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FIVE BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT
(That You Have Never Ever In Your Entire Life Heard Preached From A Pulpit)
by Gerald R. Thompson
The Office of Pastor; Religious Corruption
First: Introduction; Caution
Next: Diffusion of Authority, Priesthoods & Clergy
More: Spiritual Authority and the Right to Rule
Also: Church as Institution, Association & Corporation
And: The Visible Church in Real Life
I realize this last main section will be the most … er, challenging. My promise to you is that I am only following the biblical evidence wherever it leads, no matter where the chips may fall.
Because of the manner in which Eph. 4:11 has been (and continues to be) either ignored or misinterpreted, I feel it necessary to examine it in even more detail as it concerns pastors. The prevailing myth propounded by churches everywhere is that the people who hold this office are God’s appointed leaders in the churches. However, the truth is something else altogether.
What Is A Shepherd?
Let’s determine what it means to be a shepherd so we can better understand what it means to be a pastor. (The English word pastor comes from the Latin word pastor, meaning shepherd.) Specifically, we want to find out if shepherding in the context of a church carries with it any special spiritual authority, such as the authority to care for men’s souls and/or to give spiritual guidance. Generally speaking, outside of the church context, a shepherd is a person who tends sheep, meaning a person who: a) feeds and cares for sheep; b) protects and guards sheep; and c) guides sheep from pasture to pasture.
In John 10:1-18, we see Jesus modeled as the good shepherd spiritually. In that text, Jesus says [now I’m taking excerpts of the key phrases and concepts from this text and condensing them]:
“I am the door of the sheep. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my own and my own know me. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
It is a fair question to ask, whether any member of the body of Christ can claim any of these attributes of a shepherd modeled by Christ as descriptive of how he or she fulfills the office of pastor.
So first, can any pastor claim to be the door of the sheep (i.e., believers)? Well, no – because that role is exclusive to Christ and no one else. Jn. 14:6. No pastor is the way, the truth and the life. No one finds salvation by entering the kingdom of God via a pastor. Jesus is the sole mediator between God and men. 1 Tim. 2:5.
Second, can any pastor say that he lays down his life for the sheep? Certainly not in the same sense as Jesus, who literally died for our sins. All pastors die, but no pastor can die for our sins. And it is quite clear from the text that when Jesus talks about laying down His life of his own accord, He is referring to the crucifixion. Again, something that does not apply to any pastor.
Now, don’t get hung up on mere metaphors, here. Sure, a pastor may “sacrifice” his or her time, efforts, and resources to help someone else out. But such a sacrifice, if it can truly be called that (it’s not like pastors are the only people who sacrifice things to help others), won’t provide anyone with spiritual redemption. Nothing a modern day pastor can sacrifice can be compared with the sacrifice of Jesus in any spiritual sense.
Third, Jesus says he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. Can any pastor say that? Not really, because no one knows the heart of man except for God, and no pastor is God. Jer. 17:10; 1 Sam. 16:7; 1 Chr. 28:9. Jesus is God, so it makes sense for Him to say that, but not for anyone else to say it. No pastor can truly discern, much less decide, who is saved and who is not. Sure, a pastor can know who his church members are and are not, but the kind of knowledge Jesus referred to is knowing the true spiritual condition of another person’s heart. A pastor can guess at such things, but again, no pastor is God.
We also know that Jesus (as the good shepherd) alone has authority over our souls.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Pet. 2:24-25.
Do pastors have authority to act as the shepherd and overseer of men’s souls? Your local clergy would like you to think so. But Jesus never delegated authority over men’s souls to other men. The authority men have in the Church is much more limited. Go back and re-read Acts 20:28 and 1 Pet. 5:1-3. To whom does God commit the “care” of the Church? To the elders. And pastors aren’t elders. (More on this later.) But even elders are not the overseers of other people’s souls in the same sense Jesus is. Yes, they are overseers of the church’s temporal affairs. But no, elders aren’t God either, and they have no actual knowledge of any other person’s true spiritual condition.
