Everything that God does even what He did in the past and has since discarded, begins in glory. There are many wonderful stories in the Book of Exodus about the exploits Moses performed against the Egyptians and later with the children of Israel in the wilderness. Moses beheld the face of God and carried the tablets of the Law written by the very finger of God Himself. Yet all of the glory of the Law faded away, and the Apostle in 2nd Corinthians 3 later refers to it as “the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones.” While the Apostle was contrasting the Law given by Moses that was etched on tablets with the ministry of the Spirit that would write on people’s hearts, his message is a metaphor that describes how God moves through His spirit in every generation. What the people of the Lord must learn is to quickly abandon what God did yesterday and embrace what He is doing now, or risk being lost like the Pharisees in a rehearsal of a ministry of death. Whenever people cling to what God did through a great man of God they become, like the Pharisees, his pallbearers, rehearsing age-old traditions in an endless funeral.
Whenever a move of God begins there are always wonderful things that happen through those spiritual fathers to whom God commits Himself. There are often spiritual signs that confirm the Word that is proclaimed: people are healed, the dead are sometimes raised, and the Word of Wisdom and Knowledge are in evidence. These are God’s way of getting people’s attention. Yet once those spiritual fathers die, their followers seldom continue pressing on into new and wonderful things. What happens instead is that they talk about how great so-and-so was, and then work to preserve what he did. They organize the movement so it can be efficiently administered, and record the canon of teaching so that it is always available. Soon they become experts in everything that God did, and becoming its preservers and defenders, much like the Scribes and the Pharisees became concerning the Law of Moses. The only problem is that God has moved on, and like the Jews they are stuck in the past, rehearsing their father’s traditions in the synagogues – yet no one is being healed any longer, the dead stay dead, and the Word of Knowledge and Wisdom are replaced by counselors who rely on their own personal wisdom to diagnose and console. Next, they come up with a good name for their movement, so everyone on the outside will know who they are and what they represent – and voila, a new Christian denomination is born.
Yet God has moved on, and that is where the problem arises, because when He does He often ignores the expectations of those poor folks who are still vested in the past. Why did the Pharisees have such a big problem with Jesus? One reason was that Jesus was not stuck with them in the mire of tradition. He did not buy into the requirements and limitations their form of religion imposed. How many times have men of God come in conflict with those ardent defenders of the faith who believe it is their mandate to impose their interpretation of God’s will on everyone? People become so imprisoned in their thinking by a concept of divine order that they are incapable of recognizing anything better. Those Pharisees complained when Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Why? Because they thought performing miracles was synonymous with work, and after all, God said, “don’t work on the Sabbath.” Yet they completely missed the point of the very Law they so ardently defended. That Law was supposed to point them to this Jesus whom they chose instead to doubt, persecute and later murder. Yet this pattern has been repeated throughout history. The leaders and ministries of every established religious movement, people who should know better, become the persecutors and nay Sayers of everything new that comes along.
Why do people who have experienced God so deeply in the past become so inflexible? Perhaps, in one respect, it is the fault of God Himself, just as the Apostle Paul writes:
How amazing it is that people can read the scriptures and still have a veil over their heart to such an extent that it does them no good at all. They devote themselves to the teachings and traditions of their spiritual fathers, and yet they are imprisoned by those very teachings. God hardens their hearts because they miss the point. Moses and what he did and said were important, but stopping there was not God’s intention. God wanted a whole nation of people who would be just like Moses. He wanted a nation of kings and priests. The Israelites, however, were not interested in having a relationship with God. They wanted Moses to be their intermediary. They wanted Moses to go up on the mountain and talk to God, and then come down from the mountain and tell them what He said. How convenient. They wanted their manna delivered to them every day; they did not want to have faith every day for a miracle. Having faith every day gets rather old. Things are a whole lot easier when people can find someone else who will have faith for them.
This is why people flock to obscure places when someone claims they saw the face of the Virgin Mary on a wall. Why have faith and believe God to solve your problems when you can pay the cost of a plane ticket to some out of the way place where a crumbling wall will solve your problems for you? Why bother having faith, when you can run to a service hosted by a well known ministry who will preach and exhort you until you can finally believe that God can move on your behalf? This is why “big-name” evangelical ministries stay in business. They can fill coliseums with multitudes of desperate people who are willing to plunk down their dollars in an offering plate in exchange for a miracle. Yet the real miracles never happen in those places, and people leave, thinking they have received a Word from God, when all they have really received was a spiritual sedative — and they feel better until it wears off. Those people are like spiritual drug addicts who constantly require some sort of religious “fix” because they cannot seem to get what they need on their own.
