Before we can appropriately respond to a situation, we first have to define the problem. Before a doctor can determine treatment, he has to properly diagnose the medical issue. Likewise, before an organization can recover from a myriad of issues, it has to first determine the root issue. Ironically, the church that taught us so much about discerning root issues seems unable to unearth its own. And sadly this blindness begins at the top.
When we left our SGM church in January, 2008, we were drawn to what we believed to be more evidence of life in Jesus in another church planting ministry. As I referenced before, this proved to be another dead end, as we found the same “lording over” behavior, which ultimately choked out the life of Christ. In fact, several of us who were part of that “church plant” discussed this recently. All of us agreed that the Lord was genuinely doing something special among us early on. I would contend that things took a turn downhill as certain individuals insisted on asserting “their authority”.
As I stated in previous installments in this series, I was impressed by what I thought were biblical expressions of Ephesians 4 ministry (though prophets were missing). I now believe what I have seen are perversions of apostolic expression. So if you combine this with a lack of prophetic presence, what does it leave you with? The answer is troubling. It ranges from an imbalanced ministry, to a crude business model with “Christian” flavoring.
I recently enjoyed a great teaching on “The Spirit Filled Church”. The message was great, but as our experience bears out, what good does it do for the Spirit to fill the church, if those who claim to be leaders assume a position of lordship over it and prevent the Spirit’s expression in every member? It is clear to me that “jars of clay” with a leadership label, have become the center of attention rather than the treasure that is allegedly in those jars. And there’s a profound lack of interest in the treasure the Lord puts in most of the jars… the ones without the leadership label.
In the fall of 2009, still reeling from the ill fated church plant, I attended a conference hosted by Don Atkin here in Charlotte. At this time I had only known Don for a few weeks. But it was already clear to me that when it came to apostolic expression, he was the real deal. The evidence was in his investment in the lives of many people… people now serving all over the world… people he poured his life into, and then released. The release part is a key piece of evidence, because no true apostle will ever want to see anyone eternally dependent on him.
My world was further rocked when Don did a presentation at the conference, PURSUING TOGETHER A FRESH AND CLEAR UNDERSTAND OF APOSTOLIC MINISTRY THAT IS NEITHER REACTIONARY NOR APOLOGETIC, NEITHER HIERARCHAL NOR WITHOUT SUBSTANCE.
How is this for a long title?
I will share with you some of my notes from that presentation. I think you will begin to see how the lights came on for me:
“Don began by defining ministry: it is a supply of Christ to the body. Then he addressed our ministry challenges here in the 21st century. As many of us have discovered the need to go beyond Pastor-Teacher leadership, a rediscovery of apostolic ministry is emerging. But Don warned of the danger of putting an apostolic layer over an existing religious structure. He says this is an exercise in futility. There must be a rooting out first of everything that’s not about Jesus. (this is largely a prophetic function) Then apostles and prophets can build upon a foundation of Him and Him alone.
One of our big challenges is the fact that George Barna estimates 4 out of 5 adults in America could be labeled “Casual Christians”. These are people who display no real difference in their lives from unbelievers. In other words, their profession of Christianity is false. Only about 16% fall under the label of “Captive Christians”. These are people who, like Paul, consider themselves voluntary “slaves” to Christ. They are captive to the heart and mind of God.
And complicating matters is the fact that most of the 16% who are truly followers of Christ are still in institutional churches, and are therefore not able to fully function as God intended.
So in our effort to restore the church, many of us are looking to apostles to help set things in order. But tragically, some of those who profess to be apostles are false apostles. This can be difficult to discern because much of the time false apostles are genuine believers. But Don gave us some helpful insights to make sure those we look to for apostolic leadership are truly apostolic.
Don Atkin put professing apostles into 2 categories: those in the spirit of Ishmael, and those in the spirit of Isaac. This of course is based on the sons of Abraham. Isaac fulfilled the promise, but before his arrival, Ishmael was the product of Sarah attempting to “help” God out. He came first. So very often, before something is truly birthed of God, Ishmael shows up, masquerading as God’s apostolic answer.
So what does the Ishmael apostle look like? Abraham’s first son set a sour tone for sonship. So, in like manner, apostles in this lineage are the source of conflicts. Isaac, on the other hand is a source of peace. Order and peace are fruits of the Spirit. Ishamel had some godly roots, but he produced more of the spirit of Egypt than of Abraham’s God.
Here are key distinctions between true and false apostles, or those of Isaac and those of Ishmael:
Ishmael: life flows from their followers up to them. They are on a platform and everyone looks up to them, and they’re often more affluent than those who they are ostensibly serving
Isaac: apostles are often impoverished. They speak little about money. Paul laid down his life and made tents. Life flows from them, not to them. They lead a love revolution
True apostolic fathers wash the feet of the “sons” they disciple. Those of Ishmael train these “sons” to wash theirs.
