroneous conflation of remarkable success or ability in one area with the right to rule all others. This results in tyranny—and tyrannical leaders or pastors.

What Pascal does well is unhitch the notion of tyranny from figures such as Leopold II or Vladimir Putin. For he shows that gross pragmatism can amount to a type of tyranny, just like manipulating success to accrue unwarranted power and influence has its end in tyranny. We need only think of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. Tyranny is the desire to rule everywhere. It ignores the appropriate ways of achieving its goals and goes about them in its own self-determined ways. As Pascal notes, this typically flows from some other success or mastery. The tyrant always knows best. He doesn’t answer to anyone.

Hopefully the purpose of our foray into Pascal’s Pensées is self-evident. Hopefully you can see that the anecdote shared by said church growth guru is not commendable, let alone Christian. It was tyrannical. In closing I want to focus on what seems to me as not only a tacit acceptance of this sort of tyranny, but total affirmation of it.

Tyranny Or 1 and 2 Timothy?

Our church growth guru is far from unique. He’s merely another pastor who’s drunk too deep at the well of pragmatism or desperate for the recognition that ministry ‘success’ grants—or both. In my favourite, sustained satire, the apostle Paul writes: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that godliness is of some value, but to fulfil our charge and guard the good deposit you must be devoted to church growth” (3 Timothy 1:10-11; see also 3:8-12). Of course, Paul never actually wrote that—or anything remotely like it. If you want know the requirements for a pastor then read the pastoral epistles.

The fact that a pastor who—by all accounts—is fulfilling the God-given task of an elder can be fired because he doesn’t fit with the strategy for growth is deplorably tyrannical, not to mention tragic. The tyrant leader pursues in one way what can only be had in another, often with utter disregard for order or structure. It is a kind of success that fuels this behaviour, as leaders believe themselves to be in possession of something only God has: omniscience. God has issued his requirements for Christian elders, so when a successful and visionary pastor’s pragmatism trumps those, we should call that what it is: tyranny.

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