So what is left? Are we to infer that being a pastor/shepherd means such a person is in a position of authority with respect to the sheep (other believers), just because Jesus is the head of the body the Church? But look at the text in John 10 – in no place does Jesus refer to being a shepherd as one who has the authority to rule over the sheep. In other words, nowhere does Jesus equate being a shepherd with being the Head of the body. Those are two separate metaphors that are unrelated to each other. Thus, there is no basis for importing any kind of headship into the office of pastor just because pastoring ostensibly involves some undefined act of shepherding..
Who Are You Calling A Sheep?
I now want to call your attention to a little acknowledged, much less openly embraced, aspect of the Bible that some of you will find uncomfortable. Namely, that the word sheep, whenever it is used in the Bible metaphorically to refer to people, almost always refers exclusively to the Jewish people. Yes, there are a couple of exceptions, but allow me to demonstrate the usual case first.
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Isa. 53:6. If you have attended church for much of your life, you have probably heard a sermon based on this verse at some point. But who was Isaiah writing to? The Jews. Isa. 1:1. The Church did not even exist at the time this verse was written. It was therefore not written to the Church. OK, I know you are skeptical – keep reading.
For thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.” Ezek. 34:11-15.
Put aside your preconceptions for a moment and let the scripture speak for itself. God says He will “bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land …and … feed them on the mountains of Israel.” When did this ever describe the Church – as a people scattered among the nations, whom God will one day return to their homeland in Israel? Never. This scripture can only refer to Israel. Yet, it is striking, isn’t it, how closely this text parallels John 10:1-18 above. This is no coincidence.
Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Mat. 15:24. Whoops – what? Have you ever heard a sermon preached on that verse? Probably not. But there is more. Jesus expected the twelve disciples to follow His lead in this respect. “These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.'” Mat. 10:5-6. If you’re like most people, you never knew those verses were in your Bible.
So too Peter, as one of the original twelve apostles, limited his ministry to the Jews. “When they saw that I [Paul] had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised …, and when James and Cephas [Peter] and John … perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” Gal. 2:7-9. It’s really not that hard to understand. Peter’s ministry, unlike Paul’s, was exclusively to the circumcised. And circumcised = the Jews.
So when Peter writes to the “elect exiles of the dispersion” (1 Pet. 1:1), who is he writing to? Believing Jews. And when he says, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25), who is he writing to? You get it. Again, Peter says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” 1 Pet. 2:9. Look, how obvious can it get? He’s quoting Exo. 19:5-6, for crying out loud. Who is he talking about? Believing Jews. Only believing Jews. Not any Gentiles.
Now I said there were a couple of exceptions to the general rule that sheep = Jews. What are they? “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Jn. 10:16. Who are the sheep not of this fold? Gentiles, presumably. Also, Jesus will separate the sheep (believers) from the goats (unbelievers) at the time of final judgment. Mat. 25:32-33. But even in these verses, members of the Church (Body of Christ) are never actually called sheep. Notice that? Not directly, anyway. Whether the term sheep actually refers to Gentile believers is a matter of interpretation (i.e., inference), not any express declaration. Unlike the Jews, who are plainly and expressly called sheep in scripture.
So what is my point? That Jesus came only to save the Jews and not the Gentiles, too? No, that’s not what I am saying. “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised [Jews] to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Rom. 15:8-9. In the next few verses, Paul then quotes a number of O.T. scriptures to reinforce the point that Jesus also came for the Gentiles.
But what I want you to get out of this is that Gentile Christians are never directly called sheep in the Bible. Not that we are any less saved, etc. Only that this allegorical expression is never applied directly to us.
Which logically begs a certain uncomfortable question: If God never directly refers to the Church as sheep, why on earth would God give the Church shepherds, i.e., pastors? He wouldn’t. It wouldn’t make any sense. It’s a non sequitur. So the next time a minister-type person calls you a sheep, or the congregation a flock, consider shouting out, “I am not a sheep!” That’ll shake things up.
