One of the most important truths that we’ve learnt by repeated and painful experience over the years is that the Kingdom of God is incompatible with the understanding of spiritual authority commonly found throughout the Church and many of its institutions.
I have become more aware that He may well have given me spiritual insight and understanding about something critically important for where we currently find ourselves as the Church. Hence, I am now writing this piece before God, fearing disobedience, because I value His friendship more than life itself, let alone popularity within it.
Not long after marrying 8 years ago, when I was 33, we were invited to work for an Anglican church in London. Unbeknown to us, the leadership of the church did not honour the New Testament’s teaching concerning eldership because the male vicar wasn’t truly ‘in charge’ due to the controlling influence of his wife and the officious presence of the Parochial Church Council (PCC).
As a primary expression of the wider theological underpinnings of the worshipping community we’d relocated to join, both of these factors fully dictated the church’s governing authority in ongoing practice.
(For example: invariably, leadership decisions that myself and the vicar reached in the morning would be changed by the afternoon after he’d had lunch with his wife; any ministry that I was due to bring to the church would always need to be vetted first and then occasionally even reviewed with the aforementioned wife afterwards; pivotal leadership decisions affecting the culture/direction of the church couldn’t/wouldn’t be made without the permission of the individual members of the PCC, some of whom were actively and persistently against the vicar himself on a personal level).
The devil was running riot and I’ll return to this account at the end of the blog to demonstrate further how very, very serious I believe this is.
On the face of it, the vicar was the senior leader of the church, (i.e. the one with whom the spiritual authority to lead and shepherd this company of God’s people sat) and yet behind the official “about us” section of the church website, in all functional reality, was found something very different.
Does this situation sound like the glorious harmony, righteousness and freedom of the Kingdom of God to you? Is this really what we’re waiting and praying and longing for in the ‘Kingdom to come’? Is this really the type of community that will turn the world upside down? (See Acts 17).
The primary net result of this situation, beyond the related difficulties for multiple individuals in the church staff team, was that the whole church suffered – each and every individual member whether knowingly or not. (There remains an accountability for situations like this – see: 1 Corinthians 3: 11-15 and James 3:1).
The truth today is that this disobedient church context is normalised and tolerated the length and breadth of the country (especially within some denominations like the Church of England) and yet it raises very serious questions about our most basic understanding of the Kingdom of God:
1) Where in the Bible is a joint “husband and wife team” taught as being the way for local church to be led, let alone for the wife to hold the ‘deciding vote’?
2) Where in the Bible is it taught that a man in the church staff team should be vicariously led by an elder’s wife?
3) Where in the Bible does a PCC like this exist to usurp spiritual authority from the church elders?
4) Where in the Bible is spiritual authority (& responsibility thereof) reduced/defined/restricted to man-made, structural lines of demarcation?
In the former dispensation of the Old Testament, in the book of Judges, we are given information that I think serves us well today as we seek to understand the true nature of the Kingdom of God, the reality of spiritual authority to be found therein and, crucially, in identifying both true and false cultures of Christian discipleship.
The Clothing of the Spirit
The phrase, “…the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him…”, features throughout the life of both Gideon (Judges 6-8) and Samson (Judges 13-16). In moments of strategic “kingdom significance”, (destroying the demonic altar of Baal, slaying the Philistine army etc), the spiritual dynamic is clearly portrayed as this:
The Holy Spirit moved upon (clothed) the finite/weak/foolish man of God in order that he might achieve the purposes of Yahweh against an otherwise insurmountable enemy. In other words: God possessed a man with Himself and gave him His strength, wisdom and courage so that he might overcome and lead Israel into deliverance.
Remember, the fact that God sent any deliverer to Israel was because He had heard their cries for mercy. It is only because of the shed blood of our Messiah, and the new covenant sealed, that our reality today is infinitely different: what was transient and temporary is now permanent and imperishable.
Understanding the life of Gideon and Samson, and the Spirit’s interaction with them, should declutter in our thinking (and in our church practices) our reverence and respect of the Kingdom of God and of spiritual authority at an invisible, supernatural level.
Spiritual authority is not wrought through a Bible college degree or bestowed by any structure, council, married couple or permission of man; it is only endowed from heaven above by God Himself.
Gideon was clothed in the Spirit of the LORD when, in the natural, he was unfit and unable to proceed. Gideon threshed wheat in a winepress and yet was hailed as a mighty man of valour.
This is not to say that Gideon clothed himself in God but rather that God clothed Gideon in God.
The Dearth of Spiritual Authority
How many churches/Christian organisations would recognise Gideon’s spiritual authority today, enough to defer to his leadership in which he had been endowed by God Himself? How often is true spiritual leadership and authority rejected because, in essence, it is incompatible with the hoop-jumping infatuations of insecure women and men?
Going to Bible college will never give you spiritual authority or a spiritual assignment; spiritual authority is never defined, dictated or restricted by course convenors, institutional practices or religious traditions.
