The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve
The Naked Church – Chapter – 12 – Firsthand Friendship
No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother,
saying, `Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – I looked up at the young couple sitting across from me in my office and gave them undoubtedly the worst counsel I have ever given in my days of professional ministry.
The tradition I grew up in consigned great authority to the pastor. This had to do partly with the office, and partly with his training to handle the Scriptures, but he was considered to be closer to God than the rest of us, and part of what it meant to be a good Christian was to submit to his leadership. I offer that by way of context, not excuse.
One morning a couple, struggling with God’s direction for them, came to see me. They felt God leading them to move to another city to take up a new job. They had gone to their pastor and shared it with him, only to find him very cool to the idea. He told them he didn’t think it was God’s will for them —that they weren’t spiritually mature enough to move away right now. “What should we do,” they asked me. “We feel like God is telling us one thing, but our pastor is telling us another.”
Here is the counsel I gave them: “God wants us to submit to our leaders and that’s what you should do. Even if your pastor is wrong, God will honor you if you follow his counsel.” They listened to me and stayed. In the next few months the company the husband worked for went bankrupt. Not only did he lose his job, but eventually his house, and the last I knew of them, they were no longer walking with God.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – How often I have regretted giving them that advice! I see them standing before God some day when he asks them why they didn’t do what he asked. “Because our pastor told us not to, and Wayne backed him up,” they might answer.
What did I expect God to say then? “Oh, well if they told you not to, then of course that’s what you should have done.”
Not a chance. Jesus didn’t die on the cross and grant us access into the heart of God so that we would obey leaders instead of him. Fortunately, most pastors wouldn’t even presume to speak for God in such matters, but this example illustrates both how important it is for each of us to take responsibility for our own walk with God, and how easy it is to abdicate it to someone else.
To Whom Am I Accountable?
It is usually not long in the Christian journey before the question of accountability surfaces. Some churches talk about the importance of have a covering, by which they mean a committed relationship to a local church institution. Without one your salvation is suspect. This thinking is built on the notion that an individual cannot be trusted to discern truth and so must draw that security from a tradition, denomination or trained professional.
It is so much a part of our religious psyche that it remains unchallenged, even though not one New Testament Scripture vests our accountability in another human being. In actuality the New Covenant declares quite the opposite. Each of us are accountable to God alone for our choices. At no time did the early apostles project authority over others, nor command their actions. Instead, they urged, beseeched and encouraged leaving each person to live consistent with their individual conscience.
When some among the Ephesian elders had begun to pervert the gospel in order to ply their own power games over people, John wrote for them to trust the anointing they each had from the Holy Spirit. “You have no need for anyone to teach you,” John wrote, drawing a clear distinction between the value of receiving good teaching when offered, but never trusting someone else’s interpretation over the discernment of our hearts.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – From an institutional perspective, direct accountability to God has never been popular in church history, and cries of anarchy are raised at its mention. Instead we’ve entrusted our security to church councils, creeds or religious hierarchy, even though all these mechanisms have at various times led down paths far from the mission and character of Christ.
Jim Peterson shoes, in his compelling book, Church Without Walls, that the major reason religious structures amass power is their desire to be the arbiter of truth. Yet, “Jesus never said or did anything to indicate that structure and organization could serve to protect God’s people… [He was not] against structure. It is necessary, as we shall see, but for protecting his people, he had something far more trustworthy—the Holy Spirit.”
It would not be an overstatement to say that all heresies and abuse have come from those who would be leaders over the church of Jesus Christ. And it is usually not long in the formation of a religious tradition for people to use it to satisfy their own preferences, rather than help them stay true to the gospel. Even the early church evidenced this problem.
