by Pam Dewey & Norman Edwards
“But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ” (Matt 23:8-10).
At first consideration, it seems that the above verse says that we should not have any religious teachers—and that we are violating the first commandment if we do. Strong words. Yet there are many New Testament passages that state that Christ places “teachers” in the church (Acts 13:1; 1Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11; Titus 2:3; Heb 5:12). The problem is fairly easily understood when we see that the word for teacher used in Matthew 23:10 is a different Greek word (Strong’s #2519, kathegetes) than the one used for the teachers we should have (Strong’s #1320, didaskalos). The King James translation is better. It says “Neither be ye called masters”. In simple terms, Christ told us not to have “rabbis” and “master teachers”, but later said He would give us “helping teachers”.
The system of Rabbis developed after Judah went into captivity—when there was no longer a temple or priesthood to regularly teach the Scriptures. The main Rabbis would undertake to instruct a small group of students. The group would usually be small—a dozen or so, and the Rabbi was, for all intents and purposes, their “guru”. He was the ultimate authority for any question they might ask. It is very likely that Paul’s training from Gamaliel was conducted in this manner (Acts 22:3).
Unfortunately, all too often the Rabbis became too much of an authority figure to the students, and in these cases the students were closer followers of the Rabbi than they were followers of God’s way or God Himself.
As Christ traveled around with the Twelve, teaching them, most people would have regarded them as part of such a system: Yeshua the Rabbi and His school—plus a much larger group of “disciples” who listened to Him when they could. The twelve apostles used the terminology of the day: “Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am” (John 13:13, KJV). Christ was different than any other teacher of his day in that he deserved this high title, and He really could answer all their questions. It is interesting that this very verse comes in the chapter about foot-washing—where Christ had to teach them that a true leader serves the people he leads.
There are still Orthodox Jewish Rabbis teaching a small “school” of a dozen or so, as well as speaking to a few hundred people on the Sabbath. There are some Christian groups doing the same thing. But mass communication methods have greatly affected the potential outreach of such “Rabbis” and “Masters”. Instead of a dozen disciples, they can have thousands or even millions.
In ancient times, the Rabbi would limit the size of his school so he could intimately interact with each one. He needed to hear their answers to questions so he could be sure that they were really learning and able to teach others some day.
There is a classic book called The Master Plan of Evangelism, available at most Christian Bible book stores, which advocates this same method as the most effective way to truly “disciple” new Christians. It encourages each mature Christian or “elder” to mentor a small group of new disciples to the point that they can become mentors on their own of the next generation of disciples. It specifically teaches that new believers should not develop a dependency on the mentor, but look to him as an example as he follows Christ, with an eye to growing beyond the need for such an “overseer”.
But this whole concept can be short-circuited in our time by television, radio and tape ministries. A pseudo-intimacy is developed with the “master teacher” who uses such methods to interact with disciples. As some people come to believe that the people on soap operas are “real”, so some Christians develop what they honestly believe is a “relationship” with a man they may never have even met, or even corresponded with personally. They have just heard his voice for so long on tapes and/or read so many letters from him that it seems he is their “friend”—not just a distant speaker who doesn’t even know they exist.
Many such “master teachers” make a point of sharing personal details about their family, interests, habits, etc. These increase the follower’s sense of intimacy, but do not really help them evaluate the worth of the teacher. It is just too easy for a teacher to talk about only the positive aspects of his life and simply not mention the negative. This makes the teacher look glowingly righteous in the eyes of the followers. Whereas the people that we all really do know and see every day usually have apparent weaknesses along with their strengths.
George and Pam Dewey were planning to leave the CGI in 1988, in disgust over the dictatorial tactics of Garner Ted Armstrong. One of their closest friends, Chris, became very upset with their constant, open, very vocal criticism of GTA. He didn’t seem to care about the validity of their concerns, he just didn’t want to hear something bad about his “master teacher”. George had known Chris since their high school days in the early 1960s. Pam had met him right after their marriage in 1965. He had come into the WCG directly as a result of the Deweys’ “personal evangelism”, he had left there directly as a result of their influence, and he had come along to the CGI directly as a result of their influence. The Deweys and Chris had been together almost weekly for almost ten years while in the CGI. Pam had been like a big sister to him; he had sought her counsel for years. She even talked him out of suicide one time. He had even lived in the Deweys’ home at various times when he was down and out.
