Wicked Schemes: The Social Behavior of the Abuser

I’d like to recommend to every church leader the recent blog post of Boz Tchividjian: The wicked scheme of child offending church leaders: A house of cards. In it he describes what I’ve described elsewhere as The Social Behavior of the Abuser. It’s noteworthy that his description doesn’t apply just to child abusers but to those who formulate a wicked scheme to exploit another person or persons for their own wicked and selfish ends. And this wicked and selfish end might be no more than trying to make themselves look much better than they are at the expense of someone else. Though I’ve heard church leaders pooh-pooh that wicked and selfish purpose as nothing to be concerned about, it does add up to the transgression of the commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

One thing that I’m sure of after forty years of following Christ and having had various levels of involvement with churches of various sizes and in various denominations: people do not run from a church where the church consistently shows them the love of Christ. They do run from intrusive and controlling people.

One thing that I have also noticed over the past generation: most pastors, elders and church leaders do not take Galatians 6:1 to heart: “Brothers and sisters, if any of you is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual straighten that person out in a spirit of gentleness, as you watch out for yourself, that you yourself might not be tempted.” For too many in church leadership, this seems to have devolved into – at best —  just watching out for those in egregious sexual sin and banishing and expelling them. But I would venture that it would include watching out and correcting the habitually intrusive and controlling person – the church busybody, often enough – or that person whom you see having the last conversation with a person before that person runs from your church. But again, the problem here might also be that a pastor or church leader may not realize that that person is himself or herself, and that you’ve been blindsiding, harassing and tormenting fellow believers with your wicked, self aggrandizing schemes – maybe even for decades. And unfortunately, so many at this point of realization may become embarrassed – but go no further. If you see yourself here, realize that embarrassment is not repentance, and it’s really not the godly sorrow that lead leads to a repentance that leaves no further regrets in its wake. It rather astonishes me that so many that I’ve known who have had the greatest chutzpah to interfere in the lives of others are the biggest cowards when it comes to setting things right when they are most blatantly wrong and hurtful – to repent scripturally and do restitution scripturally where possible. So then, if you see yourself here,  confess your sinful, wicked schemes before God and man with as many tears as it takes for as long as it takes.

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Strange Delusions, Obsessions and Fixations Among God’s People

Some years ago, a man who attended the same church as I did came down with an inoperable  brain tumor. The Wednesday evening prayer meetings made much of praying for his healing. One of the elders, whom I knew and respected very much, prayed quite confidently and fervently that he had had an inner witness that this was not ‘an illness unto death,’ and about trusting God for healing. Nevertheless, within three weeks the man passed away from the brain tumor.

At another time, a prominent Christian author had one of her infant grandchildren fall into a serious disease. According to her relatives, she was determined that God was going to heal that child, but before long, the child passed away also.

At another time, a prominent leader in Great Britain was convinced that a young couple who had attended his Bible college were called of God to minister alongside him at his Bible college. If memory serves me correctly, he also had some dire predictions of what would happen to them if they did not follow the leading that he claimed that he had. They did not have the same sense of leading and assurance, and ended up going to South Africa, and before long had a fruitful ministry in revival that affected many worldwide.

At still another time, a young man showed up at the front door of Joni Eareckson (before her marriage to Ken Tada). After some questioning, he revealed that he had read her book Joni, and had driven across the country due to feeling that God was leading him to propose marriage to her. He was shocked to learn that he was the third such young man to show up on her doorstep in the past six months. She and her caretaker were then able to have a gentle talk with him, where they explained to him that God does not mislead us, but there are times that we misread his will.

One definition of a delusion is that it is a fixed false belief. The definition of a fixation is ‘the state in which an individual becomes obsessed with an attachment to another person, being or object.’ The result of this fixation is often foolish, immature, neurotic, dysfunctional or even destructive behavior.  An obsession, then, is a fixed, often false, idea, desire or image which dominates a person’s life and actions, and it often results in foolish, immature, neurotic, dysfunctional or even destructive behavior. Here is what I would define as the end result of a delusion, fixation or obsession for a believer: the relentless hot pursuit of what is not the will of God from the scriptures. And when an obsession involves one or more other people, it becomes the relentless hot pursuit of what is not the will of God from the scriptures in someone else’s life.

Unfortunately, many times, otherwise godly and sensible people fall into these kinds of delusions, fixations and obsessions. For many, these are simply a difficult and temporary part of growing in Christ, where they come to a more mature and well grounded faith in him and a more serious and wise ability to follow his will as in the scriptures. This results in more mature discernment of one’s own thoughts, emotions and intentions, as well as those of others, and most of all of the will of God. According to the scriptures, where that person becomes more fittingly part of the ranks of the spiritually mature, , “ . . . whose perceptive faculties have discernment of right and wrong through having been exercised in continual use” (Hebrews 5:11). Most of these examples that I cited at the outset would have fallen in these kinds of temporary delusions and resulted in what should be the normal outcome, the realization that we might misread the will of God and a due caution and care for discernment of the will of God.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything much in the way of more modern pastoral literature on how to understand and deal with the deluded, fixated and obsessed. Several centuries ago Richard Baxter had some insightful things to say, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones commended what he had to say as being relevant, although the primary obsession he mentioned were those that believed that they had committed the unpardonable sin.  These suffering people may have actually had some form of what we now recognize as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, though. What I’m writing about isn’t so much something that may be able to be traced to an organically based mental illness – a kind of brain dysfunction or disease – but is a kind of disordered thinking and relentless pursuit which occurs in people who may be otherwise normal in the way that they behave.

From my personal experience over the years among believers and others, I believe that there are a number of other manifestations of thoughts and behavior among believers that count as delusions, obsessions and fixations. My personal thought is that a great deal of the literature on pastoral care has focused on the kind of people that psychiatrists such as E. Fuller Torrey have called, “the worried well” – people who have no discernible brain dysfunction but need guidance and support through normal difficulties and adjustments of life. I would submit that the obsessed, fixated and deluded fall into a third category – those may have no discernible brain dysfunction but who show stubborn obsessive and delusional behavior and often stubborn malignant and destructive tendencies toward others. And those in this third category would therefore be as much a concern of the pastor and theologian since there needs to be a genuine moral foundation to be able to call such behaviors of thought, word and deed as living in a falsehood and morally wrong and destructive.

In no way, however, do I think that Christian belief in itself can be characterized as a delusion, fixation or obsession, contrary to some of the most vocal atheists. Rather of the people that I’ve known who could be characterized as having some kind of delusion, fixation or belief, their Christian faith and their actions which correspond to scripture and Christlike love are rather the most sane parts of their life and behavior. Whatever they have in the way of their Christian faith and their adherence to scripture in fact give them the greatest hope and the strongest and deepest moral foundation to overcome these behaviors. In fact, a greater understanding of and adherence to scripture is actually the best way out of their delusions, fixations and obsessions, and the best hope for relief and remediation for them and for their family and fellow believers from the destructiveness of their behavior.

Here, then, are the observations and recommendations that I would make for these situations in regard to pastoral care and Christian ministry within an loving, caring church that believes in and seeks to live by the Word of God.

Genuine believers can have fixations, delusions and obsessions: The first thing needed to be able to minister to those with delusions, fixations and obsessions is  simply the recognition that the reception of eternal life through faith in Christ does not automatically free anyone from ever having a delusion, fixation or obsession. Coming to a scriptural faith does not mean that a person has been purified of all possible delusional, fixated and obsessive behaviors of thought and life. It is simply a great overreach of II Corinthians 5:17 to assert that salvation means that our every thought becomes correct and conforms to reality and our every feeling and intention is pure and well grounded. It does mean, though, that there is real hope that anyone can through Christ discern and grow beyond his or her delusions, fixations and obsessions. And in addition, the resource of a scripturally wise and loving church can enable people to develop relationships of sufficient depth, confidentiality and safety that these kinds of problems can be dealt with, and the past can be covered with forgiveness, patience and confidentiality.

It’s often astonishing to realize how many otherwise seemingly normal, functional and spiritual people may be ruled by extraordinary obsessions in different areas of their lives. And because the image that many people have of insanity is that it is constant in all areas of a person’s life and results in constant irrational behavior, others may not really understand the walking insanity that constitutes these obsessions, fixations and delusions. They see the social rationality in many situations, but they do not recognize that the walking insanity of these fixations, obsessions and delusions, which are often cordoned off into separate areas of a person’s life, is really a form of walking insanity which manifests itself in certain situations and with certain people.

Obsessions, fixations and delusions are rooted in disordered thinking, foolish and wicked schemes and unfulfilled desires. For people to enter into these kinds of obsessions, fixations and delusions, there are definitely some common trigger situations and common . Usually these related to the pursuit of deeply held and entrenches wants and desires.