From a personal perspective, direct accountability to God has never been popular either. It seems that we would prefer to subscribe to the dictates of a religious tradition, rather than to risk walking with the living God. We give up our own study of Scriptures to get fed by our pastor or favorite teachers. Parents abdicate their role of discipleship to the church program. And instead of helping the needy we refer them to church counseling programs when all they need is someone to love them and take a personal interest in their lives. This is the road more traveled, because our flesh prefers the path of least resistance and risk, to firsthand accountability to God.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – But intimacy doesn’t work without unmediated access to God. All lines of accountability in the New Testament are clearly drawn between God and the individual. We will each stand or fall before him based on our response to his work through our conscience, and will not be able to point fingers at political or ecclesiastical authorities for our deception or lack of obedience. The awareness of that responsibility will lead us to listen carefully to other believers, and to weigh the counsel of those who may be further down the road than ourselves. In the end, however, each of us must have the the freedom to respond to God as best we see fit. No church tradition or leader can usurp that place.
Far from freeing us to do whatever we want to do in God’s name, this realization confronts us with the reality of our own struggle to know the difference between flesh and spirit. We’d much rather not sort this out on our own, but follow someone else’s prescription for relationship. But none will suffice. Our flesh gravitates to the path of least risk and resistance, and will even abuse any prescription in an effort to hide behind it.
In order to grow in intimacy, we have to face the power of our own self preferring nature, that exalts itself above God’s purpose in its quest for comfort and satisfaction. Here the battle for intimacy is won or lost.
Expedience: The Enemy Within
We said earlier that intimacy with God is not a difficult thing to learn. It happens quite naturally for people who love God and surrender their lives to him, but this is far easier said than done.
The difficulty in walking close to God comes from an enemy within—our own flesh. Though this old nature will allow us the pretense of Christianity, it squirms with discomfort at God’s presence and will do anything to keep us from him. That’s why it is so hard to build a consistent relationship with God himself, or find truly meaningful fellowship with other believers.
Even when we want to cultivate our relationship with Jesus, our flesh offers no end of excuses. It will make us too busy, too tired, too comfortable, too depressed, too happy, too anything, so long as it keeps us from following God. It is so easy to fall victim to our old nature because it assaults us where we’re the most vulnerable— appealing to personal expedience. What’s in it for me? Will I have fun? What will cause me the least trouble? The flesh provides these questions, knowing that temporal expedience is almost always gained by compromising God’s desires for us.
It can even provide us with mitigating evidence to justify actions we know aren’t consistent with God’s desires. Though we’ll affirm his will easily in most other cases, our flesh convinces us that in this case we are an exception. Such reasoning has been behind believers marrying unbelievers, gossiping about others, and manipulating others to get our own needs met.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – Many well-meaning believers have never learned to challenge this self pleasing nature. Realizing how powerfully we are motivated by self, much of Christian thought in recent years has been redesigned to appeal to the interests of the flesh. The pursuit of God, however, can never be launched or propelled by expedience. Though God always looks out for our highest good, our flesh tries to prevent us from participating in it by highlighting its immediate costs. It offers us temporal pleasure at the expense of deep and abiding righteousness, peace, and joy.
If you want to grow in the knowledge of God you cannot appease the flesh but must allow it to die daily. Peter found out about this when Jesus told his disciples of his impending torture and death at the hands of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Peter tried to stop him: “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Peter couldn’t reconcile Christ’s suffering with salvation. Jesus was his teacher, provider, and friend. He could only see how much he would lose if Christ were gone. He thought he could save himself by keeping Christ from the cross, not realizing that to succeed in his effort would have denied him his ultimate goal. Self blinds even well-meaning hearts.
Jesus rebuked him harshly: “Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” That’s why expedience cannot participate in God’s life: It values man’s objectives above God’s. Jesus gave Peter a three-pronged attack on the enemy of expedience.
1. “Deny yourself.” Galatians 5:17 tells us that our sinful nature will always be in conflict with the Spirit so that we are not free to act by our wants; they are too deceptive. But neither does this mean that we do the most miserable thing we can think of. Selfinflicted pain is also a response to self, and it has no value in drawing us to God.
