Although we are called to make disciples, these are disciples of Christ. In "Corinthian Elders", Jack Fortenberry addresses the Pauline concern that christian leaders can actually harm your relationship with Christ. Using a high view of the New Testament and the original manuscripts, the book analyzes the reasons for divisions in the church at Corinth and concludes the problem was their focus on even godly teachers.
The conclusion that an emphasis on teachers was hindering the Corinthian believer from abiding in Christ is corroborated by examining the Book of Colossians where Paul expressed alarm that Colossian believers were submitting to teachers and authoritative church leaders. "Corinthian Elders" calls for a return to Paul's model of the church in order to glorify and enjoy God.
More often than not, the appointment of church leadership in today's context is one based on positions of power, which could possibly lead to abuses of power and resulting in lordship or kingship over other believers. Whether you agree with it or not, positional authority vested in an office has the tendency of usurping the authority of Christ in the functioning of His church. Christ is Lord and King. Humans make very very poor substitutes.
An overview of "Corinthian Elders" is as follow:
A Painted Picture
Leading or Misleading
To Preach or Not to Preach
Teaching One Another
Complete in Christ
New Testament Elders
Most of what Jack wrote in the book, pretty much echoes my heart on the matter. By camping around favourite teachers or ministers, there exists immediately an inclination to divide over non-essential doctrines, ideology or practices. Since we are to receive fellow believers on the basis of an unchanging Person, we will do well to keep Christ as our central focus. It doesn't take a Th.M. to come to the realisation that we do get distracted easily.
Certainly, God has given some the gifts of overseeing, shepherding, teaching or mentoring, which I do not doubt. However, it is the nature of such gifts that I dispute, whether it is functional or positional. This, Jack has attempted to address the issue in his chapter on Ecclesiastical Office, using the interlinear as a reference. If you are not familiar with the issue, you may be surprised at some of his findings.
Overall, given the size of the book which is about 70+ pages, I would heartily recommend it as an handy tool for conversation starter. It is certainly not the final word on the matter, but do consider that which have been said, because all that have been said have also been experienced and tested out in real life. And there's no harm in learning another's journey of faith.
Jack has also graciously acceded to my unreasonable request to a "short" interview when I approached him some time back. On hindsight, we have differing views of what constitutes "short". :) So bear a little longer with the conversation between two old men. I trust that Jack's rich experience and journey will be edifying, if not enlightening, to you. Below is the fruit of that labour. So feast on it!
Conversation with Jack Fortenberry
1. In your book (prologue), you mentioned that by eliminating our use of a favorite teacher and turning to New Testament commands in order to grow in the knowledge of our Father, we will then have an unobstructed view of Christ. What do you mean by "an unobstructed view of Christ"?
When I used that phrase, I was influenced by the references to veiled and unveiled faces in 2 Cor 3. Perhaps using the word "relationship" as a synonym for "view" would help to clarify. But before I begin explaining this "unobstructed view" of Christ, let me show the need for this direct relationship.
As with our salvation, so also our sanctification is completely dependent on our trust, belief and knowledge (simply the definition of the Greek word for believe, "pisteuo") in and of Jesus. Consider 2 Cor 3:18 to see this dependence on our relationship with Him for our sanctification.
"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." ~ 2 Cor 3:18
We can see from this verse that our transformation or edification is connected to our beholding and understanding who Jesus is. I add understanding because many saw Jesus face to face and yet did not understand His glory. They did not understand or behold Him as who He really is and therefore they rejected Him.
In order to behold Jesus, we must have direct interaction with Him. How can we really know and trust someone with whom we don’t have a one-on-one relationship? The imperfect tense of this word, beholding, tells us that this is not a one-time experience but a continuous process. We see this further from the continuing phrase in verse 18, "we... are being transformed."
