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Grace means that we are all on the same level before God. Jesus said, “You are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8).

When some of his disciples struggled for higher positions than the others, Jesus undermined their power play by saying, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 10:26). He didn’t rebuke them for their desire to be great; it just turns out that greatness doesn’t come from power or position.

There are many healthy leaders who use their position to serve, but there are others who misuse it, resulting in some form of spiritual abuse. A common thread is the idea that we cannot come to God directly, but require an intermediary. In extreme cases, people must consult their leaders about every small decision; they are not permitted to disagree or think for themselves; and they are threatened with God’s judgement if they dare to come out from under the leader’s “covering.”*

A phrase that is used by unhealthy leaders to avoid criticism is “do not touch the Lord’s anointed” (Psalm 105:15, 1 Samuel 23:10). In the original context this means “don’t physically harm (or kill) the Lord’s anointed,” which makes it an odd request from a modern leader. “Today’s sermon topic: please don’t kill me!”

The truth is, all of God’s people are “the Lord’s anointed.” 1 John 2:20 says, “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.” John was pointing out that his readers had the Holy Spirit in them, and encouraged them that they had the ability to discern the truth for themselves: “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you” (2:27).

Of course leaders and teachers are necessary and very beneficial to the church, but the issue is that all Christians have a direct relationship with God. The only mediator between us and God is Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5), and no one else is meant to usurp that position.

Rather than demanding conformity and unquestioning obedience, healthy leaders say, “I trust the Holy Spirit in you, and I’m not going to take responsibility for your life.” Their desire is to plug people into Jesus so that they can grow and mature in their relationship with him, hearing his voice for themselves (John 10:27) and knowing him personally the way they were created to. A central promise of the New Covenant is, “They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:34).

Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” The reason is given in the same verse: “Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Submission to leadership has nothing to do with a mythical hierarchy in the church; it is is about supporting and cooperating with leaders, because doing so is in your best interest and theirs (you get to grow, and they get to enjoy it).

*Note: the idea of needing another person as a “covering” is found nowhere in the New Testament (unless you count a verse about women’s hair).

For reflection:

Under the old order, there were people with special positions: priests who interceded for the people before God, and kings who ruled and made wise decisions on behalf of everyone else. But now all God’s people are a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). As royalty we will reign with Jesus on his throne (Revelation 3:21), and as priests we can enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19).

Similarly, God’s presence used to be variable and temporary, but now the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all believers and his gifts are available to everyone (Acts 2:17). He is our personal counselor and teacher, guiding us into truth (John 14:26, 16:13).

There are no longer certain special people who God exclusively speaks to and works through; all believers are in that category. Everyone can play!

“He anointed us ...” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22)

Further reading:

The Father’s Delight (pdf) by Wayne Jacobsen (6 pages). About having a direct relationship with God.

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