Last week we looked at God’s plan for leadership in the Body of Messiah. And we saw that Jesus’ ideas about leadership are completely different than the world’s ideas about leadership. In fact, Jesus’ plan for leadership in the Body of Messiah is just the opposite of the world’s way of leading. He said that to be a leader in the Body of Messiah, you must be a servant; and to be the first, you must be a slave to all the others. Since he, the Lord, acted this way, there is none of us that is above being a servant, because none of us is above Jesus.
We got into this topic by talking about God’s plan for leadership in the local church. So far, we’ve seen that of the five ministry gifts, pastors and teachers were local ministries, while the others were usually travelling ministries.
We also saw that there was no single pastor in Bible days like there is in so many churches today. Rather, the word “pastor” was used to refer to the elders, of which there were several in each church. These elders were involved in teaching, since one of the requirements for being an elder was being “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). But not all the elders were equally involved in teaching and preaching.
As Paul said to Timothy, “Let the elders who lead well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those laboring in word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17). “Those laboring in word and doctrine” means those who spent a lot of time preaching and teaching. And since he says “especially those laboring in word and doctrine,” this tells us that not all the elders were intensively involved in preaching and teaching. But the ones who did were worthy of double honor, which in the context is talking about providing financially for them (1 Tim. 5:18: “for the Scripture says, ‘the threshing ox you will not muzzle [Deut. 25:4],’ and ‘the laborer is worthy of his wages [Luke 10:7]’”).
So shepherding the flock, taking care of the individuals in the body, was recognized as a different gift than teaching and preaching. Pastoring is a more personal, one-on-one kind of ministry. Teaching and preaching is more often directed to the group as a whole. There was some overlap between these, but different people had different strengths in different areas.
But preaching was done not just by the elders, but by whoever had a calling to preach, including the traveling ministries of the apostles, prophets, and evangelists that came through from time to time. This meant that the teaching came from different sources. Sometimes members of the church would teach, or even visitors, when God had given them a message.
In the synagogue, one of the elders was elected to be the president of the synagogue, as for example Jairus (“And one of the heads of the synagogue appeared, Jairus by name, and seeing him, fell at his feet,” Mark 5:22). There was also Crispus in Acts 18:8; and Sosthenes in Acts 18:17. The president of the synagogue usually served for a year or two, though in some places it was a lifelong and even a hereditary position. The head of the synagogue was the CEO of the synagogue, he decided all practical daily affairs: upkeep, operation, order, and sanctity of the service.
In the churches, when the president was also a preacher and teacher, this position was similar to that of a modern pastor. But though he was the president, he still remained one of the elders, all of which had equal authority. So there was still a plurality of leadership. There was still accountability.
It was only after the time of the New Testament that this head elder came to be known as a bishop (a position similar to a head pastor today), and claimed more and more control over the church and over the elders. Eventually these bishops claimed regional authority. And this is when many of the abuses of the Catholic and Orthodox churches began, because of too much power in the hands of too few people. The leaders were no longer accountable to the people. And the further the churches went away from the Bible’s plan for leadership, the worse it got.
This was the whole reason for the Reformation in Europe. The Western Church had made one man, the pope, leader over the entire church. That was way too much power. And it corrupted so many of these men. Many popes had mistresses, with illegitimate children, some of whom became popes themselves. There was misuse of money. The list of evils goes on and on, not only of the popes themselves but also of many other high church leaders.
This is an important part of the reason for the scandals going on in the Catholic Church today. What’s the problem? Too much power, with too little accountability. Without accountability, there’s nothing to keep church leaders honest, there’s nothing to protect them from being tempted.
The Reformation rejected the authority of the pope. But as the saying goes, in place of the pope in Rome, the Protestants set up hundreds and thousands of “popes” everywhere: church leaders with lots of power but little or no accountability. In other words, we just reproduced the same problem on a smaller scale. This is especially true in newer churches that give way too much authority to a single pastor, for whom there is often no accountability to the congregation at all.
Some of these leaders gain power through misuse of the Bible. Hebrews 13:17 is a great example. It’s often translated, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them.” Have you ever had this verse used against you? Power-hungry leaders love to use this verse to pressure their followers to do whatever they say. You can go on the internet and finds dozens of testimonies about how leaders have used this verse to get people to do something that wasn’t right. This is called spiritual abuse. It’s a misuse and twisting of the Word of God.