It can be quite painful, spiritually and emotionally draining and even spiritually and emotionally debilitating to be the target of an obsession, fixation or delusion. Few believers and Christian leaders seem to understand how serious it can be to be the target of an obsession. One of the terrible effects of a delusion, fixation or obsession is the extent to which it can deprive the target and others around the target of personal safety, social safety, family safety, church and workplace safety. In fact, the obsessed may come to gloat in how much they terrify and intimidate the target, and this will happen more and more if the obsessed continue to grow in contempt toward the target. The target has to spend a great deal of thought, effort and time to guard against and deal with the wicked interruptions and interference which often come from the deluded, fixated and obsessed. The deluded, obsessed and fixated may attempt deeply wicked and malicious interference in the marriage prospects, marital and family life, church life, career and vocational life and choices of the target by their attempts to play God in someone else’s life. Stalking behaviors are common at this point: they may stalk a person throughout his or her life (life stalkers) or from church to church ( church stalkers) or from one romantic relationship to another (romantic stalkers) or throughout a person’s career, from job to job ( job stalkers). In fact, the stalking behaviors in which the most deeply obsessed, fixated and deluded get entrapped and enmeshed result in them becoming even murderers.

A personal and continued deliverance from self conceit and personal fantasies strongly lessens a believer’s vulnerability to pursuing obsessions, fixations and delusions. Something many believers need to learn not to do, as a part of deliverance from self conceit, is to let go of a relentless drive to prove oneself right. This may often be the underlying drive that keeps a person in pursuit of obsessions, fixations and delusions: the drive to prove that my ideas are right and my ideas for myself or someone else or some situation are right. Eventually, though, a growing believer will come to the recognition that it is folly to pursue the justification of one’s own ideas, opinions and judgment rather than to hold deeply to scriptural convictions and scriptural conduct toward others. Obsessions, fixations and delusions will often be found to be deeply entrenched wicked schemes, and the renewal of the mind from Romans 12:2 will eventually root them out and purify the thoughts and the thinking apparatus. The person who goes through this process learns that being a follower of Jesus is more than picking up a few new religious ideas and saying some new religious words, but that Jesus becomes Lord over every thought and deed, and his reign over our thoughts and deeds purifies them and guides us to humility, joy and peace.

Delusions, fixations and obsessions are symptoms of character disorders. Delusions, fixations and obsessions are a large part of the behavioral complex of pathological narcissists, borderlines, addicts and abusers. They form within their own thought life a very large private psychological justification of the misery that they inflict on themselves and others. As far as modern psychiatry and psychology is able to determine, all these are learned behaviors without any basis in physical brain dysfunction. And certainly a wise preaching and teaching ministry which deals both compassionately and firmly with people’s obsessions by the Word of God can be a large part of alleviating the misery of these kinds of misery makers – both the misery in which they find themselves and the misery which they inflict on others.

God’s Word is sufficient to break through delusions, obsessions and fixations: The third thing to recognize is the sufficiency of the Word of God through the Spirit of God to deal with and awaken people who are trapped in delusions, fixations and obsessions. The truth of the Word of God is often the deciding factor in pulling believers out of these kinds of delusions, fixations and obsessions. Quite frankly, when I’ve been in contact with believers who are caught in delusions, fixations and obsessions what I’ve seen is that what there is that is right about them is what they know and possess of Christ and his Word.

Demonic influence may be behind many delusions, fixations and obsessions: Dealing with those who are trapped in delusions, fixations and obsessions often leads to a realization that they might have been led into them and are being kept in them through demonic temptation and influence. It’s easily possible to see in some people that these kinds of delusions, fixations and obsessions are in fact demonic strongholds in their lives, and a real fortification of the powers of darkness. The scriptural model for the traps in which the deluded, fixated and obsessed find themselves is the temptation of Jesus Christ, where Satan appealed to his legitimate desires for provision, God’s will and demonstration of his Messianic credentials but sought to entice him to fulfill them outside the will of God. It’s easily possible to see, then, how giving in to the same kinds of temptations that Jesus faced can lead to the kinds of delusions, obsessions and fixations.

It is in these cases that wise, confidential and faithful prayer with fasting for a real truth encounter of the deluded, fixated and obsessed is necessary.  In these cases I would advise very much against making this the kind of prayer request where someone goes around trying to collar every warm body in the fellowship of believers to pray for this, but rather the private prayer of two or three faithful believers who can trust God together for the pulling down of strongholds. Most certainly, someone who likes to talk a lot about others behind their backs – even if that person has the title or office of pastor or elder — is NOT a good candidate for this kind of prayer or ministry – and certainly godly and conscientious pastors and elders need to advise such a person to shut up in a godly, gentle and loving fashion.

Here are the foundational characteristics of delusions, obsessions and fixations:

  • Extreme and unreasonable urgency: There is a highly exaggerated sense of urgency and need for something that is desired from the target of the obsession and fixation. There is pretty much no willingness to wait for any change of circumstances and results from extended prayer. In fact, the obsessed and fixated often are quite vehement in their demands for what they want from their targets. They want it now, immediately, and they will demean, disparage, slander and pretty much do anything to get what they want from the target. The way that this is demanded and pursued demonstrates that the delusion, obsession or fixation comes from fallen human nature, often enough under the instigation of demonic beings, and not from any legitimate scriptural desire.
  • Dehumanizing the target: Where an obsession involves another person, there is often a complete disregard of the legitimate needs, thoughts, desires,  choices and feelings of the target of the obsession, especially where scripture recognizes these as completely legitimate. The other person simply does not exist as a real and separate person to the obsessed, with real and legitimate needs, thoughts, desires, choices and feelings. There is simply a treatment of the other person simply as an extension of the thoughts, needs, desires, choices and feelings of the obsessed, and certainly not as a person who can read, understand and follow the scriptures and who can follow God without the help of the obsessed person. This tendency to treat others this way often surfaces in the pathologically narcissistic. Often the target is someone to whom they feel superior in some way, from whom they believe they can achieve some self aggrandizing goal, and in whom they may believe there is insufficient personal resources and support from other people to fend off or fight off their delusions, fixations and obsessions.
  • Growing disparity over time of the narrative of the obsession and reality: There is a large and growing disparity of the deluded, fixated, and obsessed in thought, word, and deed  with both scripture and reality, unless God gives deliverance to the deluded, fixated and obsessed. This reflects a growing self deceit and life of outward deceit. The precepts of scripture and genuine, objectively verifiable facts of the situation are insufficient to dissuade the fixated and obsessed. Even so, there needs to be a firm reliance on and adherence to scriptural teachings on belief and conduct by those who may be in contact with the fixated and obsessed. In fact, there may well be wild misinterpretations of scripture that help to  reinforce the deluded, fixated and obsessed in their ideas. Extreme exaggeration is found when comparing what is said with what is real.
  • Extreme stubbornness: There is an extreme intransigence and stubbornness in the rightness of one’s thoughts, words and actions, even when these are shown to be contrary to scripture and verifiable facts. This shows the great hardness of heart that can be part of the spiritual component of delusions, fixations and obsessions. They are convinced that they are right, even when scripture and circumstances show them to be wrong, and they continue for months, years or decades in their hot pursuit of what is not the will of God for their life and for the lives of others.
  • Rooted in heart idolatry: Deluded, fixated and obsessional behavior can therefore become a kind of idolatry, where getting what one wants from a person or a situation is what a person truly wants far more than submission to the will of God. It’s easy, therefore, to understand how the deluded, obsessed and fixated can be under the control of the reprobate mind (Romans 1:28-32). The types of idolatry often seen here are the personal Messiah complex, the idolatry of getting one’s own way, the idolatry of crushing a perceived enemy,  the idolatry of the public image and the idolatry of romantic or sexual escapes.
  • Oblivious to the actual effect of their behavior: The deluded, fixated and obsessed are often oblivious to or in denial of the actual effects and consequences of their behavior on others, particularly their targets. They may make extravagant claims of great affection, love and good intentions toward their targets, and show real or feigned hurt and astonishment at that person who may in fact be running as fast and as far away from their obsessiveness for them. They do not recognize that scripturally, “Love does not do harm to one’s neighbor” (Romans 13:10) – that the actual effects and consequences of their behavior are what scripture addresses, and not mere statements of intentions.
  • Magical thinking: There is enough magical thinking within evangelical churches with flood of quasi-scriptural or psychobabble formulas that arise from the evangelical media and publishing industry. Magical thinking is that living according to the scriptures means that if a person does these things everything will work out in this life for that person and conversely, if someone isn’t living as someone else thinks that they ought to then it’s because they are acting contrary to the magical formulas. It is the divorce of trust and obedience from a true daily relationship with God through Jesus to trying to get what a person wants in this life through adherence to what may be sometimes simply acts of conformity to the words and deeds of fellow believers or sometimes even something close to scripture, but treating the whole thing as a series of magical formulas to get what I want for myself and from others. One of the consequences of this way of life is that , along with a personal lack of discernment, the absorption of these formula brings along with it a kind of arrogant callousness that believes that another person’s life can be used as a laboratory to experiment with these formulas. These people are often then on the lookout for someone else to use as their experimental ground for their often deluded versions of these formulas, and they may often exhaust themselves trying to enmesh others in what turns out to be only a series of very wicked and childish web of their schemes. The truth is that naïve and easy going believers may themselves descend into acquiescence and cooperation with these wicked and childish schemes. This  will never lead to peace, but rather to greater enmeshment and enslavement to these formulas. God’s way is never to have any believer ever enmeshed and  enslaved to another believer, but to follow the scriptures with open eyes and a loving trust and obedience directed at him through Jesus Christ.
  • Loss of sense of God’s presence:  The obsessed, fixated and deluded may sense this and in fact it might be quite troubling to them when they begin to follow the path of an obsession, fixation or delusion. may have periods of strong sense of condemnation from going against conscience, conviction of the Holy Spirit. In scriptural terms, such a person is walking in darkness and living a lie (I John 1:7-10) and such a person is often also walking in hatred toward another person as the obsession deepens. A deep hardness of heart may then result from this obsession, and that person may actually find conviction of the sinfulness of the sinful behaviors lessening or ceasing. These are not a sign that the behaviors which the Word condemns are correct, but rather that the Spirit of God is beginning to distance himself from someone who is going further into his or her hardness of heart. God has not promised always to make us repeatedly aware of our sin, but rather has stated explicitly that his Spirit will not always contend with people bent on their ways of wickedness (Isaiah