We lay down our preferences as only the first step to hearing God’s will and obeying him. Whenever I face a decision with competing pros and cons, the only way I can find God’s will is after I set aside my vested interest in the outcome. When I can honestly say, “It doesn’t matter, Lord; I’ll do whatever you want,” it is so easy to see what he wants.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – Many people fear listening to God that closely because they can only imagine him sending them to the jungles of Colombia or to 14-hour Bible studies. God is not against pleasure, but warns us against the flesh’s use of it to destroy us. If I’m playing golf on a Friday morning at the expense of all the other things I can be doing in ministry, writing, or family life (which are endless), I had better be doing so knowing that this is where God wants me. Just because it’s my day off does not mean that I am free from obedience; yet sometimes golfing is exactly where God wants me.
2. “Take up your cross.” The cross is persecution, rejection, and pain resulting from obedience to God in a world hostile to his desires. As Christ endured these for us, so we will risk them for him. We will often be forced to choose between pleasing the world or pleasing God; and even worse torn on occasion between pleasing God and pleasing those who claim to be our leaders. Usually choosing against either will make you pay dearly. Prepare for it. Every obedience will not end in temporal bliss. We are called to “fellowship in his sufferings” as well as to share his power.
Such fellowship, however, is not a cause for despair. Whatever you sacrifice in this life is nothing compared to the value of knowing Christ more fully. Though the search for pleasure will never lead to God’s will, there is no pleasure greater than that which flows from God’s presence to his obedient child.
3. “Follow me.” Even though the flesh screams, we are free to ignore it and trust God’s heart enough to follow Jesus. That is as simple as it sounds, and a source of great peace. My pursuit of God often puts me in situations far beyond my knowledge or experience. I’ve prayed for sicknesses that only got worse, and I’ve tried to help desperate people whom psychiatrists had already given up on. That can easily lead to anxiety. What am I going to do? How can I make a difference?
Then I remember his simple instruction: “Follow me.” I don’t have to come up with the solution. It doesn’t hang on me. I’m just a disciple with a simple agenda—follow the Master wherever he goes. If I don’t know what to do, I can tell people that I’ll seek God with them until he gives us an answer or another resource.
Expediency simply results from trusting ourselves and our perspective more than we trust Father’s love and his perspective. We destroy expediency not by trying to be sinless or by assaulting our flesh but only by being preoccupied with learning to trust Jesus more. As we continue to draw close to him despite the objections of our flesh, it will die. Then we will be increasingly free to obey God without trying to save ourselves.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – This is the drive that motivates God’s people. We see it in Daniel when his enemies threatened to throw him to the lions if he persisted in praying openly to God. How easily he could have justified less-conspicuous prayers so as not to alienate his peers! But he didn’t, and God was glorified in his obedience.
Consider Timothy. After the church had already passed a resolution saying that circumcision was not essential to salvation, he offered himself to be circumcised. He could have defended his freedom in the name of not giving in to those who were being legalistic with the gospel. Instead he gave up his freedom to help the legalists see its power.
Our bent for personal expedience can also be overcome as we seek to please only Jesus with our lives. After he gave up so much to save us, what else would we want to do?
A Life of Accountability
No matter what situation I face, I know that three things are true: 1) God has a will in it; 2) he wants me to know what that will is; and 3) he wants to give me the strength to walk with him through it.
Living by these three truths helps me to keep focused on God’s desires for my life, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes I plow through a situation, either forgetting to seek his will or confident that my own wisdom would line up with his if I did. Other times I resist making a firm conclusion on what I believe God wants me to do because I’m not sure of what it is or because I have an inkling that his preference will not be mine. Even when I get through all of that and can affirm his will, if I don’t rely on his strength I find my own strength insufficient against my flesh.
Unless we hold ourselves accountable, our intentions to please God will not be realized. The two most important areas for accountability come in knowing God’s will and obeying it.
“But how can I be sure what God is saying to me?” I’m asked that question more than any other in counseling, and it is a good one. Even though I’ve made it clear that God wants to communicate with us and supplied a list of ways in which he does that, the process is not exact. God’s gifts are perfect, but Paul says that we are not able to respond to them perfectly. The result is that “we know in part and we prophesy in part,” just as if we were looking at “a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:9-12).
