Tuesday, December 13, 2011

SGM Chronicles: Whose Church Is It?

At the end of my college years, the Lord began teaching me some significant things about the Church. One foundational truth was His headship over it. And like all that the Lord teaches us, the goal is not merely to apprehend the idea: it is to see the truth walked out in real life. Sadly, this is a huge disconnect, not just in SGM, but also the modern church system as a whole. The result is, we may think: “we get it,” just because our minds are informed. The truth is, we don’t get it unless we walk in it.

What did this mean for me in a practical way? It meant challenging human leadership that was clearly disconnected from the Head, and when that challenge was not heeded, shaking the dust off my feet.

At the time, I was an associate pastor of a small church in Central Kentucky. In the face of serious family and leadership issues involving the pastor, I ultimately appealed to the denominational leadership to address the problems. They insisted on affirming the pastor in his position. (I had learned some months before that there were racial considerations in this. When the pastor was planning to take extended leave, they made a plan to bring in a complete stranger. The denominational leader explained that he was concerned that the small town where the church was located might have difficulty accepting a black pastor).

Since obedience to the word of God was not the priority for the denominational leadership, my soon to be wife and I had a choice to make. I remember walking in the sanctuary and asking the Lord what to do. As He has so often, He answered my question with His own: “What have I been teaching you?” The answer was that He was head of the Church. His follow up to me was: “Am I in charge here?” There was nothing more to ask. I resigned. About a year later, everything blew up. The pastor and his wife had taken in a troubled young woman for a season. You can probably guess what happened: she became pregnant. The pastor left his wife and children and married the woman. The church literally closed its doors.

This was a clear reality check for me: a sad lesson in “the business of church.” Years later, I would learn the same lesson on a broader scale. This time the implications would be more far-reaching. As I mentioned before I was initially impressed with the structure of SGM leadership. Over time, I increasingly became restless about mission that would never come to fruition. There was plenty of talk about evangelism and “making the church look like heaven.” But the “leadership” did not do these things—they merely taught them.

So what is the disconnect? A major clue is in Colossians 2. Paul warns us about the danger of falling under captivity through philosophy and empty deceit. Later he speaks of people who would disqualify us. And what is at the heart of their error?

Not holding fast the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. Acts 2:19

As leaders our primary call is to hold fast the Head. In the human body, every function comes from the head. The same is true of the church. We function out of direct relational connection with Jesus, the Head. As we individually abide in Him, His life flows in us. Leaders who lose sight of this can unwittingly make themselves the head. By becoming defacto mediators between God and man, we become idols by replacing Jesus Himself.

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:5-6 ESV)

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3 ESV)

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8 ESV)

After laboring under the weight of suffocating pastoral management that refused to release people into ministry outside of their control, I became attracted to another church-planting ministry similar to SGM. While I recognize that its founder has a genuine apostolic grace, I soon discovered the organization in America (this ministry was founded in the United Kingdom) was steeped in the same hierarchal system. In the final months of my association there, the Spirit of God began speaking to me from His word:

But Jesus called them to him and said; “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 ESV)

A continual theme expressed to me was the need to “submit to their authority.” When I asked how people who were already abused within SGM would overcome their abuse, a so-called apostolic leader told me: “The way they overcome is to submit to our authority.” And then the Lord reminded me of this gem:

I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? (John 5:43-44 ESV)

The Lord was showing me that I had been submitting myself to people who were more concerned about their honor than His. I believe this goes a long way to explain our anemic “churches.” Because people have been cut off from the head, they are locked into spiritual infancy. Apostolic and prophetic foundations that would help bring God’s people to maturity are entirely missing. One major reason for these ministry gifts:

so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:14 ESV)

Paul saw this first hand. Some have made the argument that Diotrephes may have been the first “senior pastor.” (This “position” is nowhere in scripture)

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9-10 ESV)

Dr. Steve Crosby says this about the situation Paul describes here:

John addressed the letter to the “church,” not to the leadership. This was the custom of the time. I find it interesting that many church leaders believe all spiritual interactions within a local congregation must pass through them as the alleged “gate-keepers” of the fellowship. Diotrephes believed he had authority to control all the communications and kingdom relationships of those in “his” church. The notion that the community could be addressed without him “clearing it” first offended Diotrephes. Some leaders are much like Diotrephes in that they will not allow any outside influence in the lives of the congregation. Individual initiation and independent thought is strongly discouraged. Psychological manipulation under the guise of submission to authority is used to keep individuals under control.

Notice what Diotrephes did. He disregarded any authority but his own. Not only does he reject Paul’s authority, but he also refuses to welcome other brothers. Those who want to do so, he kicks out of the church. This controlling “spirit” seeks to corral, isolate, and insulate God’s people away from any outside input not approved by the “senior pastor.” The body of Christ is thus deprived of nourishment.

Needless to say, nearly eighteen months into our new church plant, it was time to “shake the dust off our feet.” By the way, this “church” no longer exists.

A few months later, I came across a very insightful article by Mark Setch called: “The War on Fullness.” The subtitle is: Confronting the Powers that Inhibit the Fullness of Christ in the World. Here’s a portion that is most revealing about this subject of Jesus’ Lordship:

Veteran charismatic renewal leader Bob Mumford has written a very insightful booklet titled Dr Frankenstein and World Systems. This intriguing title arises from a powerful analogy. We are probably familiar with Mary Shelley’s novel about Dr Frankenstein, who created a human being from various stolen body parts. He brings the created being to life by shooting electricity into it. The creature awakens, slides off the table and begins to walk and talk. The creature is initially gentle and innocent, but it then takes on a life of its own, and becomes a destructive terror. What Frankenstein created he could not control.