This is not the kind of faith God had in mind and so God hardens the hearts of people who will not correctly relate to Him. People who are constantly looking to a popular ministry to preach to them and teach them the ways of the Lord instead of walking with God themselves are sooner or later going to lose out. Churches where a small handful of men or women do all of the preaching and ministry will sooner or later fail to live up to what God had in mind, because such an organization was never God’s intention. There is a big difference between “continually abiding in the apostles teaching” (Acts 2:42) and continually remaining a spiritual infant, always looking for some apostle or prophet to minister to you and counsel you every time your life takes a wrong turn. Many people have done that for decades, never able to discover what God is saying without someone else bottle-feeding them.
Part of the problem is that the Christian concept of who is a minister of the gospel has departed from the intent of God. Christians to a large extent consider pastors and ministers to be a distinct class of people who are somehow separate from the congregation of believers as a whole. The pastors and ministers are the ones whom the organization has recognized. Thus, pastors and ministers have credentials that give them the right to minister, and the average believer lacking those credentials is restricted to certain less sensitive areas of ministry. This concept is simply incorrect from the standpoint of the gospel. The deacons are among the greatest miracle workers mentioned in the scriptures, yet these men were the servers of soup, not apostles. Why then were they so free to accomplish so much? It was because they were not limited by the mandates of religious tradition, nor were they intimidated because they lacked religious credentials. There is hardly a deacon today who measures up to those first deacons. There are so many promises that currently lie dormant and powerless because the believer has been conditioned by religious traditions that circumscribe the limits of his or her potential based on a lack of religious credentials.
What good are religious credentials anyway? The first apostles lacked any. Even the hardhearted Sadducees “perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marveled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13) The truth is that people do not need decades of religious training. The first apostles spent less than a handful of years with Jesus, and they turned the world upside down. None of the religious schools of their day were able to produce anyone like them. What was their secret? They had a relationship with a living Christ. That relationship was far more important than any religious training they might have missed. In fact, religious training without a relationship to a living Christ is a recipe for disaster. It does not matter what scriptures a person memorizes, or what religious beliefs people champion, unless the relationship with Christ is correct, religion imprisons people behinds walls of doctrines and traditions until they are bereft of any spiritual life.
Many of those apostles knew Jesus after the flesh. Yet they continued a relationship with Him on a different basis even after the resurrection. The teachings of those apostles always remained current and alive because they were not imposing upon the believers the traditions and teachings of a man who died, but they were relating experiences and spiritual truths that were alive and vibrant. This is where many contemporary believers go astray. Instead of looking to the Lord to reveal to them the meaning of the scriptures, they apply them like a rulebook — as if everything that were written in a different age could be directly applied to this modern age. There are still churches that exist where women cannot speak or minister because Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 14:34 that “women should keep silent in the churches.” Doctrines like that become oppressive when they are applied in a wrong way because they have no life in them. It was never the intention of the Lord to perpetually keep women consigned to a role as second class citizens, yet unless people open their hearts to the Lord they are unable to understand the folly of religious doctrine.
Even the Apostle Paul knew Christ, although He never met Him in the flesh. Christ appeared to Him and commissioned him to be an apostle to the Gentiles — a ministry he faithfully executed. In spite of the fact that Paul was indoctrinated in the traditions of the Law, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, he was able to break away from the Sect of the Circumcision, who desired to imprison the Gentiles with the shackles of their Law. In those days, the Sect of the Circumcision went from church to church teaching that the Gentiles must be circumcised and submit to the Law of Moses, or they could not be saved. Yet Paul proclaimed the true Gospel, the very one Christ revealed by the Spirit: that salvation is the result of faith, not acts in conformity with the Law. Paul realized that the teachings of the Sect of the Circumcision would result in spiritual death if they were applied, because they were nothing but useless traditions and doctrines from an age that had passed away.
In this respect, Paul has become the progenitor of every modern believer who cannot know Christ after the flesh yet can come to know Him after the spirit. Like Paul, the believer must remain diligent to guard against those who think they know Christ because they are experts in the traditions and teachings of the past. Like the Law of Moses, even the Word of God proclaimed from the mouth of an apostle can become a cauldron of death when it is applied incorrectly. The Sect of the Circumcision was never able to correctly relate to Christ or to the Gentiles because they were locked into the past. So many Christians get stuck in the same boat, and they never are able to open up to the liberty of the Son’s of God described in Romans chapter eight because they are forever stuck in the doctrines and traditions of the religious organizations to which they belong. For this reason, the believer must exercise a living personal relationship with Christ, or risk becoming a victim and a casualty of their religious training. Paul was not hindered by his training as a Pharisee because his relationship to Christ unshackled him from the bondage of his training as a Pharisee. Paul stopped thinking like a Pharisee, and started thinking like a Son of God.