Elder Statesmen not merely Fathers
Fathers can be tribal and more subject to competition and jostling for position with other fathers and tribes. Statesmen deal with issues that transcend tribes. They do not subscribe to tribal mentalities that are parochial. They also do not come to seek something for themselves, but seek a kingdom agenda
Cross pollination rather than control
Those of Ishmael seek to control. Those of Isaac promote cross pollination across tribes. They tolerate “messy” growth without smothering with supervision
Legitimize Ideas not people
Those of Ishmael sell legitimacy like priests used to sell indulgences. These apostles legitimate people. They promote a code of brotherhood similar to the KKK or the Mafia in return for loyalty. They are also impervious to accusations. Those of Isaac legitimize ideas. Regular believers are released to do the cutting edge work.
Impact rather than impart
Ishmael apostles pose as purveyors of the power of God. They do all the praying, prophesying, etc to impart something to the people. The rank and file believers are treated as if they have a “junior holy spirit”. Those of Isaac help to unpack what God has already put within His people
Equip instead of inform
Ishmael apostles believe they have to tell the flock everything they need to know, stunting true spiritual growth. Those of Isaac give people multiple resources and keep responsibility for their lives in their own hands where it should be.
Being rather than doing
Ishamel types have to be in charge and active in everything in the church to validate their apostolic positions. They use language to stir the flesh into action.
Isaac apostles promote a goal of displacement. Their desire is to reproduce themselves so the body is not always dependent on them. They walk in the blessing of presence. When an apostle is in the house, his gifting rises, no matter where he sits. Gifts are released in people he’s around. Peace is also released. True apostles carry the presence of God and blessing everywhere they go.
Summing up, Don challenged us to do 5 things:
1. Don’t be distracted by what’s false. God will deal with those issues in His time. We have to remain redemptive in our perspective
2. Recognize that some who have the heart of a son may have only been exposed to systems of slavery
3. There will be a continual need to heal the casualties of false apostles. But this is best done in private and with as little drama as possible. This is where we must be statesmen and diplomats.
4. “Isaacs” are raised up by God, not by men
5. Through wisdom, a house is built. Paul was committed to knowing nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. At the heart of a true apostle is SERVANTHOOD. Biblical authority is held lightly, exercised faithfully, expressed relationally, and followed willingly."
After reading this, doesn’t it explain a lot about what you currently see within SGM? I would observe that those who claim to be “apostles” are really little more than teachers acting as “regional superintendents”… men who make sure the “company line” is followed and the “ministry” brand is protected. Then individual “churches” become little more than “pastoral plantations”, where people are compelled to “serve the vision” of the appointed leader(s). And sadly that service rarely leaves the building. Much of the so called “church ministry” is geared toward keeping the organization functioning, so there’s very little real evangelism or mission.
I am personally aware of a number of very restless men at an SGM church who are very anxious to get on with the mission of the gospel. Sadly, they’re waiting for some sort of “training” or “knighting” process that for some may never come. The result is they languish, week after week, sitting under the teaching of men who are frankly spiritually and relationally broken and dysfunctional. They have no idea their fellowship with the Father and maturity transcends that of their “leaders”.
And in the midst of the current turmoil within SGM, the leadership would do well to consider (as I suggested in “Where Are the Prophets?) that the wisdom to resolve their current issues is likely available to them through “regular” people in their congregations. The tragedy is the leadership has such a low view of “rank and file” believers that this is highly unlikely. The leaders would do well to consider the example of Paul. In Romans 1, he described his eagerness to see his spiritual family:
For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.
(Romans 1:11-13 ESV)
Paul was eager to impart a spiritual gift. But notice what else he expected: mutual encouragement by each other’s faith. He’s saying “I have something for you, and I also know you have something for me.” Paul knew how to receive the “treasure” from his brothers. He was not a “know it all” leader. He knew he had a part of the manifestation of Christ, not all of it. The rest was in the rest of the body. If only today’s vaunted “spiritual” leaders would learn this. Also notice how he refers to them as brothers. This is not by any means a subservient relationship they have with him. Paul didn’t send this letter to the leaders of the church in Rome. It went to the whole family and he addresses them as family members with equal standing.
And there’s more we can learn on this from Jesus:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
(John 13:1-17 ESV)
Most of the sermons I’ve heard on this tend to focus on us washing the feet of others. This has been followed up by foot washing services by some groups as a regular practice. I don’t believe the Lord was establishing a “church ordinance” here. And the angle of us washing the feet of others is good. But we need to take a close look at Peter. He initially resisted, until the Lord made it clear that he couldn’t have any share with him. Once Peter got it, he went overboard, suggesting that Jesus completely wash his body. This was unnecessary. The point is Peter had to be willing to receive the “cleansing hand” of Jesus. I think this is where many of us miss it, especially leaders. We think we belong on the washing end all the time, when the truth is, it is just as important (and sometimes more essential) that we are on the receiving end. Are we willing to let anyone in the body wash our feet, whether they are in “leadership” or not? Very often, we want to pick and choose who we believe is worthy to wash our feet. In the Kingdom of God, that’s not how it works. We submit to His authority, no matter who it comes from.
