Independence Day

by David Cohen

For years it has been taught that any ministries not affiliated with a centralized church government are apostate and not Biblical. Also frowned upon were ministers or preachers who had no formal theological training from the "approved" Bible College, or those who did but later separated themselves from the administration due to doctrinal differences. This is what most Christian denominations teach. But is this a proper "litmus test" of a true minister of God? Is this even scriptural?

Well, it is Independence Day! Not independence from our Savior or his Church, but from oppressive church governments. A number of Christians are beginning to realize that a "church" functions better apart from such a governmental structure. However, some leaders are capitalizing on this move and feigning "independence" to gain a following. God's people need to watch and be sober!

Centralized Church Governments

Centralized church governments and hierarchical administrations have their positive traits, no doubt. All ministers and teachings must fall in line with whatever official proclamations come out of the church's headquarters. Any dissenters will be expelled. This produces a uniformity which gives security to those who are weak or young in the faith, as well as preserves the church as a corporate organization thereby ensuring a steady income. If the teachings and policies held by the administration are sound and Biblical, those truths will be rapidly and consistently reproduced in all the local congregations. However, any errors, misunderstandings or personal whims of those at the top also become quickly fastened in the minds of all members as "truth".

If members were allowed to question the officials about errors and potential errors, that would provide a safeguard to spreading and magnifying mistakes. But, in churches structured this way, any who seriously question the conduct of the leaders or the smallest policy are usually disciplined or labeled as "rebellious". Leaders are considered to be "experts", chosen of God and beyond questioning by the laity, because the laity is assumed to be unqualified to challenge or discern anything. Jesus Himself was considered unqualified to question the leaders of His day or teach the people because He had not attended a "Rabbinical School" (Jn 7:14-17). The Word clearly shows that His people will know the things of God by the Spirit of God (1Cor 2:10-12) and not by academic credentials (vs. 13).

Besides the inevitable occurrence of error in all churches composed of men, this type of system is susceptible to those with personal ambitions and organizational agendas. When leaders refuse to repent of personal sins, or ruling their flock without mercy, they usually go unchallenged. Serious doctrinal errors, embedded in the fabric of a church, can remain unnoticed by all. Corruption or sin in the leadership will fester and spread because the members fear that if they speak up, they will be shunned or cast out (3Jn 10, Jn. 12: 42-43) as a traitor, dissident or whistle-blower.

The pyramidal, top-down type of hierarchy, composed of a Chief Executive and Board of Directors, is copied from worldly corporations. We are told not to copy the way the world does things (Rom 12:2), but rather, to allow God's transforming power to lead our renewed minds into all truth and orderly conduct. In Jesus' day the Roman Empire had a similar top-down design, and He forbids His followers from emulating the Gentile rulers (Lk. 22:24-26), who considered themselves "authority figures" ("lords", 1Pet. 5:3). Jesus said true Christian leaders would consider themselves "servants" instead (Mk. 9: 34-35), seeking to serve the brethren to the point of sacrifice (1Cor 15:30-31).

Independent Ministries

When you hear the word, "apostolic", does your mind conjure up images of well-bred, refined men in royal robes sitting in meeting rooms like statesmen, planning the course of Christianity? If so, then the word "minister" probably calls to your mind visions of men in tailored suits in modern board-rooms, answerable only to their superiors, drawing a regular salary, enjoying the use of a car and their house paid for by church funds, and bearing unquestioned rule over the membership.

The Apostle Paul then, would not be a "minister" by this definition. At times, he had no clothing, no office or even a place to live, was considered "poor" and sometimes went hungry (2Cor 11:27). He taught that ministers and laity should be answerable to each other at times (Eph. 5:21) . He had no secured income, for he was self-employed (1Cor 4:12, 1Thes 2:9) so other ministers would follow his example (2Thes. 3:8-10). He walked most of the time, and when he did have a craft to travel in, it was often very unreliable and dangerous, resulting in several shipwrecks (2Cor 11:25). When he had a home, he rented it with "his own "funds (Acts 28:30), and often chose not to take any money from certain brethren (2Cor 11:8-9) and clearly stated that he preached the gospel "for free" (2Cor 11:7, Strong's Greek #1432, gratuitously, as a gift). Yet, he said himself that he was a "minister" (Rom 15:16).

