He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. (Paul, writing to Timothy)
Have you ever heard a fellow believer say that he or she is interested in the “deep things” of God?
Perhaps the words were stated differently, but with the same basic meaning: “I believe the Lord has called me to a higher Christian life.” Or something similar.
Have you ever witnessed the excitement when such a person discovers a group of believers with similar noble intentions, especially if the group appears to have already made some progress into these “deeper” or “higher” things of God?
Have you ever noticed how often such liaisons fall apart? And how often somebody (or a few bodies) ends up disappointed, offended or hurt? Or, if they manage to stick it out, how often the group tends to become so insular and elitist that you end up feeling more comfortable around the shallow folks from the little traditional church around the corner?
Paul’s words to the Romans come to mind: The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.
1. Romans 7: The Efforts of the Flesh
Firstly, Paul’s apt words above come from Romans 7 – the chapter that is famous for teaching us that any religious intentions are doomed if they depend on the abilities of the flesh. Whilst the law does a great job of formulating the spiritual “ideal”, it does not impart the life necessary to live up to that ideal.
Of course we regularly forget this, and so we take God’s “thou shalt” to mean “thou can”. But we are mistaken. As Paul concludes in Romans 7, the desire to do good does not imply any ability to do so.
Similarly, a group’s desire to be the “true church” says absolutely nothing about their ecclesiastical aptitude. Passion is not necessarily an indicator of talent, as television music reality shows regularly reveal. Spiritual passion is even less so, according to Paul. When acted upon, it will only succeed in revealing spiritual incapacity, the aim being to force us to look away from ourselves and to God who is the builder of his own church, thank you.
2. John 4: The Religious Wish Dream
Secondly, human liaisons that aim to fulfill personal needs are doomed to fail. The alarming divorce rate testifies quite clearly to this. When we are attracted to people because they make us happy, we will end up feeling contempt for them when they make us unhappy. That is, unfortunately, the tail end of the deal.
Of course the same goes for people who make us feel spiritual…
No chapter in the Bible illustrates this quite like John 4. Jesus uses the water at the bottom of the well as a metaphor for the serial marriages of the Samaritan woman. “Drink of this, and you will thirst again”, he says. In essence: “You keep on drawing from a well, but it does not satisfy. You are looking for me, but you are looking in the wrong places. No husband can fill the emptiness within you or make you whole. You are, in fact, attributing God-like characteristics to fallen human beings when you expect them to do so.”
The answer? “Come and drink from me. That is the only place where you will find life and satisfaction.”
The same goes for church life. When our personal needs manifest as an ecclesiastical “wish dream”, as Bonhoeffer called it, we are heading for disaster.
Wayne Jacobsen has done a wonderful job of addressing this very thing in his article Why House Church isn’t the Answer (you have to read it) so I will not elaborate any further.
3. 1 Timothy 3: Conceit
Finally, and most importantly, the single thing that is most deadening to a group of believers is the sincere conviction that they have discovered something that others are still looking for. The problem with this type of thinking is more than the sheer arrogance that underlies it. It is the insinuation that God reserves his fullness, and the glory thereof, for a select group of believers who have discovered the secrets to access it.
Here too, Bonhoeffer, is worth quoting. (keep in mind that monasticism is a mindset rather than a movement.)
Monasticism was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not be expected to emulate. By thus limiting the application of the commandments of Jesus to a restricted group of specialists, the Church evolved the fatal conception of the double standard—a maximum and a minimum standard of Christian obedience. Whenever the Church was accused of being too secularized, it could always point to monasticism as an opportunity of living a higher life within the fold, and thus justify the other possibility of a lower standard of life for others. …By and large, the fatal error of monasticism lay not so much in its rigorism as in the extent to which it departed from genuine Christianity by setting up itself as the individual achievement of a select few, and so claiming a special merit of its own.
And then, of course, there are the wise words of T. Austin Sparks:
We must beware of thinking in terms of advanced or special doctrines. Scriptural teaching is not departmental or sectional. We may hear of ‘higher truth’ or ‘advanced teaching’, as though there were something special reserved for the few. So there arises the idea of ‘higher life’ with ‘higher teaching’, as opposed to being a simple believer, content with ‘the simple gospel’. I want very emphatically to contradict any such notion. Wherever you look in the New Testament you will never find any support for this idea… Nobody should make a special kind of ‘Overcomer’ teaching, for this is what God intended Calvary to mean for every believer. God had spiritual victory as His thought when He first forgave us our sins, and in His mind this is to be the normal development of every Christian’s life.