There are several examples of the obsessed within the scriptures. Saul, the king of Israel is a strong example of the destructively obsessed, with his destructive obsession has its center in envy of God’s designated successor, David, the man after God’s own heart. And his New Testament namesake Saul of Tarsus, before he became Paul the apostle, is another example of destructive obsession, where his destructive obsession had its center in religious zeal. Many, if not the vast majority, of abusive men and women are destructively obsessed with others, and often one or more particular people – to subjugate, rule, control or even destroy that person.

Here are the characteristics of the destructive, envious obsession of Saul the king of Israel:

  • His obsession arose from anger, fear and jealousy (I Samuel 18:8-9, 12, 29).
  • His obsession was justified to himself, at least, by his fixed false beliefs about David having a conspiracy against him and being in rebellion (I Samuel 22:13).
  • His obsession included deluded zeal for his household and his dynasty (I Samuel 20:31)
  • His obsession became destructive to own family members when they refused to be drawn into it (I Samuel 20:30-34).
  • His obsession was exacerbated by demonic influence (I Samuel 19:9-10).

The obsession of Saul with David, as mentioned, produced an outburst of raving, maniacal rage when family members directly addressed it (I Samuel 20:30-34). Unfortunately, this is sometimes what happens when one of these obsessions, fixations and delusions is directly confronted or when it becomes apparent that the obsessed, fixated and deluded is not going to get what he or she wants in that situation. This is why direct confrontation may need to be done in a way and manner where the person doing the confrontation can take due concern for his or her physical safety. And this is why many of the bystanders remain bystanders or even cooperate with the obsessed, since they come to fear becoming a target of the same rage of the obsessed.

Both King Saul and Rabbi Saul show something else even more: that a position of leadership, even zealous religious leadership, is no barrier to becoming enmeshed in a fixation, delusion or obsession. Rather, it may become an outlet for a more destructive pursuit of an obsession or fixation than would be not be possible from someone not in leadership. Quite frankly, being in the office of leadership may then become part of the justification of the fixation, obsession or delusions. The demand for what they want is then based on being in the office of a religious leader. When this happens, someone in the office of spiritual leadership – such as a pastor or elder – may change from being a servant of the Word to a self appointed oracle or agent of the will of God in a situation, in one’s own life, or in the lives of others. This is termed spiritual abuse, and the authors Kurt Koch, Ronald Enroth and Neil Anderson have documented a number of such cases. Again, many people in our churches, including other leaders, often then become enmeshed in the schemes that the obsessed, fixated and deluded pursue. The stark implication is that people in our churches need to be much more heavily scripted in a discerning faith in and obedience to the scriptures themselves, and not to the pronouncements of someone in the office of a leader.

Romantic delusions, fixations and obsessions: These can become either obsessive love, or an obsessive desire for the love and admiration of another person with no intention of ever returning any love for that person. This would be a case of habitual pursuit of unrequited love. If I were serving as the pastor for someone where I observed these situations, what I would look for here would be a situation which the person was expecting to escape, a situation where that person never had much of a chance to learn and practice suitable methods for dating and courtship and wise evaluation of a prospective spouse. These might be a part of a pattern of extended and unwanted singleness or difficult relationships of those who had a number of boyfriends or girlfriends and still want that attention and admiration. Sometimes these indeed can become dangerous to the target. A scriptural example of such a romantic situation gone terribly wrong is the rape of Tamar by Amnon (II Samuel 13:1-22). Previously I wrote about these kinds of situations in Dangerous Infatuations. A more serious area is that of sexual obsessions, and these may eventually result in the sexual control, exploitation and abuse of another person. But these obsessions ultimately result in personal self gratification that comes at a terrible price and expense to another person.

Ultimately, though, these kinds of obsessions are rooted in an idolatry of romantic love and/or sexual gratification that is rampant in our modern North American culture. Ultimately these obsessions need to be properly directed toward directing all one’s expectations and satisfaction in marital love.

Dependency delusion: A person can also develop a kind of vocational and financial dependency that is related to an obsession. This comes when they come to believe that their provision as dependent upon someone else’s effort and ability instead of their own work efforts, or if they tend to indulge themselves in get rich quick fantasies.

Power and glory fantasies: These are characteristic of narcissists, and they may become obsessed with image and position  maintenance and indulge in deeply deceptive and malicious behavior related to their  social and reputational ambitions. Their behavior is all in support of an exaggerated self importance and a  habitual internalized self flattery. In churches, this may result in an indulgence in reprehensible church politics.

Fixing fixations: These are characteristic of the persona who exhibits the classic systems of codependency. This is where someone takes up a personal Messiah complex in attempting to fix what they believe is wrong with another person. The most entrenched may harbor a core belief that they or others will achieve some kind of happiness when they all live according to their whims, desires and ideas – and their whims, desires and ideas may not even originate from them, but may in fact simply be the ambient psychobabble of the culture. Parents and ‘empty nesters’ are particularly vulnerable to the ‘fixing fixation’ and they may result in repeated and entrenched inappropriate parenting behaviors of those who are not their children.

Social/Reputational: Again, this is  image maintenance, where a person obsesses to sustain his or her habitual, internalized self flattery.

Vengeance obsessions: These can be related to deep disappointment and hurt, and literature is filled with them: Achilles, The Count of Monte Cristo, and  Captain Ahab for starters.

Here are my final observations on the subject:

