Looking into the eyes of the young man across the lunch table from me, I saw what I’ve had the unfortunate experience of seeing too many times before. He’d just completed a year at a Christian College which I know to be legalistic, manipulative and saddled with a history of compromised leadership. This disillusioned young man is not even fully aware of what has happened in his deflated, defeated thinking but, thank God, he left the school early and won’t be going back. I’ve seen this happen many times before and I never get used to it. Later in the day, as I pondered our meeting, I found myself getting angry. Very, very angry. Here was more evidence of sincere Christians who entrust themselves to ministries that they hope will enhance their understanding and experiencing of God, only to leave shaken by legalism…and never stirred by the Spirit.
For years God has entrusted to the me people who have come to our church after being misled, misindoctrinated and mistreated at other churches. I am no longer a rookie in ministry, so I am aware that not every sob-story from a new church member is accurate. Heaven knows what has been said about me when people move on from our church with a bad taste in their mouths. Pastor-slamming has been the sport of carnal people for centuries. The people I am describing here are very different from disgruntled church members who took their ball and went home after not getting their way. I know of families who spent decades in intensely legalistic ministries where they were told what to wear, what to sing, where to go, how much money they had to give and ultimately made to bow to other pastorally mandated whims. These sheep have shown up at our church barely holding on to their concept of God as being good. I’m uncomfortable even writing these words because some who read my blog are not Christians, and I’m ashamed that this reality needs to be addressed. But it cannot be ignored or denied.
Here’s the elephant in the church: some spiritual leaders use the flock for their own personal gains. Power, control, guilt, manipulation, material gain and religious intimidation are all found in the historical hymn book of unbiblical shepherds. Here’s the caveat: many of those shepherds are unsaved and stand in holy danger of paying with their souls. Sound too dramatic for you? Well, do you remember the frightening words of Jesus in Matthew 7:21-23?
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Folks, the people that the Lord is describing as being banished from his presence are preachers, prophets and leaders. Go back and read verses 15-20 in that same chapter. The context for the sobering words above is Jesus’ warning to His followers to flee false prophets! They were preaching in His name, casting out demons in His name and doing mighty works in His name…and He rejects them out of hand because they had never come to Him for forgiveness. Stop and think – some of those people are leading churches this very day. Some of these counterfeit shepherds are leaving bite-marks on the people looking to them for guidance and spiritual nourishment. Thankfully, some of those sheep have decided never to be bitten again, and they have wisely moved on.
They have committed a daring escape. There is a growing jailbreak from religion.
A word to those who are pastors: the sheep are not ours and they are not for us. They belong to God and we belong to them. We are to shepherd them for their own good and for God’s ultimate glory, so if anyone is going to be bitten it will be the shepherd, not the little lambs of God. We are not called to control them but, instead, to develop them and teach them to think biblically for themselves. Unscriptural rules of religion that leaders have chosen to cultivate in their little pastures are not permissible. The sheep entrusted to us need freedom to exercise the lives that God has granted them in grace. If the sheep are afraid of their pastors then we are failing in our life’s calling, and need to address how things have gotten to this point. Surely there are times when we must exercise authority but we do so for their benefit, not ours (Hebrews 12:10). One of the highest forms of success for a pastor/leader is when he or she so loves God’s flock that he/she longs to set them free and, when he/she does so, the sheep follow hard after the God they have been led them to love.
I close with a difficult calling to those of you in ministries where you are not led by a shepherd but, rather, driven by a cattle-herder: leave at once. Let nobody protest my dogmatic counsel. Leave…at…once. Jesus Christ came to set us free from everything but Himself. His shepherds are called to do the same thing as they serve you with the motivation to develop you into His disciples. Read your bible and learn what God says for yourself, and you will never again be vulnerable to the selfish dictates of pseudo-spiritual leaders who want to consume you. There are some incredible churches out there with sincere and godly leadership who have your soul’s best interest at heart- FIND ONE OF THOSE CHURCHES. Quit complaining and moaning about how unhappy you are under the unbiblical leadership where you worship and serve. If the bible is not the final and highest authority on all matters of faith then you need to hit the road from that church. When traditions undermine truth, you do not pray about what to do, you leave and pray about where to land. Never give up on the local church, but never again feel intimidated to keep showing up at the same place for your spiritual malnourishment. You are free in Jesus Christ, so be good stewards of your ability to choose as you diligently seek a church where the Word is proclaimed, people are loved, liberty is taught and practiced, the leaders are servants and the sheep are cherished.
Time is getting very short, saints. Follow leaders who can back their leadership of you with the Word. Find leaders who shepherd churches that will not hesitate to welcome that same bible to assert what is expected of them. You deserve nothing less from the one under whose spiritual guidance you place yourself.
It is time to escape religion and walk in communities operating in truth, love, freedom and joy.