Years ago I posted a cartoon that generated more interest on this blog than anything else I’d ever posted, probably because it was truer than anything else here. It was drawn by Saji George and beautifully captures the mindset referred to above.
The Way of Deliverance
There is a remarkably simple way out of this trap, and it is to be found in the realization that less is always more in God’s kingdom.
Paul solves the riddle of Romans 7 by stating that the Spirit does what the law cannot do. Similarly, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that there are no longer earthly pockets of God’s presence, and that worship will now be in “spirit and truth”.
True worship is now accessible without a pilgrimage, without ever having to ask “where”? We no longer need to look for the house of God. The house of God has come to us. Jacob’s ladder has replaced Babel’s tower. Knowledge is no longer the enlightenment of an elite inner circle, but an awakening to love which is accessible to all. The Holy of Holies is no longer an elusive and mystical destiny, but a continuous reality in the heart of the believer. The fire is no longer on the mountain. It has come down to rest on each one of us.
Where can I find a true church? The question is fundamentally flawed. You cannot find what you already are. To leave a group of regenerate believers to find the true church is like leaving your wife and kids to find true humanity. Unless the situation has become so dysfunctional that your personal spiritual health depends on it, or unless you have a sense that the Lord is sending you to become part of a group of believers for the sake of fulfilling your call to service amongst them, you should think twice before packing up.
“I, the one speaking to you — I am he”, said Jesus to the woman at the well. What we are yearning for has been under our noses all along.
The Lord has designed his body to function optimally in its simplest form. Two or three are needed, and there He is. Surely we do not believe that we need more than Him? So then what is all the fuss about? In Him is the fullness of the Godhead, and through Him that fullness dwells in us. His presence is continuously there, and it will not leave or forsake us. When two or three gather, his indwelling presence manifests as an objective bodily presence, and church happens in its most optimal form.
This, and this alone, is what matters.
(PS: Joshua Lawson has recently written an excellent article along these lines, Beware the homogenization of church life, which I highly recommend.)
I am a cartoonist, and I am all for freedom of speech. I can even enjoy satire, as my stockpile of MAD magazines would testify. But first and foremost I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and this comes with a huge implication. My fascination with crazy cartoons and sharp humour is subject to a higher law: The law of love.
“Love” means different things to different people, so the Lord Jesus made it really easy for us not to get confused. He summed it up neatly by saying “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
It is pretty clear: Jesus’ definition of love excludes any form of nastiness or deliberate provocation. This, in my mind, would exclude the type of journalism that has led to this week’s tragic massacre, as well as the type of Hollywood movie that infuriated the North Koreans a few weeks ago.
“But what if I am provoked first?”, you may ask. “Do I not have a responsibility to respond in kind?”
Sorry, Jesus closed this door as well:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
As I am writing, cartoon responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre are flooding cyberspace. Every single one that I have seen vigorously defends the murdered cartoonists and the rights of satirists to do what these men had been doing for years. I get it. I truly get it. But I get the words of Jesus Christ and Solomon (quoted in the cartoon above) in a much greater way, which is why I have decided to draw a different kind of cartoon depicting a different kind of solidarity.
If you are not a Christian, feel free to ignore this. But if you are one, ask yourself two simple questions:
1. Am I praying for the men who are at the moment the most hated people on the planet? (They may be dead by the time you read this, but there are enough of them to keep you praying for the rest of your life.)
2. Do I love them in the very way that God the Father loves me?
I am indebted to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the turkey analogy. Taleb borrowed it from the philosopher Bertrand Russel and used it in his provocative book The Black Swan to illustrate the folly of predicting the future by using the past as a point of reference. Along with scholars such as Daniel Kahneman (Fast and Slow Thinking) and Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) Taleb points out that humans are outrageously irrational when they try their hand at forecasting the future.
The topic intrigues me. As you may know, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like. It is not our photo albums or mirrors that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealised future self. Our past and present selves are simply too real to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mould the image of I.
All of this becomes rather interesting if we consider that the first motivational speaker in the history of the universe was a serpent. He convinced Eve that she could be more than what she was. He managed to divert her gaze from what she was and had in God to what she could have and be in herself, and thus from the present to the future. “Eve, you can maximise your potential. Eve, you can fulfil your destiny.”
