The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven
The Naked Church – Chapter – 11. O Dem Golden Shepherds
Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us
and to go out before us and fight our battles.
—1 Samuel 8:20
The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven – The car was packed and I couldn’t wait to get started. I was leaving home to begin my freshman year at college, free at last from the final restraints of adolescence. As I was saying my goodbyes, my father pulled me aside.
“For 18 years I’ve been responsible for you. I haven’t always been right, but I did the best I knew how. But now you’re going off on your own and I can’t be responsible for you anymore. I’m turning you over to God. You won’t answer to me anymore, but directly to him.”
The joy of my impending freedom quickly vanished under this sudden change of protocol. Until this time I had only to worry about my parents catching me when I did wrong. They were much easier to fool than God. I had never before realized the buffer I had let my parents become between God and me. Even though I was certainly accountable to God before that moment, the full weight of it sank in with my father’s words. At the time it wasn’t good news because I only thought of God as someone who enforced his rules at the expense of my happiness.
In the context of intimacy, however, coming before God without a human mediator is not only good news but it is what intimacy is all about. Knowing someone who knows God is not the same as knowing him firsthand, and God wants each of us to know him personally.
Firsthand friendship with God, however, has been all but abandoned in our current application of church leadership. More often than not our pastors and leaders have become surrogate parents, standing between us and God. While we’re busy about our jobs they seek the Lord for us, and our Christian experience is nothing more than participating in their program. God never intended it to be this way.
Give Us a King
The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven – This problem is not new. It seems that people have always tried to hide from God behind someone else. When the children of Israel saw God descend on Mount Sinai and set it ablaze with his glory they told Moses, “Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey.”
That same motive was also behind Israel’s cry for a king. The excuses they used to beg Samuel to appoint them one (1 Samuel 8) are the same ones we use today to justify our own “kings.”
“Then we will be like all the other nations.” Everyone else had a king, so they wanted one too. Today we look at football teams with their coaches, corporations with their chief executives, and armies with their generals. Strong leaders are effective. Virtually every ministry organization looks to put a charismatic leader at the helm, developing programs and motivating people. We never question whether God has any better way than the world.
“[We will have] a king to lead us.” Many people would rather follow a man they can see than the invisible God. A human king seems to provide the best of both worlds: Where he has good ideas we can follow him convinced we’re serving God, but when we disagree with him we can rebel with the rationalization that he’s just a man. What does he know anyway?
“[We will have a king] to go out before us.” Let someone else take the risks while we stay safely and inactively in the background. I suspect that the thought here may be less of having someone to follow than of having someone as a guinea pig, like sending your older brother out in the dark first. If the boogeyman is there it will eat him instead of you.
“[We will have a king to] fight our battles.” Regretfully, God’s army is overly staffed with mercenaries. Those putting in the most effort are getting paid for it. They even beg for the privilege, if we’ll send them our money. At a fund-raising banquet for a rescue mission that point was stated clearly: “We feed and clothe the poor so you don’t have to.”
Many TV evangelists take that thought even further. Here’s an excerpt from a fund-raising letter sent by an international Charismatic ministry:
[God] instructed me to open up my ministry to partners to increase its effectiveness. So, I began to receive partners… Then he told me, “All of the people that are saved, all of the people that hear my voice through radio, television, tape ministry and all these other areas, your partners will receive the same reward.”
The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven – Who wouldn’t find it easier to write a check for ten dollars a month if that’s all God asks of them to help extend his kingdom
Because their hearts were so hard, God allowed the Israelites to have a king even though he knew the real reason. “They have rejected me as their king,” he told Samuel, and how his heart must have broken! They preferred to follow a man instead of God himself. So do many believers today, and unfortunately they never find a shortage of men willing to let them do it.
Maybe our kings are not as obvious as the chariot-perched, gold-encrusted warriors of Samuel’s day, but we have them nonetheless. They are only less obvious because we have so many of them. The nature of the church today allows us each to choose our own king, one who will provide the kind of leadership we want.
Our kings take three forms.
