If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed people in the church don’t always act Christ-like. For many, the worst hurts they’ve suffered from another human being came from someone who called themselves “Christian.” Even if that’s not the case for you, I’m sure you’ve seen pettiness, hypocrisy, and other issues among God’s people.
Yet even though we know human beings aren’t perfect, there’s still a tendency to align ourselves with them. We’ve all known people who found a teacher they like so much they’ll follow him even if he contradicts the Bible. Maybe we’ve even been there ourselves, often without even realizing it. We might also have seen churches break into factions when leaders disagree over a point of doctrine, and then followed one of those leaders as the group splits apart.
When you go through something like that often enough, it’s easy to lose trust in other people. Maybe we stop relying on other Christians, or refuse to listen to the ministry, or become obsessively critical of others. We might decided we’re the only reliable authority on scripture and that it’s dangerous to listen to anyone else.
Wanting someone to follow as an authority, or rejecting others and their ideas to avoid getting hurt, are both natural human impulses. But that doesn’t make either of them a good thing. Whenever we trust a human being (including ourselves) more than God, we’re going to get into trouble. We need to find a balance that lets us live in unity with our brethren while following God first and foremost.
God Doesn’t Author Disunity
Problems with relying too much on human beings isn’t a just a 21st century issue for the church. It’s also something the apostle Paul dealt with in the first century church.
For it has been reported to me concerning you, my brothers, by those who are from Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas,” and, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:11-13, all quotes from WEB translation)
We’re supposed to identify with Jesus Christ, and He is not splintered into factions. “For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men?” (1 Cor. 3:3). God never authors confusion or disunity in His church. Whenever that is present, it comes from us.
Heresies Show Who Is With God
A little later in this same letter, Paul tells the Corinthians “there must be factions among you, that those who are approved may be revealed among you” (1 Cor. 11:18). Heresies that arise in the church can serve a purpose — they show us who is and who is not acceptable before God.
If anyone teaches a different doctrine, and doesn’t consent to sound words, the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is conceited, knowing nothing, but obsessed with arguments, disputes, and word battles, from which come envy, strife, insulting, evil suspicions, constant friction of people of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. Withdraw yourself from such. (1 Tim. 6:3-5)
When someone leaves off following sound doctrine and goes their own way, we’re not to follow them. We’re to withdraw from them. In another letter, Paul says to “reject” or “avoid” a factious, heretical person after a first and second admonition (Tit. 3:10). Of course, it goes without saying that we should also be careful not to become that type of person.
In order to do this, we have to be able to recognize when someone (including ourselves) is going against sound doctrine. That means studying the Bible for yourself and asking God to write His law in your heart. We need to internalize the truth before we can know to reject untruth.
Trusting God To Define Truth
As we study the word of God, we need to be on guard against coming up with our own version of “the gospel according to me.” Truth is what God says it is, not what we decide or what our favorite Bible scholar says. Here’s a quote I ran across this week that speaks to this issue:
“Are you determined to have your own way in living for God? We will never be free of this trap until we are brought into the experience of the baptism of ‘the Holy Spirit and fire’ (Matthew 3:11). Stubbornness and self-will will always stab Jesus. It may hurt no one else, but it wounds His spirit. … All I do should be based on a perfect oneness with Him, not on a self-willed determination to be godly.” — Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, Jan. 28 devotion
Godliness comes from oneness with the Father and Son. It’s not about us coming up with what we think is the best way to live life. It’s about following Jesus and becoming holy in the same way that our Father is holy. When I realize my dependence on Him and His perfection, then I can also accept that if I ever disagree with God I’m the one who’s wrong and needs to change.
The apostle James says it’s pretty easy to tell when we’re following God and when we’re following something else. A wise, God-following person does good works, lives with meekness, makes peace, bears fruits of righteousness, and humbly submits to God. In contrast, when we have bitterness, jealously, selfish ambition, strife, and fighting it all comes from our own pride and lust. We need to let go of worldly things and realize that God alone is the source of truth, life, and every good thing (James 3:13-4:10). We need to follow Him alone.
Imitating Imitators of Christ
I could just end this post with an admonition to follow no one but God and avoid trusting human beings, including yourself. But that’s not a complete picture of what we read in scripture. There actually are times when we’re told that “following” other people is a good thing.
Paul said, “Be imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:11). He also said, “be imitators together of me, and note those who walk this way, even as you have us for an example.” (Phil. 3:17). Godly people serve as examples of how to mimic Jesus Christ. The Greek word used here is mimetes (G3402), and it’s different than the phrase that’s used for “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” in 1 Cor. 1:12.
Following people the correct way isn’t about aligning ourselves into factions. It’s about serving as examples to each other. We should all be walking with Christ so closely that if others were to imitate us they would also be imitating Him. That’s a responsibility all Christians have, but especially those in a teaching or ministry role.
Those Who Point People To Jesus
Teachers, pastors, and ministers should be the sort of people that others can imitate because they’re devoted to imitating Christ. They should also be people we can listen to because they’re teaching truth faithfully, pointing us toward a closer, more humble walk with God. And just because we’ve seen and known of “authority figures” in the church who’ve failed at this responsibility in spectacularly terrible ways doesn’t mean we can assume they’re all untrustworthy.
There really are ministers out there who resemble the positive descriptions Paul gives us in his pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). We need to make sure that if we have negative past experience with the ministry that we don’t let it turn us against all those who fill these roles in the church today. We can (and should) be cautious and pay attention to their “fruits” (Matt. 7:15-20), but we shouldn’t automatically dismiss what they have to say or the teachings they share. Rather, we should pray for them because they’re a valuable part of Christ’s body (as is every single person in the church).
When we follow God and trust Him more than anything or anyone else, then it’s going to change how we interact with others. We’ll be able to recognize those who are truly imitating Christ, and walk with them as we follow Him. We’ll also be able to recognize when someone errs, and avoid following them into sin (or catch ourselves and turn back to God with a repentant heart). We’ll even be able to love instead of condemn those who err, and “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). And we’ll also be able to accept correction from other Christians when we stray from the truth. We’ll learn to trust God more than anything else, and He’ll give us what we need to to be part of a thriving, healthy church.
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