But when push came to shove, he chose the flickering image of GTA on the TV screen, a man who didn’t even know he existed, over a caring friendship of ten years. The Deweys were not even asking him to give up GTA. He broke up the relationship because the Deweys’ were no longer loyal to his “master teacher”. The day the Deweys left CGI was the last day that Pam saw or heard from him. He contracted lung cancer shortly thereafter, and died in less than a year, at barely 45. Although George visited him once in the hospital, Chris had little interest because of the illusion that he had a great “master teacher” who deserved his undivided loyalty.
A similar thing happened previously when the Deweys left the WCG. The fact that they were disloyal to Herbert Armstrong was enough for every person in their local congregation to totally shun them from 1978 until the day some of them left to attend UCG in 1995.
Sadly, this same mind-set continues in the independent COG movement. The ancient Rabbis, including Jesus, practically lived with their disciples, so that the disciples really could see if their Guru was “walking the walk” that he taught them. There was an intimacy which would quickly reveal any sham. Not so these days. People may think that they “know” the man behind the mike, when they really know nothing about him but what he says on tape or in a letter. They have no idea to what extent some people or departments of people go to make a tape or letter that sounds natural and “off the cuff”, but yet thoroughly scrutinize it so that it does not contain the slightest hint of any problems, character flaws, etc., in regard to the teacher and his organization.
Herbert Armstrong’s tapes and writings are well known. There are millions of copies of them. But what was he like as a person? Nearly all of the WCG members had no way of knowing. Norman Edwards attended his Pasadena congregation from 1977 until his death in 1986, yet never knew of anyone who informally spoke to Mr. Armstrong at a service—save those few church employees who surrounded him all of the time. Mr. Armstrong’s close confidant, Aaron Dean, freely admits that Herbert Armstrong had a proclivity to immediately “fire” people who did something he perceived as wrong. He would usually rehire them the same or next day—but not always. If a man’s associates consist completely of paid employees concerned with being “fired on the spot”, can we expect them to correct him when he errs? Can we expect them to tell the truth to others about his errors?
It is sad that so many of the details of the life of Herbert Armstrong have to be told through the “investigative reporting” style of publications such as Ambassador Report. But the truth was not told while he was alive. Mr. Armstrong was largely surrounded by men who were helping him “do the work” and put forth a good “public image”, not men who were helping him to live a righteous life.
The leaders of many WCG splinter groups have been found plotting and planning, switching between groups for more power or more money, not doing what appears to be in the clear best interests of the people they serve. Because they are not close to their members—the members are often the last ones to find out about these things.
Some of the thousands of members who have left big church organizations now look to new “master teachers” conducting independent tape or literature ministries. Sometimes these ministries are local and the brethren know the teacher. But in other cases, the ministries are national or global and the brethren do not know any more about the little independent teacher than they did about the head of the large group. Sometimes these “master teachers” have very radical beliefs (like “the New Testament is a fraud” or charismatic ideas), but their distant students do not find out about them for years. The teacher does not include these radical beliefs in his teachings, but quietly introduces material to prepare his listeners to accept the radical beliefs if possible.
Other “master teachers” sit quietly at home plagiarizing the work of others and sending it to their mailing list. No one is there to see them make their tapes or write their literature from the other sources. Their supporters have the illusion that such a teacher is an incredibly dynamic speaker and spiritual giant who could come up week after week with wonderful analogies, metaphors, alliterations and so on right off the top of his head—all made to look so natural—never realizing he was just pretty good at finding material and pretending it was his own.
Many such “long distance” “master teachers” hide behind their mikes and computers, keeping their distance from their supporters to shield them from having to answer any “hard questions” about their lifestyle, actions or teachings. There is, in many cases, almost no accountability that can be brought to bear against such a one. If a student perceives a serious problem with a teaching or a personal sin, the most he can do is call or write to the “master teacher”. If he just ignores his mail, e-mail and answering machine, little can be accomplished by the student—even if he asks a few witnesses to join in his request. The third step from Matthew 18:15-17 in dealing with disputes among brethren is taking it “to the church”—the body of believers who know that person—the ones who would treat him as a “heathen and a tax collector” if “he refuses even to hear the Church”. In this case, the church or congregation is the body of believers who are that teacher’s students—on his mailing list. If the teacher refuses to do this, the student who perceived the problem may have no way to resolve it according to Matthew 18.