  • The Bible, rightly and sanely interpreted, is the safe guidepost to avoid and escape delusions, fixations and obsessions. Hold strongly to the primary truths of the Word in all situations. Moreover, as part of following the truth of the Word of God, there needs to be an unwavering determination to understand the truth in all situations and to an determination to act in accord with the love of Christ in all situations. Certainly the environment in which obsessions, fixations and delusions run rampant is an environment where there is a careless attitude toward following the Word, toward understanding and discerning the truth and toward treating others with the love of Christ in all situations.
  • Obsessions, delusions and fixations unmask our habitual idolatries. They show how much we may value our own reputation, ideas or self indulgence over the will of God as expressed in his Word.
  • Obsessions, delusions and fixations can be a path to victory or defeat when viewed as a trial of faith and obedience for both an individual believer or a fellowship. Understand that these situations may be a test of whether one will act in humility and submission to what the Bible says. For a person to attempt to support a course of presumption with growing encrustation of exaggerations and outright lies shows that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, was never a sponsor of that course of words and actions from the beginning.
  • Obsessions, delusions and fixations may in some cases persist in families and across generations. Damaged parents may pass on their own obsessions, delusions and fixations to their children, either through what they show in their behavior or in maturity they fail to pass on, or through outright enlistment of their children to help with their dirty work. Thus some obsessions, fixations and delusions follow generations in this way. The classic examples of this are the intergenerational family feuds noted in our literature, history and culture, such as the long standing and destructive Hatfield/McCoy family feud.
  • Obsessed, fixated and deluded people often try to enlist pastors, church leaders and other believers to aid them in their pursuit of their own obsessions, fixations and delusions. Pastors and church leaders especially need to avoid becoming enmeshed in the obsessions and delusions of others, though other believers will often be recruited as well. Be warned that there can be dire spiritual, emotional, social and perhaps even legal consequences and unnecessary personal damage of being enmeshed in someone else’s obsession.(social behavior of the abuser – Ephesians 4: no partnering with the shameful deeds of darkness) maybe exploitation of real compassion, but maybe promises of some good result in their lives, such as promotion, etc. – need recognition that they are making a deal with the devil in these cases
  • No one has perfect discernment of the will of God in all circumstances at all times, apart from the explicit statement of the Word of God, and any such declarations about another person need to be subjected to thorough discernment by the scriptures. Understand that having been led by God in any past situation does not mean that a person has become a flawless or even reliable discerner of the will and purpose of God in all situations, and being in an office of leadership does not equip a person to be any kind of oracle for the will of God for anyone’s life apart from clear and explicit statements of the Word of God. ; often comes from believing that God is acting in a situation just like another situation in the past; ruled by a false understanding of one’s own personal experience and spiritual past
  • The desires and behaviors of the fixated, obsessed and deluded are rooted in the spiritual rubble of an unregenerate past. Many of the these delusions, fixations and obsessions come from unfulfilled desires in a person’s personal, spiritual and professional life, and may well be rooted in the experience and circumstances of a person’s childhood and adolescence. Ephesians 4:17-24 is key to recognizing and rooting out these kinds of influences. I think that if a person is exposed to an in-depth preaching and teaching on this scripture on this passage early in one’s Christian life, it would have a great effect in reducing and preventing later deluded, fixated and obsessional behavior later, as well as encouraging believers in general to depart from habits of thinking, acting and speaking rooted in their life before they came to Christ:

    “This I say, then, and I testify in the Lord, that you are no longer to behave as the Gentiles behave in the futility of their way of thinking, since they are darkened in their understanding, since they are alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them through the hardness of their hearts. They have become totally insensitive as they have given themselves over to sensuality to the accomplishment of all kinds of uncleanness with a desire for more and more. But you did not learn Christ in that way – if indeed you have heard and been taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off the old Man in regard to your former way of life, which is degenerating in its deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new Man, which has been created according to God in righteousness and true holiness.”

  • Personal and spiritual safety may mean putting separation between the obsessed and the target of that obsession. For their personal and spiritual safety, some people may leave church or change jobs to escape obsessions of others. In these cases there may never be a final repair of the relationship. In the case of dealing with someone who is romantically obsessed, a  refusal should probably be either over the telephone or in a public place with a trusted friend nearby (though not near enough to be a party to what probably should be a private conversation). But in these cases, care must be taken not to taunt, ridicule or demean the obsessed person and certainly not to spread any tales of the misbehavior of the obsessed. It is entirely possible that eventually the obsessed person may come to his or her senses and even become a good wife or husband to someone else in the future, even if that takes many years.
  • The target of an obsession, fixation or delusion often needs understanding, compassion and care as much, if not much more, than the fixated, deluded and obsession. The target is often the forgotten person in these situations. Where this treatment is actually abusive, the body of Christ needs to be loving, compassionate and supportive as much as possible. Here are some other posts where I dealt with the care of the target:  Deal Forthrightly with the Hidden Abuse in the Modern Church, Care First, God Does Not Demand Toughness; He Provides Overcoming and Enduring Grace , JESUS AND THE ABUSED: HIS SYMPATHY and JESUS AND THE ABUSED: HIS HELP 
  • The first step in the path of dealing with an obsession must be ending the behavior. The first step in counsel of the fixated, deluded and obsessed must be ‘Stop it.’
  • The sinful behaviors which come from an obsession, fixation or delusion need to be confessed as sin with heartfelt repentance. Call for confession and repentance may need to be quite explicit and also quite private. The fullness of repentance may only come over time. For instance, the sign of a control obsession ceasing would be when that person can say repeatedly, over the course of time, something to the effect of, “I don’t care whether this person follows my ideas of what he or she should do, but rather I want and pray for the will of God to be accomplished in that person and the image of Christ formed in that person without any of my personal specifications added in.’’
  • The obsessed, deluded and fixated need to learn and exhibit a forgiving, patient and generous spirit over the long term as an outgrowth of their repentance.
  • Others need to understand that they are not to be a party to repeated complaints, instigations and enlistments of twisted ‘help’ against the target of the obsessions, fixations and delusions.
  • It may become necessary to remove an obsessed person from a place or office of ministry, especially if that person is repeatedly crossing ethical and legal boundaries and repeatedly complaining and enlisting others in his or her wicked schemes.
  • More needs to be said about believers avoiding fantasies and daydreams and subjecting their wants and desires to the Word of God and prayer. Here I don’t mean fantasy literature, but any kind of fantasies and daydreams which build up false hopes and exaggerated desires within our hearts. Our modern entertainment industry serves up a lot of ready made fantasy and unrealistic behaviors to many highly suggestible people, and  fantasy and role playing games may become an escape and lead to more obsessive behavior for some people. Even more, much has been written and said about the role of popular romance novels and movies on many people. These may entertain the majority, but they become pathological when they begin to influence our behavior our behavior and lead seeking believers to act out what they have absorbed. Certainly Solomon was right in the proverb about how hope deferred makes the heart sick, and certainly exaggerated false hopes  and magical thinking make it sicker. The teaching of Psalm 37:4-6 makes it clear that subjection to the Word and to prayer of all our desires are the ways to find the fulfillment of our legitimate desires. I mean more in the way of learning how by the Word of God and prayer to formulate godly goals and godly means of attaining those goals.
  • Many may fall into obsessions, fixations and delusions through

    an overspiritualized understanding of matters of healing ,  of the call of God to ministry for oneself or for others or on matters of marital prospects. But God’s will and the way of the Holy Spirit is for a long faith and obedience to the Lordship of Christ in a persons life and transformation of that person’s thoughts, desires, emotions and character into the likeness of Jesus Christ ( II Corinthians 5:14-15, II Corinthians 3:18, Romans 8:28-30, Romans 14:7-12). In no way, though, can we treat anyone who is a believer in Christ as if his or her obsessions, delusions and fixations will have the last word or are the last word about them, since God is more than able to deliver them, and he often chooses to do so over the course of a long sanctification of that person’s thoughts, emotions, desires and character.

Three Links For Your Consideration

During the 1980s I was greatly blessed by the monthly circular Herald of His Coming and the many articles from classic authors on prayer, revival and sanctification which it contained. I recently checked, and they are now online! The URL is Herald of His Coming.

Another circular which blessed me during those years was Pulpit Helps. The past issues up to December 2009 are now online: Pulpit Helps, but the circular itself has been superseded by Disciple magazine.

Who Is the Greatest?

Booker T. Washington was a shining example of integrity and humility throughout his career as an educator and his presidency of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Shortly after his taking up the presidency, he was walking in an exclusive section of town, and was asked to chop some wood at one of the houses. After he had finished, the lady of the house recognized him and apologized profusely. His reply was, “It’s all right, Madam. Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it’s always a delight to do something for a friend.”

The wealthy woman was deeply impressed with his humble and gracious attitude, and she was instrumental in persuading some other wealthy acquaintances to provide the Institute with some sizable contributions. So, the path of gracious humility by a leader who could have asserted his identity and his rights led to the enrichment of the institution which he served and to the elevation of other who had been born into slavery and who had recently been freed.

There is often a tension in many modern churches between who are the leaders and who are the followers, and how the leaders should lead and how the followers should follow. Jesus addressed this directly in his own teaching, and his words formed the basis of New Testament teaching on leadership as a whole. He directed the desire for leadership away from the pursuit of personal and social ambition and control, and established the model of servanthood leadership after his own example. Even more, though, he set the model for sound respect for the scriptural guidance of the leader as the representative of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

These two aspects of the New Testament teaching on leadership, based in the words of Jesus Christ himself, are in an incident found in the gospel of Mark. This incident shows the two different sides of leading and following in the body of Christ, in accord with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. In this incident, Jesus rebuked the way that the twelve disciples tried to sound out the pecking order among themselves. At this time he gave them clear directions on the style of leadership that made their entire approach to and understanding of leadership mistaken and wrong. And this is often, as it turns out, to be a key factor in the blessing and growth of a church or its stagnation and decline.

“And they came to Capernaum. And when they had entered the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ And they were silent, because they had been arguing among themselves on the way about who was the greater. And he said down and said to the twelve, ‘If any one of you wants to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant of all.’ And he took aside a child and had him stand in the middle of them, and as he took him in his arms he told them, ‘Whoever receives one of such children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me does not just receive me but the One who sent me’” (Mark 9:33-37).