Ever noticed that God identifies himself as “I am”, even in His self-declaration in Christ, but that Satan identifies himself as “I will”? Note the contrast:
I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
I am the bread of life John 6: 35, 48
I am the light of the world John 8: 12, 9:5
Before Abraham was, I am John 8: 58
I am the door John 10:9
I am the good shepherd John 10:11
I am the resurrection and the life John 11:25
I am the way, the truth, and the life John 14:6
I am the true vine John 15:1
“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15
Reading Isaiah 14, it is clear why John tells us that “the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). The seed of the serpent was forged in eternity before time, when the contentment and perfection of “I am” was replaced with the desire of “I will”. And so “being” was replaced with “becoming”, beholding with visioneering, the Creator with the creature, rest with striving, contentment with anticipation, the now with the then, the “thank you” with “if only”, the treasure of having with the emptiness of wanting.
Of course there was only one way in which the toxic seed of the serpent could be injected into God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, birthed into his rest, partaking of his identity of life, enjoying the abundance of his provision. They too were to utter the venomous “I will…”
And so the serpent whispered to them: “You will… be as God.”
The moment they believed the promise, and acted on their newfound faith, they too were brought down to Sheol. Note that the first sin was in fact the second sin, but that it was like the first sin.
The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent began here. The “I will” became a collective in Genesis 11, when an entire nation aspired to penetrate the heavens and found a name and identity for themselves. “I will” became “we will”, and so the seed of the serpent that had become the seed of humanity became the seed of the kingdoms of this world.
Two Seeds, Two Births, Two Confessions
The enmity continues throughout Scripture and finds its ultimate manifestation in two births. The first came into the world and restored our understanding of the “I am” identity, the partaking in that which is and cannot become, for how can perfection be more than what it is?
This was the one who defied the arrogance of the serpent and his offspring, by saying “not my will, but yours be done.” This was the one who defined divinity in his “I am” statements, quoted above. This was the one of whom was said that he, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” In each and every way he contradicted the aspirations of the serpent and his offspring.
Of course the serpent tempted him in the traditional, tried and tested way that had successfully led the whole word astray: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Note the underlying transactional and graceless philosophy that has governed all human relationships and marriages since the fall: “I will, if you will.”
But Christ resisted. As he would later say: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” In the same manner, he taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The first birth manifested the seed from heaven, and revealed its nature as that which is and cannot become, which has and cannot want, which beholds and does not imagine.
If the first birth was God’s Messiah and a revelation of his perfection, then the second birth is Satan’s messiah and a revelation of his imperfection and subsequent striving to “become”. As the seed of the woman brought Christ into the world, the seed of the serpent brought forth the exact opposite and antithesis of Christ, aptly referred to as “Antichrist”.
Naturally, the Antichrist is the incarnation of the human will and its striving, and so, in accordance with the first and second sin, and all the sins since then, he is made manifest in one way only: “He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessaloninas 2:4). Naturally, for his coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works” (verse 9).
These insights reveal why it is futile and sinful to obsess about “tomorrow”, and why God has a habit of only providing enough manna for “today”. A focus on tomorrow is an inevitable invitation to idolatry, and so we are warned:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Proverbs 27:1
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:31-34
Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions… The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Exodus 16:4, 17-20
Needless to say, the above insights have made me not only highly suspicious of the motivational revolution of the last few decades, but especially of its recent infiltration into the church world. A quick visit to the Google Ngram Viewer (an online phrase-usage graphing tool indicating usage of words and phrases in more than 5 million prominent publications) reveals the following disturbing trend:
All of this has prompted me to rethink the contemporary hallowed usage of the word “destiny” amongst Christians. Wondering if the word is actually used in the Bible as it is currently being used on the covers of Christian bestsellers, I went to my concordance. This is what I found:
But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword… Isaiah 65:11-12
Correct me if I am wrong, but it would appear that even the great apostasy is no longer in the future, but in the present.
I dedicate this to Winston Ruiters, a carpenter I met yesterday. We spoke about God, cave paintings, my African ancestors and some other things.
Whilst thinking of Winston early this morning, I was reminded of another carpenter.
This man loved God more than any other human ever had. Yet he chose a carpentry shop instead of a religious seminary to prepare himself for God’s work.
