Divine order is a poorly understood concept. I am convinced that even those who teach it, who make confident assertions about how it works (or should work), have no idea what they are talking about. It is always easy enough to describe divine order as an organizational pattern, one in which Christian interpersonal relationships are a hierarchy. That particular view is almost always predicated entirely on a divine mandate that demands unqualified submission of spiritual sheep to spiritual shepherds and other leaders. By the end of this writing, what I hope you will come to understand is that there is no such divine mandate.
Consider this: the term “divine order” appears nowhere in the scriptures. It is the invention of clever theology. For all of the volumes that have been written on the topic, it is really nothing more than a manufactured term used to categorize a set of doctrines that justify and establish a hierarchy of relationships. The New Testament Church pattern is one such hierarchy. The relationship of husbands to wives and parents to children are another. For most people, divine order settles the question “Who is in charge?” In this hierarchal view of relationships, the world is divided up into two camps: those who are submissive and obedient, and those who are not. It is a simple view, based on a lopsided emphasis on submission and obedience that over the years has proven to be fraught with difficulty.
In fact, there is almost no evidence that any of the organizational machinations cleverly crafted by religious leaders in the name of divine order have ever benefited anyone other than those very leaders who invented it. Spiritual sheep have always received the short end of the stick wherever divine order has been applied. The beneficiaries of divine order have always been the leaders who invented the concept. Over and over again it has always been those few apostles, few pastors, and their families have enjoyed its protections; using its precepts to deflect the consequences of their own questionable choices and offensive behavior, often at the expense of the sheep they were charged to protect. Using their pulpits as platforms for battle, they marshal their forces and draw their swords to hack down friends and family – anyone with a conscience who would call them to account.
Of all the doctrines, divine order has caused more stumbling and destruction of individuals, families and churches than any other. Churches have torn themselves apart in self-destructive infighting when people choose sides and go to war over arguments about divine order. Families have either been torn apart in those same conflicts or by a husband’s misguided attempts to use scriptural weapons and force his family to accept an abusive relationship in the name of “divine” order. Individuals have left the churches in droves where pastors and other spiritual leaders have attempted to assume a position of power over them that even the Lord Himself did not dare attempt. If any doctrine deserves its place on the trash heap of history, the form of divine order that has been practiced up until now has earned a place there.
Truth be told, the best thing that could happen is for the term “divine order” to disappear forever from the Christian lexicon. “Divine order” and its organizational progeny, “the New Testament Church pattern,” are built on the foundational assertion that divinely appointed individuals are empowered by God to command others. This concept arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of scriptural passages like the one below:
The idea that God raises the social status on one person over another is the basis for monarchies and popes, paternalism and elitism, autocrats and oligarchies, all of which have found their way into the Christian church. People have become so enslaved to this idea that they render themselves incapable of making life choices, having ceded their God given rights to others who select on their behalf professions, schools, ministries, houses, marriage partners, friends and social standing. Over time, Christian leaders who should be nothing more than servants are set apart as a class of their own, thought to have somehow shed human fallibility, they are elevated to royal status in the eyes of their followers, aspiring kings who call themselves apostles.
Tragically, there are contemporary Christian organizations where the idea that a divinely appointed messenger is empowered by God to hand out orders has become so deeply entrenched in their culture that the emphasis of their gospel is no longer the good news of faith in Christ. Instead of good news, their gospel has become a litany of commandments (which they label divine order) that compels obedience to those they call apostles. In these places, leaders are transformed from men of faith into prison guards who lock away believers behind bars of submission in cells of obedience.
In contrast, the emphasis of the scriptures is not submission or obedience. The emphasis of the scriptures is faith. Not once did Christ say, “Your obedience has made you well. He did say (repeatedly), “Your faith has made you well.” Those who counter the assertion that the scriptures emphasize faith not obedience will no doubt quote Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (NASB). While there is nothing wrong with either obedience or submission, the problem is the spirit behind those who insist on it. Anyone who argues that obedience and submission should be offered unconditionally to spiritual leaders would also have to conclude that Jesus, His disciples, and the believers who followed, were guilty of sin for failing to submit to the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees.