An example of a direct relationship. If I want to know you (even if we have previously met), then I might learn a little about you, indirectly, by listening to another who professes to know you. But if I really want to know or behold you, then I must personally be with you and interact with you. Suppose I leave our mutual acquaintance and have coffee directly with you each day. Or perhaps I change jobs in order to work with you or perhaps you move into my home to live, then I would have an unobstructed view or relationship directly with you.
I might still see our mutual acquaintance but I would not need him or her as a mentor for my relationship with you. The mutual acquaintance and I could meet for fellowship, encouragement, and even to teach each other about you. But I would not need him or her to lead me in my relationship with you. In fact, as a mentor he or she can only teach me facts about you, but he or she cannot give me intimate knowledge of you (only of himself or herself). Only you and I can know each other in this intimate fashion.
If I know you in this relationship, then of course, you will also know me as well. This is important. As we must know Jesus, also He must know us because of our Savior's warning in Matt 7:21 that not everyone who professes His name enters the kingdom. In Matt 7:23, He says to some with only academic knowledge of Him, "…depart from Me, I never knew you." We don’t want only academic knowledge of Christ; we want intimate knowledge of Him. The facts we know about Him are only helpful, if He knows us through our relationship with Him.
As I understand Scripture, our Lord desires this one-on-one relationship with us. And I am trying to make the case that if we want an unobstructed view of Christ, then we must trust that He wants us to seek Him, directly, without the mediation of a priest or pastor. From the book, you can see He promises that He will personally teach us everything we need in order for us to love Him and each other. You will see also that Scripture warns us against looking to teachers and leaders in our corporate meetings.
2. What are the circumstantial experiences (which you have been through) that prompt you to arrive at the above conviction?
The circumstance of my salvation, over 30 years ago, was that God unexpectedly saved me while I was reading Chapter one in the Gospel of John. I was suddenly overwhelmed by our Father. I remember thinking "this is really true" as the meaning of life and the deity of Christ were revealed to a sinner who for years had been empty and restless. The conviction of the New Testament role of elders came in a similar but smaller echo of that circumstance.
For years, our family obeyed Scripture (we thought) by joining different churches as we determined appropriate and submitting to various ecclesiastical systems. We were devoted Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night attendants. I received ordination as a lay elder in a denomination and later after changing churches, served as an elder with an independent church as well. This may be subjective but I don't remember those times of institutional church meetings as bringing more enjoyment of God or more love for His children even though they had excellent teaching. Although much fellowship was accomplished before and after the church services, the times I remember and cherish most were in small subgroups of believers in my or their home or alone reading and praying.
After years in those larger institutional church structures, we found ourselves house churching for the second time. We had enjoyed house churching 20 years earlier with a group of 15 to 20. At that time, a couple of the seminary trained men in our assembly had then assumed the teaching of the group as opposed to the interactive participatory meetings described by Paul in Corinthians and Colossians. There was sufficient interaction after the meetings to bring much encouragement in the faith. However, during the meetings when the teaching precluded interactive participation, the encouragement was not so obvious. In essence we had a miniature institutional church. After a few years, there was no one left in our meetings but our family and the seminary trained teachers. Then the seminary trained brothers left for larger ministries. We were the last family standing. Perhaps it was my personality.
So our renewed efforts at house churching in 2005 came with low expectations, which I am sure would have been fulfilled, if not for the fact that one of my fellow elders from a previous church had insisted that interactive meetings were biblical. Not wishing to squelch the fellowship, I skeptically went along for a month or so until I realized that spontaneous interactive meetings were wowing me and all of the families involved! Hearing about how God is working or how He revealed Himself through Scripture to your brothers and sisters is incredibly encouraging and almost magical in the way it fosters relationships.
For my own assurance, I had then searched the New Testament to reassess leadership and preaching to affirm that we were following New Testament instruction. How could these untraditional meetings seem so right? What I found was a unity of New Testament Scripture regarding teaching ministries and supported workers complimented by Pauline instruction for the participation by all believers. Similar to my circumstance at conversion, this realization through Scripture withstood every subsequent test of Scriptural corroboration.
