The topic of this discourse is bound to raise eyebrows and probably ruffle several feathers in certain quarters due to its sensitive mien. But it is an issue that can no longer be ignored or swept under the carpet in the face of the increasing ignorance among Christians about the rightful place of God in the Church. It is this author’s firm conviction that the place of God in the Church should be given more emphasis in Christian literature, teachings and discourses to present a clearer picture of what Christianity is all about to both adherents and non-adherents of the faith, and to also prevent the ELECT from sliding into apostasy.
Before proceeding with this discourse it is necessary to operationalize the concept of “God” in Christianity. Who is God in Christianity? What is the place of God in Christianity? In monotheistic thought, God is usually viewed as the Supreme Being, creator, and principal object of faith. In non-monotheistic thought, a god is “a spirit or being believed to control some part of the universe or life and often worshiped for doing so, or something that represents this spirit or being”.
However, God, in Christianity, is believed to be the eternal, Supreme Being who created and preserves all things animate and inanimate in the heavens and on earth. Christians believe in a monotheistic conception of God, which is both transcendent (wholly independent of, and removed from, the material universe) and immanent (involved in the material universe). This divine Godhead consists of three parts: the father (God himself), the son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.
God occupies (or should occupy) a preeminent place in Christianity. Christians are supposed to worship God and totally submit themselves to his divine will through faith in Jesus Christ, His Son, the HEAD of the Church who shares leadership with no one else in heaven or on earth (Colosians 1:18). However, in the present dispensation, the place of God and His only begotten Son (John 3:16), in the Church, seems to have been appropriated by some of His earthly shepherds – Church leaders. Shocking as this might sound to some sentimentalists, it is a bitter truth that some Christians would prefer to rather ignore than acknowledge; a skeleton they prefer keeping in the closet.
Contemporary Christianity is akin to idol worship – the worship of created beings rather than the creator – which is contrary to God’s express command in scripture that He alone should be worshiped (Deuteronomy 6:13; Luke 4:8). The reality in most Churches is that Christians seem not to recognize the boundaries between loving and idolizing their shepherds. They constantly cross the lines by giving their church leaders the sort of veneration that should be reserved only for the Creator. While this is mostly the case in some churches built around – or solely owned by – individuals, the leadership of some Orthodox churches are also enmeshed in this mess.
The leaders of some Christian congregations are partly to blame for the growing culture of priestly worship in our worship centers due to the enormous amount of time they waste eulogizing themselves during services rather than focusing on teaching their followers spiritual principles that would help engender more profitable communions between them and God. They spend more time emphasizing why their flock should remain committed in providing their needs, and those of the church, while God comes last on their scales of preference. Brethren, if on a weekly basis what you hear in church is more about your minister than of God – who alone deserves total devotion and reverence – it is a red flag that you are in the wrong place! Please, run for your life. That place is not a house of God, but a shrine dedicated to mortal deities.
However, there are instances where overzealous Christians inadvertently drag their unwary leaders, who might actually be walking and working in humility in their service to God, into idolatry. The ministers in this category are usually unaware of the heretical deportment of their fanatical flock who, in their bids to show appreciation for the impact of the gospel in their lives, cross the boundaries of spiritual decency. They praise Jesus, but worship their ministers. Apostle Paul addressed this tacky issue which reared its ugly head in the Corinthian church: For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord as assigned to each. I planted, Apollos waters, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:4–9).
Some church leaders blasphemously teach and expect their followers to look up to them in every situation, rather than to God, making themselves, rather than God, the suppliers of salvation. The consequence is that some Christians now look up to their teachers, rather than God, for their spiritual needs – they worship the teacher rather than listening and learning from his teachings. This is not to say that Christians should not look up to their shepherds for good conduct, wisdom and theological understanding, the problem is in placing them above God, which is a sacrilege of monumental implications. As instructed in scripture, it is our duty to respect and make provisions for our shepherds to aid their ministry (1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17). But this should not be done at the expense of one’s salvation.