But let’s look more closely at the language here: First of all, it does not say to submit to a single individual. Remember, there was no single pastor or senior pastor in Bible days of the kind we have today. Hebrews was written to a congregation with a plurality of leaders: many elders, many pastors, all of whom were equal in authority. Also, the first verb here, peitho has the root meaning “to persuade.” So a more accurate translation is “Be persuaded by your leaders and yield to them.” This verse doesn’t say you have to do whatever a leader tells you to do. It’s talking about having a teachable spirit, being open to the leadership of the church. It is talking about an environment of teaching and learning.
One of the common teachings you hear these days is that you have to come under the “covering” of the leadership in your local church. Have you ever heard this teaching? This teaching makes many believers concerned or even frightened about being without a spiritual “covering.” Some leaders use this to make members afraid of leaving the church. Others use it to make members afraid of questioning any decision made by church leaders. Others use it to require every personal decision of the member to be approved by the pastor. I have heard about churches like this here in Taichung, where the pastor gets involved in the members’ personal decisions. I’m not talking about counseling, where someone asks for advice about what the Bible teaches. I’m talking about when the pastor pressures people into getting all their personal decisions approved by the pastor, rather than letting them make their own decisions themselves.
This is an abuse of spiritual power. It’s not Biblical. And it’s wrong. The idea of a church covering is not taught anywhere in the Bible. It’s a doctrine of men, not of God. If you’re a believer, you’re already covered by the blood of Jesus. And there is no better covering than that. Rom. 4:7 says, “Blessed are those whose lawlessness is forgiven and whose sins are covered.” We’re also covered by the love of the Body as a whole: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). The Bible never says anything about being covered by the local church leadership. This teaching is made up of verses taken out of their original context. If you have been deceived by this false teaching, I want you to be set free today, in Jesus’ name!
One of the classic verses used by this false teaching is 1 Sam. 15:23: “for rebellion is as the sin of divination.” But this is talking about rebellion against God, not against a human leader (1 Sam. 15:19). Remember, Jesus said we have one leader: Jesus himself. The rest of us are all brothers. As we’ve seen before, submitting to leaders is only one part of the Bible’s instruction for leadership. There are far more verses that talk about submitting to one another, and even more about leaders submitting to and serving others.
In some churches, the leader claims to be “God’s anointed.” He will often take this to mean that you must submit and never question his authority. In some churches, if you even question why decisions were made, you are considered out of line or rebellious. They will use verses like “Do not touch my anointed” to avoid accountability (1 Chr. 16:22, Psa. 105:15). But if you read the context, the “anointed ones” the Bible is talking about are the whole people of God, not just the leaders (Psa. 105:12-15).
Of course, there are verses that talk about God’s anointed king, as when David refused to hurt Saul because he was the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam. 24:6). But the only Biblical king over the church is Messiah Jesus. All the rest of us are brothers: we’re all equal before the Lord. Remember, Jesus said we’re not even supposed to call anyone on earth rabbi or leader.
The job of the eldership is to protect the church from false teachings like this. This means that for the eldership structure of the New Testament to work, it requires mature, seasoned elders, who will not easily be swayed by the winds of doctrine. They are to take care of, protect, and encourage the flock. They are to watch over them, to make sure everything is going okay, and that they are safe and protected.
The reason the elders were called elders was that they were usually the older men in the church or synagogue. They were the ones who had been around a while, long enough to see different winds of doctrine blow through, and not be shaken by them anymore. This is why Peter said, “In the same way, you younger ones, be subject to the elders; but all being subject to one another, clothe yourselves with humility, for God resists the proud, but he gives grace (favor) to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). The younger ones should submit to the elders because of their longer experience in the Body of Messiah. But all of us should be subject to one another, with humble spirits. There is no room in the Body of Messiah for arrogance or pride. Only those who are humble receive the favor of God. Paul teaches the same thing in Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another in the fear of Messiah.”
But of course it’s not only the job of the elders, the shepherds, but the job of everyone to make sure that the teaching we receive is Biblical. We are all supposed to exercise discernment. As it says in 1 Cor. 14:29: “And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.” This is talking about a worship service. The “prophets” mentioned here do not necessarily foretell the future. They share a message from God, like a preacher today. It might involve something in the future, or it might not. The point is that it was a message from God. And yes, believe it or not, in those days they would have two or three sermons in one service!
But you weren’t just supposed to believe everything you heard. You were to discern (“pass judgment”) whether the message was from God or not. We are never supposed to believe something just because somebody says it—no matter who they are. Don’t believe things just because I say them, either. Make sure everything you hear lines up with the Bible. If you hear something new—check it out. Make sure it’s Biblical. Because actually there should be no new doctrine in the Body of Messiah.