Jesus Christ calls the leaders of his church to be servants. That is the expression of leadership: servanthood. It is not to be for their own advantage, but for the building up of others. This is to be their attitude toward their positions of leadership: they are not there to be somebody, to be a big shot, but to serve others out of love for Jesus Christ and after the example of Jesus Christ.

The disciples’ argument about who was greater among them was the cause of this. Jesus asked them that question, “What were you arguing about on the way?” He knew the answer, but he wanted to get them to own up to it. But they remained silent, as so many are when Jesus asks us these kinds of questions, though he knows the answer and we know the answer. “And they were silent, because they had been arguing among themselves on the way about who was the greater.” This may have been a jockeying for position and prestige by the three – Peter, James and John – who had witnessed the transfiguration over those who had not been there. It may have been that the experience had started to build up some pride in their hearts, that they had had that special experience, and that made them special, over the other disciples, who had not had that same special experience. This kind of discussion was also like the discussions that rabbis often had among themselves, as to who would get the greater positions of rank and privilege in the synagogues. So it was normal to have this kind of jockeying for position, since they had seen it among the religious leaders in their own experience.

Jesus may not be walking physically with us now, but we cannot live as if he were not aware of our hidden desires, drives and agendas. We cannot expect that we can have ulterior motives and be pursuing personal aggrandizement in some way and not find him putting the question to us about it. Even more, we cannot expect that if we have come to saving faith in Christ and have been born again of his Spirit, that we not find his Spirit convicting us if we try to use a position of leadership as a place to stand in superiority to other believers. It should be one of the most terrifying prospects to a leader in the church of Jesus Christ to harden his or her heart against the strivings of the Spirit of God if he is convicting any one of us of abusing our position to make ourselves appear and feel superior to any other believer in Christ. But even more, it should be a real deterrent to us to realize that at the very least, we will face his questions about the conducts of our leadership face to face, and every excuse that we give ourselves for our motives and our behavior will melt away into silence.

The tendency in this vain quest of leadership sought from pride, rivalry and ambition is toward leadership by intimidation, deceit and exploitation. And the consequences in the church becomes dissension, departures and personality cults. This is what happens when a person such as Diotrephes (III John 9), who  “. . . loves to be first . . .” comes into leadership. And then we see this in our churches with the personal shipwreck of leaders who began to think that their office and attainments meant a special exemption for them from following the clear directions of scripture. I have known some people who in fact idolized such leaders, and their faith was led near to, and in some cases, into actual shipwreck. But sometimes the consequences are less spectacular – there is just simply a steady decline, since the leader who starts to live with the idea that he or she is greater than anyone else is going directly contrary to the will of the Lord of the church. Indeed, he or she is walking directly in a path where he or she can expect to find God directly in opposition to their goals, plans and undertakings, since “ . . . God resists the proud . . .” (Proverbs 3:34, I Peter 5:5).

Somehow it needs to be seared into the hearts of leaders in the church, if our churches are truly to prosper spiritually, that every step I may take toward self aggrandizement or with the underlying motive or agenda that I am special, that I deserve special privileges or that I am greater in myself or because of anything that I have done than the least of all saints in the church, that I am taking a step away from God and starting down a path away from his will, his fellowship and his blessing. And there needs to be this continued realization also within our churches that when we attempt to emphasize or glorify the position, office, virtues or talents of anyone, that we are in fact introducing an enticing but slowly acting toxin into our community that may end up in the shipwreck of the faith of many and the demise of previously living and growing churches.

There’s a story about two elderly sisters who were having an argument. It amounted to them saying back and forth to each other, “I’m closer to the Lord than you are.” Their brother finally stopped it by saying, “Ain’t neither of you pushing him any.” In our hearts, therefore, let there be this realization that when when we take that attitude of sibling rivalry within our churches, that we are in fact demonstrating how far from the Lord we really are and how much closer to him we really need to become. We need continually to be reminded that in the body of Jesus Christ the pursuit of leadership out of personal and social ambition is a vain quest. Rather, leadership in the Kingdom of God does not make anyone any greater than he or she was before. Anyone who has already entered the Kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ being born again of his Spirit has already finally and once and for all received the greatest gift and highest status possible, that of having received salvation from sin and acceptance with God for all eternity through Jesus Christ, of “ . . . every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ . . .”  (Ephesians 1:3). And much more could be said on that, but let us continue on in this same passage.

The opposite picture of leadership, that of being a servant, is the command of Jesus Christ. His own example entirely backs up that command; it was one that he fulfilled far beyond what any one of us could hope to approach. In this picture, he gives us the pattern of genuine leadership which he has truly called, commissioned and empowered to be the leaders of his church.

In verse 35 Jesus called together the twelve and delivers what seems to have been the first of his calls to them. He would have to repeat it again, in the gospel of Mark, in 10:35-44: “Whoever among you wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all – for even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And in the Upper Room, on the night of his betrayal, he acted it out before them, in a kind of spiritual performance art, when he took the place of the lowliest slave and washed the feet of each one of them (John 13:1-20). But before the meal was even over, the old argument about who was greatest burst out again, and Jesus had to bring back the same lesson to them again (Luke 22:24-30). So it looks like Jesus had to bring this lesson before the disciples at least four times. He was going against the way of the pride of human nature and of the way that they had seen leadership modeled during their lifetimes – and, perhaps, the way that some people have, of not letting go of an argument until they think that they have won and gotten their way, which may well have been characteristic of several of the disciples.

Note that Jesus didn’t give the leader of his church a set of instructions nor a curriculum for leadership as much as he gave them a totally unexpected image: that of the servant. It is as if he took a piece of paper, drew a sketch, and said, “This is the kind of person you are to be.” So many times when people in our world and in the church come into positions of leadership, the pattern of leadership they follow is that which they have already seen, and the image that they follow is the one that they have seen.  And they, like the disciples, may be extremely stubborn and reluctant to let go of that path of pursuing leadership. And doubtless that is the reason that may people seek positions of leadership in the world and in the church is because they have seen others exploit their offices for personal satisfaction, power, recognition and affluence, and they want some of that for themselves.  But Jesus didn’t give anyone as the picture of his leader the image of a lord in his castle, nor a CEO in his office, nor someone who had all the answers and was always telling others what to do nor someone who was living on the perks and privileges of his or her office. He gave them the picture of a servant – someone who had no expectation of receiving any gain from passing on a message for his master nor of receiving anything more from his master than his food, clothing and shelter, and someone who could expect hard work and hardship throughout his or her life of service. His direction was to aim at servanthood and humility, and not at the other trappings that people may see associated with leadership and position in our world.

Even more, we must consider the picture Jesus drew of the type of leader that he called for like the rendering of a police sketch artist. It is as if he drew the picture, presented it to his church and said, “This is the kind of person that you are to be looking for.” And this is the kind of people that we are to be looking for for leaders – not those who boast about being leaders, nor those who try to act out their own sense of personal greatness, but those who seek and live out servanthood after the example of Jesus Christ himself.  Those who start on the path of leadership with a lot of boasts about what they can do and accomplish should be viewed with suspicion of their motives at the very outset – but too often they are simply plugged into whatever offices are available. This striving for leadership for reasons other than Christlike servanthood definitely lies at the root of much of what may be termed inter-church and intra-church politics – but these really come down to euphemisms for bad behavior such as exploitation and abuse of position, corruption of office, nepotism and cronyism. What does a striving for my glory and the trappings of my office, an attitude of ‘Rules are for others’ and using a position to pass on favors to my family and friends and to punish the people I don’t like – what does that have to do with being a servant after the example of Jesus Christ?

Even more, this attitude of servanthood must more generally be recognized as a mark of a secure and humble walk with Jesus and the mark of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. This Christlike humility is, then, the foundation of an example that will back up preaching and teaching with moral consistency with what has been preached and taught. Even more, it provides and example that others can follow without fear, because it is the example of the Master who sacrificed his all for his followers. Seen in the light of the example of Jesus, servanthood leadership turns out to be simply a different way of following the will of God, and of loving God and loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. And therefore it to be received as a responsibility and pursued out of the conviction of God’s will with all the love and humility of Christ.

So then, the entrance into leadership in the body of Christ comes through serving God, and the church should look for those who are servants for leaders. They will be found not boasting of their qualifications but serving their brothers and sisters in Christ with pure motives and pure intentions through the path of humility in the Holy Spirit. They will be seen through a willingness to do small things and unnoticed things conscientiously out of faithfulness and out of love for God. This path then leads easily to the development of scriptural qualifications for eldership (I Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:7-9), and to the scriptural place of leadership, to equip the body of Christ for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-16).