This man had greater abilities to build a religious empire than all the world’s televangelists put together, yet he never took up an offering.
This man had greater stature than the Pope, yet he hated organised religion.
This man could assemble a crowd in seconds, yet he avoided them.
This man had more wisdom and knowledge than one can find in all the world’s libraries, yet he had no title or credentials.
This man could actually do the miracles that faith healers can only dream of, yet he rebuked those who wanted him to hold a miracle crusade.
This man had the ability to bring God into politics, yet he took Him out of it.
This man managed to attract the attention of the rich and famous, yet he chose to befriend the poor.
This man had the ability to save his life, yet he gave it as a ransom for many.
So I ask you, how can any human being not love this man?
5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. Hebrews 5:12-6:6
I recently contributed to a discussion on verses 4 to 6 above, and thought it would be helpful to share some of my thoughts here for those who are interested.
As you may know, these verses have proven to be a major stumbling block for many believers. They seem to suggest that it is impossible to repent and come back to the Lord after having “fallen away”. This is an obvious problem for those who have “backslidden” at some or other stage of their Christian walk, and who are trying to come back to the Lord.
It is also, and especially, a problem for those who have come back to the Lord after a period of backsliding, and who are haunted by the possibility that the Lord has not accepted them back or fully forgiven them.
Theologians generally try and escape the severity of these verses by going one of two routes:
1. They argue that the term “fall away” implies a total apostasy and denial of the faith, and not just a falling into sin.
2. They argue that the people referred to by the author were not really saved to begin with, and that they rejected the fullness of the revelation or enlightenment intended to bring them to salvation. If you reject the conviction of the Holy Spirit at such a level, then there remains nothing else that will convince you, hence the “impossibility”.
A Third Approach
However, there is a third way to approach these verses, and that is to look at the “big picture” of Hebrews. When we interpret the passage against the backdrop of the entire letter, especially with due consideration to the immediate context of verses 4 to 6 (beginning in 5:12), we find a message that is immensely positive and encouraging, and actually means the exact opposite of the above interpretations.
Let me start by pointing out that the error of both interpretations is the failure to interpret verses 4 to 6 in the light of verse 1. Does it not strike us as odd that the re-repentance that is prohibited in verse 1 is suddenly portrayed as a desirable but unattainable ideal in verse 6? In verse 1 we are told that repentance should not be repeated. In verses 4 to 6 we are told that repentance cannot be repeated. The author seems to be telling his readers that they are trying to do something that cannot be done, and that it cannot be done because it should not be done. Herein is the solution to the dilemma, as we will see in a moment.
“Once” and “Again”
To understand this, we need to understand the way in which the author juxtaposes the words “once” and “again” throughout the letter (e.g. 9:25-10:14). “Again” signifies the imperfection of the Old Covenant sacrifice, and “once” the perfection of Christ’s.
Keep in mind that the recipients of this letter were Hebrews, i.e. Jewish Christians. Also keep in mind that the Jewish nation as a whole rejected Christ due to the fact that they could not make sense of Christ’s Messiahship against the backdrop of their own religious traditions. The very shadows and types of the Old Testament that were intended to prepare the way for the Messiah actually blinded them to the Messiah. Jewishness, if not correctly understood, can prove to be a handicap in one’s grasp of New Covenant truths. It would appear that this was the problem addressed in the letter to the Hebrews.
To view the cross through an Old Covenant “lens” is to underestimate the finality of it. It is to see it as a sacrifice that should ideally be repeated regularly, in line with all the other sacrifices of that dispensation. This view would, quite obviously, manifest as an understanding of repentance as an associated act that also needs to be repeated again and again (repentance being the subjective response to the objective act of sacrifice).
And so the Hebrew Christians were not advancing towards maturity as they were laying again and again a “foundation of repentance from dead works” (verse 1, boldfaced in the text), in line with their understanding of a sacrifice as something that needed to be repeated again and again. This manifested itself as a need to have the “basic principles” taught to them “again” (5:12) which is, according to the Hebrews author, tantamount to feeding on milk, i.e. the first step associated with growth.
The impossibility of “repenting again” (6:4-6) is stated to emphasise the doctrinal absurdity of the idea, as unthinkable and impractical as “crucifying once again the Son of God” (6:6; 9:25-26). It is NOT stated as something that needs to happen but is now prohibited by an angry God who has run out of grace. In the New Covenant the repentance of regeneration happens once, because it is not the effortful turning of a human being, but rather the “perfecting for all time those who are being sanctified” 10:14. (This type of foundational repentance should not be confused with daily and ongoing “repentance”, which is legitimate and necessary, and not referred to in these verses.)
