Jesus Based Free-for-All vs. Super Leader/Heresy Hunter
I was listening to a debate/discussion on if having a pastor in a traditional church was unbiblical or not and on the idea of a “pastorless church”. A very interesting and enlightening discussion but in the end I was left feeling like both sides were wrong simply because I feel that they were debating the wrong question to begin with. In other words there is third side to the debate that was not represented: “Is the western idea of a pastor in a traditional church Biblical and is it the best way to “make disciples” as Jesus instructed us.”
One side gave solid Biblical reasoning that showed that at the least, there was substantial evidence that the type of pastor that the western church is used to is not described in the New Testament churches. There was also evidence from this side of the debate that churches did not have or need the kind of structured services that the traditional western church has in our era as well as a pretty good case that such structuring of the services can build a solid reliance on people and structuring instead of the Holy Spirit.
The other side of the debate was centered on the usual arguments that always come up in all such discussions about heresy (which is a very valid point and question). Who ensures there is no heresy?
The choices seem to be a somehow Jesus based free-for-all vs. a super structured group with the super leader who ensures no heresy and is the voice of God to all of the hundreds of people sitting on their hands on some or most Sundays.
Look at this story:
Exodus 19:10-13 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 10So the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people, and tell them they have two days to get ready. They must set themselves apart as holy. Have them wash their clothes 11and be ready by the day after tomorrow. On that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai as all the people watch. 12Mark off a boundary around the mountain for the people, and tell them not to go up the mountain or even touch it. Those who touch the mountain must be put to death. 13No one should touch them. They must be stoned or shot with arrows. No matter whether it’s an animal or a person, it must not live. The people may go up the mountain only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast.”
So, God told the people to prepare themselves because He was going to appear before all of the people and talk to the leader He had appointed over them and to them at the same time. There were some rules and boundaries, but only the structure that God had clearly appointed for His own reasons.
Now, lets look at what that day looked like:
Exodus 19:17-20 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 17Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had come down on it in fire. Smoke rose from the mountain like the smoke from a kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. 19As the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking, and the voice of God answered him. 20The Lord came down on top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up.
The key to this passage is to consider it from the perspective of the people that were there other than Moses. This God that you have been praying for (and have been a bit unsure about with all of the plagues and extra work in Egypt) who does some really strange things including repaying the Pharaoh’s killing of their firstborns by killing all of the firstborns of Egypt in one night. You have a bit of fear and confusion then there is all of this don’t touch the mountain or even touch someone who touched the mountain you are supposed to be standing next to talk from Moses. Now, when the time comes the mountain is on fire, with all kinds of smoke, the earth is shaking, trumpets are blowing loudly from nowhere, and you can hear the powerful voice of God talking from amid all of this to Moses. Then let your mind drift back to all of that if you do something wrong you will die or be put to death stuff.
A bit overwhelming isn’t it? Then comes the voice of God bellowing out the Ten Commandments for all to hear in chapter 20 starting with some “jealous God” talk and more stuff you can do that is wrong.
Immediately after the Ten Commandments you run into this description of the next events that took place:
Exodus 20:18-24 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 18All the people heard the thunder and saw the lightning. They heard the blast of the ram’s horn and saw the mountain covered with smoke. So they shook with fear and stood at a distance. 19Then they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die!”
20Moses answered the people, “Don’t be afraid! God has come only to test you, so that you will be in awe of him and won’t sin.”
21The people kept their distance while Moses went closer to the dark cloud where God was.
22The Lord said to Moses, “This is what you must say to the Israelites: You’ve seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven. 23Never make any gods of silver or gold for yourselves. Never worship them.
24“You must build an altar for me made out of dirt. Sacrifice your burnt offerings and your fellowship offerings, your sheep, goats, and cattle on it. Wherever I choose to have my name remembered, I will come to you and bless you.
The people were so overwhelmed by the presence of God, His leadership style, and His commitment to holding them accountable for their actions that they kept a distance. Then they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die!” (Exodus 20:19 GOD’S WORD Translation [GW])
Thus you have the beginning of the issue. This is the creation of the problem. Later while they were supposed to be close to the mountain listening to God and while they were at a distance instead awaiting the return of Moses, they get tired of waiting for Moses.