Our intimacy will be perfect only when we meet him face-to face. Now we only perceive bits and pieces of God’s mind, not ever seeing the whole picture. We cannot trust our methods of hearing him to be completely accurate. Even our flesh will try to pass off its own desires as God’s voice. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t be sure. Our perception of God’s will can be tested by two external sources. One is absolute and the other is just a helpful addition to the process.
First, anything we think that God has said to us must stand up to the revelation of God in the Scriptures.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16,17).
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – Anything that does not align with the content and spirit of God’s Word must be abandoned. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve prayed over a situation and then felt like God gave me some insight to deal with it, only to find that exact thing specifically addressed in the Word as I turned to read my Bible that day.
One morning I had prayed about some miscommunications in the church office where I worked that had left me hurt and wounded. As I prayed about this I determined not to waste another day trying to cooperate. I would just get my own work done and ignore everyone else. That resolved, I opened to my Bible reading for the day. The first verse I saw was, “He who separates himself seeks his own desire; he quarrels against all sound wisdom” (Proverbs 18:1 NASB). Needless to say, I abandoned my course and that day saw God heal broken relationships.
Specific texts like that are helpful, but we also need to look at a wider perspective. Can we imagine Jesus doing what we’re about to do? How quickly such thinking exposes our own desires! That kind of perspective demands a familiarity with the Word gained only by regular feeding from it.
The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword… it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
There is no valid intimacy with God apart from the full application of his Word. This is the objective test that keeps intimacy from being a figment of our imagination. Hearing God’s voice doesn’t lessen our need for Scripture, but rather heightens it.
The Joy of Mutual Submission
The second source of confirmation is other believers. People who consider themselves accountable to God’s truth will humbly seek the input of others. So much abuse is perpetrated at this level that it is difficult to write about and hope to be heard, but Scripture encourages us to admonish one another and to submit to each other.
In the last fifteen years I’ve made no significant decisions without the prayer and counsel of other believers. I share with them what I sense is God’s leading and seek their honest comments. They test my perspectives with their own and with the Word. I’ve come to respect that process. They don’t make decisions for me, but they help me meet my responsibility to follow God.
I make sure that those I share with are walking in close relationship with God. I’m not looking for worldly wisdom here, but people to help me affirm God’s direction. In the context of mutual submission I’ve rarely had to make a decision that we weren’t agreed on at the end. When we haven’t found that agreement even after much sharing and prayer, I still follow the conviction of my heart, though with great caution. Mutual submission calls us to genuine openness to each other, but not to violate our conscience if the process doesn’t bring unity.
Coming to unity, however, is always the goal. Philippians describes that process:
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (Philippians 2:1-3).
Mutual submission demands unity in Christ, deep love and tenderness that puts the needs of others on a par with our own, and sensitivity to the Spirit. Building these into relationships is a key priority of true New Testament body life as we shall see in Chapter 16. Where such a lifestyle exists, Paul says we can trust the process of unity. Here we can share our insights and seek God until we can affirm his voice together.
In the last fifteen years I’ve worked in teams in almost every ministry endeavor, convinced that is what Scripture models. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find people ministering as a singular leader in command. I realize that one-man executive leadership is far more efficient from a worldly standpoint, but I’ve no doubt in the long-run that it subverts the headship of Jesus and leads to a dysfunctional relational atmosphere. By working in teams we gain the added benefit of each other’s wisdom and are forced to put relationships above efficiency.
I’ve worked with a co-pastor for more than 12 years, in a relationship no one said could work; participated in a leadership team with collegial elders; and have traveled in small teams. I don’t even engage in personal ministry without another believer present. The power of shared ministry is phenomenal and demonstrates well the community God has given his children.
