Living in Africa means that you get used to the unexpected. Even so I was struck by a recent headline of our local newspaper which shouted ‘CHAINED IN CHURCH!’ An obviously immature mother, believing her thirteen year old daughter was demon-possessed, took her to her local church for exorcism. The leadership chained her in the church building after the teen tried to run away. She was held captive for two days before a concerned resident notified the police, who could not track down the ‘out of town’ pastoral couple. Thank God she was rescued by the police and placed in a safe house until issues could be sorted out. An investigation of the abusive mother and church leaders is under way.
In a much subtler way, many across the globe are ‘chained in church.’ They are victims of pastoral/leadership abuse, thriving on guilt-inducing preaching and ministry and the proceeds of ‘prosperity promises,’ etc. I know of businessmen in financial difficulty who committed suicide when their ‘seed-money’ did not bring the desired reward.
But in an even subtler way, many promising and committed believers are kept chained by the senior pastor’s ‘vision’ and making his/her life-dreams come true at the expense of their own perhaps more valid kingdom-dreams. [cf. sociologist Josh Packard’s Church Refugees, the story of the ‘dones’]
One of the things I believe God has called me to be in my senior years is an informal mentor of sorts to younger believers and leaders. In this journey I have listened to the painful stories of very committed young men and women who desire with all their heart to know God and enlarge his kingdom. They relate stories of ugly church ‘control,’ both administrative and economic. ‘You are free to use your gifts to serve in this church, as long as you align with the senior pastor’s vision or the church program.’ Often any latent apostolic spirit is boxed in by church administration, in stark contrast to the spiritual order in 1 Cor. 12:27-28!
A pastor friend of mine used to illustrate as follows. God gives us a river of life in Christ. Denominations and churches turn the river into swimming pools, smaller and larger. The bigger churches have Olympic size pools with marked out lanes. Woe betide the swimmer who does not swim within the demarcated lanes. And of course, the swimmers must help maintain the pool often at cost of much energy, money, time and family-life. Many of these churches would profess to be building God’s kingdom, the trouble is ‘which/whose kingdom??’
Surely the Scriptures can guide us here.
I was immediately reminded of Paul’s Galatian Letter and its theme of ‘freedom in Christ,’ summarised in 5:1, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’ Sure, the context here is that of the one true gospel (1:6ff) that brings freedom not through observance of the law but faith in Jesus Christ (ch. 3ff). However there is also a general principle here, i.e. of maintaining our freedom in Christ rather than re-enslaving ourselves in being Christ’s body in the world.
What about Paul’s Ephesian Letter in which the apostle addresses the church’s unity and diversity expressed in her spiritual gifts? In chap. 4 v. 8 Paul relates back to a victorious David psalm (68:17-18) in which David revels in Israel’s God on behalf of his people: ‘The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary. When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious – that you, O LORD God, might dwell there.‘ In Ephesians Paul declares that this mighty God in Christ is now the giver of gifts to his Church for the sake of his saving purpose on earth: v. 7ff, “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it… ‘When he ascended on high, he (Christ) led captives in his train and gave gifts to men’… It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up… from him (i.e. Christ) the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’ The experienced pastor-evangelist-singer Jacquelyn Heasley has rightly said in one of her famous one-liners, ‘Use your ministry to build people, not people to build your ministry.’ I owe it to Frank Viola who on a visit to a very controlling denomination in South America boldly declared to its leadership that true leadership always sets people free! I ask why leaders think only they can hear the voice of the Lord: Jesus has a surprise for us, take a moment to read Jn.10:2-6!
This is where mentoring without ‘control’ comes into play. [PS: I can cite an outstanding young leader today who, desperate for a mentor apart from the pastor, could not find one in his local church. God is sovereign, and today he is fruitfully mentoring many believers]
Surely our chief guide is the living Word, Jesus himself. I have often referred to Jesus’ kingdom mandate for himself and for his followers, after his rejection by the Galilean synagogues and his home synagogue of Nazareth: Lk. 4:18ff (quoting the prophet Isaiah), “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour… Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” From this base Jesus launches his public ministry, calls to himself his first disciples and sends them out (Lk. 10:1ff) into the wider district with authority over disease and demons. Notice how Jesus, with divine responsibility on the part of his followers, transferred authority. How many loyal and committed young believers and leaders I have seen bruised, because they were entrusted with great responsibilities but allowed no authority, even in minor matters!
Brothers and sisters in Jesus reading this blog, do we have the guts to ‘let God’s people go’? It will only happen when we ourselves have sincerely prayed with George Mathieson (1842-1906),
Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall be free;
Force me to render up my sword
And I shall conqueror be!