Exodus 32:1-6 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 1When the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. They said to him, “We don’t know what has happened to this Moses, who led us out of Egypt. Make gods who will lead us.” 2Aaron said to them, “Have your wives, sons, and daughters take off the gold earrings they are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off their gold earrings and handed them to Aaron. 4After he had worked on the gold with a tool,[a] he made it into a statue of a calf. Then they said, “Israel, here are your gods who brought you out of Egypt.” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of it and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival in the Lord’s honor.” 6Early the next day the people sacrificed burnt offerings and brought fellowship offerings. Afterward, they sat down to a feast, which turned into an orgy.
So one day the are so scared to do anything wrong before God that when he says not to touch a mountain while I talk to you they decide to get as far away as possible and let one fearless person go and have that conversation then a few days later they absolute do everything they can to trample all over the little bit they did manage to hear from God before running off. The first commandment they heard was told to them like this:
Exodus 20:3-6 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 3“Never have any other god. 4Never make your own carved idols or statues that represent any creature in the sky, on the earth, or in the water. 5Never worship them or serve them, because I, the Lord your God, am a God who does not tolerate rivals. I punish children for their parents’ sins to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. 6But I show mercy to thousands of generations of those who love me and obey my commandments.
My point here is that once the leader appointed by God took on the spiritual responsibility and relating to God duties that every one of the people of the God were supposed to have the people felt free to do all of the stuff that God had told them directly not to do. In other words, the fact that there was one person who took it as their task to go to God for the whole group allowed for the group to actually be at a great distance from God where evil and crazy can get a foothold.
This does seem to support the “no pastor” argument except for one glairing problem: Moses was appointed to lead the group. This is why I say the argument itself is the wrong argument. It is not if there is to be leadership or not. The problem is in what that leadership (specifically the pastor) is supposed to do.
The pastor doing all of the relationship with God things and going back to tell the people model clearly does not work. But, letting the people do whatever they feel like will not work either. This one story basically demonstrates that both extremes are incorrect.
Now let me go to one more passage from this same story to give the role of church leadership a different look. Let’s go all the way back to right before we started. Right before all of that consecrate yourselves and come close to the mountain, but don’t touch it stuff God made this comment about this congregation:
Exodus 19:5-6a GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 5If you carefully obey me and are faithful to the terms of my promise,[a] then out of all the nations you will be my own special possession, even though the whole world is mine. 6You will be my kingdom of priests and my holy nation.’
This clarifies what the role of leadership is intended to be within the congregations of God:
- To teach the people to obey all that God commands
- To raise the entire congregation up to be priests – the people who talk to God and bring His words to others and do His work of ministry for others
- These two things, in and of themselves, will make the congregation a special possession of God’s or “holy”.
Jesus described these things in more detail this way:
Matthew 28:19-20 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 19So wherever you go, make disciples of all nations: Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 20Teach them to do everything I have commanded you. “And remember that I am always with you until the end of time.”
This is widely accepted as the call to all believers. That means the foremost call for every leader in the church to bring each individual into personal relationship with God in a way that teaches them to obey what He commands and to be a priest (a disciple maker who brings others into personal relationship with God, teaches them to obey, and teaches them to be a priest…).
If you look at the failed model in the example used by Moses you have: Moses spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get all of the information for everyone in the congregation to give everyone all of the details himself. You have the people so detached from God’s presence, His voice and his will that He gets angry with them and wants to destroy the whole congregation, and their leader Moses (who at first risks life and limb to defend them before he has full understanding of what was going on while he was off in the presence of God for them) freaks out, throws the commandments that God wrote at them and has the congregation fight a death match (A.K.A. a church split).
Exodus 32:7-14 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 7The Lord said to Moses, “Go back down there. Your people whom you brought out of Egypt have ruined everything. 8They’ve already turned from the way I commanded them to live. They’ve made a statue of a calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it. They’ve said, ‘Israel, here are your gods who brought you out of Egypt.’ ” 9The Lord added, “I’ve seen these people, and they are impossible to deal with. 10Now leave me alone. I’m so angry with them I am going to destroy them. Then I’ll make you into a great nation.” 11But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why are you so angry with your people whom you brought out of Egypt using your great power and mighty hand? 12Don’t let the Egyptians say, ‘He was planning all along to kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth. That’s why he brought them out of our land.’ Don’t be so angry. Reconsider your decision to bring this disaster on your people. 13Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. You took an oath, swearing on yourself. You told them, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. I will give to your descendants all the land I spoke of. It will be their permanent possession.’ ” 14So the Lord reconsidered his threat to destroy his people.