Notice also where Jesus promises blessing: is it from teaching this?, or from boasting about how well taught we are from our SGM pastor on it? No, the blessing comes from doing, and anyone who claims to be a leader should demonstrate the ability to wash… and also be washed by others. You can’t lead if you haven’t learned how to follow Jesus.
There’s also an account the Lord has stirred in my heart in recent weeks, about the coming of Jesus.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
(Isaiah 11:6-9 ESV)
Why does this fascinate me? Because I’m beginning to understand Jesus’ kingdom authority. Wherever He reigns, there is peace and divine order. This isn’t just about animals getting along when one would previously see the other as a meal, or even about children being able to lead them or play in the presence of serpents. It is a picture of Jesus’ kingdom authority. Wherever He reigns, there is peace and divine order. Everyone and everything must bow. Listen church, today the Lord called us out of darkness to offer a preview of the culmination of the new creation. This is ultimately not about “church”, it is about Jesus and His kingdom. If the posture of our hearts is truly under Jesus’ authority, we will receive Him no matter how he presents himself: not just from leaders, but each other, our children. And the truth is the top down hierarchal approach is NEVER the way Jesus worked. Understanding this will forever change our posture toward one another, especially for those who think there’s a place “on top” in the Kingdom of God, whether for ourselves or others. This carnality has to go. Leaders need to stop behaving as if they are lords, and people need to stop allowing them to behave that way.
Two Paths: Repentance or Reconciliation
It was CJ Mahaney who preached a message on the fact that our hearts can be “Idol Factories”. I would suggest SGM has embedded idolatry into the very fabric of the organization. (Frankly, most expressions of “church” do the same thing.) I will identify those specific areas of idolatry I can attest to:
The local church: this idea is nowhere expressed in scripture. The only thing that comes close are references to churches by city. The idea of multiple “churches” in one city is foreign to the New Testament. This also raises the question of why anyone would do a “church plant” in a city where genuine Christians are already present. This again exposes the fact that we are most concerned that our brand is represented. In truth, we’re only contributing to the disunity and religious balkanization of that city.
When we left our SGM church, the “senior pastor” belittled our involvement with a “church plant” and boasted that “we know how to plant churches”. This is far from anything to brag about. The truth is this organization knows how to identify upper income communities that line up with their business model. (I talked to several SGM leaders who confirmed they are more “equipped” to plant in middle and upper class neighborhoods.) Bottom line, what we’re talking about here with church plants is ‘hay, wood, and stubble.” We need to repent for causing divisions that put “our group” above the “one man” of the body described in scripture.
Leadership: everything in the church revolves around leaders. In the “local church” it is the preaching/teaching ministry, and all of the ministries in the church revolve around his/theirs. In true kingdom expression, they revolve around Jesus, and leaders function as brothers, not overlords or supervisors. We need to repent of our loyalty of any devotion to leaders that puts us at variance with other believers. And leaders who demand exclusive loyalty and devotion to you, your church, your ministry, etc, shame on you!.
Reformed theology/sound doctrine: Paul knew nothing among the people but Jesus and him crucified. SGM promotes an elitist perspective that they know more than most in the evangelical world. Members boast that they are so “well taught”. But to what end? Information is a far cry from incarnation and illumination. If we are simply hearers and not doers, who cares how much we know? This is a formula for pride and self deception.
I remember when SGM’s top leaders started a conference with other top leaders in the reformed movement in America. One SGM leader stood in the pulpit on a Sunday morning and showed off a picture of the SGM leadership with these other “big names”. In hindsight it is now obvious what this was about: “We’ve arrived!” And why? Because we are DOING what God has called us to do? No, because we’re in with the “big names”. This is nothing but pride of life, and that is incompatible with the love of God. This carnality was not even hidden. Sadly I’m not sure the blatant carnality of this was recognized at the time. (I must confess I didn’t)
We need to repent of our sense of superiority for “having the right doctrine” and manifesting that by our disconnection with the rest of the body. Leaders who have encouraged this ethos need to repent. (for those outside SGM there may be other theological litmus tests we use to judge others)
At this time of crisis, Jesus stands at the door and knocks. But He will not simply come in to allow us to give Him lip service. He is Lord, so if the leadership of SGM and its member churches truly want Jesus, opening this door means one thing: giving Him His rightful place on the throne. This means well meaning men who have occupied that place in people’s lives will have to step off. Unless and until that happens, this “ministry” will only continue its unfortunate pattern of “deceiving and being deceived”. I pray that brave men will choose the King of Kings over paychecks and the pats on the back from religious fraternity brothers . Otherwise I pray the Lord will continue to open the eyes of people “under” them. Sadly, some of these men may not get it until they find themselves preaching to each other in empty sanctuaries.