Although my enthusiasm was met with different responses by those outside our assembly, I realized that many already understood and believed these same issues. I was amazed to find two different seminary trained brothers in Mississippi who had left church ministry (in the traditional sense) because of their realization through study of the Greek New Testament that elders were commanded not to shepherd a church for money. Why did I not see this earlier!
3. What do you think are some reasons for the inclination of humans to look up to leaders? What will be some practical solutions?
Reasons of the heart are difficult for us mortals, but perhaps an improper view of the Godhead may incline us toward leaders. I have talked with many who see leadership (even castes!) as the natural order of life established by God.
Perhaps the reason is our own fleshly nature. We want to please God in our own way and not in His way. In our zeal to earn or justify His love, we overlook the fact that we please God by our simple trust and love of Him and each other. This is so basic and rudimentary that perhaps we desire to go further in our service for our Lord. Once we desire to do great things for Him in the flesh, we may look for a teacher or leader to help accomplish this. I am concerned that after we set our minds on great works for Him, perhaps our pride takes over and we then set our eyes on our work and not so much on Him.
I am not saying that we should not build mission agencies, hospitals and orphanages because we should, but I am saying that setting ourselves over or under other believers in our church meetings is detrimental to them and us. Our Father wants us to engage in one another ministries and He wants us to follow 1 Cor 14 when we assemble as brothers and sisters.
Maybe some look to leaders because they see Christian growth as growth in academic knowledge instead of growth in knowledge and trust in the Person of Christ. Or, maybe the problem is that some do not believe they can understand the New Testament without a mentor or seminary trained teacher to lead them. But this is simply not true for a child of God.
Another possible reason for our desiring of leaders, may be our understanding of the Bible. Sometimes we are implicitly taught that the Christian assembly is a form of Old Testament temple sacrifice and worship, thus the Levitical order is brought forward into the Christian church today. Instead of simply following New Testament teaching, we may shuffle New Testament instruction with Old Testament instruction in order to come up with a recommended structure. From this systematic theology, we have our mandate for leaders.
The solution to the problem of combining Old and New Testament law is to simply read and apply the New Testament. In fact the solution in all of these cases is to simply trust Jesus and His Word. Trust that He can and will give us 100% of everything we need to 100% enjoy and glorify Him without a Plato type teacher or leader. Again, we deal with some of these Scriptures in the book, Corinthian Elders.
4. How has your understanding of leadership revolutionized your role as a husband and father in the family? And in your workplace?
The role of husband and wife is so special and such a picture of Christ and the church that perhaps you would allow me to defer discussing that until another occasion.
I do hope to clarify that the Scriptural role for leadership in the assembly of believers, is different from the Scriptural role for parents and employers. The Scriptural role for leadership in our assemblies actually supports the Scriptural role for parents by giving them equal participation with other families. In consensus government and participatory meetings, parents do not release their spiritual authority over their children to any priest or preacher.
Unlike when "free in Christ" believers met to fellowship in 1 Cor 14, Scripture clearly reveals that God gives authority to parents over their children. The word for obey when Paul wrote "…children obey your parents" in Eph 6:1 is a different Greek word from the word translated as "obey" in Heb 13:17 when he said "…obey your leaders". When Paul spoke of children obeying, he used a word for military type obedience. But when referring to leaders, he chose a word meaning trust, which was unfortunately translated as obey. Likewise in workplace relationships, the New Testament speaks of an employer's authority in very simple clear terms.
Nevertheless, your question touches me because my understanding of leadership does affect my family foremost. It hurts to think about times when my concern for authority itself, superseded my concern for them as individuals. Alas.
When my now grown daughters were living at home, I understood and incorporated God's examples of authority as revealed in Old Testament structure into the New Covenant. So my concepts of leadership, whether in the context of government, church, workplace or family, were similar. At that time, I still used a bible interpretation framework of Judaism combined with Christianity, instead of a New Testament framework that was corroborated and pointed forward from the Old Testament. I fear my family was often taught to submit, follow and obey at the expense of loving, trusting and enjoying Jesus. Of course, our Father loves our obedience (and possibly compelled obedience is of some value), but He is pleased with obedience from our hearts and He is most pleased with our trust and joy in Him.