Like the Pharisees did with the Law of Moses, people have been fouling up the intent of the scriptures since the day they were first penned. On its face, the New Testament Church pattern is not only divinely inspired – it is divinely required. Nevertheless, when an organization presumptuously asserts that they have some special spiritual standing because it has filled in blocks on an org-chart with the names of the New Testament gift ministries, its organizers have become little better than Pharisees who thought they represented God’s chosen ones because they kept the Law of Moses. In fact there are many churches that resemble the organization of the New Testament who offer nothing even remotely resembling the power recorded in the book of Acts. Carrying out the will of God will never be accomplished by an organization whether it is erected by the Pharisees or by the greatest apostle. Divine order is meaningless unless the “order” is divine.
A divine order with interpersonal relationships based on the subservience of one person to the divine claim of another is fueled by a basic mischaracterization of the relationship of Christ to the church. People tend to think of Jesus Christ as master and the church His slaves. Many readily accept a similar relationship with their spiritual leaders, because to them, those leaders represent Christ. The problem with this kind of thinking is that Jesus, who is both Lord and King, never related to His followers as if He was master. In spite of all the religious teaching to the contrary, the kinds of hierarchical relationships most have experienced in the church are in reality a very human, a very carnal way of relating.
In the first church, the New Testament Church on which the contemporary Christian church should be patterned, church authority was characterized by the Apostle Peter in a very different way. Peter’s writings portray a different kind of leadership than what is practiced in most churches.
Peter cautioned elders not to lord it over those who were allotted to their charge. Someone who behaves like a lord is someone who insists on obedience from followers. It is a master to slave relationship. The master insists on obedience from the slave. The master insists on submission by the slave. In this kind of relationship the slave serves the master. In this kind of relationship, the slave has no power in the relationship. A slave has no choices. A slave cannot choose to obey – a slave must obey.
Leading by example is not a master slave relationship. Leaders who lead by example do not insist on obedience. Leaders who lead by example have no expectation of submission. Obedience is optional. No pastor has a divine right to demand on any basis that spiritual sheep submit to what they are instructed to do. When leading by example, if a pastor believes that he has a word from the Lord, he submits it to the believer.
Correct spiritual leadership is all about perspective. The perspective of leaders who preach a kind of order where spiritual sheep exist to serve leaders, what some call the upward flow, is flawed at its foundation. The congregation of believers does not exist to serve the apostles – the apostles exist to serve the congregation. Spiritual sheep do not exist to serve pastors and elders – pastors and elders exist to serve spiritual sheep.
Jesus was a king. If anyone had the right to demand obedience, to rule and to reign – it was Jesus. Even so, He never exercised that right. He equated spiritual authority with being a slave. From the human perspective, a slave with authority is upside down. How can a slave be great? How can a slave have authority? How can anyone lead if obedience of followers is not assumed? That is the paradox of the Kingdom. It was this perspective from which all of Christ’s authority flowed. Miracles, signs and wonders were the result. Following His example, Jesus’ disciples delivered similar results.
The disciples followed Jesus because of what He was. He did not compel obedience from anyone in spite of His flaws like many contemporary leaders do. Believers followed the first apostles because they saw Christ in them. They performed the same miracles and lived the same way He did. They were examples and the first Christians obeyed them because of what they were, not because they had to overlook their flaws and reconcile the discrepancies between their behavior and their religious titles. Everyone has flaws; however, the rub is apparent when leaders begin to compel the flock to ignore their example and obey them in spite of those flaws. Men (and women) who do that are “lording” it over.
Once a Christian movement loses sight of the emphasis of the gospel and starts concerning itself more with the submission of its congregation to its leaders, anything that once made it remarkable is soon lost. Evangelism stops working. The miracles and signs that were once its hallmark become nostalgia. After a while the only remarkable thing about them is their remarkable inability to do anything remarkable. Forged in the fires of a living word spoken by a man of God that laid a foundation that other churches and movements build on, its disciples try in vain to rekindle again the flames that people once flocked to by cherishing a hallowed past and building monuments to their spiritual fathers.
For them the proverb has come to pass:
Woe to the children who cherish their father’s sayings but do not follow them.
I sent them prophets but they would not listen.
I warned them, but they would not change their ways.
So I have hardened their hearts lest they turn and hear
Like Ahab, I will send them prophets who lie to them with comforting words.
They will come out to battle, but victory will elude them.
I will remove them from their thrones,
And I will deliver My people.