Some of what we have come to assume as true may be false and tainted by the world's standards. Let us wipe the slate clean and seek God's wisdom (James l:5) in prayer, asking Him to lead us into all truth (Jn. 16:13). The apostles were common blue-collar folk (fishermen, Mt. 4:18), the despised of society (publicans/tax collectors and sinners, Lk 5:27-32) and formerly self-seeking, immoral men (Eph 2:2-3). Men who, in spite of their former occupations, lowly status and standards, went boldly into other churches whose beliefs were radically different from theirs to share the Good News God had given them (Acts 6:8-11, 9:19-20, 18:4). They did not sit at home, as many do today, thinking, "Don't bother with them, they won't believe anyway." We are instructed to follow the example of the apostles (1Cor 4:16).

The apostles did not advocate a classroom-like church setting, where one man speaks and the rest take notes, but rather that all may speak, one after another, as the Holy Spirit moves (1Cor. 14:29-33). When one man said he could not learn without a "trained" teacher (Acts 8:31), the holy spirit took the teacher away (vs. 39) possibly to establish that this idea was false. No particular man is necessary for the congregation to learn, since the Holy Spirit is our primary teacher (1Jn 2:27), however, men can be helpful as we learn from one another (1Cor 14:31) But spiritual knowledge (1Cor 12:9) and the ability to teach it (Eph.4:11) are gifts from God and cannot be acquired by graduating from an accredited college, though college may be helpful in developing these gifts.

You can expect that those who teach the Word of God and have little or no formal training, will be belittled by the religious leaders who do have the training, even as Jesus was by the Pharisees, (Jn 15:20). In fact, those closest to Jesus, who grew up with Him and knew Him the best, treated Him the worst, no doubt thinking that He couldn't be a "teacher of the Law" and shouldn't contradict those who are, for He was only a carpenter (Lk. 4:22, 24). Of course, Paul was only a tentmaker (Acts 18:1-3)! Likewise, those closest to you are likely to rebuke you when you start to speak independently from an established church entity, especially those who are familiar with your former role as a church "spectator". Expect that things might get quite ugly one day (Lk. 21:12,16)!

Beware of Wolves

Many Christians were taught that one sign of a church's authenticity is that its "officers" were trained at its approved ministerial school, with its teachings and policies handed down from a tightly controlled, corporate hierarchical board. Therefore, many look for that sign when they are shopping for a new church. However, as it is being revealed to multitudes that that is contrary to scripture, many are seeking groups with no structure, no control, no teachers and no accountability. This error goes to the opposite extreme. Accountability to one another is an essential ingredient to a healthy, growing church (Gal. 6:1. 2Tim 2:24-25, James 5:16, Heb. 13:17, Rom. 15:1)!

Clearly, it's "Independence Day"! Men and organizations have noticed that independence "sells", and are quick to try to capitalize on many who search for an "independent church". But that is not Christ-like and such men will eventually be exposed for what they are. Leaders without good conscience can cause many sincere brethren to be "shipwrecked" along the way (1Tim. 1:19).

Some ministries seek to gather many independent ministries under their wings. In order to become affiliated as an "independent ministry", groups may be asked to fill out an application (can you imagine Paul or Peter doing this?) agreeing that they will abide by certain policies and adopt certain doctrines. While this may seem like a reasonable safeguard against heretical teaching, such affiliation takes away from independence! Do you see the contradiction here? Small groups, eager for fellowship with others, and accustomed to large gatherings, may jump at the chance to become affiliated, not realizing that they have been deceived and brought into bondage once again by men, and have lost their liberty in Christ.

Other organizations are founded on the premise that they will utilize the gifts of all members and not just a handful of ministers. They initially encourage local evangelism and decision-making. While this sounds good, too many ministers and members are still ingrained with the concept that the only way a New Testament church can operate is with central control. But usually, within the first year, most of the local decision-making comes to an end and everyone again defers to the central headquarters.

I pray for you, my brothers and sisters in the faith, that you will seek always the Lord God of heaven and earth, who purchased you with the life and blood of His own Son , that "ye be not the servants of men" (I Cor 7:23), or men's systems. Always remember, that when you draw your last breath, no man, no matter if he seems anointed or especially gifted, can raise you from the grave. You will be judged on how well you served your Creator, not on how well you served a corporation. Therefore serve God in liberty, that you may serve Him to the fullest. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (2Cor 3:17). And " by love serve one another" (Gal. 5:13).

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