There’s a story of a young ensign in the United States Coast Guard who was giving a 4th grade class the tour of his station. One of his friends slapped him on the back and said, “I see they finally gave you your own command.” But that’s the way that leadership in the body of Christ starts – with taking on the lesser tasks that may not bring much recognition with humility, enthusiasm and care to follow Christ.

The attitude of servanthood after the example of Jesus Christ, though, is not optional for believers in general. It is commanded especially for the leaders, but there is no place where other believers who are not leaders can live in their pride and ambition as well, and pretend to be doing well spiritually.  Rather, this is what scripture commands generally: “If there any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if there is any compassion and mercy, then fulfill my joy that you think on the same thing, as you have the same kind of love and share one soul, that you think on nothing from selfish ambition and conceit, but in humility you consider each other more than yourselves, as you look not to you own concerns but also to those of others. Think on the same think which is in Christ Jesus, who, though the was in the form of God, did not consider being equal to God as something to use for his own advantage, but who emptied himself as he took the form of a slave, having taken the form of mankind; and having been found in the form of a man he humbled himself as he became obedient to death, even the death on a cross. Therefore God has exalted him and given him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of things in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:1-11).

More and more I’m hearing about what I can only call a rising tide of spiritual tyranny in our churches and among believers in Christ, and servanthood leadership and serving each other after the example of Jesus Christ is part of what is necessary to combat this ugly poison. This may in fact clinically be called and have its roots in either narcissism or  codependency but I think that there are many times that the roots come from what people in our churches see and hear from some leaders in our churches. Sibling rivalry among brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, though, becomes sibling tyranny where any of us thinks that we have the right and responsibility to try to rule and control any other believer in the body of Christ. It is the way of the ostensibly Christian control freak, and this behavior in fact poisons and defiles the loving fellowship of the church of Jesus Christ. It happens when we stand by while extraordinarily selfish, deceitful and ruthless behavior aimed to get another believer to knuckle under to the selfish and conceited demands of someone else and impose their personal preferences upon others takes place. This is the exact opposite of scriptural servanthood.

So therefore there needs to be a real caution and firm refusal to take or to cooperate with any leader or fellow believer who takes the attitude of spiritual tyranny toward anyone else in the body of Christ, and refuse to take it up ourselves. We must refuse to take up the attitude toward any other believer in Christ which amounts to “I am your Lord and Master” or “I own you” and “You report to me, you are responsible to me, and you serve me.” Rather, we could expect that Jesus Christ will say back about that person, “I am the Lord and Master of that person – not you. I own him or her – not you. And that person reports to me, is responsible to me, and serves me – not you.” And we could expect that Jesus will assert back to the person that attempts to take that attitude, “I am to be YOUR Lord and Master, I own you, and you are to follow me. You are to report to me, you are responsible to me, and you  are to serve me.”

So then, Jesus set forth the example of servanthood leadership as his direction as to how leadership is to conduct itself in his church. And our churches are to follow the direction of the Lord Jesus if they are to be his church. The direction of the church is not necessarily to follow the will of the leader nor of the congregation but the Lord Jesus himself. And he himself, as he draws the picture of servant leadership, provides as well the security for his leaders to live and act as servant leaders.

Jesus Christ stands by his leaders as his representatives. The security for leaders to be servant leaders is that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Defender. And this forms the basis for how the church is to treat the leaders that he has called, sent and equipped. The church of Jesus Christ is to accept and follow his servant leaders as his representatives. They are his most visible spokesmen and messengers, and they deliver God’s Word and watch that God’s will is performed in his church.

When Jesus took the child and put him in their midst, and embraced the child, that was what we could call an enacted parable, a kind of performance art by the Son of God. He was playing on a double meaning, where servant and child are the same word, which would have been evident in the original Aramaic of the original conversation, and which carries through as well in the original Greek in which the gospel of Mark was written. And just as the disciples more than once had that discussion about who was the greatest, Jesus more than once made that assertion that he stands by his leaders as his representatives (Luke 10:16, John 13:20). This would mean his call for his church to receive his leaders as his messengers, and this would  mean following the words of the Lord with love and respect for the message and the messenger, because the servant leader is, like Jesus showed them bringing in the child before them and putting his arms around him, bringing in the servant leader and covering him with his authority, power, love and care.

This, then, is the security for a leader to be a servant: the realization that as he is  brought in by Jesus in the place of humility, as a child and as a servant, and placed in the midst of the disciples of Jesus, that he is surrounded by the loving arms of Jesus. This is what should deter anyone ever in our churches from ever seeing or treating a leader in the place of servanthood and humility as a target for unending exploitation. Rather, the arms of Jesus around his servant leaders means that they need to see his leaders as being under the call, leading and protection of the Lord Jesus himself, and that they are to follow that leader respectfully. And this will then furnish the security for servant leaders to stick their necks out and pour themselves out for those whom they are responsible to lead by the Word of God. And this also contradicts a common platitude that a test of our servanthood leadership comes when others begin to treat us as their servants; it’s nowhere justified in the Word of God for anyone in the body of Christ to treat a leader in the path of servanthood with disdain, contempt or exploitation. Rather, the call of the Word of God is for respect and submission as far as they are leading according to the plain guidance of the Word of God.

But Jesus, when he gave this wonderful picture with his arms around the child, showing his guidance, leading, protection, love and care for his servant leaders, also concluded with a solemn declaration. The acceptance or rejection of a leader called, sent and protected by Jesus Christ amounts to the acceptance or rejection of the authority of Jesus Christ, and of God the Father himself. In other words, he takes personally how his servants are treated: “Whoever receives one of such children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me does not just receive me but the One who sent me.”

It should be unquestioned that the place of the blessing of the believer and of the church of a whole is with the acceptance of the authority of Jesus Christ and the following of his will. This statement of Jesus, then, about his taking personally how his leaders are treated, is a way to understand the way to personal blessing , through treating his leaders with proper respect as submission as messengers of God. Certainly this assumes that the leader is acting in submission to Christ and living out his leadership as a servant with the humility of a young child. But this means a right attitude of respect toward leaders, toward following leaders out of love to God and showing a proper attitude of respect to the Lord whose messenger he is. This means that the respect carries through to the leader who is acting as a servant under the leadership of Jesus with the humility of a young child.

It’s been noted that disrespect for the servant leader, and sabotage and resistance of his guidance for the church, is a strong factor in church decline and stagnation. It’s noteworthy how many times a church without a pastor will pray fervently for a pastor, but then treat the pastor that then comes with complaints, dissension, disdain and disrespect. Did they think that God had not answered their prayer in sending them a pastor? Did they think that they knew better than God what kind of pastor they needed? This is one strong factor in church blessing or decline, as David Mains, pastor of the radio show Chapel of the Air once noted: “My observance of thriving congregations is that a common factor in congregations where the Spirit is alive is the willingness of the people to follow godly leaders. Conversely, one key factor in withering local bodies, far more often than not, is the refusal of the people to be truly supportive of godly leaders.”

So then, Jesus Christ stands behind his servant leaders. He calls them and gives them his Word and his power, and therefore the church needs to treat them with respect and love because of his close identification with the servant leader, and his appointment of them as his representatives and his spokesmen. Love and respect for his leaders on behalf of Christ means that the people of the church, the others in position of leadership, must renounce any attempts at subversion of his direction as backed up by the Word, and of any manipulation to try to fit him into your personal specifications, of trying to become an ‘amateur Providence’ in the life of a leader whom God has called. While there is nothing in what Jesus said to give the impression that the servant leader has any justification to act as if he had in himself any personal authority independent of God, to play God in the lives of others, there is also nothing in what Jesus said to give any justification to anyone else within the church to act as if he or she had any justification to try to play God in the life of the servant leader. Servant leaders themselves are not to be the targets for spiritual tyranny by anyone else either! Rather, realize that the servant leader has been called, prepared, and empowered by God, and if he humbly continues in the Word, continues under the protection and guidance of God as well. Realize that that is something that you have no justification before God or man to try to control or interfere with.

Even more, love and respect for the servant leader means listening to what they say as the message of God, as far as it is in accord with what the Bible says and as it is in accord with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Consider and follow it as far as it is in accord with the Bible, and follow his godly example as far as possible. And when a leader needs correction, let it be not be with anger, but with love, gentleness and respect, and let it be based on the Word of God. Moreover, pray for the leader, and give conscientious feedback as far as possible.

The Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, has given instructions in his Word for the style and expression of leadership in his church. He has also given instructions for the proper treatment of leaders in his church. The manner of leadership and the proper treatment of leaders are marks of the submission to Christ and the proper following of the Word of God in the fellowship of the church. This will not show itself in personal charisma, talents or gifts but rather in being like Christ.