This is confirmed by the words in verse 1 “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works”. Thus the entire passage speaks against re-repentance, and identifies it as the cause of the Hebrews’ spiritual immaturity. The “impossibility” of verse 4 is intended to reinforce this truth, revealing that the New Covenant was never intended to provide an opportunity for re-repentance (Also see 10:26). In fact, this is not merely undesirable but impossible as we are no longer the ones overseeing the act of sacrifice. This Lamb was provided by God, and he only provided one.
The reason for a single sacrifice, resulting in a single repentance, is simple, and clearly stated in other passages in Hebrews:
Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own,for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (10:25-26)
He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (9:12)
And the clincher:
Since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins… And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:1-4, 10)
Note that Christ came to not only forgive our sins, but to “put away sin”, to secure an “eternal redemption”, and to sanctify us “once for all”. Also note that the Old Covenant sacrifices could not provide any of this. If they did, two things would have happened:
1. They would have stopped being offered. In other words, the “repetitious” cycle would have ceased.
2. The worshipers would no longer have any “consciousness of sin”.
Clearly the Hebrews never understood this. The absence of both these elements in their (Old Covenantal) understanding of the cross manifested itself in a constant need to re-repent. Indeed, the need for repentance flows from a consciousness of sin. If the sin is not “put away”, the effects of the repentance would be short-lived.
The superiority of Christ’s sacrifice is thus best expressed in a new type of repentance that mirrors the completion and perfection of Christ’s sacrifice. The repentance on earth is what the sacrifice is in heaven. It reflects the perfection thereof, and thus it cannot be repeated.
The point is that these “problematic” verses of chapter 6 are intended to liberate, not condemn. They have nothing to do with the unpardonable sin, and everything with the glorious reality that to fall into sin is not to entirely undo the benefits of the cross, calling for a ritualistic repetition thereof. All that is needed is to get up and carry on, mindful of a secure salvation that has perfected us, even though we stumble and fall regularly.
Much of my early Christian life was spent around believers who regularly ended up on the carpet between the front pew and the pulpit of the church, crying and begging for forgiveness. Sundays were mostly “repentance day”. We were evangelized. And then we were evangelized again, and again, and again. I think part of it had to do with the revival culture of the denomination, and the romance of tent evangelism, and the sovereignty of the altar call, and the centrality and supremacy of the sinner’s prayer, and so on.
As a kid I was given a little red Gideon’s New Testament containing a neat blue line on the back page where you were supposed to enter your “salvation date”. I changed that date so many times that I eventually lost track.
Strangely, in the midst of all the feverish activity there was a severe lack of spiritual maturity, both in my life and the lives of many others.
I could never understand this strange dichotomy, until I discovered the letter to the Hebrews. And then it became clear. We were like a man who got stuck in a revolving door. We were running, yes, but we were running in circles. We kept on repeating our entrance, and we never got anywhere. The very thing that was intended to make our spirituality “take off”, anchored it to the ground in a devastating way.
And oh boy, were we ever “conscious of sin”!
The letter to the Hebrews blew my mind. It provided a blue print for spiritual growth, and taught me that faith is to grasp the reality and finality of my own salvation. It showed me that humans once were the active agents in the ritual of sacrifice, but that God took over from us with one final, perfect sacrifice. We were now at rest, for God had finished his work. And it was so perfect that even the very thought of trying to repeat it bordered on blasphemy.
In fact, I began studying the book of Hebrews so much that I believe I have found a most likely candidate for authorship, but that is another story for another day…
(Please note that this short explanation merely scratches the surface and obviously does not deal with any of the questions that will/may arise from it. Yet it provides a basis from where one can do your own study. But feel free to ask questions. I’ll gladly respond.)
Stephen Crosby’s blog post earlier today To Lead or Not to Lead? That is the Question not only blessed me (How much longer before we “get” this?), but inspired me to dig into some old files for a research paper I delivered over a decade ago at a theological seminary in Cape Town. I found it, and thought I’ll add my voice to Stephen’s.