Some contemporary church leaders are seen and treated by their followers as celebrities. They are hero-worshiped, rather than appreciated by their star struck followers. These ministers have become concentric personalities around whom everything pertaining to their ministries coalesces; centers of attraction towards whom everybody around them gravitates. We are in an age where people prefer joining churches that are more popular or have more charismatic leaders, rather than those with more spiritual substance. If the minister is not rich, famous, good-looking educated, and does not perform miracles, he is seen as not being “anointed” – even when he is better suited to drawing us deeper in our walk with God. It is not the work of the teacher, but the work of God that ensures salvation and manifestations of God’s love in the lives of Christians. Idolizing your spiritual leaders is spiritually immature. It causes envy and strife, and is a demonstration of walking in the flesh (1Corinthians3:3).
Most Christians feel fulfilled chatting with their church leaders rather than communing with God. Such individuals emphasize the works, wisdom, and charming dispositions of their shepherds above the unmerited love and works of God in their lives. Most of them go home from church service in awe of the officiating minister, taking the shine off Jesus, rather than the messages received or lessons learnt. These Christians pay lip service to their unalloyed faith in Christ, but put more faith in their leaders whose images some of them carry in their pockets, bibles and wallets, while the walls of their homes and offices are festooned with images of these officiating ministers. This trend has made some adherents of other faiths to suggest that Christians now idolizes men rather than exalt Jesus, the Head of the Church.
The effects of the growing culture of the worship of church ministers are double pronged. First, the faith of a Christian who worships his minister rather than God is compromised as any misdemeanor by the former causes him to question the authenticity of his faith. Church leaders are fallible human beings prone to temptations and mistakes like other humans. Secondly, Idolizing a pastor might lead to him feeling isolated and unable to admit his failings and needs to others. It could lead to undue pressure and expectations on him and his family. It could prompt burnout and excessive pride. That is why only God should be worshiped.
Church leaders, no matter how gifted or seemingly “anointed” they might appear, are plain mortals, just like their followers. While there is nothing wrong in respecting and assisting them, we must also keep in mind the fact that they are also sinners saved by grace – just as we are – and that despite the miracles, signs and wonders they perform, they are God’s earthly shepherds mandated to guide and guard His flock. They are God’s chosen vessels for the manifestation of His omnipotence. Church ministers must be alert to immediately nip in the bud any attempt by their obsessed members to drag them into idolatry. They should beware! God does not share His glory with anyone (Isaiah 42:8)!
The core duty of the Ministers of the Good News is to lead the sheep to Jesus, not themselves. Church leaders should be beacons of light for their flock (1 Peter 5:3); they should pattern their lives after Christ in order for their congregants to do the same (1 Corinthians 11:1). The souls of the elect should be of prime importance, not how anointed they are and what their sheep owe them in return for performing their sworn duties. The scripture says, “those who would be elders in a church should be living lives that are “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:7–9).
A Christian’s spirituality should not be dependent on another individual. The heavenly race is an individual race. That is why it is risky to rely solely on what your church leader teaches during service
for your spiritual nourishment. That is why it is advisable to test whatever you are taught in church against scripture for deeper understanding (Acts 17:11).
Spiritual leadership is a great responsibility that must be handled with utmost caution. Church leaders are accountable to God for the manner they lead His Flock (Hebrews 13:17). Thus, they should be focused on exhibiting the exemplary conduct of Christ and ministering to the needs of their followers than going on ego trips (Matthew 20:25–28). Church ministers should seek to share “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), be attentive to the needs of their followers, arming and helping them in their contexts (Ephesians 4:11–16; Galatians 6:1–10). Their prime duty is to shepherd the flock of God that is among them, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have them; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in their charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2–3).
When Christians understand their callings, the temptation to worship church ministers is diminished. We should all be walking in humility toward one another, ultimately following Christ in all that we do. As succinctly put by Peter while counseling the elders on why they should shepherd willingly, eagerly, and as examples to the flock: “when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:4–5). We must not forget this admonition: For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (I Timothy 2:5).