It is recommended that you read Part One of Idols In The Temple prior to reading this post.
Under discussion in this post is the first of our idols in the temple: Church Leadership.
For most of us church leadership is easily identifiable. Walk into a local church for the first time and it will not take long to identify those in charge. It may be evident by their clothing such as clerical collars or special robes, or leaders may be seated on a raised platform or always in the front rows. All these outward signs make a subtle statement to us about who is in charge and immediately set up a separation in the Body of Christ between those who make the rules and those who are meant to obey them.
Even in churches and meetings where dress codes are not utilised to signal the special status of leaders, titles, platforms and seating arrangements are all employed to ensure everyone recognises the man or woman who is the ‘celebrity’ leader. We love to exalt these leaders as if they had some secret means of communication with God that is not available to every other Christ follower. We crave their approval, hang on their every utterance as infallible, quote them, pay mega dollars to hear them speak, tune into their TV programs, buy their books and follow their social media as if they are the centre of our lives. We have perfected the art of turning our brethren into celebrities and transforming Christ’s church into their fan clubs.
If, by some miraculous event, all the robes, collars, and other outward signs that mark Christian leadership should disappear overnight, and every church platform and stage was lowered to ground level, would most Christians be able to recognise authentic spiritual leadership gifts solely by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit?
The Church is called to be a community of life-bearers, each equally clothed in the discernible anointing of the Holy Spirit, each member witnessing to the resurrected Life of Christ. By comparison to this rich anointing, our decorative, expensive priestly garments and adornments are worthless rags.
The Pharisees too were identifiable by their unique clothing. They made “their phylacteries broad” and enlarged “the borders of their garments” (Matt.23:5). Phylacteries were small leather boxes containing tiny scrolls of scripture, which were tied to the arm and head with leather straps. They were worn by Israel’s religious leaders in obedience to the Law of Moses (Deut. 11:18). The Pharisees thought the greater the size of their phylacteries the higher was their level of holiness.
Similarly, they lengthened the tassels on the hems of their robes to draw attention to their righteousness in obeying the Law, which stated:
“….tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord….” (Num. 15:38,39)
Jesus pointed out the elaborate adornments these leaders clothed themselves in meant nothing because they ‘say things and do not do them’ (Matt. 23:3).
Furthermore, the scribes and Pharisees were said by Jesus to have seated themselves on the ‘seat of Moses’ (Matt. 23:2 NASB). In the Temple at Jerusalem and in synagogues throughout Israel a seat was reserved at the front of the congregation called ‘the chair of Moses’. The person with authority would sit on this, facing the people, to read and teach from the scroll. This custom had its origin in Exodus 18:13-27 when Moses sat to judge Israel and delegated seventy elders to assist him. Essentially, whoever sat in the ‘chair of Moses’ carried the ancient authority of Moses to teach and judge Israel.
Priestly garments, seating arrangements and other external trappings, however, are only outward signs of a much deeper problem, one that originates in the human heart. There are many sincere men and women serving the Body of Christ who carry out their roles with the hearts of true servants and bear their title and rank with dignity despite these external trappings. So what’s the problem? It’s around authority.
“But do not be called Rabbi; for one is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for one is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders, for one is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matt. 23:8-11 NASB)
Let’s unpack these words of Jesus a little more:
The Jews called their religious leaders ‘rabbis’, ‘masters’ and ‘fathers’. Rabbis each had their own particular interpretation of scripture and their own school of disciples, and were addressed by their disciples as “my master’ or ‘great one’.
A disciple would undertake to submit completely to his chosen rabbi’s interpretation of scripture and the rabbi held total authority in all aspects of the disciple’s life. An enthusiastic disciple would also often seek to imitate the behaviour of his rabbi, which included taking on the rabbi’s preferences, mannerisms and personal habits. So a disciple would say of himself: “I am of Rabbi Gamaliel” or “I am of Rabbi Hillel” and so on.
Years after Jesus had ascended, the apostle Paul was still correcting some parts of the young church who seem to have been following the same strict traditional view of discipleship Jesus warned against, by openly declaring “I am of Apollos, I am of Paul, I am of Cephas or I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:10-13).
We know the Jewish religious leaders regarded Abraham and Moses as their natural and spiritual fathers (Jn. 5:45; 8:39). But Jesus, who was also Jewish, spoke only of God as His Father. This is the reason the religious leaders were so intent on knowing ‘by what authority’ Jesus said the things He did. They were expecting Him to name a rabbi who was His ‘spiritual father’. Yet Paul also referred to himself as a ‘spiritual father’ to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:15). So what was Jesus getting at?
