When groups of disciples are considered “drawn away,” their identity is in the fact that they establish a fellowship that is often centered around a person, which person is usually the preacher. Their assembly before their preacher establishes the uniqueness of the group and becomes the means by which the adherents maintain their identity as a unique group in the community. We have often engaged others by asking, “Who is your preacher?” The response varies, but is often something as, “We go to brother John’s church.” Assemblies are thus the opportunity for the “brother Johns” of the community to weekly assemble the sheep around their preaching, and thus, retain their faithfulness. Attendance at the assembly is the indication that one is faithful to the preacher to whom he has given allegiance and the group with which he has placed his membership.
Before the Reformation Movement five hundred years ago, the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) of the Roman Catholic Church was the center of the Mass. Regardless of all the distorted views of the Eucharist, Catholics were rightly assembled together for the Mass that was provided over by the Catholic priest. The historian, Will Durant, wrote that the Roman Catholic Mass was …
… based partly on the Judaic Temple service, partly on Greek mystery rituals of purification, vicarious sacrifice, and participation (Caesar and Christ, NY, Simon & Schuster, 1950, p.599).
Once the Mass was established as the center of Catholic assemblies, it remained such for over a thousand years. All was well until Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) rose up to reform Catholic liturgy during the Mass. In 1520, Luther launched his attack against what he considered pagan concepts in the Eucharist during the Catholic Mass. In 1523, Luther published his reforms of the Catholic Mass. In his published reforms, he made preaching, not the Eucharist, the center of the assembly. He wrote,
A Christian congregation should never gather together without the preaching of God’s Word and prayer, no matter how briefly …. … the preaching and teaching of God’s Word is the most important part of Divine service (Luther’s Works, LIII,11).
Almost the entire Protestant world after the Reformation followed the teaching of Luther on the assembly by instituting preaching as the primary function in the assembly of the church. In doing this, the very thing about which Paul warned the Ephesian elders became so ingrained in religious liturgies that church groups go scrambling when their preacher leaves or dies. Search committees are established just to reestablish the center of reference of the assembly, for most churches today center their assemblies around the preacher and preaching.
The tendency to center assemblies around a prominent leader (the preacher) played itself out well during the Industrial Revolution that started the latter part of the eighteen century. As industry flourished in Europe and the West in the eighteen century, it was easy to bring the behavior of the boss at the local factory into the function of the local group of disciples. We erroneously viewed the successful boss in industry to be a candidate for leadership in the church. Many churches, therefore, sought first for someone around whom they could be organized, rather than someone who knew their Bible.
The irony of the progression into sectarian denominationalism among the disciples of our Lord is that those who have historically sought to prevent such, have assumed an embedded divisive theology that created the very same sectarian denominationalism they were fighting against. These warriors against hierarchal authority actually developed a foreign concept to the New Testament. They taught group independence in order to prevent a universal hierarchy of ruling lords on earth. In other words, lording was tolerated over independent groups of disciples that were led by the preacher, or “eldership,” in order to prevent lording over many groups of disciples.
In order to prevent an apostasy to a worldwide Catholic apostasy, some have created a theology that developed “autonomous churches” that they believed would guard against becoming a universal denominational hierarchy. Instead of moving into a worldwide Catholic hierarchy, some developed autonomous hierarchies within each denominated group of disciples. We have since drifted to interpret passages that discuss unity in the New Testament with the prejudice of our behavior of being independent churches who are struggling to work together in union.
In order to prevent a Catholic heresy of a worldwide network of authorities, we must simply obey the mandate of Jesus in Mark 10:43,44. Rather than creating an erroneous doctrine of division that would inherently create that from which we flee, it is better to challenge those who would leave their ministry of servanthood to become lords of independent flocks. The prevention of networks of authority is not in creating doctrines that inherently produce division. We must deal with lording leaders and erroneous teachings. We must not do so by establishing any teaching or function that is inherently divisive. It is not difficult to resort to the word of God to rebuke those who would seek to lord over the flock of God. Wolves who need rebuking are not hard to identify by their teaching that is contrary to truth. Lords are identified by their hierarchal commands. Wolves are identified by their heretical teachings.
We have found that those who are obsessed with the word of God usually have little difficulty in not becoming obsessed with becoming lords. When one feels controlled by the direction of the word of God, he has little desire to control others by his own word. He does not seek to control by his own word because he is so full of the word of God. He cannot help himself but speak the oracles of God (1 Pt 4:11).
On the other hand, we have found that those leaders who have little knowledge of the word of God are the ones who are quick to lord over the flock. Because of their lack of knowledge of the word of God, they have nothing by which to lead than the intimidating pronouncement of a command. Lordship leaders, therefore, usually depend on their position to command, not on their pronouncement of the word of God.
In the case of the apostasy that was coming the way of the Ephesian disciples, men who sought to be the center of reference of a group of disciples would be doing the drawing away. These men would use their influence among the sheep to assume authority over the sheep. In order to prevent such a scenario from developing today, the sheep need to take action when either a wolf or sheep stealer arises among them. Assembling the sheep into independent denominations is no prevention against the establishment of a worldwide network of authorities. Denominationalism is the problem. A theology of denominationalism is not the cure for sectarian division among the sheep.
Denominationalism among the sheep is the indication that lords exist over different groups of sheep. But when all the leadership of all the sheep meet together, as was the case in Acts 15 in Jerusalem, the leaders stopped those who would seek to rise up and be the chairman of the board of church leaders. The “circumcision brethren,” who brought fear among the Gentile brethren with legalistic knives in their pockets, were thwarted by the freedom that we have in Christ (See Gl 5:1). We must never forget that lords always bring bondage.
[Next lecture: November 14]