by John W. Ritenbaugh
How often have you heard the above exclamation during the past few years? You may have said it yourself. Even if you did not say it aloud, in all likelihood you thought it, having felt betrayed by those you trusted for many years in the faith.
Do the Scriptures agree that we should not follow a man? Does not the Bible say,
It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes? (Psalm 118:8-9)
These and similar verses appear to put the argument to rest. But notice that these verses do not say we should not follow a man; they say we should not put our trust in men despite their high status in society or government. No matter how much power or influence they can exert on our behalf in this world, they are not to be trusted as we trust in God.
When we say, "I'll never follow another man," we really mean, "I will never trust a spiritual leader as I once did." Either that or we have not thoroughly reasoned through the implications of what we have said.
An independent Christian does not exist. One might like to think he stands alone, but according to Scripture it is all but impossible. Paul describes God's church as a body in which the Father has placed people as it pleased Him (I Corinthians 12:18).
God Gives Leaders
God has placed some in leadership positions. Though not better than others, they are more responsible to Him because of the gifts of leadership He has given them. In verse 28 Paul writes, "And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers. . . ." He adds in Ephesians 4:7, 11:
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. . . . And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.
In giving leaders He implies followers.
Notice the apostle Paul's instruction to the young evangelist Timothy:
These things command and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. (I Timothy 4:11-12)
He admonishes Timothy, a pastor of a church, to command, teach and be an example. Each charge strongly suggests someone leading and others following.
We also need to understand the words usually used in the New Testament to designate leaders in the congregations: elder (presbuteros), bishop (episkopos) and pastor (poimen). Presbuteros generally emphasizes the dignity of the office. But because the elder has an office, as contrasted with others in the body who do not, it indicates a leadership role. The term is derived from the Old Testament where "elder" represented a village, town or city leader.
Episkopos, meaning overseer or supervisor, highlights the elder's duty. The episkopos was appointed to oversee or supervise elements of the congregation's activities.
Poimen, in other contexts, is translated "shepherd." A shepherd leads, guides, and oversees the welfare of a flock of sheep that follow him wherever he leads. This word often stresses the manner in which a leader leads. In this article, however, I am not concerned about the quality of leadership, but that we understand that we cannot be true Christians without following a man.
Notice I Peter 5:1-5:
The elders [presbuteros] who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder [sumpresbuteros or co-elder] and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd [poimaino or tend] the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers [episkopeo], not by constraint but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd [archpoimen] appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another. . . .
Notice all the words that suggest leading and/or following: elder(s), shepherd, flock, serving, overseers, lords, entrusted and examples. This clearly establishes that God's church is a body in which He has placed leaders to oversee and care for His people. Further, the leadership is to provide examples for them to follow.
The Bible nowhere anticipates independent Christians in its instructions, but always assumes the body has ministers given by Christ to provide teaching and guidance. Too frequently people separate from one group, then regroup around a person whom Christ has not appointed to teach His Word. It is not that this person cannot teach at all, but that Christ has not given him the gifts to teach His people in His behalf. He was not placed in the body for that purpose. Steady spiritual degeneration within that group occurs.
A Civil War Example
Does the person "at the top" have to follow a man? Yes, he does—maybe not as frequently, but when he does, he takes upon himself a greater responsibility. Everyone follows at one time or another. In Ephesians 5:21 Paul writes to the whole church, "submitting to one another in the fear of God." No man has all the right answers. No man can perfectly see the direction an institution should move. No man can perfectly perceive the whole scope of people's problems. No man can "do it all."
Proverbs 11:14 states, "Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety." Proverbs 24:6 adds, "For by wise counsel you will wage your own war, and in a multitude of counselors there is safety."
Submitting is an act of following. Any leader who does not submit to the wise counsel of those he leads is plunging the whole organization into disaster.
My wife and I recently saw the movie Gettysburg, depicting the Civil War battle there in July 1863. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate forces, was depicted receiving wise counsel from his most trusted staff member, General Longstreet, just before the final day of that battle. Lee, arguably the finest military tactician this nation has produced, had led his rebel forces to a string of victories in battles in which he was outnumbered and outgunned.
But this time Lee chose to reject Longstreet's advice. Longstreet felt that the Union army's position was too superior and the South's troops too tired. He suggested that the South withdraw. Lee's dismissal of Longstreet's advice resulted in the famous "Pickett's Charge," in which about seven thousand men died in just a few hours.
It proved to be the decisive engagement of the battle. It also turned the tide of the war to favor the Union. Although the war went on for about two more years, the South never recovered. This tragic and very costly decision illustrates what can happen when a leader does not follow the superior advice of a subordinate.
Leaders and Followers
Everyone follows and everyone leads, depending on the circumstance. Given the biblical truth that if one is part of the body of Jesus Christ, one must follow a man, what responsibility does this place on the follower?
Notice some of the more obvious scriptures on this subject in Paul's writings. "Imitate [follow, copy, emulate] me, just as I also imitate Christ" (I Corinthians 11:1). "Therefore I urge you, imitate me" (I Corinthians 4:16). "Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern" (Philippians 3:17). The criterion to determine in following a spiritual leader is whether he is following Christ.
Every Christian needs to have a healthy skepticism of himself and others. John 2:23-24 Jesus shows carefully gauging the depth of people's belief in Him:
Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because he knew all men.