Jesus was not forbidding His followers to respect or honour those who mentor or teach them wisely. Jesus was using ‘father’ in the sense His hearers understood, as a term signifying absolute authority. He was warning His disciples against the traditional custom of elevating their religious leaders above themselves, and declaring that in His Kingdom discipleship is very different. He was introducing a radically new and previously unknown kind of discipleship, where only God could claim full and total allegiance, and all others, regardless of their role, were to be on equal footing as a family of brethren.
In the immediate period after Jesus’ ascension the Christian church had a very simple leadership structure. The first apostles appointed elders and deacons to serve local church communities, who gathered in the homes of ordinary disciples.
As the Church grew older and more heavily influenced by human and pagan ways of worship, buildings, costumes, titles, rank and ever-increasing layers of hierarchy became the norm. Consequently, most formal Church leadership structures as we know them today are a mixture of Old Testament Judaism, paganism and the world’s commercialism.
A passage in 1 Timothy 3:1-5 which in some Bible versions outlines the requirements for ‘bishops’ further confuses the issue. The original New Testament Greek word for ‘bishop’ is ‘episkopoi’ which translates more accurately to our English word ‘overseer’. To the earliest Church ‘overseer’ did not indicate rank, title or position. An overseer was simply another word for elder.
Elders (Greek ‘presbuteroi’) were believers who were recognised for their spiritual maturity, wisdom and experience. Their roles were to care for, guide and serve the local assemblies with holiness and humility, demonstrating the character and love of Jesus Christ.
As church history progressed, translators changed the New Testament word ‘overseer’ to ‘bishop’ to reflect the hierarchical structure that was increasingly creeping into the Christian Church. In other words, translators interpreted certain words in scripture through the lens of what was happening around them in Christian culture rather than by the original meaning.
The office of bishop as we now know it was not known in the earliest days of the church, nor were such titles as reverend, priest, cardinal, senior pastor, pope, doctor of divinity, apostle, prophet, evangelist and other church titles frequently used in modern Christianity. This is because originally there was no ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’, just a community of brethren with diverse spiritual giftings, including leadership giftings (Rom. 12:4-8).
Similarly, the ministry giftings of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in Ephesians 4:11 were understood not as rankings of authority, but functional roles. Paul, Peter, John and other apostles did not present themselves as ‘Apostle so and so’, but as Paul, Peter or John, an apostle of Jesus Christ, and the only Senior Apostle was Christ Himself (Heb. 3:1).
The English word ‘pastor’ in Ephesians 4:11 is the Greek ‘poimen’ which is translated ‘shepherd’ elsewhere in the New Testament. Again, it is functional, indicating an elder who is gifted in tending to the needs of church members, and is never mentioned as a title except when applied to Christ as the Chief Shepherd (Heb. 13:20, 1 Pet. 2:25)
By around the middle of the second century, most churches were operating under the leadership of a group of elders who were overseen by a single bishop (or senior pastor). As the Church grew in numbers the jurisdictions for which these overseers, or bishops, were responsible became geographically wider, evolving into regional leadership roles over several groups of local assemblies.
Functional roles were transformed into Church ‘offices’ and over time came to carry official authority levels as designated by the most senior Church leaders. As new movements broke away and formed denominations, they each set up their own governing practices, many of which remain to this day. This is how the Christian Church came to be a loose alignment of different religious organisations, each with its own hierarchy of clergy and laity, rather than the simple community of equal brethren that Jesus established.
Jesus spelled out clearly His pattern of spiritual authority (Matt. 20:24-28), and demonstrated a leadership style that was solely dependent on His fellowship with the Father and the Spirit. He neither sought nor required official recognition through title, clothing, or any other means. Yet people who encountered Him, whether Jew or Gentile, recognised His authority immediately (Matt. 7:29, Luke 4:32, Matthew 8:9).
Yet in much of the Church true spiritual authority has been replaced by titles and offices, rank, priestly costumes and charismatic personalities.
When we grant others authority in our lives that belongs only to Christ, we remove Christ from His central place in our hearts and replace Him with the ‘holy’ image of our chosen leader/s. When we agree to come exclusively under the influence and authority of those who tell us we need their ‘spiritual covering’, we elevate them above our fellow brethren and become their disciple, instead of Christ’s disciple. When we emulate those who seem to hold spiritual authority but do not display the humility and heart of Christ, we have turned back to the kind of image-worship that Jesus warned His disciples about. Our chosen images are made from flesh and blood.
And that, my friends, is idolatry.
Part Three of Idols In The Temple to follow soon.
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2017. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.