But not all relationships last forever. I’ve also seen these relationships sour and with it the effectiveness of ministry. Paul warned us that mutual submission only works where tenderness and compassion reign and where people seek the Spirit’s wisdom together and do not manipulate each other with their own desires. To enjoy the power of mutual submission we also have to know how to disconnect from unsafe environments—where agendas become more important than relationships.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – Paul and Barnabus experienced that in their ministry. After a successful missionary trip together, they assumed they would head out together the next time God called. However their attempts to put together the team failed. Barnabus wanted to take along John Mark. Paul didn’t, since John Mark had deserted them in a moment of crisis on the first trip. Paul and Barnabus had sharp words over their differences and parted company.
This is not exactly a stellar moment in early church life, except that it points up one very critical thing. Neither abandoned their conscience for the appearance of unity; and neither compelled the other to do so. Barnabus took John Mark, while Paul partnered with Silas and God ended up with two missionary teams.
Mutual submission must always include the freedom to walk away when it no longer serves God’s purpose. We want our teams to last forever, but God seems to enjoy arraying his people in different configurations from time to time. Perhaps we need to give a bit more attention to these moments. Ideally they shouldn’t have to happen with conflict with some people asserting their superior revelation or knowledge over that of the other, but it rarely happens. Usually it comes with great pain.
Living in mutual submission can only work where Jesus is the practical head of his church. In today’s terms, Jesus is the Senior Pastor and we are all on his staff. Each of us may have different functions. We can listen to each other and pray together, cooperating until we come to agreement in him.
The body of Christ also offers another form of accountability. Once we know the will of God, we can ask other believers to stand with us. How easy it is to lose sight of obedience if we’re not faced with a tangible moment of accountability! If you’re having trouble being in the Word every day, ask another believer who is praying for you and checking on you every couple of days to see if you’re doing it. You’ll find that it will really help.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – Helping others in this way can be easily abused if we don’t keep one thing in mind: When I’m helping them to be accountable, I am only helping them in areas where they know God is dealing with him. If I impose my own standards of righteousness or my perception of God’s will on them, I will harm their growth.
Learning to recognize God’s voice and obey it is a process of trial and error. If God has spoken, your obedience will confirm it. I’ve stepped out in areas, certain that I had heard from God. My actions didn’t violate the Word and other people confirmed them, but in the doing I found out that they weren’t from God. By hindsight I almost always see how God was trying to stop me, and how I pushed past him to get my own way. Failures can be great tools to learning if we’re humble enough to admit them and adjust accordingly.
So What Is New Testament Leadership?
I began these two chapters on restoring personal responsibility by showing how current models of leadership are ineffective in promoting it. Now I think you can see why.
We use Old Testament forms of leadership that were not designed for the glory of the new covenant. Moses’ dominating leadership with its delegation of authority through elders is often cited as God’s pattern for the church today. That is regrettable, since all the ground rules have changed since the time of Moses.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – Prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit, God dealt with a society by dealing with its leader, whether king, prophet, or priest. People would follow God by following his anointed one, but that wasn’t ideal. But this was less the way God prescribed it than it was what the people demanded. God didn’t want them to have a king and regarded it as rejection of his own rule.
As Moses laid hands on his seventy elders to convey his anointing on them, two other men began to prophesy in the camp. Joshua encouraged Moses to stop them, but he responded, “I wish that all God’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). He looked forward to a better day.
So did the prophet Joel. “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy… Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28,29). Moses’ dream was affirmed. One day all of God’s people would hear his voice.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter pronounced this outpouring as the fulfillment of God’s promise. People would no longer have to rely on leaders telling them what God wants; they could know him themselves. The early church never exemplified the leadership-dependence of the Old Testament. Their leaders helped others grow, but never dominated the ministry of the body.
The New Testament simply does not speak in terms of two classes of Christian—“ministers” and “laymen” as we do today. According to the Bible, the people of God comprise all Christians, and all Christians through the exercise of spiritual gifts have some “work of ministry.” …The clergy laity dichotomy is unbiblical and therefore invalid. It grew up as an accident of church history and actually marked a drift away from biblical faithfulness.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – The alternative to kings in the body of Christ is not anarchy. For everyone to do “what is right in their own eyes” leads to as much destruction as those who lord it over others. The nature of life in the body of Christ must ensure that Jesus Christ is personally at the helm. That can only happen where each person takes responsibility for pursuing his will and works that out in mutual submission to others.