Pastors and Elders Not the Same
Let me now make explicit what I have been hinting at in all the discussion of pastors and elders so far. Namely, that those two offices in fact have nothing to do with each other. This is not a new argument. Just go back and compare Eph. 4:11 and 1 Cor. 12:28 (regarding spiritual offices), with 1 Tim 3:1-2 and Tit 1:5-7 (regarding elders).
There are some specific offices God appoints, which He alone decides in His sole discretion. These are spiritual offices, chosen for spiritual tasks, in the spiritual (i.e., invisible) Church. Then there are other offices (that is, elder/overseer and deacon), completely separate, which men can aspire to, and which men can select. These are temporal offices, chosen for temporal tasks, in the temporal (i.e., visible) church.
We have already shown that people cannot and do not transfer any spiritual authority to either elders or deacons. Spiritual authority comes from God, not from people. We also know that spiritual authority carries with it no ruling authority, and ruling authority carries with it no spiritual authority. Ruling authority comes from people, not God. The two things cannot be mixed together. Therefore, it is utterly impossible for anyone sitting as an elder in any church to have any spiritual authority whatever. The spiritual authority of a church elder is absolutely zero. That applies to every elder, in every church.
So why do many church elders constantly see themselves as having spiritual oversight or spiritual care of the church? It comes primarily from one verse:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Heb. 13:17).
However, the Greek word psuche – here translated as souls – often just means persons, or lives. And depending on the translation, it is usually translated as persons or lives roughly half the time whenever used in the New Testament. We do not, and cannot, infer from this one isolated verse that somehow God has actually given some people (chosen by men, no less) authority over the spirits of other people. If that were the case, we would expect the Greek word to be pneuma (or spirit), rather than psuche. However, the problem with that is more than just a choice of words.
If God actually granted one person authority over the spirit of another, it would be in direct contradiction to a fundamental tenet of Christianity. Namely, that spiritual faith is individual – no one can choose for (or even know the choice of) anyone else. God alone knows our true spiritual condition, and only He can see the heart.
A church elder can see no one’s heart, know no one’s spirit, or actually oversee anyone else’s spiritual condition. In fact, scripture is quite clear that an elder, just like everyone else, can’t even see their own heart or spirit accurately. (1 Ki. 8:39; Jer. 17:9). How can they possibly oversee the spiritual welfare of others? The one who actually watches over our spirit is the Lord Himself. (Prv. 24:12). No, the care that any church elder has for the souls in the church is strictly temporal care – physical necessities, health, support, teaching, and such things. Spiritual oversight? – forget it.
Unlike modern church practice, scripture never confuses spiritual offices and temporal offices. The scripture never talks about qualifications for spiritual offices, or a selection process for spiritual offices. Similarly, the scripture never talks about God distributing elders and deacons among the body of Christ in His discretion, or that God ever puts anyone in charge of the visible church. So pastors and elders are not, indeed cannot, ever be the same thing. This we already know.
So why do churches invariably treat the office of pastor as something which men may aspire to? Does scripture even hint at the idea that people can decide to go into the ministry? Not that I can find. And if the office of pastor is indeed a spiritual office, then why do we impose on that office a set of qualifications (sometimes even using the qualifications for elder as criteria for a pastor), or such nonsense as needing to graduate from a seminary, or needing congregational approval?
By definition, if an office is something you can aspire to or for which you need to meet certain qualifications, it is not a spiritual office and it is not appointed by God. So if you have been thinking about the office of pastor according to the current status quo (as something one can aspire to), now you know how far you have to go before you have truly unshackled your mind from the clergy-laity distinction you have had drummed into your brain since forever. (Yoda voice again:) You must unlearn what you have learned!