1. Celebrities. Just like the world, the church today is caught up in the exaltation of personalities. The media parades before us a large selection of preachers and singers. People become more infatuated with them personally than with their message. Magazine editors know that this is true. Many readers want articles on their favorite leaders more than those on Christian growth. The magazines that sell the best often feature a well- known personality on the cover. We even have our own media awards and popularity polls.
The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven – What may begin as a genuine response to God’s gift in someone’s life can subtly degenerate into hero worship. Driven by their own personal emptiness or inactivity, people seek to live out their faith vicariously through their favorite Christian personalities. They watch them constantly, send them their money, weep over their family crises, and even defend them ardently when their immorality or financial impropriety are revealed.
Not all celebrities encourage this fixation, but many do. They exploit their status for their own gain and rule by their own ingenuity. Under the guise of anointing they prove themselves masters of crowd control and group dynamics, but do not demonstrate that they themselves are mastered by the Lord Jesus Christ. They are preoccupied with buildings, popularity, money, and media time, confusing these with ministry itself.
And not all of them are on TV; they can also reign in local churches. The distance afforded in a large congregation often promotes a similar infatuation with a famous or powerful pastor, a fixation that can supplant a person’s own relationship with God.
2. Dictators. Many churches today, particularly charismatic ones, are led by a pastor who exercises personal control over the church and the people in it. Though power in the hands of a Godfearing man may not cause great destruction, few men wield such power without succumbing to the need to manipulate.
This structure has risen from a misunderstanding of biblical leadership, assuming that a physical man has to represent the headship of Jesus. Where Jesus is not alive in the congregation I can understand why some people might fall for such error, but if people are listening to him and being changed by him, no such structure is necessary. The Word offers us no precedent for one man ruling the local congregation. In fact John condemns the ministry of one man who projected himself into that spot in Ephesus (3 John 9,10).
Robert Girard in Brethren, Hang Together tells us why:
The church is to be the expression of the personality of Jesus Christ, not the expression of the personality of any man. No single member of the body is to be allowed to leave his personal imprint on all the church’s life and work. The church is to be dominated by the Spirit of Christ flowing through many lives.
A pastor-dictator is the most direct form of kingship today. He tells the people what God wants of them, and all they have to do is cooperate. The congregation is always of one mind, because only one mind is allowed to function. Though this system makes for efficient congregations, it destroys the personal freedom and accountability needed for spiritual intimacy to flourish.
3. People-pleasers. Charles Colson quotes an assistant of a renowned media pastor. When asked to give the key to this man’s success he responded without hesitation, “We give the people what they want.”2 He is not alone. There are many who succumb to this temptation. Micah’s cry against the priests of his day applies to these leaders as well: “Her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money” (Micah 3:11).
These kings rule by the scepter of their own personal popularity and ability to entertain the crowd. They may gather a large following, but their efforts are fruitless for God’s kingdom. Nothing distorts the gospel faster than changing it to appeal to people’s desires.
The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven – Though we must expose those who try to harm young believers by their need for personal power, most “kings” are as much a victim of the system as the people themselves. The system can even hide itself under the terminology of servant leadership, convincing its victim that all this is necessary to accomplish God’s will. Many Christian leaders are well intentioned though insecure people whose drive for personal affirmation can lure them into playing the crowd or pressing themselves to greater productivity.
Instead of challenging such weaknesses the church today caters to them. People want a buffer between themselves and God, and regretfully there are men and women willing to provide it. When I pastored I was always on guard for signs that people were becoming more dependent on my gifts than on Jesus. I knew it was easier for them to do what I told them, than to develop their own relationship with God. To allow them to make that substitution, however, was to rob them of the joy of hearing his voice and knowing him themselves. My task was to teach them how to draw on his life and to let Jesus be their only King.
The Seduction of Power
Even though God gave Israel a king, he warned them of the consequences. Power is intoxicating, and any brief illusionary benefit which kings provide is soon outweighed by the toll they take. We’re not listening any better than Samuel’s generation.
“He will take your sons and make them serve.” And they did so, not just in legitimate wars to protect against their enemies but also to serve the personal whims of the king. Our kings today exact that price by alienating our sons and daughters from serving God. Congregations led by kings rarely transfer the excitement of the parents to their children because the next generation will prefer their own king.