God gives leadership to his body not to be a substitute for his presence. Jesus is head of the church as he is the head of every life in it and he is fully able to manage every aspect of its life. Scripture gives us four attributes of his kind of leaders:
1. Leaders are equippers. The central role of leaders is simply to equip believers to an intimate relationship with God that will allow them to live together as his family. In the New Testament we don’t have one in every group providing all the resources for the body. The body grew as each part did its work.
Part of the problem here is that we have combined biblical leadership with the need to manage the corporate structures that surround expressions of his body. Because we own buildings, pay bills, and develop extensive programs, we have an institutional structure that we mistake for being the church. The church is the people who are living under Father. Those that help people develop that relationship are its true leaders.
Those who spend time managing budgets, constructing programs and meeting people’s needs are not even envisioned in the New Testament. That’s what the body does quite naturally as it lives related to Jesus. If we’re going to have the structures, we will need decision-making machinery to maintain it. But we dare not confuse those who do so with biblical leadership.
2. Leaders are mature followers of Jesus. The body is not a democracy in which everyone on the spectrum has an equal voice. First Timothy 3 lists the requirements for leadership, and all have to do with personal integrity and spiritual maturity.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – Unfortunately, church leadership is regarded more as a profession that one prepares for academically than as a role necessitating personal maturity. David Watson struggled with this same problem: “Most of the mainline churches place too great an emphasis on academic training and too little on spiritual renewal and life.” Even unpaid leaders in churches are too often chosen because they’re rich, have a good business sense, or are popular, and not because they are sensitive to God.
3. Leaders are background people. Since leaders are freeing the body to be all Jesus wants it to be, their work is temporary and usually in the background. We can’t even think of churches today without focusing on its central feature—the pastor. No such figure exists in Scripture. Paul’s letters were almost exclusively written to brothers and sisters in the body, not elders or pastors. He mentions leadership only seven times in his letters, and never as central figures leading the fellowship after their perspective.
He also warns the Colossians about anyone who would make rules and hold others accountable to them. True leaders set people free from bondage to follow Jesus, while false leaders weigh them down with burdens and expectations, demanding that they be accountable to them as God’s anointed. Those who seek that place demonstrate that they have lost connection with the head. They do not honestly believe that Jesus is fully capable of doing it himself. The very fact that they have staked out a position over others, ought to be our first indication that they understand little about Father or his kingdom (cf. Mark 10:42-45).
4. Leadership is always addressed in the plural. Every example of leadership in the New Testament is shared among teams of mature believers. Shared leadership allows the body to be equipped without being manipulated, since no one person is projected into Jesus’ role. Furthermore, the confirmation of others is an important facet in discovering God’s will.
This list shows how far our current thinking about church is far afield of Scripture’s model. Many cannot even conceive leadership in these terms because two thousand years of tradition have shaped a view of leadership that is beyond examination. This list is not given to condemn people who don’t subscribe to it. Most have never been exposed to any other alternative.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twelve – I like Christian Smith’s approach. “The problem with clergy is not the people who are clergy, but the profession these people belong to.”4 Often those who suffer the most from our unbiblical forms of church leadership are the leaders themselves. Many began as people who sincerely wanted to help others to grow in God. By embracing unquestioningly a position Jesus makes no allowance for, they labor under the tyranny of expectations no one is able to meet. It’s as if we pay one person to represent the entire body of Christ.
We may not be able to change such a deeply imbedded structure, nor should that be the primary conclusion of this chapter. We would be far better off to begin to embrace our own accountability to Jesus as Head of the church, whether or not others do.
By removing any mediators from our own minds that we’ve allowed to crawl between us and Father, we can begin to enjoy today the intimate friendship he designed for each of us.
Produced with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.