Rebellion is always justified in the eyes of the rebel.
I debated whether to make this one or two (or three) posts. Well, here it is in one post. Feel free to break it up into bite size chunks as you see fit.
I need to clarify a few things before we continue this discussion about spiritual authority. I understand that some who read this do not have the same religious background that I have, and so it may be difficult to relate. It can be like coming in half way through a conversation—it’s hard to understand what is being discussed unless you are clued in regarding the first part of the conversation. Well, what I am talking about is the abuse of authority in the church. There are churches in which this is not an issue, but there are many for which it is. In the extreme, think of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple and the tragedy that occurred in Guyana back in the 1970’s. What would cause sane, intelligent people to follow an insane egomaniac to a foreign country and then commit mass suicide? For those following Jim Jones, it was the idea that they had no choice. He was their “spiritual authority,” and he had “the truth.” Where else could they go?
I hear the objections. “You can’t use Jim Jones as an example of the abuse of spiritual authority in churches today because that kind of abuse is too extreme and doesn’t happen anymore.” And so the logic follows then that any abuse short of mass suicide is acceptable? The issue for me is church leaders that abuse their positions and the scriptures in order to control the lives of those they are supposed to be helping. And to those who say Jim Jones is too extreme, I would say that hindsight is 20/20. What advice would proponents of submission to spiritual authority give to those following Jim Jones today—perhaps a couple of years before the tainted Kool-Aid is offered? Their pastor is very controlling, and they are questioning whether they should continue to sit under his leadership. What do you tell the members of his church? Do you tell them that God will honor them for submitting to their spiritual authority, and that God will take care of their leader if he is in the wrong? Remember, in this hypothetical situation, you don’t have the luxury of knowing what is going to happen two years from now. Should the people rebel and leave that church? Or should they stay and submit? In one sense, God did “take care of “Jim Jones. The problem is that Jim Jones “took care of” over 900 of his followers before he was taken care of. When is “disobedience” to spiritual leaders justified? When is it not sin? When has a spiritual leader gone too far? When he tells his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid? When he tells them to leave their jobs and families to follow him to a foreign country to start a new community where people can live for God in true holiness and freedom? When he tells them to marry this person and not that person? When he tells them whether they can move to another community or not? When he tells them what they can and cannot wear? When he tells them which movies they can watch? Where do you draw the line? As I said earlier, some of you are asking yourselves, “What kind of church leader would do those things?” You ask this because this is foreign to you. For others reading this, this is life in the church. This brief series of posts is to address the problem of church leaders taking on authority that is not theirs—authority that they erroneously see in the Bible.
Ok. Disclaimer time. I am not saying that church leaders should never exercise any authority in our lives. I am also not trying to disparage any particular leaders or organization, or spiritual leaders in general. God brings pastors into our lives for our benefit. We would do well to heed the instruction of those who correctly and properly expound the Word of God.
When I talk of spiritual authorities who “abuse” their positions, I am talking about Christian leaders who go beyond the authority given them in Scripture. Specifically, I am talking about church leaders who don’t just teach the Scriptures, but tell people specifically how to apply the teaching in every area (or in many areas) of their lives. These leaders end up “controlling” those who follow them—intentionally or not. And they use Scripture to do it. They tell people (in effect), “I am your spiritual leader. You need to listen to what I tell you. If you don’t, you are rebellious, and you are rebelling against God.” In this way, people are controlled and coerced into submission through fear—fear of disobeying God. (In the interest of full disclosure: this is the kind of teaching that I ascribed to at one time—both in my view of my leaders and in my view of those who followed me.) This is not God’s way. As a matter of fact, Jesus even talked about leaders of this world who “lord it over” their subjects. And he told his disciples that it would “not be so with you.” But church leaders were to serve—not control. It is this controlling element—that controls through the fear that not following the leader equates with disobeying God—that is abusive, and it is what I am coming against in these posts. Whether it ends in Guyana or somewhere short of that, it should not be the way our leaders lead.
Now that I have said that, I also want to say that most church leaders that I know (and many who were my leaders and peers for years) are not bad men. They are, in fact, good men—sincere men who love God and the people in their churches very much. These are men (and women) who want nothing but the best for their congregants, and who teach what they do (and the way they do) only because they truly want the followers of God to realize all the blessings that God has for them. They also see an obligation in the Bible to teach people to “live right,” to live lives of “holiness.” So, I do not see malice in the heart of a church leader who says “Don’t watch ‘R’ rated movies.” He believes he would be remiss in his God-given duties if he did not “warn” his people about such things. But this is, in my mind, where he is wrong.
A final disclaimer/reminder. I am not a biblical scholar. These are my opinions, and are based on my own personal study, as well as my experience as a minister for almost 20 years. I could be wrong, but this is what I understand.