Let’s consider the extreme irony of this for a moment. A church group, desiring to obtain a spiritual leader, i.e., a pastor or minister, puts out a “call” (essentially, Church Speak for a want ad notice). The church will set up a pastoral search committee, whose job is to specify criteria for candidates, set up a process for interviewing them, and recommending a final choice. The criteria may include personal characteristics similar to the biblical criteria for an elder, but usually with some variation. There will almost always be specific training and licensing requirements – candidates must have graduated from an approved seminary, and be a member of the clergy of an approved denomination.
Candidates who look good on paper will be invited to speak to the congregation (that is, give a guest sermon) to try them out, and gauge member response. Eventually, the committee will make a recommendation, and the congregation may vote to “call” (i.e., “hire”) a pastor. The candidate, of course, is someone who decided to go into the ministry, decided to get a seminary education, decided to apply for the job, and aspired to be hired.
This process, from start to finish, is a process conducted by people, all leading to a mutual choice between people. People aspire to the job, job criteria are used to vet candidates, certain qualifications must be met, and everyone has to approve the result. God is not involved. The Holy Spirit has distributed nothing as He wills. The whole thing is a purely human process. Merely because the search committee prays at each meeting and/or prays over candidates does not transform the process into a divine selection or appointment.
The irony, of course, is that the church congregation thinks (actually, they have been fooled into thinking) they have hired someone to be a spiritual leader, who will conduct spiritual functions (sacraments and sacerdotal functions), and who has spiritual authority. But everything about the process by which they hired this person mitigates against that result. They have, by their hiring method, converted their pastor into an elder, someone who holds a merely temporal office, and who has no spiritual authority.
The whole process is, in a word, a sham. The church thinks they are doing one thing, but they are actually doing a completely different thing, and they have absolutely no idea they are doing it. Yes, I call that an extreme irony.
Oh wait – are you ready for the rest of the irony? In many churches, they actually call their pastors elders, or teaching elders, or make them members of the church board. On purpose. They do this ostensibly to vest their clergy with temporal powers (to make them more powerful). But what they are really doing – biblically – is stripping their clergy of any and all spiritual authority, and converting them to a merely temporal office. How’s that for irony?
Yet, the manner in which churches treat the office of pastor is inconsistent not only with its supposed nature as a spiritual office, but also with the way churches typically treat the other spiritual offices. Just ask yourself – Why don’t churches send people to seminary to become prophets? Why don’t churches license apostles? Why are pastors generally paid, but the other offices are not? The fact is – there are no good answers. But that’s not the worst of it, as we will see in the next section.
Before we get there, one final note: churches treat the office of bishop similar to the way they treat pastors, that is, they blur the distinction between spiritual and temporal offices. A bishop, in the Bible, is just another word for an elder or overseer. See Plp. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-2; and Tit. 1:7. In other words, a bishop is a lay leader, and a temporal office with no special spiritual authority. But if your church is one which has bishops, who are those people? Clergy. Specifically, clergy who oversee other clergy. Thus giving the impression that a bishop is a spiritual office with spiritual authority. I have one word to respond to that: fraud.
Is Pastor Even A Separate Office?
So far – and I’ve purposely deferred this issue until almost the end of this essay – we have assumed that there is such a thing as the spiritual office of pastor because of the wording in Eph. 4:11.
As noted earlier, the word pastor simply means shepherd. But did you know that the Greek word translated as pastor in Eph. 4:11 is everywhere else translated as shepherd throughout the New Testament? And earlier in this essay, we examined what it means to be a shepherd. But what was the outcome of that analysis, really?
What we found is that in every key sense in which Jesus is the model of a good shepherd, no man claiming to be a pastor could actually emulate. No one claiming to be a pastor can actually follow the example of Jesus and: 1) be the door to the sheep; 2) lay down his life for the spiritual well-being of the sheep; 3) truly know his sheep (in their innermost hearts); or 4) have care over the souls of the sheep. I didn’t say it then, so I’m saying it now – What else are we to conclude, but that no one in the Church can truly function as a shepherd?
