Following the Leader
Anyone who has been around children will have heard the little song that has as refrain, "Following the leader, the leader, the leader; We're following the leader wherever he may go." It may sound crass, but this refrain well describes what we see in the broader North American Christian world. Many groups are very much tied to a particular leader. Generally, these are not people who have risen to a prominent place within a particular church denomination but they have started their own church and secured a significant group of loyal followers. People will follow such leaders wherever they may go. Some of these leaders even establish new denominations. At other times, churches remain part of their original denomination but become associated with the new leader by adopting his methods and programs. In most cases, the leaders will spread their influence through print and electronic media.
Local and national examples
It is not hard to find some examples. In the town where I live, with a population of around 28,000 people, there is one group with no denominational affiliation that was established in the year 2000 and worships at the former local movie theatre. The statement of faith is minimal. The words about the Lord Jesus, the Bible, and the Trinity could easily be printed on a three by five index card with room to spare. Another group, incorporated in 1992, has set up a ministry in a large barn just outside of town on a very scenic property. The latter has a woman as the founding pastor, as well as a daughter and son as pastors.
On a larger scale, one can think of the mega churches. Many were started apart from any denominational affiliation. One such example is the enormously successful Willow Creek Community Church, founded by Bill Hybels. Over the years, there also has developed what is called the "multi campus church." In this arrangement a church may have locations across the same city or even across the nation. In many cases, by the use of technology, the same person preaches to people in different places simultaneously. An example of this is Mars Hill, centered in Seattle. The key figure associated with this is Mark Driscoll. An example of this in Ontario is something called the Meeting House, which presents itself as "a church for people who aren't into church." This is officially affiliated with the Brethren in Christ church in the US. During the week the leader will prepare his message at a central location which is then shown in the local Meeting House gatherings on Sunday.
Related to this is what is called "para-church ministries." Literally, that means beside the church or alongside the church. At the heart of these is a founder who had a "vision." I put that in quotation marks for sometimes they may claim to have a direct vision from God. More often, it refers to a vision that formed in their mind through various life experiences. The promotional literature will tend to speak heavily of being called by God to a particular ministry. Just pay attention to the various brochures and mailings you receive soliciting funds and you will come across examples. You may read the material and be left with a sense of guilt for not supporting people who felt called by God. Many para-church ministries turn into impressive organizations with annual conferences around the country, featuring as keynote speaker, of course, the founder. Usually he has authored many books as well.
Scripture and leadership
Now the thought might arise, "So what that these people have started their own church? So what that one person is so prominent? Aren't they leading people to Christ?" One could even quote the words of our Lord Jesus,
Do not stop him. No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.Mark 9:39, 40
One could bring in Paul's words in the letter to the Philippians where he wrote about those who preach Christ out of selfish ambition. He wrote, "But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motive or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice" (Phil 1:18).
While those texts would seem to silence further criticism, one should be fair and also think of other parts of Scripture. For example, in Matthew 7:15-23 we read how the Lord Jesus warned about false prophets, and how they would be known by their fruit. He said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven." In the same vein, Paul warned the Ephesians about wolves that would attack the flock, often disguised in sheep's clothing (Acts 20:29-31). We can also think of Paul's warning found in his second letter to Timothy,
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.2 Tim 4:3
When we take note of these various passages, we will realize that while we must be careful in judging, this does not take away the need to use discernment with respect to those who present themselves as leaders. Just because someone presents himself as a leader does not mean we should follow him wherever he will go. Rather, we should let ourselves be guided by what we read in the Scriptures about leadership. What stands out in Scripture when it comes to being leaders of God's people is that one must be properly chosen for that task. In the Old Testament, we do come across examples of special appointments, especially the prophets. When it came to kings, in both the lives of Saul and David we read of God's anointed being appointed after the involvement of the people. In the New Testament, apart from the direct appointment of the apostles by the Lord himself, we see how the Lord used the congregation to choose leaders for the new churches that had been established. The key point is that you did not take an office upon yourself.
In Hebrews 5 this is even applied to our Lord Jesus. We read, "No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, 'You are my Son, today I have become your Father..." (Heb 5:4, 5). It is striking that our Lord Jesus did not begin his public ministry until his baptism by John. There were witnesses to the voice coming from heaven and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove. Our Lord's calling was also confirmed in his transfiguration, witnessed by three disciples.
Belgic Confession Article 31
This principle of being properly called to a position of leadership is also captured in the Belgic Confession. In Article 31 it is stated that leaders "ought to be chosen to their office by lawful election of the church ... Therefore everyone shall take care not to intrude by improper means. He shall wait for the time he is called by God so that he may have sure testimony and thus be certain that his call comes from the Lord." In this phrase the Confession was interacting with the Anabaptists and their multitude of self-appointed leaders. There was a tendency for anyone who thought he or she felt the moving of the Spirit to take up a position of leadership. All that was needed was a sense of an inner call, which others were not allowed to dispute. This, of course, set the stage for many divisions.
It is worthwhile to also highlight the reason Article 31 gives for what could be called an external rather than an internal calling process. It is stated that the one called "may have sure testimony and thus be certain that his call comes from God." In this the concern is not even so much that other people may know that one was properly called to the office but especially that the one called may have that assurance. If one was to depend only upon an internal call, that sense of being called might disappear. Especially when facing difficulties and challenges, a leader might wonder whether he was mistaken in his call. When there has been an external process, however, he may find assurance that the Lord has placed him in office and therefore will also equip him for that task. A proper process of calling results in proper confidence both for the one called to lead and those called to follow.
Appreciating our God-given leaders
All this is helpful to think about at the time of the year when congregations go through the process of electing new office bearers. Local councils do not solicit names of volunteers. In the church one does not run for office. One does not put himself forward. This is true even for those who study for the ministry. They may study and gather skills for ministry, but when their studies are done they do not impose themselves on the churches nor submit applications. They present themselves as available for call but they are dependent upon being called by a congregation.
To be sure, the Lord uses men to lead his people. We are called to obey our leaders and submit to them. At the same time, the Lord also has made clear that it is not a matter of feeling called in one's heart but of being called through an external process. We need to be on the alert for those who simply put themselves forward as leaders, who know how to scratch itching ears and so have people follow them wherever they will go. Our God-given leaders, the elders, deacons, and ministers properly called, may not have the charisma and flair of the self appointed leaders, but they are God's instruments. The Lord uses them, however, so that it may be clear faith does not rest on men's wisdom but on God's power (1 Cor 2:5).