Mumford states that whenever an organization departs from its created intent, it becomes a ruling force or authority:

This force takes on, assumes, or is given power and authority that was not originally intended. The persona, i.e., the corporation or corpus, begins to exhibit coercion and tyranny. With some discernment, it can now be seen as a spiritual force, injuring and using people. Our attempts to avoid responsibility and employ self-justification when we see the system injure and control and enhanced by excusing negative behavior with such statements as, “well, you can’t fight city hall” or “This is just the way it is done here.” The system not only condones wrong actions, in some cases it encourages them for the strengthening of the authority & influence of the entity. This happens not only in secular organizations but also in churches and ministries around the world.

Can Demonized Rulers and Authorities Exist within the Church?

Many people struggle to believe that churches and ministries can be demonized. Satan would prefer us to believe that this was impossible. It’s not. Let’s consider the example of Bob Mumford’s own ministry – the parallels will then become obvious. He says:

Lifechangers, as an organization, was created in 1972. My intentions were godly and the declared purpose was to see significant teaching material translated and distributed to a minimum of twenty-five nations. Eventually it took on a life of its own. I found myself laboring long and hard to keep it alive. Expenses were paid out of my own pocket so it would continue to operate. Because I was serving it, I had to get others to serve it as well. One day I realized that it had taken on a life of its own. It (like Frankenstein’s creature) had slid off of the table and stood up, looked me square in the face and said, “I am Lifechangers, you must do what I want.” When I looked at what it had become in the light of a ruling force I thought, “Lifechangers is either going to come under His kingdom and live for God or die.” I stopped sending out appeals for money and minimized travel. Then, it seemed, the very life of the Lord started to breathe upon me and the organization. We are now free from having to serve it. The system died and Lifechangers lives to serve God’s purposes!

Can we see the parallels to many different movements and ministries that have been birthed in the purposes of God, but have moved from their original intent – moving from Kingdom values and principles to systems driven values and ‘wants’? “I am Methodism, you must do what I want.” “I am Lutheranism, you must do what I want.” “I am Calvinism, you must do what I want.” “I am Catholicism, you must do what I want.” “I am the Baptist Church/Salvation Army/Anglican Church/Uniting Church/AOG/COC, etc.—you must do what I want!”

Our blind devotion to “things” and leaders reveals a lot about our true value system. We can point fingers at leaders for what they do. But we really need to look at our own hearts and ask whether we are following Jesus or following men. All too often “follow me as I follow Christ” excludes the part about following Christ. This is a dangerous place that puts us under man’s dominion, not that of Jesus. Is it any wonder that the works of the flesh are so rampant in churches today?

The truth is Jesus is the Head. And I, along with other leaders, function as the Lord leads us, not to lord over people’s faith, but to guide, first and foremost by example. At the foundation of the prevailing leadership system is unbelief. Because we can’t see “He who is invisible,” as Moses did, we think human beings are necessary to “govern” people, mainly through behavior modification. The truth is, in a heart where Jesus is truly the Head, that person will accept His authority where it is expressed, whether directly from Him by the Holy Spirit, through leadership, or through others in the body.

The alternative is to continue demonstrating who we really are: materialists who don’t truly accept the invisible, supernatural, reign of Jesus. Is it any wonder the Spirit of God doesn’t work among us in power? Is it any wonder so many in the world see the church as an irrelevant moneymaking scheme populated by na├»ve people?

The passion of my heart is that the world will see less “church” and more Jesus as He manifests His life and power in the kingdom of God. I have no doubt He is doing it, and will do it. But this will not happen without pain and disruption, as Jesus wrests His people from the counterfeit expressions of “church” and assembles His “living stones” into a true spiritual house.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18 ESV)

So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:1-5 ESV)


KyWildcat said...

Are you suggesting that what you describe does not exist in simple church?

Ann said...

What I am seeing is that in my church we minister to one another's needs and it stops there. We are told to evangelize without putting our labor or time into action. It is very difficult to get other members to volunteer in a ministry if it is not sanctioned from the pulpit.

Vince said...

No such suggestion here KyWildcat. This is a series on a specific organization. But the same issues may be evident elsewhere. The bottom line is usurping Jesus' authority is unacceptable. It is inexcusable in any "Christian" context. And all of us are responsible in our own spheres of influence to make sure we aren't doing it, or facillitating it. Its time to stop making excuses.

Lynn said...

A trip down memory lane with scriptural encouragement as to how to avoid it and pursue only JESUS. Thanks for the insight Vince, its very appreciated.

KeenAcuity said...

How is it possible that God's people "got it wrong" when it came to meeting together, for the past 2,000 years? And if it really is flawed, how does God's sovereignty fit into the equation?

Steve said...

Very good point. Church Leaders need to realize that the church that they pastor isn't their church and it is God's. They are to be the stewards of the church God has given them.

Early when Larry Tomczak and CJ Mahaney were establishing CLC (called at the time Gathering of Believers) the leaders use to talk about leaders needing to "recognize" vs. "organize." For example leaders were to recognize the call on someone's life to be a church leader in whatever capacity vs. trying make someone or fit someone into that position. Sadly SGM has moved away from that type of thinkings.