He did not run these people off, but neither did He accept them without reservation.
Skepticism plays its part in this because it makes us careful, but it does not stand alone as a responsibility from God. Paul advises in I Thessalonians 5:21, "Test all things; hold fast what is good." The Bereans are commended in Acts 17:11:
These were more fair-minded [margin: noble, sympathetic] than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness [eagerness], and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.
The Bereans are models of right-minded followers. Though zealous to hear, they did not thoughtlessly or uncritically accept what Paul said. They first tested it for themselves from the Scriptures and then submitted themselves to following it.
Pursuing this course avoids the potentially disastrous "blind leading the blind" syndrome (Luke 6:39). Jesus' statement warns us to be careful who we follow. If a leader can see no more than those who follow, it spells trouble for both. The Jews fell into this spiritual trap of presuming themselves as guides to the blind, though their lives did not qualify them for such a responsibility (Romans 2:19-24).
It also warns about the leadership of Jesus' followers. A Christian cannot hope to act as a guide to others unless he himself clearly sees where he is going! Remember, everybody follows, everybody leads.
No More Blind Trust
It is incorrect for us to say we will never follow another man. We should say we will never again blindly trust another man. What about those in the church of God who appear to be blindly allowing others to lead them back into the same confusion of false doctrines they once renounced?
Has false doctrine become true because a different leader is preaching it? Or has a spiritual change occurred in the member? Is what was once objectionable and rejected now tolerable and acceptable because he fears making waves or losing the fellowship of friends? Each person will have to answer for himself before God.
Brethren, no one should follow a leader who does not follow the truth. We dedicate ourselves not to a man, but to truth. Our loyalty goes to a man or institution because he or it is following and teaching truth. Jesus Christ is truth personified. If one stops following His truth, he has stopped following Him.
Speaking of apostasy in the church, Paul writes:
And with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness." (II Thessalonians 2:10-12)
These people are going to perish because of a self-imposed delusion, a blindness that strikes those who refuse to love the truth. They may not refuse to accept truth, but they do not love it—they are not dedicated to it.
A dedicated person gives himself to the object of his love just as two people in love dedicate themselves to each other until they are one. The people described in these verses are perishing because, though they have been given truth, they do not love it enough to give themselves to it. For whatever their personal reasons, they prefer to tolerate lies, following their leaders to destruction.
Without sufficient dedication to truth to obey except haphazardly or lethargically, understanding begins to wane. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments" (Psalm 111:10).
Paul continues in II Thessalonians 2:13:
But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
Demons believe (James 2:19), but will not obey unless forced. They do not love truth enough to give themselves to it. Sanctification will take place only in those who love truth enough to follow or obey it.
Paul then exhorts us to "stand fast and hold the traditions [truths] which you were taught" (II Thessalonians 2:15). Later he instructs us to "withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us" (II Thessalonians 3:6).
Though men will be somewhere between God and us as long as we are human, true ministers do not separate us from Him, as if we had to go through the man to have access to God. But God does assign men responsibilities to serve, guide, teach and be godly examples to other parts of the body.
Christ the Standard
Jesus Christ, of course, is the One we ultimately follow. In the gospel accounts in Matthew, Mark and John, He subtly emphasized that following Him is our main responsibility. His first recorded contact with His disciples shows Him commanding them to follow Him.
Now Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men'" (Matthew 4:18; cf. Mark 1:16-18; John 1:35-43).
Perhaps even more striking are His last recorded words in the book of John: "If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me" (John 21:22).
God views deviation from His revelation as a serious problem confronting His people. For starters, truth and those who teach it are not always easily found (Proverbs 2:1-5). Nor does He want us expending our energies conforming to a badly distorted image of Christ or being completely led astray until we are no longer on the path.
The key for those to whom God has revealed Himself is loving truth. Because He is truth, He will continue to lead them to a clearer revelation of Himself, and they will find it because they diligently seek and follow it. Because He loves to give gifts, He will give them teachers.
Isaiah 30:20, a prophecy that we normally apply to the Millennium, applies in principle to His people any time. "And though the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your teachers will not be moved into a corner anymore, but your eyes shall see your teachers." These are the people to follow, not because of their position but because of what they have. They have the truth and love it just like you.
Two verses in Ephesians could be used to summarize the whole purpose of our calling. "Therefore be followers of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma" (Ephesians 5:1-2). What a pattern God has set before us in Christ!
God's qualities of conduct and attitude that we are to imitate are scattered throughout the Bible. "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart" (Matthew 11:29). "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). "And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32).
Whether in doctrine, conduct or attitude, the Bible tells us to labor, through all difficulties and hardship, to follow God, sincerely and without hypocrisy. It advises us to make haste in following Him, to follow diligently and joyfully even when others forsake Him. And God commands us emphatically to follow none but Him, forsaking anyone who would lead us astray.
If we do these things, others will perceive the life of God in us. Though they may not like it, they will be witnessed to in a way that cannot be refuted in God's court.
David thought it no small thing to be the son-in-law of an earthly king (I Samuel 18:18, 23). But what greater honor God has conferred on us! "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the children of God!" (I John 3:1). It is our following of the truth that will guarantee our status as children of God (I John 2:5-6, 24-25; 5:20).
Brethren, be followers of God along with the men who are themselves also following Christ.