Again, I’m only following the scriptural evidence here. In what real sense – supported by scripture – can anyone in the Church claim to be a shepherd after the model of Christ?
Let me also add, I don’t mind thinking of myself as a sheep with respect to the Son of God, but I don’t (and can’t, really) ever think of myself as a sheep compared to any other mere mortal man. We are equals. I don’t need to be led around, thanks just the same. I have the same access to God as any pastor. God can speak to me without going through anyone else. I am as capable as anyone else of finding my way in the world with the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. And I can interpret the scripture consistent with the will of God completely on my own.
Do you realize the New Testament never tells us to follow other men? In fact, Paul rather strongly condemns the practice in 1 Cor. 1:10-13. (“I follow Paul, Apollos, Peter, etc.”) And in the instances where the KJV seems to indicate we should follow Paul, the ESV renders more accurately that we should imitate Paul as he imitates Christ. So this whole idea of a pastor as a leader of sheep (in reality, a leader of people) has no basis in the scripture.
Meanwhile, here’s a rather inconvenient truth to ponder: in the ESV, KJV and NASB translations of the Bible, Eph. 4:11 is the only time the word pastor is ever used in the N.T. Ask yourself – How can we legitimately build the entire structure of the visible church around an office that never even gets a second mention in the Bible?
This fact – that the word pastor is only ever used in the N.T. once – should raise a red flag. A giant, flaming red flag. Because you can’t make good doctrine from just one verse. And things mentioned only once tend to be less important. How many times have you heard it said, when God wants to emphasize something, He repeats it? So what does it mean when God does not repeat something? Most likely that it is something not to be emphasized.
This is a good indication there really is no separate office of pastor in the Church. If there were, it would be mentioned more than once. It is much more likely that the word pastor is simply a modifier of the word teacher (in Eph. 4:11), so instead of pastor-teacher (which some denominations twist into meaning a leader-teacher, or worse yet, a teaching elder), it really means a shepherding teacher. In other words, the word pastor acts more like a modifier than a noun.
If we look at the way the words shepherd and teacher are used elsewhere in the N.T., this usage is confirmed. Thus, in several places, shepherding is an attribute of the office of elder a/k/a overseer.
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [Greek: shepherd] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. Acts 20:28.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 1 Pet. 5:1-3.
Let’s look at the scriptural wording very carefully. In the two verses I just quoted, the word shepherd is actually the verb form (to shepherd), and in both cases it is used to describe the function of elders, not clergy.
Further, the majority of uses of the word shepherd in the N.T. are in the four gospels – which we can pretty much ignore because neither the Church nor any Church offices existed at that time. This leaves exactly four other uses of the word shepherd in the N.T. (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; 1 Pet 5:4 and Rev. 7:17), all of which specifically refer to Jesus Christ. This means, my friends, that there simply are no instances anywhere in the scriptures directed to the Church of any person being a shepherd in the Church other than Christ.
So when I ask whether it is possible for anyone in the Church to be a shepherd (as a separate thing), the answer is No, but it is possible for elders to exercise their office in a shepherd-like manner. Of course, the office of elder (being one that is appointed by men) is not a spiritual office carrying spiritual authority. There’s a big difference between that and the way most churches think about their pastors and elders. Elders, by definition, are temporal officers in the temporal church, deriving their authority from a temporal source (other people). Which means, that to the extent elders perform their tasks in a shepgerd-like manner, they are doing that only with respect to temporal things. You know, like church funds and church property. Temporal affairs.
The scripture also makes it clear that teachers, unlike so-called pastors, are indeed a separate and distinct office from all other offices in the Church.
“And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?” 1 Cor. 12:28-29. [Please tell me – if pastors are that important to the Church, why aren’t they listed here? Pastors aren’t even fourth, fifth or sixth …]
“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers . . ..” Acts 13:1. [What? No pastors? How did they hold worship services?]
