Idols In The Temple: Part Two, Church Leadership

It is recommended that you read Part One of Idols In The Temple prior to reading this post.

Part Two

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.

13 thoughts on “Idols In The Temple: Part Two, Church Leadership

  1. “would most Christians be able to recognise authentic spiritual leadership gifts solely by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit?” This is a great question. One church I attended did not give titles unless the title described the way a person was observed functioning over time. I’ve always thought there was wisdom in this.
    One etymological note: bishop is old english for episkopoi. ( The use of bishop in earlier english translations was equivalent, in that sense. But the understanding of how an overseer/bishop functioned did greatly change over the centuries, and this was, as you said, read into how the word bishop was understood. Thanks, I’m interested to read part 3!


    • Thanks mrteague. I like that idea of not giving titles until the function was evident and on display in the Body. I prefer no titles at all, but that would certainly be a good progressive step. Thanks also for that link, very interesting. Part 3 coming soon. I’m having big computer problems at the moment but will hopefully be able to post something more on this topic soon.


  2. Thank you for these solid teachings.

    To the degree, we do not accept we are already complete and pleasing in the eyes of the One who made us his Righteousness… we will turn to others to determine our worth.

    We just do not know any better…

    The present religious system (and all, really) are forms of godliness but deny the power of the Cross that gave us a new identity and washed us in His own blood. This western church perversion has corrupted all but the most persecuted fellowships in the world in this hour.

    How this grieves our Father in heaven… and how He is preparing a quiet and powerful move upon His children to begin to walk in His mind, heart and rest.

    Thank YOU… this really blessed me.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thank God for the clarity with which you share these insights. This kind of idolatry here (Kenya) is very widespread but we thank God , He is correcting this even though in the backstage.


    • Virginia,

      Begin to look for some men and women who visit that will speak of a return to His heart without corruption. they will challenge the western theology that has spread your way.

      they are coming… won’t be liked very much. And yet they themselves FILLED with the love and power of Jesus.

      I have been praying for your nation for a long time, and much of Africa.

      Father bless

      David NY


  4. Cheryl,

    I went to a ladies six week bible study this summer for the first time in a long time (since coming out of the organized church). I was so touched by each of these women, their struggles and their desire to draw closer to Jesus BUT I did not feel a need to “get back in church/community/fellowship. I am SO content with my walk with Jesus – loving this wilderness I’ve been in! Your series on The Wilderness gave me such clarity, rest and trust that all is well with my soul – whether any one understands or not.

    Once again, thank you for ears to hear what the Spirit is saying and sharing with us “out here”!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Cheryl for this, so accurately, intelligently and sensitively set out! Thank God he graciously opened my eyes to this idolatry some years ago now.

    These days it can be quite funny when required to complete forms at official places, conferences, etc. About three weeks ago I had to complete a major hospital pre-surgery form (for minor surgery!) requiring umpteen answers. Among them, ‘What is your religion? What denomination do you belong to? What local church? What’s your minister’s name? And so on… What made it more interesting was that in my long-standing medical file the Nursing Sister had picked up that I was a ‘Reverend.’ She added her husband was a ‘Priest.’ I mentioned that I had dropped the ‘Reverend’ part years ago. She looked somewhat puzzled, but I tell you I had amazing service from her! It just goes to show…

    BTW, in South Africa MUCH is made of titles, especially in charismatic/traditional religion ‘churches,’ the favourites being ‘Apostle, Prophet, Man of God, or Bishop.’ Huge idolatry. Thank God, slowly but surely many Jesus-followers are opting out of the system and pursuing him in organic/kingdom type fellowship groups much nearer the biblical core.

    Sorry if I bored you and your readers!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erroll, you are never boring! Your comments are always appreciated and relevant. And wow, do they really require all that personal ‘religion’ information in South Africa just for a minor surgery? I had forgotten about the “Man of God’ title they use so much in parts of Africa. I have come across it in Kenya and Burundi some years ago. The Holy Spirit is doing something new and exciting worldwide and people are waking up to the true nature of ecclesia. I am thankful for connections with people such as you across the world. Even if we can’t get together physically we can support, encourage and learn from one another through technology, at least for the time being. Thankyou for taking the time to share your thoughts once again!

      Liked by 1 person

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