The great need of the church today and in all ages is servant leaders who follow the servanthood example of the Lord Jesus. Pray for such leaders to be called and prepared, and for those who are in leadership responsibilities to take up their responsibilities as servant leaders. And pray for a resurgence of servanthood leadership in the body of Christ, by the call and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. And if you are a leader, or you are seeking leadership out of a sense of God’s call, serve faithfully and conscientiously. Live the life of servanthood that God vindicates by giving a place of leadership, blessing and vindication while in leadership.

And if you have indulged in spiritual rivalry and tyranny, and have thus walked out of close fellowship with God, even, perhaps, while telling yourself all the time that you were following what you thought God wanted, walk away from that path with all your might. And take the way back to walking closely with Jesus out of these sins of rivalry and tyranny into humility and servanthood. Take the path back to closeness through confession to God and to man of the sins you have committed in your pride, arrogance and rivalry, and attempts to control, manipulate another person in tyranny and not in servanthood love after the example of Jesus Christ. Make that confession in private and in person if possible, or on the phone or in letter,with no excuses, no claims of having good intentions all the time you were attempting to dominate and tyrannize another person into your will – your hot pursuit of what was not the will of God in the life of another person. There is no quick and easy path back to close fellowship with Christ out of what may be years and, for some people, decades of spiritual rivalry and tyranny. Don’t expect instant and complete restoration of the relationships that have been abused and broken on that path but rather live out that attitude of repentance in humility of Christ, and let him provide the healing and reconciliation as you demonstrate deeds that demonstrate true repentance and truly trustworthy character.

For there to be servant leaders, then, the church must also recognize the call, guidance, protection and loving care of God behind his leaders. This calls for doing them no harm in the path of leadership, and even more giving them proper respect as the messengers of God called by God. Avoid the malicious gossip and unloving criticism and undue complaining when they don’t do what you think that they should have done or what you would have done in their situation; that’s wrong toward any brother or sister in Christ as well. But rather forgive, forbear, accept and love them anyway, and receive blessing from their strengths and the blessings they have received from God, and be as merciful toward their shortcomings as you would expect to receive as if you were in the same situation. And pay special attention to make sure that they receive proper financial support for themselves and their families, as servant leaders, since God honors those who follow his Word and who honor his messengers.

On Minor Disagreements Among Pastors, Church Leaders And Other Believers On Passages of Scripture And Matters of Biblical Interpretation

During the times of my preparation for ministry during my seminary years and my preaching and teaching ministry over the years, there have been several, but mercifully few, times that I’ve had fellow pastors, church leaders and other believers take issue with my interpretation of a particular verse or passage of scripture. There has never been the least insinuation to my face of my ever having departed from orthodox evangelical teachings such as the Trinity, the full deity and human of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion, bodily resurrection and ascension, the personality and ministry of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and so on, as stated in the Statement of Faith of my own denomination or the National Association of Evangelicals. Rather, it’s been more like taking issue with a view on a verse which I expressed which clashed with an interpretation which they had either heard all their lives or heard about from some other pastor, teacher, professor or author, and thus they classified that view as the ‘traditional’ view, and they were aghast that someone would have a view any different than what they thought was the ‘traditional view.’ Or it may be taking issue with my stating a different take than  a particular interpretation of a verse, passage or book which they had publicly stated in their preaching or teaching.

Here I’m talking about such things as:

  • Having a different view than someone else on what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was
  • Taking a different view than someone else of a passage or book which had been viewed ‘traditionally’ as allegorical, such as the Song of Solomon
  • Taking a different view than someone else on what the ‘old Man’ and ‘body of flesh’ meant in Romans 6
  • Taking a pre, mid or post tribulational view of when the rapture is to take place
  • What it means for a man to ‘touch’ a woman as in I Corinthians 7
  • Taking a different view than someone else on who is the man ‘sold under sin’ in Romans 7:14-25.

In some of these matters of minor disagreement, they happened a number of years ago – for some of them, decades ago – and in some of them these disagreements were with believers and leaders who were chronologically older than I was then. The reaction – or rather, over-reaction –seemed from several to be that I was being rebellious and anti-authoritarian and casting off all the hard won and precious traditions of the church, and who was I to mention even the slightest disagreement with all that. Yet the truth is that I came to my own conclusions as the result of personal study of the scriptures, often in the original languages, and with due consideration of generally agreed upon guidelines for scriptural interpretation, and I could usually cite at least one, and many times more, prominent evangelical Biblical scholars and interpreters who held pretty much the same interpretation. I personally don’t remember ever having any idea as to the meaning of any particular passage of scripture where I didn’t find some other sound evangelical scholar who held the same view once I consulted the commentaries.

At some point, it seemed that for some I was violating another one of the unspoken rules that some in our evangelical churches seem to live by: “Thou shalt never disagree with a pastor,” or, “Thou shalt never disagree with this or that favorite teacher of mine,” or some other variations on that. Or it may be an unspoken expectation that a professor, pastor or teacher has, that his or her position as pastor, teacher, professor or leader insulates them from even minor questioning and disagreement after a respectful exchange of views. And questioning and disagreement may often be ascribed to ignorance or rebelliousness rather than a serious consideration of the scriptures, and even the slightest expression of disagreement, such as an offhand remark in a conversation or a discussion in a Bible study or Sunday School class may be blown all out of proportion into someone trying to undermine the preaching and teaching ministry of a pastor, leader, or teacher. But the truth is, in the matters which I just mentioned, they are all things on which sincere believers may disagree and still have a genuine saving relationship with Christ and be walking in fellowship with Christ with a full commitment to the Scriptures and not even the slightest hint of trying to discredit any pastor, teacher or leader.

But even more, here’s the problem with those unspoken rules and expectations: they are very close to the cultish view of authority and scriptural interpretation. The leaders and their views and interpretations are beyond disagreement and serious examination, and they exude a highly aggressive hypersensitivity to even the mildest question or disagreement. And the churches and leaders who take these kinds of views tend to take on very cultish characteristics in terms of dealing with their membership such as:

  • The leaders are right about everything because they are the leaders with authority from God.
  • The leaders have such absolute authority from God that they can micro manage and control the lives of any members as they please, and direct and guide in areas where they have no expertise or experience.
  • It is a sin to question and disagree and even more to leave if you disagree.

But I don’t see in scripture where God has given this kind of absolute authority, often verging on infallibility, to the particular views or interpretations of any professor, pastor, teacher or leader, so that they are to be accepted without question or that there cannot be disagreement where major doctrines of scripture such as the Deity of Christ are not at stake. That’s equating scripture with a very fallible human being’s particular views and interpretations of scripture. And it’s actually been said that what this amounts to is that a pastor or leader is treated pretty much as a Protestant Pope in the area of infallibility when making a statement or pronouncement on the basis of his office, and not on the Word of God reasonably interpreted according to generally agreed principles of scriptural interpretation. And even on the matters of major doctrines, the believer needs to have his or her views based on the authority of the Bible, as intelligently read, studied and understood to the best of his or her ability, and not on the authority of any particular professor, pastor, teacher or leader.

I would say, in the meantime, to anyone finds himself or herself in a church or ministry situation where leaders take consistently these kinds of positions or pick out particular people to ‘lord it over their faith’, please take a look at David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, The: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church and the website on Recovery From Spiritual Abuse. The kinds of problems that come under spiritual abuse seem to come from leaders who grew up in an addictive and/or legalistic home or who fit the clinical descriptions of pathological narcissism.

Let’s remember that scripture itself commends someone taking the time to examine carefully any leader’s preaching and teaching by Scripture. For instance, Jesus himself challenged the Jewish religious leaders, “You keep on searching the scriptures, because you think that in them is eternal life, and they witness about me” (John 65:39). And even after his resurrection, he took pains to demonstrate and explain that all that had happened to him was in accord with the Old Testament revelation of the Messiah (Luke 24:24, 47).  And, moreover, scripture compliments the Beroean believers that they examined all that Paul had been teaching them according to scripture (Acts 17:11).

So let’s take another look at what the epistle to the Hebrews had to say about regarding and following human leaders within the church:

“Remember those who are leading you, who spoke to you the Word of God, and as you observe the outcome of their conduct imitate their faith . . . obey those who are in leadership over you and be in submission, because they watch over your souls as those who have to give account, so that they can do this with joy and not laboriously, because this would be a bad situation for you” (Hebrews 13:7, 17).

So the manner of genuine leadership in the church is to be that of humility and responsibility to God as someone who stands under judgment of God, and as a servant of the Word, and of Jesus Christ and his church (Luke 22:24-27, John specially II Corinthians 4:5, “But we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants on account of Jesus” ). God does command his people to follow the Word of God and example of faith of the leaders, and to act in submission and obedience to leaders – but here they are described as responsible messengers of the Word who are looking out for the good of the people in their charges, and not for themselves nor acting in a despotic manner over anyone else. This means, then, that the pride of position which seeks to crush and quash even minor disagreement with the aggressive assertion of personal pastoral authority is fully out of line with scripture and with all that Jesus Christ commanded regarding servant leadership within his church, and is therefore an abuse of position and of people.