Sadly, as with the Deweys’ experience with Chris, many still get very hostile at anyone who asks “hard questions” about their “master teacher”. Whole fellowship groups of close friends have been split over loyalty to a man whom none of the people really know personally! How ludicrous and sad.
These six things the Lord hates, yes, seven are an abomination to Him: a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren (Prov 6:16-19).
A whole lot of historical as well as modern “master teachers” may face a very strong indictment when they stand before their Maker on this issue of separating brethren over matters which boil down to an issue of personal loyalty to themselves and their “ministry”.
Yes, certain people can have a clear “gift” for teaching the Bible in certain ways, whether it be Bible history, customs of Biblical times, or clarifying and bringing to life basic daily Christian living principles. Some may be able to help you learn how to use a concordance, how to do your own topical study through the Bible, and may point out how certain scriptures clarify one another in ways you might not have noticed. Some can share material about a topic they have studied in depth in the Bible in a way that would take dozens or hundreds of hours to sort through yourself. Some teachers are skilled at stirring you to action—inspiring you to put to use knowledge that you already have. All these people can teach, and you can learn.
But the minute you set up one of those teachers as your “master teacher”, the main source of your understanding of biblical and spiritual matters—your personal Guru—you have suddenly elevated him to a position not intended to exist in the Body.
One would think that after seeing the prophetic and personal problems of Herbert Armstrong, and then the difficulties with the leaders in the various splinter groups, people would learn their lesson. But the tendency has simply been to go from one “master teacher” to another. So they look to Fred Coulter, Bill Dankenbring, Wade Cox, Ron Dart, Jim Rector, Ray Wooten, Norman Edwards or any number of others. Some of these men quietly or very openly encourage brethren to look only to them for Bible teaching, while others understand Matthew 23:8-10 and do not want to be considered a “master teacher”. But simply asking people not to look to you as a “master teacher” does not stop them from doing it.
An ultimate example of a ministry stung twice by “master teacher” syndrome is Lon Lacey’s A Church of God Ministry. Lon did not seem to seek after a great deal of glory or riches for himself, but he believed that he was the only teacher who correctly understood prophecy today. When Norman Edwards asked him if he would stop prophesying if his Y2K prophecies failed, he simply stated that he did not need to answer that question because his prophecies would not fail. Norman, and most of the others who read Lon’s writings, were led to believe that this “master teacher” was getting his information from the Bible, publicly available world news and some “inside contacts” with influential people throughout the world. Although all of that was true, the guidance of his teachings came from another “master teacher”, the prophetess Kathryn Sage and her son Elijah. (Does anyone care to guess what they were anticipating he would do when he reaches adulthood?)
The Bible does show that there were prophetesses in the New Testament (Luke 2:36; Acts 2:18; 21:9). But the Bible never mentions prophets or prophetesses secretly dispersing their prophecies through somebody else. It is no wonder that many of Lon Lacey’s followers were bewildered when he was taken from them by an untimely death. Some seem to be rallying the others to continue his work. Others appear to be looking for another “master teacher”, whilst others seem to have learned from the episode.
We need to realize that most heads of the “Church of God” groups are nearing the age of retirement or death. Many have significant health problems now. Almost none have any sort of “Master Teacher Junior” to take over for Dad when he is gone. Far too few of these leaders are teaching brethren how to come to maturity themselves. It more seems that they are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2Tim 3:6).
So what is the solution? Should we never listen to another teacher again? No.
Each person should simply refuse to designate anyone as their “master teacher”. One should never be able to say, “Whenever I have a question that I cannot answer, I just ask this one person.” We must recognize that each person has different gifts. We should always be ready to check a teacher’s explanation against the Bible and against other teacher’s explanations. If all of the students simply left the men who act like “master teachers”, they would all soon disappear.
Obviously, Bible teachers need to give up the “master teacher” syndrome. They should encourage those on their mailing list to read other information and study the Bible for themselves. Yes, they will sometimes lose supporters when they read others’ material. But teachers must realize that Christ is calling disciples to Himself, not to a specific teacher. “For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not carnal?” (1Cor 3:4.) If supporters leave a teacher over a doctrine, then that teacher needs to find a better way to teach that doctrine—or to look and see if he is teaching it wrong. If supporters leave a teacher because false accusations were made against him, they need not worry—Christ is the judge, and the truth will eventually come out (Luke 8:17). If supporters leave a teacher because they find out about his sins, the teacher ought to repent—maybe stop teaching.