The Difference Between Christian and Secular Leadership
I know of few Christians who would question the implied proposition above. The church of Jesus Christ is generally in agreement that there is a marked difference between Christian and non-Christian methods of leadership. Yet, when questioned, many believers struggle to explain what these differences are. Christian leaders themselves don’t fare much better, a fact which becomes especially evident when we survey much of the so-called Christian leadership literature doing the rounds in evangelical circles today. Oftentimes these are little more than a rehash of conventional secular wisdom, sprinkled with Bible verses so as to sanctify and legitimise their use.
If there is a difference between secular and Christian leadership styles, then what is it? Furthermore, how big is this difference? Is Christian leadership complimentary to secular leadership, or does it present an alternative to secular leadership? To put it in picture form: Is it the roofrack of the vehicle, or is it another vehicle altogether?
It is my conviction, and the thesis of this paper, that the difference between secular and Christian leadership is the very difference separating the Kingdom of God from the fallen empires of this world. It is, in other words, that difference that contrasts light and darkness, life and death, Christ and Satan. To put the two together as though they are variants of the same species won’t do. They stand unalterably antithetical, and so they will remain until the day of the Lord.
The Worldliness of Secular Leadership
If the above sounds like an unnecessarily harsh assessment, let us consider for a moment the adjective we employ to describe the type of leadership that is not ‘Christian’. The word ‘secular’ is derived from the Latin saeculum, which is one of the Latin words for world. It refers to our existence as material beings in the material cosmos. Secular leadership is really nothing but worldly leadership. As such it is not merely practiced by ‘worldly’ people, but it has the world as both its beginning and end. Its philosophical premises and presuppositions are thoroughly worldly and so also their logical conclusions. Ideas have consequences, or ‘legs’ as Francis Schaeffer used to say, which means that ideas go places. And the places they go are more often than not determined by the places they come from. Ideas that begin with the world are doomed to end with the world, both in the philosophical and eschatological sense.
Christian leadership, on the other hand, is a leadership away from the world. It is not utopian, has no business with social engineering, and certainly does not believe that politics presents the answer to the ailments of society, the worldview expressed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s maxim ‘the state is the agency of emancipation’ (Cited in Colson 1999: 171). Rather, it longs for a better country – a heavenly one, and it does so in true Hebrews 11 fashion. This type of non-secular leadership is best exemplified by the image of Moses leading the Israelites away from Egypt in search of a land promised and ruled by God.
The Influence Leadership Vision has on Leadership Style
One might wonder what this has to with the actual how-to of leading. Do the different visions of the church and the world influence their leadership methodology, ultimately necessitating different leadership styles? In other words, has leadership anything to do with the particular policies of the leader, or is it purely neutral? And if it has, to what extent?
We have all heard it said that Hitler was an excellent leader. By this it is usually meant that he had great charisma and even greater powers of conviction. He managed to lead thousands, and so we conclude that he was a great leader. The fact that he led them to destruction is besides the point. It makes him a poor theorist, perhaps, but not a poor leader. He could get people to follow him, and this is the litmus test of leadership. As I once heard a Christian leadership guru put it: “If no one is following, you are not leading, but merely taking a walk.” We could turn that around to mean that as long as people are following, you are definitely leading.
Of course not everyone is comfortable with such a pragmatic view of leadership. Stephen Covey’s ‘Principle Centered Leadership’ (1992) is a case in point. According to this school leadership is more than the sum of certain morally neutral traits that are both inborn and acquired, and have produced military and political leaders stretching from before Alexander the Great through Napoleon and Hitler to modern leaders like Bill Clinton. “We need to place character back in leadership”, its proponents say; “we need to live by the compass rather than the map.” In spite of the inward focus and oftentimes spiritual emphasis of this school (Covey is a Mormon), we are not offered any insight into the difference between Christian and secular leadership, due to a lack of any religious homogeneity amongst its advocates. Furthermore, we are offered no answer to the question of whether the different visions of the church and the world have any bearing on their leadership methodology and style.
In order to answer this question, we need to turn to the communication sciences, and to one person in particular: Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor who became famous for his aphorism, “the medium is the message”. According to McLuhan, any chosen medium selected for the purposes of communication serves not only as a carrier for such communication, but actually dictates the content of the communication. Neil Postman illustrates this by his story of American Indians communicating via smoke signals, yet finding it impossible to discuss deep philosophy this way. ‘Its form excludes the content’, Postman points out. (Postman 1985: 7).
