Can I ask you something? Are you afraid that anything less than total obedience to your church authorities will condemn you to Hell for eternity? At one of my last churches, there was this young man. He was a volunteer firefighter (among other things) who could never say ‘no’. On one Sunday, he was asked if he would mow the Church lawn, lead next week’s Bible Study, contact a carpenter about making some minor repairs to the church, could take some time to weed out the parking lot and apply herbicide to it, and look into replanting the front walk-way with new bushes. All of this he agreed to on top of his usually busy week. Such was how most Sundays tended to go. He was about my age, but he constantly seemed exhausted – presumably because his inability to say ‘no’ was something everyone else was taking advantage of as well. I felt sorry for him, but until he realized that he was running on empty, there was nothing I could do. I would have loved to have taken the Bible Study off of his hands, but that would not have allowed it.
I’ve been talking to some of the more conservative Christians and it seems a number of them all say the same sorts of things. “It’s dangerous to disregard Scripture.” “Denying the inerrant, infallible Word of God is a grave error.” “If you love Him you will obey Him.” These two words – authority and obedience – keep on swirling around in my head.
Most days, I have a clear picture about various Christian words and what they look like in action. That’s not the case for those words. Jesus used to say things like: the good shepherd will leave behind the ninety-nine sheep in order to search for the one. He could be gone for hours – who’s in charge in that time? or: It will be better for the servant if his master finds him awake and ready when he returns. Who’s in charge while the master is away? By the time of the New Testament, the instructions for Christian Leadership comes from Paul. He talks about deacons and overseers and pastors. Surely, if authority were the cornerstone of Christianity, would not it have been Jesus who elaborated on what sort of leaders Christianity ought to have?
Jesus did say things like: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” But Jesus’ words on authority is: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
How can one obey servants who take orders and yet never give them? How can one obey the least and the last in the world where they have no voice? Jesus’ words would indicate that the authority he has instilled into his kingdom is to be up-side down. Yet after reading so many stories about authoritarian leaders in Christianity, they seem to have it all wrong.
Some are mega-church pastors whose public persona clashes with their true colors. They have never taken an order, but they never cease to give orders they expect others to obey without question. They are not used to not getting their way and make a big deal of it when people stand in their way. They make demands that they expect others to fill even if it would be as costly as a multi-million dollar jet.
This ‘obey the authorities placed over you’ structure was meant for the culture in which the believers lived in, but not the churches in which they met together. Christians are supposed to be brothers and sisters – not shepherds over sheep or masters over slaves. But because of the ease in twisting a few scriptures, a great many Christians live in constant fear.
They’re afraid of saying “no” because it will disappoint everyone around them. They’re afraid that disobedience is slippery slope to eternal condemnation. They’re afraid that God will punish them for not serving the authority he has placed over them to the best of their ability. They’re afraid of dozens of different things – boiled down to what others will think, what will happen, and whether or not it was the right thing to do.
But didn’t Paul write that in the last days wolves will be among the sheep? Is not possible for wolves to take advantage of the situation – set themselves up as the overseers and demand total obedience to the Scripture as they interpret it? Look at the numbers of Christians fleeing the churches and think about it. Believer after believer have stories about churches that abused their authority, but as sheep they obeyed the instruction to submit. Could this be the result of a few well-meaning but misinformed brothers accidentally insulting believers? Or is it more likely that wolves in the leadership are systematically challenging people in such a way where the ones most likely to resist them are forced out of the way? Who is left – why none but those most naturally to have been obedient anyway.
That is to say, I think that there are a lot of guys who think that they are doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s name, but they have become lost in obligation, lost in popular theology, and lost to the calling that Jesus placed on them not by any ill-intention on their part. They don’t mean to be wolves. They simply cannot help it having been raised into a system of theology that produces them with ease. All of this has an undercurrent of fear and not love. Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear that you’re not doing enough. Fear that you’re not doing enough correctly. Fear that your family isn’t going to go where you’re going. Fear that you’re not going to go where you hope you’ll go. Fear that through inaction on your part somebody else out there will be eternally lost. Fear is not love. Love is what turns wolves into sheep. Love desires reconciliation with the wounded who have fled Christianity. Love demands that the system of theology that creates wolves be dismantled. Love drives out fear.
When the shepherd is also a wolf, there will be no love.