The faith was delivered once for all to the saints (“…I felt the necessity to write to you, encouraging you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints,” Jude 1:3). But the problem is that now we’ve got so far away from the Bible in many areas, that the original faith sometimes sounds new to us, even though it’s not. So we need to check it out. Just because a teaching is popular doesn’t mean it’s right—right? There are plenty of foolish things that whole nations have believed. But that didn’t make them right. And there are a lot of foolish things that large parts of the Body of Messiah believe today that are not at all Biblical.
Sure, a pastor can hold up a verse. But is he using that verse the way the Bible uses that verse? For example, did you know you can use the Bible to prove there is no God? Yes. Psalm 14:1 clearly says “There is no God.” Did you know that? But if you read the whole verse, it says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” This is why it’s so important to check things out for yourself in the Bible.
As an example of this, I’d like to take a look at a verse that is very popular in some churches today. “With God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). (Actually, this same phrase appears in a couple of other places too, but we’ll start with the one in Matthew.) This verse is used to preach all kinds of things.
It’s especially popular with prosperity teachers who try to get you to believe that if you give to their ministry, you’ll get rich. Or that it’s God’s will for you to be a millionaire. Just confess and believe, right? Focus your faith on what you want, and it will be yours! ‘All things are possible!’
Well, let’s check it out. This verse appears in the story often called the Rich Young Ruler. This is when a wealthy young man came up to Jesus to see how he could get eternal life. So he asked Jesus, “Teacher, what good thing can I do that I may have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). Now notice immediately what he’s asking. It sounds like he’s asking how he can earn eternal life: ‘what should I do to get eternal life.’
Jesus saw immediately that there was a problem here. So he said to him, “Why are you asking me about what is good? Only one is good (in other words, only God is good).” Why did Jesus say that? Because the young man was not looking to God for the answer. He was looking to man. But you say, Jesus is God. Yes, of course, but this young man didn’t believe that. Nobody knew it at the time, not even Jesus’ disciples. He probably just thought of Jesus as a famous teacher. But Jesus was trying to get him to look to God, not man, for eternal life.
So he told him something that any rabbi would have said at the time: “but if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17b). Which ones, he asked? “And Jesus said, ‘You will not commit murder, you will not commit adultery, you will not steal, you will not bear false witness, honor your father and mother, and you will love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt. 19:18,19). Jesus gave him five of the ten commandments, plus love your neighbor. These are all things from the Law of Moses.
But notice that Jesus doesn’t say that eternal life would come from obeying these things, he just said “if you want to enter into life.” Why did he say that? He’s referring to Lev. 18:5, a very well known verse at the time, “And you will keep my statutes and my judgments which if a man will do, he will live by them; I am the LORD.” The Law of Moses was intended to bring life, as Paul says in another place (Rom. 7:10), but only if you obeyed all of it (James 2:10).
But the young man said, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” (Matt. 19:20). This was a bright young man. He recognized that keeping the Law of Moses, which he had done all his life, did not bring the promise of eternal life. The Law of Moses is only related to the things of this life. He knew that something more was needed for eternal life.
So Jesus told him, "If you want to be perfect (or complete, or mature; in other words, if you want to reach the goal of eternal life), go, sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in the heavens, and come follow me” (Matt. 19:21). Reaching the goal of eternal life is only possible through following Jesus. And to do that, he would have to sell everything, give the money away which would being an eternal reward, and then follow Jesus wherever he led.
This is one of the hard sayings of Jesus. Some teach that he only said it to this particular young man, because he was wealthy, and this was what was hindering him from following Jesus. Have you heard that explanation? But actually, Jesus said it to all of his disciples: “In the same way, then, any of you that does not give up all his possessions cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Whoa! Jesus, do you really mean that? Now, this is just about the opposite of the prosperity gospel, I think you will agree. Some people say, though, that this saying of Jesus only means that you must turn over ownership of your possessions to Jesus: you still keep them, but you just do what Jesus says with them. Have you ever heard that one? It’s very clever, right? The problem is that the verb used here, apotasso in Greek, means “say goodbye to” or “take leave of.” Jesus said you have to say “goodbye” to your stuff.
Now maybe some of you did sell all your possessions to come here to Taiwan. We did this when we went the second time to the Philippines. Of course, we had the problem that nobody wanted to buy some of our possessions—that was a little tricky. “Okay, Lord, now what do we do?” But this is what Jesus is talking about. This is what the Bible is talking about when it says to live by faith: trusting God to supply your needs.