Exodus 32:19-20 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 19When he came near the camp, he saw the calf and the dancing. In a burst of anger Moses threw down the tablets and smashed them at the foot of the mountain. 20Then he took the calf they had made, burned it, ground it into powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
Exodus 32:25-27 GOD’S WORD Translation (GW) – 25Aaron had let the people get out of control, and they became an object of ridicule to their enemies. When Moses saw this, 26he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “If you’re on the Lord’s side, come over here to me!” Then all the Levites gathered around him. 27He said to them, “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: Each of you put on your sword. Go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other, and kill your relatives, friends, and neighbors.”
A key point that many people miss in all of this is that both God and the leader God had appointed were trying to get the whole congregation to come near to God and hear the voice of God themselves, but they insisted on letting God and the leader work all that out then the leader, Moses, was to come back and fill them in.
The result, if you put it in modern terms was that the people did all kinds of stuff between the times that the pastor came to pass on what the Lord had said, the church split and the people set out to destroy one another (some with the pastors blessing, the pastor went mad with anger and frustration, the associate pastor led the charge to crazy town and participated in splitting the church, yet when confronted acted as if it was an honest mistake and that the congregation forced him to do it, and the pastor preached a big fire and brimstone service over the dividing church to scare the devil out of those that would remain under the same failed system. In the end all of the people led in this generation by this leader died in the wilderness until a new pastor was appointed that would take them to where they were going and then send them out to do as the Lord had appointed. That didn’t happen until that whole congregation died out and the leader died.
I am not saying that all pastors of western traditional churches are like this, or that we have to abandon the western church etc. You can turn off the heresy detectors. I am sure that there are some pastors who do a great job of empowering people to obey and go before God themselves etc. I am just saying that this does not seem to be the norm for this model dating back to the first time it appears in the Bible which is the story we just read.
I am saying that there either needs to be new models that are more conducive to this kind of experience or huge adjustments to the current model to make it more likely that people will be lead in the way that God and Moses both described. In a way where every individual is brought before God and hearing from God, obeying God and is sent out as a disciple maker that empowers others to hear from God, obey God and be sent out etc.
One of the people in the discussion had hinted to the fact that the western model of church was in fact unbiblical. While I would agree that in the New Testament, there is not any church that even looked remotely like the western church model I do not see anywhere that it is clearly stated not to have a church like that either. It simply is not mentioned and as such is abiblical (not talked about as good or bad).
What that means is that while nobody has the right to say that the western model of church is unbiblical, nobody has the right to say it is the only way to have church either. That also means that the large buildings that house the congregation on Sundays to sit and listen to the one person who goes before God are not in the New Testament either.
There are times when a teacher would talk to the crowds etc., by and large the churches were smaller meetings that met in homes and in many cases were leaderless for years before Paul would send them a letter on how to structure themselves etc.
As far as heresy, Paul seemed to take a few people from each place and leave them to their own devices while the future leaders were with him for on the Job training. If they got way out there with a heresy, he simply sent a letter with a trained leader. These things seem to take up much of the New Testament.
Was there heresy? Yes absolutely. Paul seemed to trust the Holy Spirit to work it out more than he trusted the leaders and himself as a leader. He even addressed the letters to the congregations and usually not to specific leaders.
If we have to rely solely on strict systems and a well trained pastor trained in the art of heresy hunting, we are left with one glaring question: What do we need God and the Holy Spirit for?
Sometimes (possibly often times) our model is the Moses model and whole generations of the church die stuck in the wilderness really close to what God has for them yet not personally connected to God.
Maybe we should take a real deep look at the western church model and the role that we assign to pastors and church leadership. I guess, in reference to the discussion I listened to, I suppose that the are kinda both right and kinda both wrong due to not asking the right question.
Just some food for thought. More to come…
W. Lawrence Hess