Understand the difference between authority and control.

My parents came to visit one weekend in February, and my mom brought a book for me to read. It wasn't a book I'd probably pick off the shelf myself, but since she felt I should read it, I did.

The book was about people who want to control other people, and the author shared examples of both men and women who had different ways of controlling people. The pattern was interesting.

First, these folks sought out easily controlled people, whether it was because they were emotionally weak (e.g. needed acceptance wherever they got it, or were looking for power themselves) or unable to see through their behavior (e.g. were close friends and unable to see anything negative). Then, these controlling people made sure to push away or remove people who weren't easily controlled. At that point, they were able to manipulate situations based on amassing controllable groups of people, using manipulative words and actions that were disguised or not transparent, to justify or substantiate what they did.

It was quite a book.

My mom was right: I needed to read that book at that point in my life. It was during a time when troubling things were happening, and I've no doubt that it helped me put a finger on what was bothering me at the time of it.

Before we dive into authority and control, let's veer off into delegation, and how that relates to authority.

In Exodus 18, we have an excellent example of why we shouldn't have one top dog calling all the shots. Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, sees that Moses is trying to handle every little thing. It's too much for Moses, so Jethro recommends he find capable people to help deal with all of what the people need.

When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”

Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”

Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.

I think we can agree that proper delegation is a good thing.

Without it, leaders get worn out, team members feel ignored, important needs go unmet, and necessary action goes undone. There's a bottle neck right at the top, where everything slows to a crawl. It is effectively ten lanes of traffic merging into one.

True delegation, then, is about trusting others to capably and rightly handle the task, not feeling threatened as those delegated do an excellent job, and being willing to let the job they've done stand as is.

But here's the tricky bit: some people delegate "yuck" work to others, but still want to control everything. They believe this is what it means to be in authority: don't do the work, but maintain absolute control. Or worse, they use the idea of delegation to pass the buck or throw someone under the bus when everything hits the fan.

"It's not my fault that didn't happen. So-and-so was supposed to have done it," those types of leaders might say. They use delegation, whether directly done or stretching the truth to say it should have been assumed, as a reason why they are not to take responsibility for failures.

To be clear: a good leader takes full responsibility, and doesn't pass the buck when things haven't been done. A bad leader throws others under the bus and says "it wasn't my fault; they didn't do their job."

So delegation is proper, but it can be misused in a way that is harmful.

When the moment comes to reconsider a leader, it is not easy.

After recent events, I first wanted to consider my own heart. It is easy to be angry, to blame, to have all kinds of feelings, but as a follower of Christ, I always have to consider my own heart. First and foremost, I wanted to be sure I wasn't anti-authority or had a noticeable nature towards being rebellious.

I have always been a rule-follower to a fault, even to being hyper annoyed at people who don't follow the rules (both written and cultural). Obey the speed limit. Don't cheat. Don't litter. Don't cut in line. Let others go first. Don't steal. Be honest with your work hours. Meet your deadlines. Etc. I like structure, order, systematic approaches, and tidiness; these are not qualities that come with anti-authority and anarchy, since those two instead beget chaos. The Bible is clear that authority structures are put into place for our good, and I appreciate rule of law and all of the benefits of people existing rightly under authority structures.

Unfortunately, that means that I immediately tend to trust anyone in an authority position, such as clergy, law enforcement, or leaders at work. I believe they tell the truth. I believe they won't hurt me. I believe they wouldn't be in the position they're in unless they were an adept leader. Surely someone along the way would have caught a bad egg and gotten them out of the carton. Surely I can trust.

Here's where it gets really sticky, where some people choke: am I able to question what someone in a position of authority is doing, and how do I go about doing that questioning? (Assuming there is a system in place that protects those who might question.)

For rule followers like me, it's no little thing to question authority or even actually confront. I mostly just want the cogs to turn smoothly, with everyone following the rules and doing their job. So it's one thing when another cog doesn't follow the rules, but quite another when the person in authority seems to flaunt them as well.

The moment I realize someone in authority can't be trusted with whatever particular quality a leader should be trusted with, the game is over for me. I can't function at all. Cogs, wheels, gears, and bearings explode and the breakdown is inevitable. I smell blood in the water, a leader who can't or won't lead but still makes demands and gets accolades.

Few things are as stunning and confusing as when you see these authority figures in a new light. It is difficult to process, it is difficult to know how to respond or what to do, it is scary to confront because they have the ability to harm you or your job, and you know you won't be believed by others because these authority figures are people with assumed right standings; their loyal people will fight you for suggesting otherwise. Much of the longest battle is in your own head and heart, a tiny area for so much conflict to be constrained, before any actual confrontation occurs; if you're like me, most of the time you're trying to convince yourself that nothing is really wrong and you should not do anything to rock the boat. You just want the cogs to keep turning. You know they're breaking down but you really really want them just to keep turning.

Now we get to the meat of it, talking about the difference between authority and control.

True authority is a responsibility, a protection, something serious before God. It is a covering over others, it is difficult, it is weighty, and it is not for the squeamish. Nothing about it is self-serving in any sense. No untoward motive should be present in those in a position of authority. Being a nice and pleasant person is no indicator of being good in a position of authority.

Control, however, is wanting to dictate how people act. It manipulates, forces, threatens, bribes, connives, and coerces. It uses love bombing and flattery to build twisted and confused loyalty. It pits people against each other. Chaos among people, oddly enough, can be used to maintain control, because in chaos, people run to the leader.

