Let me take a moment to say that I have no particular animosity toward John Piper. In fact, early in my walk, his thoughts on delighting in God inspired me to take my own hunger even deeper. He is incredibly well versed in the nature of God, and his teaching is rarely below par. However, I take exception to his thoughts here, and I'd like to take the next thousand or so words to explain why.
Before we go any further, let me clarify two things that this blog is not:
1. It is not an attack on Pastors or traditional churches
It is no secret that I have some pretty strong objections to the methods and structures that are currently being employed by the majority of western churches in our generation. I have been very vocal with my thoughts on traditional christian practices such as tithing, worship, prayer, and most applicably, christian leadership. But it is important to me that you understand that my pursuit of biblical Christianity does not mean that I have any animosity for america's clergy. My heart burns for them to be set free from the abusive standards we have subjected ourselves to just as much as it burns for your freedom. I love the men and women that have devoted their lives to serving the body of Jesus. The mantle they've taken upon themselves may be unwarranted, but that doesn't mean that their willingness to carry it isn't beautiful. So nothing I have to say here comes from malicious intent.
2. It is not an advertisement for House Churches
Along that same vein, I want to be clear that I am not writing this blog to convince you to abandon your church and to join a house church. I would like you to. I won't bother pretending differently. From my understanding of God and His design, as I have made very clear for several years now, the assembly (church) was designed to be "structured" around community, not programs. A "structure" that is more practically lived out within the context of smaller, more intimate, communities that are not characterized by overemphasized leadership or monopolized ministry gifts. With that said, that is not the focus of this blog. I want to focus specifically on Piper's conjecture that a church's spiritual condition is directly dependent upon it's minister's disposition.
I think it is important to be clear about that, because even if you completely reject my thinking regarding the actual structure of the church, what I have to share with you tonight will directly apply to how you interact with your church and with your leaders. So please, even if you are openly opposed to the idea of house churches, keep reading. This still applies to you.
With both of those disclaimers out of the way, let's dive in:
At first glance, Piper's words probably resonate. We have all experienced an unhappy leader. A teacher, a parent, maybe even, as Piper references, a pastor. I don't know your story, but I know that the world is full of unhappy leaders. And as often as not, their unhappiness inevitably trickles down to the rest of the classroom, the house, or the church. It's only natural. Whoever is in charge of an environment naturally influences the condition of that environment, right? Consider this text:
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.
Psalm 133 ESV
This text is regularly used in support of the thought Piper is drawing from in the quote we opened this conversation with. Preachers use this text to suggest that the spiritual health of religious leaders directly shapes the spiritual health of the body. But there are two things that we have to consider here:
First: It is the obvious intention of the text to point to unity as the precious inheritance of the church, not authority. The oil rolling down Aaron's beard is an example, meant to explain the way in which unity blesses the body. Look at the text preceding these two examples and the text directly following them. First the writer sets the stage by showing his readers that unity among brothers is holy, then he provides a few examples to demonstrate that blessing always runs from the top, down. I know, that seems to support Piper's thought, except that the writer then ends his poetic declaration by saying "For there the Lord has commended the blessing, life forevermore." In other words, it was the writer's intention that we view Aaron and Mt Hermon as examples of how blessing works, so that we would understand what happens when there is unity.
Unity, itself, is the high ground where the blessing rests and then rolls down to envelop the entire body.
Second: Even if this text suggested that the precious nature of unity only flowed down from authority, we would have to consider the fact that the modern Pastorate is not comparable with the Priestly order that existed under the authority of Aaron. Aaron was not a religious elder. He was a minister to God. The Priests stood in the gap between God and His people and mediated, or bridged the gap. In other words... they did what Jesus now does for us.
The nature of the priesthood can not be biblically replicated in a modern church culture. Which presents us with a major problem, since we've replicated it anyway. Which is where a lot of our problems come from. We have approached an already bridged gap and, afraid, demanded that our spiritual leaders bridge it again. We have put them in a position where they are expected to fill a role they were never meant to fill. As a result, we have put the entire weight of the church onto the shoulders of a small fraction of men and women who, ironically, would have much healthier spiritual lives if we taught them to be shaped by the very body we've convinced them they are responsible for shaping.
I know that was a mouthful! Sorry! But it is an important mouthful.
Piper's premise is that a church cannot be healthy if its pastor isn't. However, the biblical standard is the opposite. That the health of the individual is dependent upon the community they are attached to. (See 1 Corinthian 12).
As an example, I want you to consider what happens when a Pastor leaves their congregation. For a while, the church continues following their Pastor's vision. But eventually, a new Pastor is hired, and then he/she brings the vision God has for their life and completely reinvents the church.
Yes, everyone gets excited for change and jumps at the opportunity to obey God, but if you think about it, it really doesn't make sense that God's plans for a church would change every time its pastor does. No, the healthier way for the church to operate is by community. Each member of the church presents their individual gift and character, and those gifts/character traits meld together to paint the identity of the body, and its elders (weather pastors, deacons, etc) exist as mature parts of a body that is made up of much more than just them.
A church's vision, identity and purpose are shaped by the nature of its community, not by the health of its pastor.
Rather than allowing churches to take the shape of our pastor's spiritual life, we should be raising up people whose spiritual lives are being shaped by our community.
Its time for us to stop surrendering our identity for the sake of convenient traditions. When our Pastors struggle, our response should not be to join them in their struggle, but to help them carry it. When they are depressed, it doesn't mean we need to sit stagnantly until they figure their life out. It means that we pull them deeper into the community while we continue to walk out the life of the church in intimacy and freedom.
There will be moments where your spiritual leaders will struggle. Don't join them in the struggle. Surround them with your freedom.
So, coming full circle, let me finally address John Piper's thought here... no... joy in a shepherd is not essential to health in the sheep... joy in a shepherd is the result of health in the sheep.
Whether you have embraced organic Christianity as I have, or are calling a traditional church your home, I hope that you gave my thoughts here some consideration. You were made for more than blindly accepting an identity that someone else is living out for you. You were made to contribute to the life of the church, and that means refusing to accept that what you (collectively) are is dependent upon who they (individually) have been.