This same relationship is available to every believer, just as the prophet Jeremiah proclaims, “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 …” Yet this knowledge is not the result of a devotion to merely listen to teaching, even if the teacher is a man of God, it is always the result of a devotion to discover how God wants the teaching applied. A person must progress beyond mere acceptance of precepts and doctrines that describe the will of God in an abstract way and advance into firsthand knowledge of the One those doctrines describe. Paul spent a great deal of time after his first experience with the Lord alone in the desert of Arabia fostering and nurturing that relationship. How many other people ever do that? How many people ever get away by themselves and begin to talk to the Lord about what their church organizations are telling them? How many people ever examine what they have been taught all of their lives to see if those lessons are being applied correctly? This is what a walk with God is all about. Walk with the Lord, talk to Him, and relate to Him. Test everything you hear against that internal barometer the Holy Spirit has given you to see if it really is true. If something does not sound right, then put it on the shelf and pray about it until God either makes it real to you, or He tells you to discard it.
Moving cautiously is not rebellion; it is prudence and a requirement of divine order. When churches get caught up into trying to enforce what they consider the “Word” of God, forcing it down everyone’s throat, even those to whom God has not made the policy real, they do themselves a great disservice. Yet this sort of behavior often happens during times of controversy. When the elders and shepherds of a church are unable to agree on what God is saying, nothing should be done until there is a common witness. What has frequently happened, however, is that one side or the other will move forward, excluding the other, and the result is usually a division that becomes irreconcilable. So much can go wrong when people bypass the honor and consideration that should be extended to any person who wants to look to the Lord before embracing what other people claim God is saying. The New Testament requirement of submission was never intended to force people to abandon their own conscience, and adopt the popular view. Whenever the principle of submission is misapplied, and people are required against their own judgment to surrender to a mandate from above, sooner or later something will go awry.
Why did the apostolic church collapse? It collapsed because the disciples of those first men of God lost their way and became more interested in preserving the traditions of the apostles than they did in preserving the spirit of the apostles. How on earth could a movement that began with such power end up sponsoring the wholesale murder of entire populations in the name of Christ, under the direction of the popes, who claimed to be the descendants of Peter? Yet those popes would never have been able to accomplish their horrific intentions if they were unable to enlist armies of willing “Christian” volunteers who were eager to rape, murder and pillage because they were promised salvation if they joined the crusades against the infidels. How stupid they were to believe that the pope was a representative of Christ, and yet they became believers in a lie because they had no relationship with Him, and the church to which they belonged had none either. Yet all Christian movements fail for the same reasons. The descendants of the church fathers abandon the spirit on which the movement was founded and instead work to preserve the doctrines and traditions; yet the doctrines and traditions, even the very Word of God, can become weapons against everything else God tries to do, when believers have no personal relationship to Christ.
Why was there so much difficulty when God opened the door for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Many traditional churches were unable to make the transition from their old forms into a more dynamic kind of worship. Some churches finally ended up accepting a limited form of Charismatic expression because they feared a wholesale exodus of believers into other less restrictive organizations. Some churches began to allow two different kinds of services, one for those people who wanted the more traditional expressions, and another for people who wanted a format that was more conducive to the expression of the Holy Spirit. Wherever there were difficulties in accepting that spirit-filled expression, the resistance and the restrictions were always based on doctrines and traditions derived from the scriptures themselves to limit the experiences the believer could embrace. To this day there are many Christian organizations that consider speaking in tongues, or any other expression of the spirit filled life, to be demonic. Yet if any of these organizations were relating correctly to the Lord, there would be no difficulties of that sort. Yet because people abandon their walk with God, trading it for the security of doctrines, anything that threatens the stability of tradition becomes a source of controversy. Nor does it matter how progressive a movement considers itself to be, whenever people begin to restrict progress based upon the writings and traditions of their spiritual fathers, without carefully maintaining the same spiritual relationship with the Lord of those fathers, sooner or later the door to new truths and new expressions will close, and that movement will end up locked into a unique religious expression that is without spiritual life. The heart that relies on tradition and doctrine, instead of a relationship with the Lord will be unable to recognize new truths as God unfolds them, because God puts a veil over that heart.
There is a veil over the believer’s heart when there is no relationship to the Lord, a veil that is removed when the believer turns to the Lord, just as the apostle writes in 2nd Corinthians. The mission of those first apostles was not to replace that relationship with doctrines and traditions on which the believer could recline, but their mission was to create and nurture that relationship. Those first apostles did not attempt to put down on paper with pen and ink a canon of religious belief that would forever circumscribe the limits of the Christian faith, they wrote the spirit of their message on the believer’s hearts. Whenever doctrines are chiseled onto stone, or written on paper with pen and ink, they are unchangeable. So the Law written on tablets of stone became an expression of death because it could not grow. A spiritual message written on flesh can change and grow and take on a new character as the believer matures. Thus, the apostles endeavored to write their message on the believer’s heart, because a message written there becomes a living truth.