Focusing on the duties of leading and following caused me to sometimes lose sight of the most important job, which is to love Him and my family. If we focus on Christ, our obedience will flow, but the reverse is not true and that can be dangerous. All things work for good to those that love Him, but I do repent of falling short in that area. And I also pray I will not overreact by being too patient with my younger daughters.
5. What would you suggest or advise someone who is seeking an unobstructed view of Christ?
Trust Him! Trust His love for you and His ability to directly give you love, wisdom, and knowledge of Him. You don’t need anyone else to be complete in Christ. Complete! Yes, corporate life is important and it is the way He has chosen to especially sustain and love His children, but He will provide fellowship and everything you need for life if you seek Him first.
Avoid christian authority over yourself and your family, except for 100% allegiance to your Savior and His Word. Again yes, we should all submit to one another. Yes, God’s Word clearly tells us to submit to parents, governments and employers unless that contradicts His Word. But in the case of authoritative church leaders and teachers, we should leave them in order to seek our Savior.
If we trust Christ and His Word to equip us for every good work, then why do we need a mentor or teacher? Yes, we should submit to one another and assemble with believers regularly. But if we are going to church to be fed God's Word by a man, then we are only seeing a crooked refraction of our Savior at best, a deception at worst. You may be thinking that you can still submit to a church with an authoritative pastor or teacher, and at the same time compensate by enjoying Christian fellowship other times during the week. This may be true for you, but condoning a leadership model which is contrary to Pauline instruction may hurt members of your family in ways you do not realize.
It may seem harsh to separate your family from loved ones in the pews. And it will be hard. But I am grateful that our daughters saw the difference between interactive meetings and leader focused church meetings in time to affect their view of the church before they went to college.
One last encouragement. At the same time we are avoiding a charismatic teacher, we should be humble enough to realize that Christ indwells others whom He may use to teach us. Therefore do not be a respecter of person and fail to learn from our Father because someone He is using does not have the grammar, education, haircut or age that we commonly expect in our leaders and teachers. Sure, theology and doctrine are important, but knowing God and the practical application of knowing and trusting Him is not an academic achievement. The theology we need is the whole of the New Testament personally taught from Him, and He also teaches us through our brothers and sisters. Trust that our Father can and will teach you through any brethren with whom He puts in your path.
6. Is there any other thing you would like to share with the readers? And believers in general?
Concerning Body life, I would like to share the joy of Christ that I have known in the last five years embracing participatory meetings and consensus governance. I have never been this encouraged after five years with any pastor or elder led church. Both of our grown daughters and our son-in-law participate in interactive meetings on Sundays in their neighborhood or with us. They also see the realness of New Testament style meetings. In my walk with Christ prior to participatory meetings, loving God with all my heart and my brother as myself was embraced theologically but in application these commands were often superceded by the ministry itself. I did not see it then, but the ultimate goal of our meetings was to grow the ministry or denomination, learn a doctrine, support a leader/teacher, hoping that our Father would further His Kingdom through our pyramid. I missed many opportunities to simply love Him and to love my friends.
Concerning individual believers, I share my heartfelt desire that they would drop any ambition to be or follow a leader as part of their service to God. Many sweet brothers have left their first love for a full-time preaching ministry. They thought being a "full-time" church leader would be the way to completely give their life to Him, when actually this violates the Paul's teaching and changes our focus from loving each other to using those around us to further our ministry. Don't miss the opportunity to love your brothers and sisters in order to be or follow a leader. You will end up with different priorities, shutting yourself off from other believers due to theological, or even less noble, reasons. Be content to love God and His children where you are and where they are. Is this not His greatest commandment?
You can download the interview in pdf format here.
This review is based on the free copy graciously given by Jack Fortenberry.