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Trying to Control Others Is Toxic

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Trying to control someone—in marriage, parenting, the church, or government—is evil. The Bible recognizes authority, but it takes a strong stand against control. If someone abuses God-given authority, they become perpetrators of evil.

This was one of the more surprising truths to come out of my biblical research for When to Walk Away. Here’s the insight that astonished me: God is always right and always has our best interests at heart; if he forced us to do what we should do, in one sense we’d be better off. It would, by any measure, constitute benevolent control. But God doesn’t work that way. He speaks truth. He invites. But he doesn’t control. As powerful as God is and as sovereign as God is, he is never controlling.

One of the most famous statements in Scripture is Joshua’s proclamation, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh 24:15). The Israelites weren’t forced to obey; they heard the truth and were invited to obey. If they didn’t obey, they suffered the consequences, but they weren’t controlled.

Moses wasn’t a controlling religious leader. He urged the Israelites to take the promised land, but they refused. Instead of forcing them into battle, he announced the consequences: by God’s decree, they would wander in the desert for 40 years.

Almost immediately, some leaders rose and said, “If that’s the case, we’ll go now.” Moses begged them not to: “The Lord said to me, ‘Do not go up and fight, because I will not be with you. You will be defeated by your enemies’” (Deut. 1:42ff.). They went anyway and were soundly defeated. Moses didn’t push them into the Promised Land when they should have gone in, nor did he block their way when they shouldn’t have gone in. He simply told them what would happen if they disobeyed God, which they did, twice.

Notice: in the end God’s chosen leader urged them not to go but he still let them go. A godly leader exhorts but he or she doesn’t try to control.

When I was a young man, the “shepherding movement” became popular in certain sectors of the church. Out of a good motivation to encourage people to grow in holiness, it became very controlling. People’s finances, marital decisions, even vocational and house-selling decisions were governed by the leadership under the rubric of “accountability.” Virtually all of the leaders eventually repented; in hindsight, they realized they substituted “control” for “persuade” and people were harmed.

We can’t accomplish God’s aims using Satan’s methods.

Jesus didn’t control. He spoke the truth and let people walk away from him or he chose to walk away himself (my book has an appendix with 41 biblical citations demonstrating this). And while the New Testament talks about “demon possession” it never talks about “God possession” in the same terms. Yes, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, but Paul points out that “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32). The Spirit moves us, but He doesn’t control us or take over. That’s what demons do.

The reason religious control is so dangerous is because our ultimate allegiance is to God. When someone seeks to control us, they are setting themselves up as the anti-Christ, wanting us to follow them instead of God.  They may think they are doing God’s bidding but, again, we’re not doing God’s bidding if we’re not using God’s methods. God’s method is to speak truth and invite.

Paul urges us to honor church leadership: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Tim. 5:17-18But then he immediately tells us what to do when elders mess up: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” (v. 20)

Paul urges us to acknowledge and respect authority wielded with godliness, but to stand up to those who abuse their authority because all of us are accountable to God.

Godly churches persuade and invite, but they don’t coerce—not with guilt, “accountability” that is actually a euphemism for control, or even charisma.They proclaim the truth and invite you to respond as you test, consider, and apply the truth.

This isn’t just about church government, by the way. The same thing should be true of secular governments. Though we are called to obey the government (Romans 13:1), there are clear teachings about when it’s necessary to disobey the government (Acts 5:29; Exodus 1:15-17).

What concerns me about the political climate today is that an entire generation is setting itself up to be controlled. When I was growing up, the United States was known to stand for freedoma godly and divine thing. In the previous election cycle, I didn’t hear anyone talk about freedom; I heard most people talking about the government supplying free things. Here’s why that scares me. About fifty percent of our population receives a significant (or entire) portion of their income from the government. When the government controls how much money you receive, it has the power to control so much else about you. One bad leader with ill motives can use that control to tyrannize you. The way out of this is to value freedom over free things: “Don’t tread on me.” History is filled with leaders and nations who promised benevolence and ended up using their control to tyrannize, abuse, and even murder.

I should also mention that control in marriage is likewise evil. Whether you withhold money or sex to control your spouse, or you physically abuse or gaslight (intellectually manipulate) to control your spouse, you’re acting in a spectacularly evil fashion. In all the arguments about marital roles, control must be taken off the menu in any form of biblical marriage. Godly people try to persuade and invite, but they don’t control.

Humans attempting to control other humans is a blasphemous assumption of authority and worship. It’s why dictatorships are evil. It’s why (among other things) slavery is such an abomination. The highest human life is a life surrendered to God above everyone and all things. When I want anyone to focus on pleasing me I am acting like an anti-God; I am asking them to respond to me like they should respond only to God. Control is toxic and needs to be recognized as such.

If you want to read more on this, let me point you toward my book When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People.

This article originally appeared here.

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Gary Thomas is writer-in-residence (and serves on the teaching team) at Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas and author of 18 books that have sold over a million copies worldwide and have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his wife Lisa have been married for 30 years. Please visit his amazon link.