So how did the wealthy young man react? “But the young man, having heard this saying, went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Matt. 19:22). He was grieving, yes, but not enough to do what Jesus said. He was not willing to do what it takes to become a disciple of Jesus.
So Jesus said to his disciples: “Amen I say to you that a rich man will enter with difficulty into the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 19:23). This, too, is quite different than the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel says that if you are rich, you are blessed by God, that you are favored by God, and the door to heaven is wide open to you. But Jesus’ message is just the opposite. He said it’s difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom.
How difficult? “But again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). How difficult would you say that is? Hmmm. You’d have to put the camel through a blender first.
Some people teach that the “eye of a needle” mentioned here refers to a small gate in Jerusalem that was used at night after the main gates were shut. It was so small, that the camels had to kneel down to enter, and so a rich man has to kneel down to enter the kingdom. Have you heard this one? Is it true? First of all, in Greek it does not say “the eye of a needle,” which is what it would say if this were a place name. Second, as my archeology teacher puts it, Gabi Barkay, who is the most knowledgeable archeologist in the world about the ancient city of Jerusalem: we know every gate that ever existed in Jerusalem, and there was never a gate called “the Eye of a Needle.” This is a Christian myth, first invented in the Middle Ages.
So what did Jesus mean? Camel. Needle. You guessed it. It’s impossible, right? So what was Jesus saying? That for a rich person, it’s impossible to give up everything to follow Jesus. For us it was easy, we owned practically nothing. Easy come, easy go. But it’s not that way for a rich person.
The disciples were shocked when they heard this teaching: “But when they heard this, the disciples were very much astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (Matt. 19:25). If it’s that difficult for the rich, how can anyone be saved?
That’s when Jesus said, “For men, this is impossible. But for God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). What did Jesus mean by this? Humanly speaking, it’s impossible for a rich person to give up everything like this. But with God’s help, it’s even possible that a rich person might sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Jesus. And it has happened, though rarely, in history.
So does this verse mean that God wants to make us rich, “With God, all things are possible”? Not at all. It means that with God’s help, even rich people can sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Jesus. In other words, it means exactly the opposite of what many prosperity teachers claim it to teach.
Now as I said, this is not the only place this phrase appears in the Bible. But the other places it appears are also quite different than preaching prosperity. In Mark 9:22,23, Jesus uses it to talk about healing a boy with a demon spirit. The boy’s father said, “‘And it has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.’” Here, ‘all things are possible’ is being used to talk about casting out evil spirits.
And in Mark 14:36, Jesus uses this phrase when praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking if God would please take away the cup of suffering that he was about to experience. “And he was saying, ‘Abba! Father! All things are possible for you; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” But if you remember, God did not take this cup of suffering away from him. So yes, all things are possible with God, but that doesn’t mean he always does what you want him to do. In fact, sometimes he calls you to do the difficult thing that you don’t want to do, the very thing you’re asking him to take away.
Jesus doesn’t make the gospel easy for people. He makes it difficult. He draws a line in the sand and dares people to cross it. He isn’t looking for half-hearted converts, but for fully committed disciples: people who know the gospel and are willing to give their lives to share it with others.
So let’s quickly review what we’ve learned today:
1) All the elders in the New Testament were pastors. But not all were intensively involved in teaching and preaching. Pastoring and teaching or preaching were seen as different ministries, different gifts. Pastoring was more a one-on-one type of ministry. Teaching and preaching were done more to the group as a whole.
2) Messages were given not just by the elders, but by others, too. But the elders led in discerning whether the messages that were preached agreed with the Bible or not.
3) One of the elders was elected as the president or head of the church or synagogue. He would be in charge of the day-to-day operation of the church or synagogue. But he was still an equal of the other elders.
4) The Bible does not teach a one-way submission of members to elders in the church. Rather the Bible teachers mutual submission of members to elders and elders to members.
5) Jesus really wants us to give up everything to follow him.
6) Camels do not fit through the eye of a needle.
7) “With God all things are possible” means that God can help us give up everything to follow him, that he can even help us cast out demons, but it doesn’t mean that he will always do everything we want him to do. All things are possible, yes, but sometimes God puts us in difficult situations for his glory. And in times like that, real faith is trusting God even when things are not wonderful and great and prosperous. Because God is faithful to deliver us from those difficult things and lead us into his glory forever. Amen?