Hence, the traditional understanding of a pastor as a separate office in the Church which is vested with authority to rule (either as an elder or independently of the elder board) is unsupported by the scripture. To quote Sgt. Friday from the old Dragnet TV show, “I didn’t write the book, ma’am, I just follow it.” The separate office of pastor in the Church is a mere chimera – it does not exist.
So, what are we to conclude from all of this? God has given His Church a number of very clear and unambiguous principles for governing the visible church, but for the most part churches naming the name of Christ ignore these principles, subvert them, and outright reject them. These principles are not difficult to understand.
If you are thinking I have portrayed organized Christianity in a rather unfavorable light, you would be right. The question is whether that portrayal is deserved. Remember what Jesus said about the Jews of His day:
“Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? … So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” Mat 15:3,6-9.
At that point in time, Judaism had been around for only 1500 years. Not only had they filled Judaism up with all kinds of human traditions that opposed the laws of God, they had developed a system of fractured political parties, oops – I mean ecclesiastical bodies (the Pharisees and Sadducees) that only compounded the problem. And things have only gotten worse since then, with the fracturing of Judaism into reformed, conservative, orthodox and Hasidic variations.
What makes anyone think that after 2000 years of Christianity, the Church would or could have done any better? It is only human nature to corrupt all things over time. But we must not become slaves to corruption. “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” 2 Pet 2:19.
Speaking of corruption, consider the book of Malachi. It’s a short book and an interesting read. Other than the occasional sermon on tithing, you probably haven’t heard many sermons preached from Malachi, because the entire book is all about religious corruption. Essentially, God lays out five complaints against Israel (and particularly the Levitical priesthood) for religious malpractice, 400 years before Christ. It’s worth a brief look at these complaints.
First, in Mal 1:6-14, the Lord accuses the priests of offering polluted food on the altar. Don’t let the sacrificial context throw you. In verse 7 God talks about how the Jews despise “the Lord’s table.” No, it’s not a direct reference to communion or the Eucharist, but there is an obvious symbolic link between O.T. sacrifices and the death of Jesus Christ. Essentially, God is here complaining that the Jews have profaned their religious practices, in this case a “sacrament.”
Parallels with the modern Church are obvious. We treat communion and baptism as matters best governed by clergy under corporate policies, rather than proclaiming the individual liberty Christ came to secure. We not only permit, but praise those who claim spiritual authorities and spiritual titles that no one is entitled to claim. We openly encourage church leaders to exercise a priestly authority that subverts the exclusive priesthood of Christ. You don’t think God considers any of these things to be a form of religious profanity?
Second, in Mal 2:1-9, God rebukes the priests for causing “many to stumble by your instruction,” and also for showing partiality in their instruction. Some things never change, do they? The churches today are riddled with all sorts of false teachings, such as the acceptance of open immorality among the clergy and laity alike. And what is the clergy-laity distinction, if not a form of partiality the clergy instructs everyone to maintain?
Third, in Mal 2:10-16 the Lord scolds the people of God for their wayward marriage practices. He takes Israel to task for marrying “the daughter of a foreign god.” In other words, for openly condoning people becoming unequally yoked with unbelievers in marriage. Then God blasts them for tolerating easy divorce. Sound familiar? All of a sudden, God’s complaints against His people in Malachi don’t seem so long ago and far away. In fact, it sounds like the church down the street.
Fourth, in Mal 2:17-3:5, the Jews are reprimanded for saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” And by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” Here, I think God is calling the Jews to task for screwing up their ideals of social justice. Back then it was tolerating sorcery, adultery, false witnesses and taking advantage of the disadvantaged. Today it manifests in the clergy defending abortion, advocating for LGBT rights, arguing for communism and marching with the 99 percenters a/k/a the Occupy movement. Darn right the churches today have screwed up social justice goals. And I lay this squarely at the feet of the clergy.