Many teachers will point out that in actual cases where new brethren have tried to learn everything on their own from their Bible and from a variety of teachers, they have either made obviously poor choices or have become confused and frustrated with the Eternal and have just given up. This is true.
The solution is “meat in due season” (Matt 24:45). Anyone who has raised either humans or animals from babies knows that they do not need the same food at different stages—their diet changes radically. The Bible compares believers to sheep. A flyer for Bible classes by John Purvins (PO Box 1, Little Chute, WI 54140; 920-733-5271; Jpurvins@churchcounsel.com) clearly stated a few concepts which we have expanded upon here in the conclusion.
Christ is the Shepherd and mature believers hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:27). Baby sheep may hear the shepherd’s voice—it may be comforting to them—but they do not understand it. They start out listening to their mother’s voice and doing what she does. Hopefully, the mother sheep will hear the shepherd’s voice and follow it. But if she goes astray, the baby sheep will, also. The shepherd leads the sheep to good pasture, and the sheep eat what they need (the shepherd does not make them eat). But the baby sheep only nurse from their mother. They get only what she gets—but a good mother will share whatever she has and literally put her life into raising a baby.
Similarly, new believers need to begin learning from someone or some group. They are not quite skilled enough to learn completely on their own to start with. They will simply have to live with whatever deficiencies there are in the person or group that first teaches them. It is important to realize that a mother sheep with only a little food but who nurtures her baby is likely to be more successful than a sheep that has a lot of food but does not have time for her baby. In some rare cases, sheep will actually begin nursing from themselves! The obvious lesson here is that the teacher with the most truth is not always the best at nourishing new believers. They often use their resources to learn more and more truth and seem not to notice that new believers are “dying” for lack of the basics.
Sheep normally have just one mother, but if they get lost or if their mother rejects them, sometimes they can find another “mother” to accept them. The process usually has a lot of difficulty. It is much better for a baby to remain with one mother until it is old enough to eat and follow the shepherd’s voice on its own. But changing mothers is better than dying. Similarly, it is usually better for a new believer to stay with the group that first taught them until they are ready to look to God directly—but it is better to change groups than it is to stay with one that will not sustain spiritual life.
So how long does it take for a sheep to begin to feed itself, and to hear the shepherd’s voice on their own? A baby sheep will begin to eat food in as little as three weeks. It will live on a combination of solid food and its mother’s milk for another three months or so. At this point it is ready to be weaned—taught to stop nursing and eat for itself. Some sheep do this automatically. But if the mother does not wean the sheep, it will continue to nurse for months or even years—when it is old enough to have sheep of its own. “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food” (Heb 5:12). Most Church or God groups have had no organized effort to “wean” their members so that they can “eat solid food” (learn directly from the Bible) and “follow the shepherd’s voice” (pray and receive direct answers from Christ).
It is strange to see a sheep the size of its mother still nursing, but it happens. After a year, sheep should be completely ready to follow the shepherd’s voice, and to begin having their own babies (teaching other new believers). Some sheep develop more slowly and may take two years for this process. Obviously, the time periods in this analogy are for sheep, and not necessarily for humans. It may take some people months before they are able to study the Bible for themselves, and years before they are ready to begin teaching others.
When we say “begin teaching others”, we do not mean “become a full-time minister”. This can apply to any responsible spiritual service in the body of Christ: speaking, writing, teaching children, serving the homeless or imprisoned—even telling one’s friends or neighbors about the Bible. In a large herd of sheep, a few of the older, wiser ones will sometimes help the other sheep follow the shepherd—warning them of obstacles, going forward when the way looks tough. If there are goats in the flock, they will certainly do this. These are useful as long as they are obeying the shepherd—if they work against the shepherd, they are not. By analogy, these older sheep or goats are like our teachers, today: they are useful as long as they point the brethren to Christ. When they begin to gather a following for themselves, the brethren would be better off without them.
The people in the first century who heard the sheep analogies of the Bible often raised sheep and would certainly understand them well. Christ is the “Master Teacher” and all of His people are His sheep. He is described as a good “shepherd” many times in the Bible. There is only one reference to men as shepherds (pastors) in Ephesians 4:11. Even so, Christ is the “great Shepherd” (Heb 13:20). Everyone must realize that He is the Master Teacher, and any human teachers should be regarded as “fellow workers for your joy” (2Cor 1:24)—mature sheep who are able to help others along the way, but never to claim to be the “king sheep” (there is no such thing) and never to stand in place of the one true Master Teacher.