With this understanding of what is authority and what is control, I'm going to make a strong statement: No one but God is to have control over you.

Do NOT allow another person to control you. That is not authority, that is sin. You are still responsible for your actions, whether a controlling person led you down a path of sin or not. Under no circumstances ever should you let a person control you.

Why does a person want to control other people?

Insecurity. Fear. They were raised thinking that's how it's done. They have a wrong understanding of control and authority and think controlling people is what God wants them to do. They want to enforce law and behavior on the external without bothering with the work of love to get to the heart. They need or enjoy the power that comes with controlling other people. They are protecting themselves or building their own empire in some fashion. They want to dominate others. They need public accolades and fans. They are afraid of their weaknesses being known and slyly work against people who excel in those areas. Who knows why! There are many reasons.

If we should learn anything from the Israelites, it's that it was never God's intention that we be ruled over by another person, but instead that we would live under his authority as King. Unfortunately, we have what we have and, like the Israelites, we seem to want the easier approach of letting another human being control us and be an excuse for us rather than controlling ourselves as we walk with God. Trouble is, we will always have flawed leaders. Read in the books of Kings and Chronicles how, over and over, bad kings led their people into sin.

Don't let a person in authority lead you down a path that is destructive.

Never let yourself be controlled by someone else.

This doesn't make you anti-authority, because being anti-authority is wrong. Anti-authority takes no direction and correction from anyone. It is a spirit in direct conflict with God. It doesn't allow the Holy Spirit to work and guide. It allows no limitations to be placed on oneself. It looks out for number one and cares nothing for what happens to others. It gratifies self. It rejects the protection and order God wants for us.

Yet questioning a person in authority is not the same as anti-authority.

You can still be submitted to authority in your heart, without that anti-authority spirit, and question the actions and motivations of someone in authority. And frankly, you'd better be able to do it. You may have wonderful leaders your whole life, but you may not.

Let me be clear: submitting to authority doesn't mean you never question a leader. It doesn't mean you blindly go along with something that doesn't quite sit right in your spirit. It doesn't mean you attack others who are questioning the leader in a way that doesn't yet make sense to you.

That's how we've gotten ourselves into these messes with decades of hidden church sexual abuse and financial scandals that keep exploding on the scene. People believe they were not allowed to even consider questioning, staying silent and letting authority control and rule over them.

Submitting to authority is right and Biblical. Submission is something we offer up of ourselves, a kind of sacrifice of loving humility, and not something that can be demanded from us. If submission is demanded, it is usually part of someone wanting to control you.

Submission that is demanded is not submission, it's subjugation.

Submitting should not bring harm to you or someone else. Submitting doesn't mean shutting off your mind or closing your eyes. Submitting is not giving up self-control, because God gave us a self-control and a sound mind. Submitting is a way we show God we understand his authority, and how he exercises it on earth. It is a practice of God's Kingdom in our lives right now.

Consider the horse*. A horse trained to be ridden allows you to ride it. She'll go where you ask. She is submitting to you. But if you ask her to do something stupid or dangerous (believe me, I know this from experience), you'll probably hit the ground.

At no point, when riding a horse, do you ever really believe you're in absolute control, that you have exerted the greater brute force over that massive animal. It's always very clear that beneath you is a powerful beast that could grab that bit and take you for a terrifying run if she wanted (again, been there). She submits to you and your reins and cinches, but doesn't lose control over her muscles, her body, or her natural instincts. You work as a team, she trusting you won't hurt her or ask her to do something that is dangerous. You trust she'll respect the authority you've instilled in her and in return, take care of her. And you both end up going a long way in the same direction.

Sure, you can break and beat a horse down, and kill their spirit. You can beat them, punish them, cruelly restrain them, and make them broken animals. They'll plod along until they're dead. But it won't be a lot of fun riding them. You'll have an animal living in fear, not an animal living in full spirit.

Godly authority isn't about crushing people, but activating a right spirit to do the right things. It is a thing of love and protection and taking responsibility for those submitting to it. And that's why godly authority NEVER seeks to control people. That is the job of the Holy Spirit.

A true leader has true authority, which is, in practice, given to them by their followers through willing submission based in trust. A false leader only has what is known as positional authority, in which there is no willing submission happening, only brute control and broken spirits, demanding submission out of guilt, cherry-picked Bible verses, or other forms of manipulation.

A good leader will listen, and reveal right motives. A good leader wants to build up people, wants them to thrive and excel, even beyond him or herself. A good leader always puts self interest last. A good leader doesn't want to control people, but rather wants to harness their passions in a way that makes the whole team move forward, like a powerful team of horses that could destroy you but instead do the work you ask of them.

One of my great-uncles and his team.

A bad leader will shut you down, demand you obey, and refuse to consider what you say. Their first concern is answering the question of "who is in control in this situation" and all actions from there will stem from that.

Until people understand the difference between correct submission to authority and refusing to be controlled, we will continue to have the abuse, the breaks, the blow-ups, and all the rest. We'll continue to see people abandoning ship.

And if no one is following you, you have no authority, no matter your title or position


*Read any of the Monty Roberts books in which he uses his amazing work with horses as an excellent ground for teaching about people and leadership. It's not about brute control, but about gentleness and love and coaxing.

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By Julie R. Neidlinger
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