Fifth, in Mal 3:6-15, God complains, “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.” Now listen to me carefully – if you think this text is all about tithing, you are missing the point. The tithe, in this context, is merely a convenient example of a part of God’s laws the Israelites have not kept. The takeaway from this text for Christians is not to return to tithing, but to return to keeping God’s laws as they apply to us. And the Church simply has not done a very good job of following God’s laws, has it?
Are churches today doing any better in pleasing God than the Jews in the time of Malachi? Hardly. The words of 1 Sam 15:22 are as meaningful today as they were to king Saul, “to obey is better than sacrifice.”
King Saul, you might remember, lost his kingdom for ostensibly trying to please God. Saul was told to utterly destroy the Amalekites, including all their men, women, children and livestock. 1 Sam 15:3. Instead, Saul spared the Amalekite king and he allowed the people to keep all the best livestock. Then, he had the gall to justify this so the people could “sacrifice to the Lord your God.” In other words, Saul did what appeared to be religious and a good thing, but was in substance a violation of God’s command. And He thought God would accept this action.
Saul’s actions gave every appearance of being compassionate, humanitarian, and well intentioned – things many churches pride themselves on today. After all, it’s what is in the heart that counts, right? God looks on the heart, and as long as our attitude is trying to be pleasing to God, we act in faith and this is what God accepts, isn’t it? Not if we, in doing so, violate God’s laws or act in reckless disregard of those laws. And ignorance is no excuse.
It is popular among Christians today to talk about the sacrifice of praise and to acknowledge God’s name with our lips. Heb. 13:15. However, this is what the Lord says: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Mat 15:8-9; Mk 7:6-7. Thus, Christians today are just like Saul – doing things that look religious, but which actually flaunt God’s laws. It’s easy to go around saying, “Praise Jesus!” But that’s a lot less important than following Christ’s commands.
God is not impressed by our religious traditions which merely have the appearance of being spiritual, but in substance violate the principles God expects us to live by. And so I say, it’s time for Christians to shut their mouths and start obeying God’s laws.
I wish I had some real nice words of encouragement to give you. But taking the book of Malachi as a whole – while there is an implied theme throughout of “repent and return to Me” – there is no promise implied or explicit that God will relent from the judgment of His people. In fact, the whole tenor of the book seems to be that Israel is so far gone, nothing will spare them from the wrath which is to come. The only thing they have to look forward to is an eventual restoration after the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.
Apart from foretelling the appearance of Jesus Christ and John the Baptist (who would not come for 400 years), Malachi offers people little hope in their lifetimes. The only snippet of good tidings we get comes near the end of the book:
Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” Mal 3:16-18.
I think it’s fair to say we are in a similar situation today. The church culture (when taken in its entirety) is so far gone that we cannot bring it back to true godliness. I liken it to a herd of lemmings rushing headlong towards a cliff. The actual cliff (that is, God’s judgment) comes suddenly and by the time you figure out what is happening, it’s too late. But preceding the actual fall is a long march towards it, when everything seems alright. At the time, nothing truly drastic is happening, and from a theoretical standpoint, anything that hasn’t actually happened yet can be prevented. Except you have to account for inertia.
The temptation is to think that just because judgment hasn’t fallen yet, there is still time to save a significant portion of the herd (i.e., churches). But that misses the issue, which is this: At what point is the inertia of all those heading toward the cliff unstoppable? We have to change people’s minds and hearts, obviously. But, how many minds and hearts have already turned towards the cliff, and how many can we possibly reverse?
Unfortunately, very many churches and religious organizations themselves are actively pushing people toward the cliff. What is the realistic prospect we can change the position of entire churches, denominations and ministries? To turn the minds of churchgoers we need to change the minds of clergy everywhere, but those are the very people who have a vested interest in keeping the current system in place unchanged. Besides, to turn the clergy you have to change seminaries and academia first. And what is the realistic prospect we can change the minds of most of them some of them any of them? Does anyone really think we can bring the system of organized religion as a whole back? Really?
