Some commandments of our Lord we obey and others we, Christians, completely ignore. In Matthew 23, Jesus made a statement that the church, myself included, has decided to completely ignore.
Jesus Christ made a very clear statement in Matthew 23 verse 10, He said, "Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.”
The previous verse, verse 9, we protestants obey. It says “Do not call anyone on earth your father”. That one, we obey. But verse 10, which is a parallel verse, we completely ignore. We have small group leaders. We call men “our pastor”. We say “Joe is called to leadership”. We may not technically say, “Joe is my leader”, but, in all practicality, the structure of the organized church is one of a few men preaching and teaching and a whole group of men and women listening to them. It is this dichotomous structure of teachers and listeners that Jesus Christ, our Lord, commanded that we DO NOT develop!! It is OK to listen to teachers, but do not try to be like them. Do not make it your ambition to obtain a position of teacher or a title of teacher or leader or father within the community of faith.
Now just a little aside. I can hear the purist saying, “but what about Paul’s statements about elders in Timothy?” Paul is talking about elders and deacons. Let’s just say, I believe in limited government. In other words, we need over sight and government in the church, but the role of government is very limited. The elders exercise discipline in very rare circumstances, and the role of the deacons is to make sure the bills get paid and that the wealth is distributed to the poor. But, for the real work of the community, there is no leadership. Actual discipleship work is totally worked out in peer to peer relationships. In all spiritual relationship and discipleship relationships, there must be no leaders or teachers for we have one leader Christ. So, for all the spiritual gifts of teaching and prophecy and mercy and hospitality and the work of building the kingdom, call no one on earth leader and do not let anyone call you a leader.
Second aside: I am fully aware that Paul also said, "Some are called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers". My position does not contradict the reality of giftedness. I realize the answer is a "both/and" of no hierarchy in terms of status in the community and also of a place given for people graced by God to exercise and develop spiritual gifts.
The reason Jesus prohibits titles and hierarchical structure in His church is because ambition within the social structure of religion will undermine our spirituality and deceive us. This subtle ambition to be something in the structure of religion will prevent us from entering the Kingdom life of poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, and purity. Lately, I have found this principle to be true not just in theory but in practice.
Let’s read the whole passage in context.
Matt. 23:6-15, Jesus, speaking regarding the religious leaders of His day, says:
6"They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.
8"But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.
9"Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.
10"Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11"But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12"Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
13"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.
14"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.
15"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves."
How I found this to be true in practice
When I first became a Christian, I was immediately offered positions of teaching in the body. Within a month or two of accepting the truth of the gospel, I began teaching 2-3 bible studies every week. Fifteen months after my conversion, I entered seminary and, less than a year after entering seminary, I was on staff at a mega-church and leading a Christian discipleship home. The point is I have never known Christianity without the promise of a “calling to leadership”. Throughout my entire Christian life, I have been in a place where I teach and others listen. Here is the way it works. We are baptized into a culture that has a structure that calls men with speaking gifts, or who are educated, leaders. Someone with a talent for speaking is placed in a role that is intended to turn him into “the man”. This structure is completely contrary to what Jesus commands, and I am only now realizing that this structure does not allow men to enter the kingdom. As Jesus says in the context of the passage, a structure that calls men leaders, "prevents them from entering the kingdom". Oh God, help us!!!
Let me say this, the men who found me and made me "twice the son of hell as themsleves" are tender-hearted, prayerful, humble men. I love them for believing in me or at least believing in me to a point. These men were fathers to me and were great examples of integrity and simplicity. But, the system simply doesn’t make kingdom followers of Jesus Christ.
For me, I have for the first time completely stepped out of the system. I, now, have no ambition in the system because there is no system. I cannot hope to be a full time teacher and preacher because there are no full time teachers and preachers. I cannot hope to be a leader of a faith community because, we have no leaders but Christ. I am left with no ambition to be the man because there is no “man” position in the simple church. Without hierarchy, I can't seek promotion among men.
The Initial De-tox
What I initially found was that my first response to this freedom from religion was to cease being spiritual. Now that there was no religion to drive me to be spiritual, I found I was not motivated at all. In other words, my motivation to please people was what was driving my daily spiritual disciplines. Certainly while in the religious system, God honored my prayers and I had many wonderful experiences and learnings from all these years of study and preparation for teachings, but I could not help but have mixed motives. This process is very humbling but, obviously, very spiritually necessary.
Here is my definition of religion or organized religion.
Religion is the social structure that motivates certain religious practices.
This structure will motivate even the most pure man or woman. If the structure exists then religion will be part of our cultural identity and therefore part of our character. There is no avoiding the influence of religion on us if we are “baptized’ into a religion structure with leaders and teachers and hierarchy.
Spirituality is a life driven by Holy Spirit fueled affections of the heart and which results in morally beautiful spiritual practices.
Maybe we could say, spirituality is an affection driven relationship with God that motivates spiritual practices of love for God and man. I am finding that without losing my religion, I was never able to separate my religion from my spirituality and, therefore, was never able to work solely on becoming a spirit led follower of Jesus Christ. I was working too hard on being a pastor to follow Jesus with all my heart.
I am contending that all pastors are placed in this quagmire.
Now everyone has a mixture of both religious and spiritual motivations this side of the final consummation of the kingdom. But, until a teacher-type steps outside the structure of religion, I have found it is impossible to discern and be cleansed of our religious and pharisaical motivations. The culture of religion makes us hypocrites.
So where do we go from here?
The answer is to pursue the kingdom and the teachings of Jesus and refuse to be a leader in any structural way (at least for a good long season). What we will find is a change of motives. Today, I find that I need the power of the Holy Spirit not in order to stay inspired so that I can preach a good sermon but in order to have any real relationship with Jesus at all. If I do not pray and seek the kingdom, I end up without God in my life. So now the primary motive for spiritual disciplines is actual love for God. Do not fear the loss of false motives, if we are His, then our hearts naturally long for God. This grace-given affection is now necessary to have any Christianity at all. Christendom is gone and now all we have is the kingdom. We are placed at the crossroads. Will we enter the kingdom or simply fade away and spiritually die?
My second motivation is moral survival. Now that I have no social fears to protect me from my sinfulness, I find that, without God, I am just like every other sinful pig. All our sin comes to the surface. Our external shell of religion can no longer protect us from the world. Now and only now do I feel I am desperate for authentic power from God without which I am morally doomed to mediocrity and nominal Christianity.
Thirdly, I am motivated to live in the world but not be of it. It is a total paradigm from religious obligation to actual compassion and otherliness. When the obligation to religious practice is gone, all that is left is the creativity to find ways to love people in practical ways. There is no religions service left to justify that we are building the kingdom. If we are to build the kingdom, we are forced to do it through organic and authentic relationships. There is no show to assist us in doing the kingdom work. There is no show to maintain. There are no more events to plan or meetings to attend. All we have at our disposal is our ability to make relationships with people and love them.
If we lack real kingdom affections and real love of God and people, we will be like the whole in the donut. We are left with no spiritual life at all. The process of stripping ourselves of all religion is pretty revealing. It has revealed in me that so much spiritual discipline was motivated by social ambition and not love for God at all. But the great benefit is that now, I am forced to only develop true spirituality. There is no more cloak of religion to hide beneath.
The conclusion is that Jesus’ sayings are again the true path to life. So my fellow travelers, “let no one on earth call you leader or teacher”. As we obey this liberating command of our Lord, in no time, if we continue to seek the kingdom and His righteousness, we will find God will do for us immeasurably beyond anything we could ask or even imagine. Glory to God!!