The father of the prodigal let his son “go his own way.” He allowed him to learn the lessons of life without interference. Once learned, the prodigal returned to a merciful, loving father who never berated or shamed him for his folly. Instead, he welcomed him back as his child, to pick up where they left off—in a father/son relationship.
The son was still poor. He had spent all his inheritance, but he could not spend the unlimited supply of his father’s “open-handed” love. He had been free to choose his own way, which his father allowed him to do without relational repercussions. Imagine how much more respect and loyalty the son had for his father who gave him the freedom to stay or not stay in the shelter and protection of his love.
This type of leadership is what many spiritual fathers or mothers had rarely seen modeled for them. Tragically, it’s happened all too frequently in the body of Christ. May we who lead the next generation of leaders recognize this early and do everything we can to trust God for the lives of the people he entrusts to our care. Ours is a stewardship we dare not touch with insecurities or a co-dependent need to be “needed.”
The thing we legitimately need is to love God and rely on him to fulfill our needs while we let his people serve him in a healthy way. Healthy, open-handed leaders will reproduce a legacy of healthy, spiritual parents who, in turn, will train and equip their spiritual children to “leave” the nest and follow their own God-given assignment.
Having said this, I must point out that for some (not all), a life of manipulation and co-dependency can become a subtle addiction—like alcohol or drugs. People delivered from co-dependency must set boundaries for themselves. The addiction doesn’t go away overnight. It must be contained and restrained through prayer and awareness.
Therefore, I recommend caution in putting people in any serious role of authority who’ve struggled in the past with this issue and have been victims of spiritual abuse by controlling, manipulative leaders. Because of this, it must be determined by observation if they still struggle with authority—either under it or in it? The abused can become abusers if they’ve never forgiven their abuser or embraced the truth of the impact such abuse has had on their lives.
To succeed as a healthy leader in the future, they must be aware of the deception they’d fallen into, aware of formerly being spellbound by manipulative, shame-basing authority. Their unhealthy fear of authority can also shame them from admitting that the spiritual parent they once adored and looked up to, had done anything wrong. They don’t want to believe it. Instead, they blame themselves for being so naïve. But naiveite isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s something to learn from. They simply need to embrace the facts in a truthful way and “the truth will set them free” from any further control of the manipulator. It can take time, but in time—with God’s help—it will happen.
I know this because it had happened to me as young Christian. I knew I had to address and tackle my deception head-on with the Word of God. I had to admit I had allowed myself to be deceived by some deep, unhealthy need within me. I had looked to a man for my sense of identity rather than to the Lord.
This awareness and deliverance gradually shaped my own leadership style and kept me in check from the temptation of needing people to “need” me, because of what I experienced. It kept me in check from performing subtle means of control over people’s lives as a pastor (though I’m sure I had failed many times in that). I’ve also used my experience to avoid future traps of deception from dynamic, charismatic leaders who may deceive me to follow them into a dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship.
As leaders, we must never place our confidence in the arm of flesh. Don’t be impressed by great men and women of God. Be inspired by them, respect them, but not so impressed to the point of idolizing them. Instead, be impressed by God who does great things through all who depend solely on him and are obedient to his commands. That’s what makes great spiritual leaders. His greatness in us makes us great. Healthy leaders will understand this and not boast in themselves, or receive praise for themselves, because they know what they are and who they are without God.
Controlling leaders don’t get this. They need to be seen and celebrated as great leaders. They need a community of followers to celebrate their greatness, to feed their ego, their unhealthy co-dependence upon the praise of men. Their insecurities are fear-based. They fear disloyalty or the appearance of it in their followers. They fear those better than themselves at preaching, teaching or leading, i.e., those who might rise in the midst of the assembly and take “their” people from them. So they manipulate and secure loyalty by tearing down all others who might threaten their throne of control.
Jesus warned again and again, “Do not be deceived.” He said, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” which was legalistic control and hypocrisy. The Pharisees used every religious act as a means to be seen and admired by men. That was their downfall. Jesus came along and spoke with greater authority. His words were genuine, authentic, and given to enlighten people to truth that would set them free from the legalistic control of the Pharisees. That’s why he said his yoke was easy and his burden was light—unlike the yoke of the legalistic Pharisees.
Jesus lived what he taught. The Pharisees did only externally. Inwardly they were ravenous wolves and Jesus exposed their hypocrisy. He exposed their control over the people through their man-made laws. So they killed him. They crucified the Lord to maintain their place of greatness among the unsuspecting, religious followers abused by their laws and power. A manipulative power so strong that they persuaded their people to kill the Lord of glory.
Manipulative authority does the same thing to Jesus. It’s like the sin of witchcraft, or the controlling power of Jezebel. It steers people’s attention and pure devotion away from Jesus and toward themselves. They’ll use the name of Jesus to do this—in preaching and in song—but beneath the religious veneer is a dysfunctional need to be needed and idolized. They’re unaware that such self-deception of control is as serious as crucifying Christ themselves, taking him out of the picture so as to replace his throne with their own.
Yes…it’s that serious. No different than when Satan attempted to usurp his throne over God’s throne in the heavens. And we all know what happened to him.
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the [legalistic] tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
—Colossians 2:8 (NASU)
 Matthew 6:1-18
 Matthew 11:29-30 – “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”