I maintain that mainstream Christendom has already reached the inertial point of no return. So many people are heading in the wrong direction that the overall direction of the mass cannot be changed. You can pray for revival if you want. But neither Malachi nor God, apparently, were anticipating or even hoping for a revival, and certainly none came.
It’s not that hard to re-imagine how churches should be governed and what they should be doing. Just keep in mind a few basic truths:
There are no holy people
No one has divine authority to lead a church
There are no priests in Christianity, nor any clergy
There are no sanctuaries, no altars, and no temples in Christianity
There are no holy places in Christianity
There is no tithing in Christianity, and no believer is under any duty to financially support any other believer
A church is a group of believers, not a building or a place
All Christians have equal access to God and equal spiritual authority to carry out the purposes and functions of the Church
Yet, how many people are actually going to take these principles to heart and then act upon them? Precious few. The cliff is fast approaching – maybe it’s time to separate from the crowd and stand apart from the masses. Perhaps following current trends and/or church tradition is the wrong way to go. In fact, I daresay God is not trendy, nor does He care for the traditions of men. If the book of Malachi is any indication, God is pretty darn rooted in His own words. “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” Mal 4:4.
Is it possible God might be saying something similar to the Church today? Something like, oh I don’t know, “Remember the covenant in Christ, and the principles and rules I gave in the New Testament for all the Church.” Or maybe a more direct, “What makes you think the word of God given in the New Testament has expired, so you can act differently?”
But we don’t need to conjecture, for this is what God has already said:
“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Mat 5:18-19.
It’s a simple question really. Are the things I have explained in this essay part of God’s laws, or the commands of Christ, or not? If not, then ignore them. But if so, then the churches had better change their ways. As the scripture says,
“let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Cor 10:12-13.
The problem is correctable, if churches are willing. But if they are unwilling, going back to our opening verse, it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. 2 Cor 10:5-6.
Here’s my parting thought: If we can’t govern the visible Church correctly, how can we expect to know how to govern the earthly kingdom of Christ when the time comes?
Stage 1: Anger at the Author – for having written such a mean, horrible, outrageous and disrespectful hit piece, while still calling himself a Christian and a member of the Church. Whatever possessed him to write such a scurrilous screed?
(Author’s note: Of those reading this, 90% will never get beyond Stage 1 in real life experience. Oh well, too bad.)
Stage 2: – Realization #1 – that some of what the essay said, in fact most of it, actually has merit and is a valid reading of scripture. This requires some more thought …
Stage 3: Anger at my Teachers – and professors and mentors, for failing to teach me any of this – ever. Surely they must have known some of this stuff – why were they hiding it from me? Or is it possible all of them were truly ignorant of any of this? How can that be?
Stage 4: Anger at my Peers – and co-workers, and my ecclesiastical hierarchy, some of whom are very bright people, and most of whom have good hearts. Who also happen to be the very people most heavily invested in preserving the status quo. Wait a minute …
Stage 5: Anger at Myself – for missing this information, even though it is plain to see. What’s the matter – I’ve tried my best, with a pure heart, to seek the will of God and to search the scriptures. I should have been able to figure this out on my own, even if no one else told me. Where did I go wrong?
Stage 6: Anger at God – for not bringing this information to my attention a lot sooner. Here I am, at this stage in life, and at this point in my career, having believed a lot of wrong stuff for years. Why wasn’t I made aware of this much earlier, when I could have taken a different path?
Stage 7: Realization #2 – Although, until I’m dead or in a coma, I can still do something about this, can’t I? I need to make a list of people to talk to, right away. There’s still time …
(Author’s note: Congratulations. If you have come this far in real life experience, then Welcome to the Second Reformation.)
First: Introduction; Caution
Next: Diffusion of Authority, Priesthoods & Clergy
More: Spiritual Authority and the Right to Rule
Also: Church as Institution, Association & Corporation
And: The Visible Church in Real Life