Neither God nor the first apostles ever intended for believers to remain forever in spiritual infancy. Nevertheless, many believers even after decades in a walk with God remain convinced that their only salvation is found in the charisma of a leader and behind the safety of the walls of their particular orthodoxy.
When something happens that either shakes that faith in their leaders or challenges the validity of what they believe most believers follow one of two paths: they either stubbornly cling to those ideas as if the challenge was a critical divine test that can only be successfully passed if answered with blind unswerving faith; or they abandon their beliefs altogether and choose another path entirely. The two groups often find themselves pitched in hopeless conflict with the latter deeply (and often justifiably) critical of both the leaders and the organization they used to defend and the former convinced that the others are dangerously infected with a spiritual infection that must be quarantined until they see the light and come to their senses.
When reading their Bibles, many tend to romanticize the first believers and the nature of the church described in the book of Acts as if it were a pattern to be followed. Truth be told, the first church was a mess. There were all sorts of wild cults and strange doctrines that cropped up and the Apostles had their hands full dealing with it. There were the Gnostics, and the Cult of Circumcision, Ebionites, Aranists, Docetism, Marcionists and Montanists and likely others. These issues of doctrine were not settled until the third century and that by bloodshed. The imposition of doctrine by force resulted in a semblance of orthodoxy. Even then, the modern Christian church consists of thousands of subtly different denominational faiths, most of which publicly acknowledge the existence and validity of the others while privately insisting that their way is the only “correct” way.
Paul for his part considered all of these doctrinal creeds nonsense and characterized those who pursue them as infants:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?
I Corinthians 3: 1-4
Of course, those believers did not listen and continued their carnal pursuits never realizing that none of it matters at all. To this day the majority of Christian believers identify with one particular group or another and with one leader or another. Popular Christian ministries sporting name recognition and huge followings are a dime a dozen with many fawning over them as if they were Hollywood celebrities. Worse, many of these so-called Christian ministers use their celebrity to enrich themselves and the select few who are dear to them. They often enjoy the perks of income, property and privilege that compare to monarchs. Nearly every one of them is eventually ensnared in the trap of their own celebrity, thinking themselves somehow equal to God and therefore privileged to enjoy the spoils of their kingdoms and the women who they regard as subjects. When they fall, they fall hard, and many are left lost and disillusioned in the aftermath. The Christian Church was never meant to be this way.
What the believer must realize is that the Kingdom of God was never about a king, at least in the way most people have conceptualized a king. Jesus is of course the King who will rule and reign, but Jesus’ idea of royalty has almost no resemblance to the kind of thing found in most Christian churches. Jesus destroyed the entire foundation of almost everything most churches create in their hierarchies when he said, “he who wants to be first among you shall be last and servant of all (Mark 9:35).” When the New Testament Church pattern was first taught, it described a system of church governance that emphasized a group of local elders. In practice that grand tradition taken from the pages of the New Testament became nothing more than a fiefdom ruled by a single pastor who himself reported to an apostle. With that system of governance is it any wonder that some abused the authority they were given, not just once, but in almost every church that followed it?
The inevitable consequence of trying to replace the dynamic, growing and ever-changing Body of Christ by shoehorning individuals into the blocks of titled religious positions (Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor and Teacher) is failure. The Church of Jesus Christ is not an organization — it is an organism. It can never be organized in this way. And yet, with terrible consequences people continue to do so because they feel that they must answer that all important question “who is in charge?” The answer is and always will be that the Holy Spirit is in charge, and it can never be confined to the rules of that foolish organization. Arguably, the results are never as orderly as some would like, but since when does God and His Spirit ever do anything but disrupt the established order?
Jesus found the greatest opposition among those who should have been his most ardent supporters: the Pharisees and temple leaders. The ones who were most receptive to His message turned out to be the ones the scriptures labelled the “enemies of God,” the Gentiles. This never seems to change. The ones most invested in the organization of a church are the ones most opposed to anything that would challenge their control. In the end they are always behind closed doors together plotting some way to kill Jesus. Mature believers don’t need someone to dominate the pulpit week after week, month after month, year after year until they die and pass the baton to another. And yet, that is exactly what happens when the seductive lure of church order ensnares the believer.
The Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be a little bit messy, a little bit disruptive and difficult to control. Moses declared in Exodus 20:25, “If you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it.”Moses was describing the nature of an alter that would be fulfilled in Christ by His Church: one made of living stones that haven’t had the rough edges chiseled off of them by overzealous control freaks who think that they are doing God a favor by demanding obedience to their whims. Of course, submission and obedience are mentioned in the Bible, but for heaven’s sake the emphasis of the Bible is faith – not obedience! People who are forever confined to the rules of engagement, who worry about who they might offend, or whose toes they might step on, or what church proclamation they might violate will never do a damn thing. They will always be waiting for someone to give them permission. All those neat little altars of chiseled stones that the religious order puts together look good, but they are also dead from the inside out. Don’t let the Church of Jesus Christ become that way.