There are different kinds of authority. There are governmental authorities: police officers, judges, agencies, etc. There are experts who are “authorities” on various subjects. There are parents and bosses. These people derive their authority from different sources. The parent derives his or her authority from the responsibility to raise the child in a way that protects the child from danger, but also helps the child to grow to be a productive member of society. The police officer derives his authority from the laws of the land. The expert derives her authority from her knowledge drawn from years of study and experience. Our bosses derive their authority from their bosses or from the owners of a company. And church leaders derive their authority to teach and lead the church from the Bible.
Jesus taught with great authority. The people noted that he taught differently than the scribes and Pharisees because of this. Interestingly, it was the scribes and Pharisees who “exercised” authority over people—whereas Jesus “had” authority. Of course, we realize that he derived his authority from the fact that he was God in the flesh. But that is not what the people saw, or sensed. No, they said he taught as one with authority because of his command of and understanding of the scriptures. It wasn’t that he could explain every detail of a particular passage, and all the ways in which that passage could be lived out. He brought something new to the table. He understood the heart and the intent of the scriptures. Rather than complicating it, he simplified it. “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself, and you shall find eternal life.” In one sentence he explained the message of the whole Bible. No one had done that before.
And yet Jesus was a rebel. He did not “obey” or “submit to” the scribes and Pharisees. As a matter of fact, he rebuked them. And he called them names—a den of vipers, whited sepulchers, etc. He made no bones about publicly pointing out their short comings. Would Jesus get away with that today in our churches? What would Jesus say today to church leaders that tell people in detail how to live their lives? Obviously, it wasn’t that the Pharisees were teaching the wrong things. Jesus even told the people to listen to their teachings. But he told them not to worry about following their example because they were hypocrites. (As an aside: in what way were the Pharisees hypocrites? I say it is because they set a standard that no one could live up to—not even themselves. Sound familiar?) Should we follow Jesus’ example and call our leaders on the carpet when they are being hypocritical? Or should we “submit” and “let God deal with them?” Most of us wouldn’t have the guts to follow Jesus’ example, but we would more closely follow the teachings of Scripture if we did.
Is rebellion justified? Of course it is. We just talked about how Jesus rejected the Pharisees. And what about the early Christians telling magistrates, “we ought to obey God rather than man”? And what about Paul withstanding Peter to his face? What about every Christian who refused to bow his/her knee to Caesar? Or to any other leader who demanded worship, or who demanded that the Christian denounce Christ? Of course, we say these are the justifiable exceptions. Are they? What about Martin Luther? What about Calvin? What about Zwingli? Tyndale? Wycliffe? Hus? Wesley? All of Protestantism? The early Pentecostals? The Oneness Pentecostals who broke away from their Trinitarian brethren? If we are to submit to our spiritual leaders and allow God to “deal” with them if they are wrong, then every religious movement that broke away from another one is illegitimate. When is it okay to rebel? To disobey? Truly, rebellion is always justified in the eyes of the rebel.
I believe that many Christian leaders take authority that isn’t theirs today. They do it because of a misunderstanding of certain passages of Scripture. The main Scripture passage used to justify the way abusive leaders exercise authority is Hebrews 13:17 which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you,” (NIV). Sounds pretty straight forward, right? But I would say it seems straight forward because of the meaning that has been added to it for us by some well-meaning though mistaken leaders. This verse is not saying “Do what your pastor tells you because if you don’t you are disobeying God.” But this is what we think when we read it. Let’s break it down.
First, the Greek word for “obey” here has a root that means to “persuade or trust.” Not only that, it is used with the “middle” voice—something not found in English grammar. The middle voice in Greek indicates something that is done for one’s self—for the benefit of the one doing the activity. There is no hint of “command” and “obey” here—no coercion or control. The picture is of one listening to teaching by “authorities” and being persuaded to the point of following that teaching—for the benefit of the one listening.
This brings us to the next significant word, “submit.” This word in the Greek has as its root the word that means to “hear.” “Submit to them” essentially means “listen to them.” Contextually, it ties directly to the “teaching” more than it does to the “teacher.” It is assumed that the “teacher” is correctly “teaching” the Word of God. This would fall right in line with the instructions to leaders to “feed my sheep,” and to “rightly divide the Word of God”, and to “teach and exhort.” It would not fit in with telling people who to marry, or when and if to move to a new community. And it would not align with telling people what clothes were “holy” and which were “sinful” to wear. It would also not fit with leaders telling people what career paths to follow. Yet, these applications are common in many churches today. God did not call pastors to “control” or “rule” his people. He called them to serve and feed them.
There is a lot more to be said on this subject, and I may say more later (but this post is already about four times longer than it should be). The truth shall set you free—not make you afraid of disagreeing with your leader. God bless you as you submit to Him. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. And he calls you to rest.
In the mean time, here are some book titles that some of you may want to check out:
Twisted Scriptures by Mary Chrnalogar
Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn
More Jesus, Less Religion by Stephen Arterburn
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Jeff VanVonderen
Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Jeff VanVonderen