You call yourselves apostles, but I have not sent you.
Seating yourselves in the chair of the Apostle, you have forgotten his message.
My lambs gave themselves to you, and you oversaw their slaughter.
They cried out to you and you did not defend them.
So I will strip from you both the young and the old
And the rest I will scatter.
The difficulty many leaders and followers face is that many of the contemporary examples they pattern themselves after have failed to heed the Apostle Peter’s exhortation to lead by example, or the Lord’s instruction to serve. It is going to require a great deal of courage and resolve to change what has come to be expected of both leaders and followers. There are going to be difficulties because some have come to appreciate the perks of Christian leadership. Some are calling themselves apostles (even though they fail to meet the scriptural requirements of the office) because of the power over others the title confers. Arguably, titles should mean nothing to anyone and do not be fooled, just as Paul exhorts:
Clearly Paul’s sarcasm should convey that he was not complementing the Corinthians for allowing themselves to be enslaved, devoured, taken advantage of, allowing others to exalt themselves, or being hit in the face – which many believers allow their leaders to do, all because they believe that is what the Lordship of Jesus Christ compels them to do. I would argue that such things should not be tolerated regardless of the religious office they hold. It is apparent that far too many pastors and apostles behave like Pharisees who are content to beat their spiritual sheep into submission using their office, their pulpits and their doctrines as clubs. There are some who think it admirable to distance themselves from their congregations, assuming that their religious office confers on them a royal title that exempts them from questions about their behavior.
Consider how Jesus characterized that kind of behavior:
What a great life the Pharisees must have had. Hanging out with all of the other important people and never having to bother with those troublesome sheep (the elders can take care of them so long as they check before deciding anything important). Building little circles of select “A-list” people and working with them while excluding everyone else is definitely a personal status builder. And nothing is better than being included in that little group. Some would do just about anything to be included. Such behavior may be fine for Pharisees. The Lord, however, does not do things that way. He hung out with the least of men, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and a bunch of fishermen. All of them had some serious problems and it must have been a time consuming and frustrating experience dealing with it all. It never seemed to bother Jesus. He is a servant.
The churches will never get anywhere in the kingdom until there is no social distinction between shepherds, pastors, elders, apostles, any of the other gift ministries and the congregation. What is the point of putting leaders up front or on a platform so everyone else will know who is in charge? If the Holy Spirit was in charge there would be no need to be concerned about who is in charge. In fact, the root problem is that the Holy Spirit is not in charge. In many places the Holy Spirit is being quenched by misguided concerns about order in the churches and by leaders who think they are doing the business of the Kingdom by managing every aspect of what goes on. That is a fool’s errand that has done more damage than good, leaving the congregation in fear of doing anything without permission.
Arguably the Apostle Paul was concerned about order in the services, and no person should favor disorder; however, like most spiritual things, when concerns about order and obedience are not balanced with faith, the organization becomes little more than a prison. The role of spiritual leaders in the Kingdom is not to hog the driver’s seat. Their role is to create an environment by faith that puts the Holy Spirit in the driver’s seat. There is no scriptural precedent for pastors or apostles (or anyone) dominating the pulpit week after week. The regular oratory contemporary Christians refer to as preaching the word from the pulpit is likely an invention of the Greek sophists who used that style of persuasive argument long before Christ appeared. In a fashion similar to the way the Bible records the preaching of Jesus, the teaching and preaching of early Christians in the church was more likely a two-or-more-way discourse, just as Paul describes in I Corinthians 14: 29-30: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent.” Any aspiring New Testament Church should do the same.
Changes are afoot, and it is time for the slaves of divine order to be set free, first in their thinking and then in their churches. Christian organizations that desire to survive into the Kingdom ought to take what is written here to heart before the shaking begins – and in some places it has already begun. I am most concerned about those organizations where paternalism concentrates positional authority in the hands of one or two people – where everyone, from spiritual sheep to spiritual shepherd is obligated to concede their own personal aspirations to a spiritual father figure. If everything you think and everything you do needs to be approved by another there is spiritual danger, not spiritual protection. Wherever the freedom of faith has been put in the backseat to obedience and submission, you would do well to shake off those shackles. Jesus never asked the temple leaders for permission to perform miracles beforehand – He did them. You ought to do the same, just as Paul wrote in Galatians 5:1, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.”