There are undoubtedly going to be difficulties in the Kingdom of Heaven. Do people really think that all of the travail in this present age is going to give way to some kind of paradise where everything is handed to them on a silver platter? All of the emphasis on faith and forgiveness in the Bible is because it is going to be required in the Kingdom of Heaven. The believer will need faith and forgiveness there too! Trouble is, most people don’t really appreciate what it takes to live by faith. They prefer security and they prefer some guarantee that there will be peace. Because of that preference, they are willing to put up with the corruption and self-absorption that comes with following leaders and kings. Who cares if one has to give up some possessions, or serve in the army and maybe die in a battle over a cause they don’t fully understand and won’t benefit from if they win? Following God is hard because He lets stuff happen and it requires faith. Kneeling to a King seems safer because even though some personal freedoms are surrendered at least there is [usually] some kind of perceived buffer from life’s uncertain future.
When the Prophet Samuel became old, Israel found itself faced with this same dilemma: accept the uncertainty of life where God is King or appoint one to take care of things.
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah;5 and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. 8 Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day—in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; however, you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the procedure of the king who will reign over them.
1 Samuel 8: 4-9 (NASB)
God’s issue with Israel and Israel’s issue with God was profound. They were never prepared for what being God’s people would require. Deliverance from the oppression of Egypt was fabulous and so were the miraculous victories over their enemies they experienced from time-to-time under the various judges like Joshua, Gideon, Samson, and Samuel the Prophet. Even with all of that happening from time to time, about every generation they were back at worshipping idols and building altars to Baal. They always seemed to need some kind of leader to keep them on track or off they would go down the wrong path. Now, with Samuel aging, and his sons not exactly living up to his example, they could see the writing on the wall. So, they decided that the best course of action was to ask for a King so they could have a ruler just like all of the other nations. That sort of government is fairly efficient. Key decisions would be settled by the king instead of debated among themselves, military power can be organized, and the uncertainty of international politics is mitigated. All true, but not what God had in mind. And Samuel warned them of the consequences of their request. In fact, it did not turn out well. While there were some righteous kings that arose, it was for the most part a travesty. Saul was a disaster, and even David for all his virtue laid the groundwork for future downfall. Every single king, from Saul to Heshea and Zedikiah did the very things that Deuteronomy 17 instructs them not to do: enrich themselves and take a bunch of wives.
Instead of the kinds of kings they needed, they got the kinds of kings they deserved. They got the kinds of kings who were just like them. It’s the same thing that happens in churches. There is scarcely a Christian leader who has not taken the opportunity to become rich at the expense of the flock they should serve. All the while preaching a life of sacrifice from their pulpits: they sport fancy watches and jewelery, expensive cars, and multi-million dollar real-estate holdings built, improved and maintained by an endless pool of the cheap labor found in the seats of their churches. They fall prey to sexual depravity and the ones who preach the most vehemently against the lusts of the flesh seem to be the most likely to be ensnared by them. As long as pastors and apostles approach their offices as kings and monarchs instead of servants entitled to nothing but a life of sacrifice, it will always be that way.
In the Book of Judges, the following passage occurs several times: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes(Judges 21:25).” This passage is read like a caution in some circles and yet it seems that it may not be the problem it is made out to be. Some preach divine order as if it were necessary for some appointed and anointed individual to hand down holy mandates to those occupying the lower floors of the heavenly mansion. And yet it is almost never the case that God cannot speak to every individual until believers start modeling their churches like human kingdoms with a monarch ruling over his subjects. The promise of the Kingdom of God is proclaimed by Jeremiah, “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more (Jeremiah 34:34).”This passage is quoted again in the book of Hebrews 8 as part of a promise that the rules and regulations imposed by the Law would be replaced with a new covenant of Laws written on the believer’s heart. When Laws are written on the believer’s heart the kinds of kings, apostles and pastors that have been known in the past have become obsolete and unnecessary. Consider what the Prophet Jeremiah wrote:
… I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding. It shall be in those days when you are multiplied and increased in the land,” declares the Lord, “they will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ And it will not come to mind, nor will they remember it, nor will they miss it, nor will it be made again.
Jeremiah 3:15-16 (NASB)
Much of what the believer has experienced in their churches is like that ark. It was precious to the Jews because it represented God’s presence. It is precious to some believers because of powerful experiences they found there. Yet God never intended it to be anything more than a type and a shadow of what was to come. The church with its organization and hierarchy is much the same: passing away and not to be missed nor made again.
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