Let’s then address these kinds of minor disagreement according to what scripture says:

1. Let us accept one another as believers in Christ when we demonstrate full assent to the primary teachings of scripture regarding the major matters of scripture, such as the creation and providence of God, the Trinitarian nature of God, the deity and real humanity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, etc. Our acceptance of other believers as believers and into fellowship is not supposed to be an enticement into a situation where we try to give them a complete personal and doctrinal makeover.

“Therefore receive each other, just Christ has already received you, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7; see also Romans 14:1).

2. Let us not try to strong arm another believer into believing, thinking or doing the same kinds of things that we believe, think or do by the mere assertion of personal or pastoral authority, especially in matters where that person has already formed a conviction and is being guided by his or her conscience. The import of the following passage about dealing charitably with differences in personal convictions applies to leaders as well; there is no special rider attached that gives anyone who asserts church authority to try to override the sincerely held personal convictions and responsibility of someone else who has a minor difference in opinion or practice.

“Not one of us lives for himself, and not one of us died for himself; because if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So if we live or if we die, we are the Lord’s. It was for this purpose, that Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of the living and the dead. You – why are you are judging your brother? Or why are you holding your brother in contempt? For we must all stand before the judgment seat of God, because it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will confess to God.’ Therefore each one of us will give account to God” (Romans 14:7-12).

3. Let us avoid getting all worked up about minor matters and matters on which we are to show charity, acceptance and forbearance to each other, and never insinuate or exaggerate any minor disagreement to the level of a major doctrinal error or opposition. Even more, let’s seek to put to rest any attempts to blow minor issues so far out of proportion that they become prolonged conflicts which poison the loving unity of the body of Christ:

“I, the prisoner for the Lord, encourage you therefore to conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and meekness, with patience, as you bear with one another in love, as you make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

4. Let’s deal with genuinely serious disagreements according to the guidance of scripture. I have never heard the following passage either taught in a seminary or explained in Biblical preaching and teaching as the scriptural guidance to dealing with serious disagreements and opposition. I think that the translation suffers from an unnecessarily added third personal pronoun, and I think that this distorts the application of the passage. The passage should not be twisted into dealing with personal disagreement as personal opposition to the pastor, but rather with those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18), such as Hymenaeus and Philetos (II Timothy 2:17-18), who were teaching such egregious error and disrupting the faith of others in such a way as to be legitimately described as being, “under the wiles of the devil.” Such people may not begin with personal opposition to the pastor but rather attempt to seduce him into their false ideas first, and then go into open opposition if the pastor refuses their influence. But in any case, the primary application of the following passage definitely does not need to be those who believe in and love Christ with all their hearts, who have full assent to all the major doctrines of the faith and to the Bible as the Word of God, and may yet have minor disagreements with a pastor or who respectfully demur where a pastor attempts to rule outside the sphere of his wisdom, expertise or authority, but rather those who are in really serious doctrinal disagreements and who are instigating serious schisms in the body of Christ. (And at the least it also is a command for the leader in the church to avoid being drawn into other people’s disagreements, controversies and battles. I’ve used it as the scriptural authority for me to avoid being drawn into other people’s battles in the past.)

“But swear off foolish and uneducated controversies, since you know that these breed battles. And the servant of the Lord must not fight, but must be gentle to all, ready to instruct and patient. He must instruct those who are in opposition, so that somehow God might grant them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth, and that they might regain their senses from the trap of the devil, since they have been taken captive to do the will of that one”(II Timothy 2:23-26)

Evangelizing Adults: The Misleading Statistic

Some months ago a friend of mine mentioned to me that most churches no longer have active evangelistic programs aimed at reaching adults. One reason for this may be a misleading statistic that’s been bandied about, about how most believers in our churches came to Christ by their late teens. Child Evangelism Fellowship, for instance, uses this statistic to emphasize the need for support for their ministry, to reach children with the gospel when they are young. Many churches may therefore have neglected ministries to reach adults in favor of ministries to children and youth – and unfortunately, many times these don’t reach very far outside the families of regular attenders and leaders.

I don’t think that this statistic actually means very much as a guide for ministry. It reminds me of the pro football color commentator who said something dramatically about a team, that they would be in trouble if they went into the final quarter of the game trailing in the score, since they hadn’t scored very much in the fourth quarter all year. The truth is that team hadn’t scored very much in the final 15 minutes of the game in a few previous games didn’t form an impassible barrier to them scoring enough to win in the final minutes of the games. If that was linked to something concrete like that team not having sufficient physical or mental stamina to play through the final quarter to win if they were trailing or a deep enough series of plays to do different things to win, then it would have meaning – and then good coaches and teams could deal with that to produce a win. But the previous record of something having happened in a certain way does not mean that it cannot happen differently if the people involved look at the determining factors thoughtfully – and in the case of evangelism, scripturally and prayerfully.

I can remember one source that looked at the same statistic, and came to the conclusion that churches rather need to develop more effective methods to reach adults with the gospel. Certainly that is the more reasonable conclusion in view of the basic reality that that statistic simply is absolutely no justification for any church to abandon evangelistic ministry to adults. In fact, except for the incidents mentioned in the gospels where Jesus placed his hands on children and prayed for them, the ministry of Jesus and the apostles was directed mainly to the adults around them. It was rather the apostolic instruction for parents to evangelize and disciple their own children – to bring them up in the nurture and instruction of the Lord. And Christian leaders and churches throughout the ages who have impacted their communities and nations have put their efforts into evangelizing adults.

For instance, the evangelistic ministry of John Wesley evangelized adults, from the coal miners who came to his open air preaching to the many others who heard the gospel from a man who had come to Christ as a adult, in his account of his famous Aldersgate experience of trusting in Christ alone.

Billy Graham himself, who came to Christ in his late teens, also concentrated on evangelizing adults. Though he also sought to reach students, and held special youth crusades, many, many adults have come to Christ through his crusades.

In addition, Dr. D. James Kennedy likewise did seek to reach students, but he primarily sought to evangelize adults with the Evangelism Explosion ministry. That ministry equipped many for witness and brought a clear presentation of the gospel to many casual church visitors and attenders through a church centered evangelistic ministry. Perhaps many churches need to admit that they let that ministry die more because it became unfashionable compared to the fad of ‘seeker friendly’ churches and because many believers found it required more self discipline than they were willing to invest.

Here are, I think, the factors that come into the effective evangelization of adults, from those that I know who came to Christ as adults:

  • Prayer: The Christian relatives and friends who cared about the salvation of someone prayed about it for weeks and months.
  • Realization of the ultimate need of salvation for eternity through Christ: The Christian relatives and friends who shared the gospel believed that the real and ultimate need of the person for which they were concerned was eternal life through Jesus Christ – not to be brought into conformity to someone else’s expectations.
  • Faith in the power of Christ to change lives through the gospel: The Christian relatives and friends who shared the gospel believed the first and foremost change in the person for which they were concerned would come through Christ, not their guilt trips, manipulations and Christian button pushing.
  • Power of the Spirit: those who shared the gospel recognized that the real power of evangelism is the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Complete, scriptural gospel: The people who shared the gospel took care to present the gospel from the scripture and allow the Word of God to speak for itself. There were certainly different presentations and gospel outlines used – sometimes not from an ‘official’ training program, but rather from the scriptures, such as Luke 24:46-49 and I Corinthians 15:-11. The common emphasis was on presenting Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord, the Savior and the Son of God, and the response of repentance and faith in him as the scriptural response to receive eternal life. There most certainly was very little attempt to dumb down or over-explain or paraphrase scripture and scriptural terms, but simply to present the scriptural gospel. Often enough, the real cost of discipleship was presented, and those who heard were allowed to wrestle with the claims and call of Jesus.
  • Answering questions and objections: There was an honest attempt to explain questions and objections from the scripture, since there was a recognition that there is a real offense to the scriptural gospel when someone hears it for the first time, and the need to deal honestly with objections and questions as a part of scriptural persuasion.  
  • Patient and loving follow-up with those who had come to Christ: There was a recognition that a person who has come to Christ as an adult does not have every habit destroyed and every difficult personal, family and vocational situation immediately fixed as a result of simply saying the Jesus prayer.

Pretty much these kinds of elements are common now in the Alpha Course, and have been in some other group Bible study programs and materials. Other personal witnessing programs, such as Evangelism Explosion, have incorporated these elements. Historically, though, leaders, churches and the everyday witnessing believer have all found that these elements are well within scriptural teaching and practice and have sought to follow them even without an explicit program and set of steps and formulas.