The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven – I once asked a pastor, who was committed to the idea that the leader of a local church represents Jesus to that congregation, what would happen to the church when he leaves or dies. “It will die too,” he said, apparently resigned to the fact. The future of our children should be motive enough to give up our kings and look for more biblical patterns of leadership.
“He will take the best of your fields and vineyards… and a tenth of your flocks.” Kings must live in comfort, since daily concerns distract from their ability to lead. So we don’t mind if our favorite TV preacher puts three phones in his master bath and pays for it with the widow’s mite. There is no outcry at our celebrities staying in 4000-dollar-a-day hotel suites while they cry for people to sacrifice to help their ministry. One evangelist talks of going “to the desert to pray,” never telling his viewers that it’s to his estate in Palm Springs.
Kings also require money to appease their insatiable desire to extend their influence. But they always find other people to pay for the cost of their dreams. Those who help them are handsomely rewarded, but those who don’t (or who express concerns about their tactics) are treated harshly. Micah spoke of such men:
This is what the Lord says: As for the prophets who lead my people astray, if one feeds them, they proclaim “Peace”; if he does not, they prepare to wage war against him (Micah 3:5).
“You yourselves will become his slaves.” The freedom of the life of Christ is lost to the programs and rules that a king-leader passes down to his people. His concern may be to minimize abuse and create the most efficient environment for ministry, but it enslaves people drawing them away from the joy of living with Jesus himself.
Part of the joy in the early days of the charismatic renewal was the realization that the Spirit wanted us to be a variety of vessels to accomplish his work. Believers were tired of sitting in the pews watching it happen on the platform. Yet how quickly we’ve returned to the same format in the name of keeping together our superchurches!
The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven – Why are we so blind to the corruption that accompanies increased power and influence A look at Israel’s kings demonstrates how few escaped it. Even the ones who started out with sincere hearts for God were ensnared in the trappings of power—Saul, Solomon, Uzziah, to name a few. Only the strength of David’s love for God saw him through similar corruption in his own reign.
The list grows in our age. Many good men, who launched out with a God given call and vision, have been swallowed up by the seduction of power. Suddenly they find themselves in the midst of an organization that struggles to stay afloat. Their desire to follow Jesus in simple obedience has long since given way to the pressing problems of their institution. In the name of pragmatism they find themselves doing things they condemned when younger. They treat employees harshly and beg money from outside—all in the name of keeping God’s ministry alive.
The vision they began with has dried up and their joy within is gone. They can’t find a way back to it without jeopardizing the monster they’ve created. Though subtle, the corruption of power and influence is unrelenting. It leaves many people spiritually empty and it can even drive some to compensate for the loneliness of their exalted position by indulging their flesh in opulence, financial impropriety, or sexual sin.
This is the result of having no qualifications for leadership except a man’s own ability to raise money or garner followers. Today no demand is made of our leaders to show evidence of their integrity, maturity, or purity. The PTL Network scandal of 1987 was only the tip of the iceberg. Many more such scandals have followed and so will many more if we do not refuse ourselves the forms of leadership which God has denied us.
When two of Jesus’ disciples sought a superior position above the others, he made clear that such talk belonged in the world, not his body. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you” (Mark 10:42,43). There’s only one king in this kingdom, and any understanding of biblical leadership will not include managing the lives of other believers or commanding their obedience.
The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven – In a word, kingship leads to exploitation, even if those involved don’t intend to do so. It stifles the growth of hungry believers and it alienates the world from hearing the gospel. Nothing has turned off this generation more than people who use Christianity to play political power games for the exaltation of their own ego and charge the poor for it.
That may not sound pleasant, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise. When only a few years old the early church was already being exploited by such leaders. Paul was amazed not so much by the fact that it was happening, but by how much the people enjoyed it:
In fact you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that! (2 Corinthians 11:20).
Not all exploited sheep are miserable sheep. Though it leaves many feeling abused and empty, many others are willing to tolerate the costs for the empty gospel it produces. These are responsible for our kings, because they have rewarded their appeals. They like leaders who strut like royalty with their Rolex watches and preach a gospel of ease and complacency. They will pay someone to fight their battles for them as long as they don’t have to get involved themselves.