Today, most of our ecclesiological practices throughout the church institutions of the land (as exemplified above and below) directly oppose the reality of the Kingdom. We wax lyrical and embroider flags about ‘bringing the Kingdom to the city and beyond’ all the while we oppose the decrees and wisdom of the King by insisting that our collective Christian witness in the world is governed by written constitutions of men rather than spiritual realties provided by God.
If the Body of Christ is to be prepared for the return of Christ, in order that the world will be prepared for the return of Christ, it is vital that we think very differently about the reality of spiritual authority and that we exercise church leadership very differently as a direct result.
Christian para-church organisations, charities and businesses that claim to be Christian, (daring to take the Name, Christ), that confidently assert Christian mission as the foundation of all they do, will woefully fail if they do not recognise that the Kingdom of God delineates spiritual authority only based on the red blood of our Messiah, not the black and white policies of man.
Christian churches, collaborations and partnerships will only work to defeat Satan if there is a genuine understanding and belief in the inaugurated reality of the Kingdom of God, of the transcendent expansiveness of the rule and reign of the coming King.
Without an understanding of true spiritual authority that is only given of God, irrespective of any structure or institution or whimpering set of individuals, we will continue to exchange the wild, spacious places of the liberty and power of the Holy Spirit for our preference-preening altars of self and our idolised miniature gardens that, in time, only erect entombing mazes for us all.
The devil is running riot.
Repent Or Be Removed
The account that I carefully gave above, and that I’m about to finish below, has sat with me for nearly 7 years because its implications have been difficult to think and pray through let alone communicate about.
However, I am not willing to go to my own grave – or for Christ to come – and to have not testified to what I believe, at the very least, may be a plausible possibility with very serious implications for us all.
When Jesus spoke to the Church in Ephesus in Revelation 2, He didn’t just issue a threat of judgment about their lampstand being removed; He brought a gracious word of warning precisely so that the Church would amend their ways (repentance) and therefore be spared the inevitability of judgment were they not to heed His Word.
Inverting or contorting the Word of God’s perfect design (whether for sexuality or leadership preferences or, indeed, for anything) is no small thing. It is a grievous reality that we almost don’t feel at all today.
But there are and there will be consequences.
Do we honestly think that we can argue with the loving, protective, providential Word of God and not experience personal and corporate disintegration?
Given the chaos in this church that I have mentioned, the ongoing stress of the disorder as a result and the melancholy times of Evensong every Sunday evening advertised as His presence, something was very seriously adrift.
It Could End in Death
This hit home with me personally on one mid-week morning when I was summoned to the vicarage to be stripped down for having expressed my disagreement to my ministry being vetted before and after by the Vicar and his wife.
(Remember, I was 33 at the time, not 18, not barely saved nor a pastoral apprentice on parol, [not that my age was the only noteworthy issue here]).
The time at the manse inevitably went badly and I didn’t feel that I was then in a good place to lead the staff team in worship that morning as part of an away day. It followed that I was released from duty and attended the day away with the rest of the team as planned.
During the team-building activities, a guest had been invited in to do some teaching and to minister. I can’t remember his name but he was probably in his sixties, mature, and carried a distinct sense of what I recognised to be spiritual authority.
At the end of the day there was a time of prayer during which it had become obvious that he was exercising the gift of prophecy. As he came to pray for the vicar’s wife, the solemn sense of the prophetic word brought to her, (that I overheard as clear as day), began with, “Dear ____, take your hands off…”.
There was weight and gravity to the word that I immediately knew was relating to the chaotic context of the church leadership generally, as well as the specific incident at the vicarage earlier that morning. It was a comfort to my churning heart that had been ostracised because I had dared to object to the disorder in the church that was opposing the wisdom of the Kingdom of God.
We left this role in London at the end of the same year (following a lot of really great stuff too) with no doubt that we’d completed an important assignment that had been mainly by way of exposure to a false understanding of Christian spirituality and, central to that, false spiritual authority.
A couple of years later we heard the very sad news that the vicar had very suddenly passed away.
Why is this difficult to write? Because I will no doubt be accused of being unloving and insensitive for drawing any potential link between the damaging leadership chaos in this church, the prophetic word of warning given, our personal experiences at this time that were undeniably very painful, (I’ve spared detail in an attempt to be gracious), and the tragic passing of this husband, father and church leader.
From the little I knew of him, the vicar was a very tender-hearted pastor and a passionate worshipper who loved Jesus very much. There may be absolutely no connection at all between his passing and the dysfunction of the spiritual authority under his care, but…there might be.
The issue of ignoring God’s Word or arguing or treating it in any way as “slight” is more serious than most Christians are willing to admit and certainly more than I can convey by writing.
Beloved, we live in a world and as part of a Church that openly defies, and therefore proves itself callous toward, God every single day.
At this most critical juncture of church history, as the Body of Christ, we must urgently reconsider what it is that we believe is faithful to the teaching of the Bible regarding both spiritual leadership and therefore what constitutes true spiritual authority as arguably the most essential part of this.
Jesus is returning for a Bride who will have made herself ready when He appears. Please do not think that Jesus’ emotions and affections about the state of the Church – and specific situations like this – are slight, because they are most certainly not.