In the same way styles of leadership, which are forms of discourse, regulate the content issuing from such styles. The leadership style of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace made it possible for him to convey a message to the masses that many of his contemporaries could not convey. It is no coincidence that the Hollywood version of his life was dubbed Braveheart, for in this title we find the reason behind his uncanny ability to call his people to bravery. Perhaps the best shorthand summary of this principle is to be found in a statement attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Who you are speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”
Particular forms of leadership, in other words, favour particular kinds of content, or, to change McCluhan’s adage slightly: The leader is the message. This is true in any context, even where the message is of such a nature that it makes little demands on the medium of leadership, for instance in the case of the Senior Bookkeeper whose expertise is limited to the world of accountancy. Her subordinates expect no bravery from her, knowing full well that even great cowards can make great bookkeepers. Her authority is derived from what is called ‘expert power’ (Lund & Henderson 1994: 12), and rightly so, for this is what her particular environment demands. However, in the political arena expert power is not sufficient to rise to a position of leadership. Here ‘personal power’ becomes a requirement, namely that ‘mystical combination of attributes that marks some people as born leaders’. (Lund & Henderson 1994: 13). Different settings demand different forms of communication, which in turn demand different leadership styles.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that the radically different message of Christianity demands and necessitates a radically different leadership style in order to be conveyed. Where we are heading will therefore determine how we lead, and it is this truism that disengages Christian from secular leadership.
The Strangeness of Christian Leadership
When we turn to Scripture we find that the God of the Bible assumed a connection between the medium and the message long before McCluhan did. This is evident from the gospel of John, where we read that a particular message from God, simply called “the Word”, demanded a particular medium for its effective conveyance, simply called “the flesh”. The “Word became flesh” means that the message became the medium, and that the two are inseparably linked. Reading further into the gospels we are struck by God’s condemnation of people who ignored this principle by preaching the gospel without living it (Matt 23:1-4). Believers are referred to as living epistles, and one can only wonder why John wrote “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.” Did the spiritual nature of his message perhaps demand a different medium of discourse, namely talking ‘face to face’? (3 John 13-14).
Christianity, in other words, is to be lived in order to be proclaimed. The word must become flesh, and the formation of that flesh must be determined by the content of the word. This is especially true in the case of Christian leadership, which is nothing but an extension and disclosure of the Christian message. True Christian leadership can only be so if it embodies and exemplifies the profound gap between the Christian and secular worldviews.
With this in mind, it becomes apparent that Christianity turns the worldly concept of leadership upside down. The stark contrast between Christian and secular leadership is drawn by Christ himself in Matt. 20:25-28, in response to his followers who seemingly noted no distinction between the two: “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave…” It cannot be stated clearer than this. Christian leadership is not an exercise of authority, but an abdication of it. In this it stands opposed to ‘gentile’ forms of leadership and authority.
Yet not only secular, but also religious forms of authority are challenged by the Christian paradigm of leadership. The era of the Spirit, according to Jeremiah, signifies not only the end of the law but also the end of human mediation: “No longer will a man teach his neighbour…”, the prophet says, “because they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.” (Jer 31:34). In 1John 2:27 we read: “…the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.” (1 John 2: 27). The Christian message implies that with the advent of the Holy Spirit came a subjective authority hitherto unknown to humanity, resulting in an independence from traditional forms of authority, both secular and religious.
Christian leadership, therefore, is in reality a form of anti-leadership. It’s aim is not to gather a following, but to challenge the herd mentality so basic to human nature. Christian leadership is never the emperor parading before the masses, but always the little boy crying out “The emperor is naked!” It is strangely subversive and radically countercultural. It is a leadership of liberation, freeing the captives and prisoners from their enslavement to the ideologies of this world, and setting them on a narrow road where no one has gone before, for which no maps are available, and where progress is only possible by following the guidance of God’s Spirit.
This means that Christian leadership is ultimately self destructive. Once it has challenged the status quo, it points to another power and authority altogether and removes itself from the platform. Nowhere is this strange type of leadership better illustrated than in the ministry of John the Baptist, and nowhere better put than in his own words: ‘He must become greater; I must become less.’ (John 3:30) Ministers and Christian leaders would do well to look in the mirror from time to time and say out loud with the prophet: ‘I am not the Christ but am send ahead of him.’ (John 3:27). Indeed, preparing the way for Christ is what Christian leadership is all about.