They are just like the people of Isaiah’s day who refused to let the prophets face them with their own needs and failures. “Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” (Isaiah 30:10,11).
Paul warned us that the church would face similar temptation: “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3).
What other age could fulfill this prophecy as easily as ours? Today’s media has provided us exactly that opportunity. We pick out the teachers that say what we want to hear, and then we support them with our attendance and money.
When I’m asked why so many Christian television programs distort the gospel, my answer is simple: The television gospel must be one that people will pay millions of dollars a year to hear. Humanity has never regarded truth itself that valuable— only an illusion of truth that leads to personal ease.
We get the gospel we pay for and the men who can be paid to teach it. The result is a Christianity preoccupied with power, money, buildings, and organizations instead of the person of Jesus and his compassion for hurting people.
A Cry For Relief
“When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen.” These were Samuel’s final words before he gave Israel the king they demanded.
That cry can be heard today. The exploited cry out in the emptiness of their spiritual lives, offended by the unrestrained egos of those who profess to be God’s teachers. The hungry cry out for a more effective gospel that can transform them from within and fill them with God’s presence. The mature cry out to be more than spectators in a program, but equipped to let the life of Jesus flow through them.
I’ve heard that cry from many people in recent years, and I’ve also heard it from Jesus. He has begun to expose and remove those shepherds who have held his people captive, and I expect that work to continue. It is time for his judgment to fall on our land, and it will begin first in his house.
The words God used to chastise the shepherds of his people in Ezekiel 34 need to be heard again in the church today. They may be words of fearful warning to some, but to the hungry they are promises that God has something better in mind.
“Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?” Instead of letting leaders feather their own nests with riches and influence, God wanted leaders that would put the flock first.
“You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.” God wanted his shepherds concerned with healing the wounded and bruised, not further abusing them for their own gain.
“You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost.”Too often the only people we search out today are the rich and powerful, the ones that can help us advance the program. One of our most popular TV evangelists had so much compassion for one of his listeners that he made numerous trips to San Diego to comfort her in the waning moments of her life. It sounds incredible until you hear the punch line: His organization inherited more than six million dollars from her estate! God despised those who would use his flock for their own gain and prefer those with position , wealth or status.
The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven – I have heard this Scripture taught often to pastoral groups and the conclusion is always the same—we must be better shepherds. But that wasn’t how God said he would fix the problem. He was not getting rid of bad shepherds and replacing them with good ones. He was getting rid of them all, so that he could shepherd them himself. “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.”
This prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus who alone is the shepherd of the sheep. He can care for each one of them personally and bring them into the fullness of God’s life.
He would bring them into a safe pasture and no longer would they be exploited by those who claimed to lead in his name. The title of ‘shepherd’ is never used again in the New Testament to refer to any human leader. Although Peter uses the word in the verb form to express how elders help care for people, he does not give them a role that supplants the place Jesus alone can fulfill in every one of his follower.
Jesus inaugurated a brokerless kingdom, one in which his Father’s personal care for people and his authority over them would be shared with no earthly leader. His revolutionary words and actions engaged people in God’s life directly and nothing could have threatened the religious leadership of his day more. He invited fishermen, homemakers, tax-collectors, prostitutes and beggars into God’s life. Every person, from the least to the greatest, could know him and walk in his ways.
The Naked Church – Chapter Eleven – That is the nature of his kingdom, and nothing destroys the reality of intimacy for God’s people more than those who claim to be leaders in his church and by whatever means insert their lives between the flock and the shepherd. As we shall see, leadership in the New Testament never takes that place. They do not represent Jesus in his absence, but only hold value as they equip other people to know the living God themselves.
“There shall be one flock and one shepherd,” Jesus stated in John 10. What do we see when we look at the so-called church today—thousands upon thousands of flocks and thousands upon thousands of shepherds? Do you see the connection? Many shepherds leads to many flocks. Human leaders almost always divide the flock by their own expectations, programs, and traditions. Only when we recognize that he alone is the true shepherd will the flock be able to live out the unity he gives it.
We have no king but Jesus, and in these days he is calling his flock back to himself, away from the regimentation and exploitations of human leadership, so that he can truly have first place in every heart who seeks him.
Produced with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.