A true apostle will work to see that God’s people mature out of their spiritual infancy to the place that they are able to become men and women of God capable of hearing the voice of the Lord without an intermediary. The believer is Christ’s letter; they are not to be locked into any particular minister’s expression. When religious leaders arise with other intentions, there is reason to be concerned. There have been so many insecure ministers who promulgate doctrines that on the surface would seem designed to protect people from deception, yet all these doctrines do is keep that minister forever in the catbird seat. Doctrines like that always limit the resources a believer should explore to the literature and tape ministry of one individual. These narrow-minded ministers produce disciples that are carbon copies of themselves, and the diversity of Christ is lost. Their churches never progress spiritually beyond the level of those leaders, and after they die, their followers remain bound in orbit around the doctrines of a corpse. Such is the nature of denominational Christianity. No member is particularly open or receptive to any other point of view, and every organization believes it is a keeper of the purest form of truth. What was the real problem with the Pharisees? The fact that they worked to preserve the traditions of Moses was not the issue. What became an issue was that they locked people into a system of belief that always kept the Pharisees in a position of power and leadership. They did not oppose Jesus simply because he preached a gospel of which they did not approve, they opposed and later murdered Jesus because His teaching made them and their teachings obsolete.
Yet the dilemma of the Pharisee is really in the plan of God. The Christian church has faced it for a long time, and has not done a very good job at reconciling it. The truth is that leadership of the church must change from time to time, or people become locked into traditions and forms of leadership that result in spiritual death. The Kingdom will be very much like a game of leapfrog with those who at one time were ministers come to the place where they willingly sit under the ministry of those they formerly taught, just as Jesus described:
Christ was pointing out a divine principle on which all authority and leadership in the Kingdom is based. Authority in the Kingdom is based on service, not position. Humans measure relative authority by comparing the prestige of the position an individual occupies. The person who is the ruler of everyone else is believed to have the most authority. This is why people aspire to become religious leaders with power and influence. There is nothing quite so intoxicating as the power associated with assuming a throne of influence over people. No human being in their right mind would desire to be the slave of another. It is degrading, particularly when that person has abilities and talents that he or she feels make him or her leadership material. Yet therein lies a great spiritual trap, the one into which all Christian religions have fallen. Something goes awry in the spirit of a person when they stop serving and start leading. When the character of leadership changes from an expression of humble service to an expression of superiority, it no longer liberates, it suppresses. Nor does it matter how humble the person was when they began the ministry. If they remain in a position of power and influence too long, and are never at some point required to themselves submit to the people over whom they have become accustomed to leading, they will stop growing spiritually, and the character of their leadership will change from an expression of Christ to an oppressive form of human leadership.
Every religious leader will face this sooner or later. It is a difficult thing to be taught by those you formerly taught, and to submit to them the same way you expected them to submit to you. Often though, religious leaders do themselves and their organizations a disservice when they refuse to relinquish the reigns of control. In those churches there is frequently an outflow of fine ministries who come to the place where their growth and spiritual development is inhibited. Divine order ceases to function correctly when people lock themselves into an exclusive position for too long. At some point they forget that the people of God do not belong to them, and they begin to think like the Pharisees and temple leaders who believed the flock of God was their own personal property.
Religious leaders often deceive themselves into believing that they have some sort of mandate from God to forever remain on the top of the heap, overseeing everything, having the last word on everything. The Pharisees and other temple leaders did it because they believed they were Moses’ descendants, and as such they considered themselves the final authority on all matters of religion. They were unable to recognize that God had bypassed them, choosing instead to manifest Himself through a bunch of lower-class Jews and lawless Gentiles. Any person who assumes a religious position, or who is pushed into it by followers, may eventually find themselves in jeopardy. Sooner or later, the influence and prestige of that position will begin to affect their spirit until they forget that all ministries have authority only because Christ gives it to them; and that He can take it away just as surely.
Once a person becomes so locked into a particular religious position that they cannot walk away from it when the Lord directs them to, they become a hindrance to everything He wants from that time forward. Once that happens, unless they are removed, everything will begin to fall apart, and God Himself will abandon them and their disciples. That is exactly what happened to the Pharisees, Sadducees, the temple leadership and the entire Jewish nation. They lost their mantle to the Gentiles who arose with open hearts to hear the message the Jews rejected.
There are many, many Christian movements in that same boat. They have long since lost their relevance to the Kingdom because they have stopped opening up to the unfolding plan of God, and instead spend their time rehearsing traditions and preserving their culture. The great move of restoration that God began with Luther nearly six centuries ago is littered with the bones of movements He has abandoned, and even the very thing God is doing today will be next unless the men and women who make it up take heed to the warning. Just because you admired a man of God yesterday, or admire someone today, means nothing. Admiring a man of God is not the will of God. You must become a person of God yourself.