Some Practical Considerations
How does the above work itself out in practice? Much can be said about this, but for the purposes of this paper I will restrict myself to a few remarks made by Christ and Paul, and some more recent comments of Eugene Peterson.
Christ washed feet (John 13:1-17) and spoke about children (Matt 18:15) and servants (Matt 20:26, Matt 23:11) in order to illustrate what greatness means in the Kingdom of God. Like Jeremiah he challenged the notion of human mediation (See Matt 23:8-10), which is in reality nothing but a worldly model of leadership that subjects and enslaves the masses to an elite inner circle of spiritually enlightened pundits. As Os Guinness has noted: “…the dominance of the expert means the dependency of the client.” (Guinness 1993: 71). Indeed, religious punditocracy came to an end the day that the new covenant came into effect and all believers were made kings and priests. Titles reserved for traditional religious leaders were now bestowed on the laity, and for no other reason than the fact that external forms of authority were internalised through the indwelling of God’s Spirit.
The apostle Paul calls the Christian church to humility, and instructs them to have the same attitude as Christ, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.”(Phil 2:-7). His famous statement “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am Of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1 in the KJV), can easily be interpreted as “Do not follow me, but follow Christ”, an interpretation that seems to be confirmed by his earlier rebuke of the Corinthians for their “I follow Paul…I follow Apollos.” (1 Cor 3:4). This particular rebuke he concludes with the assertion that both he and Apollos are mere “servants through whom you came to believe.” (v5). Indeed, his argument reminds strongly of John the Baptist’s. It is a leadership that says: “I am only here to point you to Christ.” In his second letter to the Corinthians he actually states this conviction: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor 4:5).
In line with this thinking, Paul presents the Christian church with a list of leadership traits that totally contradicts conventional secular wisdom. In the place of intelligence, initiative, self-assurance, determination, visionary capacity, ability to influence, ability to see the big picture and so on, he lists traits like humility, holiness, hospitality, and being free from the love of money, as conditions for Christian leadership (See 1 Tim 3 and Tit 1).
Eugene Peterson has pointed out that Paul’s list is “clearly more a matter of character than of skill” (Dawn & Peterson 2000: 202), and anyone would be foolish to disagree. He quotes Henri Nouwen in this regard: “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.” (p 190). Peterson goes on to say: “What we call the ability to lead has almost nothing to do with it. If we want to develop community in Christ, we have to scrap most of what we are told today about leadership.” (p 203). He concludes his remarks by saying that we should recognise the sphere of leadership among the “poor in Spirit” (p 203), and that it is “almost always a mistake to recruit exceptional people for leadership” (p 204).
I could not agree more. CEO leadership is the worst imaginable model of leadership that the Christian church can choose to follow.
The thesis of this paper is that a spiritual message cannot be conveyed by an unspiritual medium anymore than deep philosophical ideas can be conveyed by smoke signals. The form of secular leadership excludes the spiritual content of the gospel message, and is therefore an unfit medium of conveyance. True spiritual leadership is the servant leadership of Jesus Christ and Paul. It has as its source not expert power or personal power, nor resource power or positional power (See Lund & Henderson 1994: 6), but spiritual power. This power favours no particular personality types and more often than not displays itself in weakness, leaving no doubt as to where it comes from. (We are offered a vast array of testimonies throughout both Bible and church history of highly unlikely characters who were greatly used of God in leading capacities.)
With the above in mind it is clear that the church would do well to rethink the issue of Christian leadership. Ours is a situation not unlike that of Israel who demanded a king at a time where God was to be their King, and perhaps we should ask ourselves if we have not fallen into the same trap through our over-reliance on human leadership.
Colson, C & Pearcy, N 1999. How Now Shall We Live? Wheaton: Tyndale
Covey, S R 1992. Principle Centered Leadership. London: Simon & Schuster
Dawn, M & Peterson, E 2000. The Unnecessary Pastor. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing
Guinness, O 1994. Dining with the Devil. Grand Rapids: Baker
Lund, B & Henderson, E 1994. Leading Your Team, Book 10 of Managing Health Services. The Open University
Postman, N 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death. London: Methuen.
Picture of Christ & Hitler: http://abstract.desktopnexus.com/wallpaper/871800/
You can subject someone to your tyranny by portraying your wisdom as an indispensable factor for the flight from tyranny.