This video has been around awhile, so you may have seen it before. It’s a parody of a specific way of doing church, but of course we all have our own liturgies or orders of service. So let’s have a good chuckle when we watch this, but let’s also consider why we do what we do every week in our church services. And maybe ponder this question: Is there a way for us to get away from the church service as a weekly production or show? Isn’t there a more authentic way of gathering as a community of believers?
In my last post, I wrote about the dangers of a church becoming too large. I’m sure for many readers I was simply preaching to the choir. A lot of believers have either never felt right about megachurches or they’ve become disillusioned with them. But can a church be too small? For many, that might seem like a strange question. We may immediately challenge the idea that “bigger is better,” but then just assume that smaller must always be better. But is this true? Does this best fit the biblical model of the local church?
I served as a pastor/elder of a house church for 3 years, and for most of that time the church met in my home. I’m very familiar with the joys and blessings of a simple church meeting in the home, and I understand quite well the reasons why Christians leave “traditional” churches for this kind of intimate, family-like setting. So I understand and sympathize with the thinking behind the house church movement. (I’ve had many conversations about the church’s “edifice complex,” etc.) But is a modern-day house church or a “micro-church” the most faithful way to live out the pattern of the church we find in the New Testament?
Steve Atkerson is even more familiar with house churches than I am. For over 25 years, he has worked to encourage, support and help house churches and house church leaders. But somewhere along the way his understanding changed regarding the house churches in the first centuries after Christ. He came to realize that the house churches in the early church met in the homes of wealthier members of the church (who had larger homes), and that these large, semi-public villas would have atria that could seat anywhere from 60 to 150 people. This is the kind of house church described in the New Testament and to whom the letters to the churches were written. (For more on this you can read my earlier post or Atkerson’s articles here and here.) This is obviously much different than 15 or 20 people sitting in a modern living room.
But this leads to the same question we had to consider in the last post [about abnormally large churches]: Is there anything unhealthy about churches being too small? And—as with the last post—the question isn’t whether a small, house church can be wonderful and healthy. Again, I know they can because I’ve experienced it! I still have very fond memories of our time together in the house church and the wonderful people with whom I was in fellowship. No, I’ll word the question the same way I did for megachurches (only changing “large” to “small”): The question isn’t whether a very small church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very small churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church?
Here again I’m appreciative of the work of Steve Akerson. His reflections have confirmed some of my own thoughts and observations and caused me to think more deeply about aspects of house church gatherings that I hadn’t considered before. So what are some of these weaknesses of too-small churches? I’ll note some, but first a reminder: This isn’t a house church vs. traditional church comparison; it’s a Roman atrium-sized church model (à la New Testament house churches) vs. the current micro-sized house church model. (Maybe it would be helpful to drop the terminology ‘house church’ for how the church met in the early centuries, and instead call these villa churches!) This isn’t a call to return to a traditional way of doing church; it’s a fine-tuning of what we should understand as the biblical model of doing church. Could meeting as a very small church in someone’s home actually hinder us from living out biblical principles of church life?
Let’s start with a practical instruction to churches in Scripture. We’re told in 1 Timothy 5:17 that the elders who lead and teach well should be financially supported. And notice this is speaking of elders (plural) who are supposed to be well paid. How many house churches today are able to pay even one elder who is devoted to leading and teaching? Atkerson notes: “Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple-making occurs.”
The New Testament churches were not only supposed to financially support certain elders who devoted their time to leading and teaching, they were to be shepherded by a team of pastoral elders. How many house churches have a plurality of qualified elders shepherding the church? Far too many micro-sized house churches don’t have even one qualified elder. Because of this, there is often a lack of biblical leadership and substantive teaching of Scripture. The fellowship may be wonderful, and the people may enjoy and even genuinely benefit from spending time together. But the church is lacking the leaders and teachers God intended to be shepherding his church.
Some newer networks of micro-churches plan from the beginning that all of their pastors will be—and remain—bivocational. They also often stress the surprisingly rapid training and releasing of these new pastors to plant new micro-churches. How are they able to train pastors so quickly? They remove the need for substantive teaching of Scripture. Instead of calling these leaders ‘pastors,’ they’d be better described as evangelists or small group leaders. These groups are actually either cells connected to a larger church that provides needed teaching and training (and so not autonomous churches at all) or they’re churches whose leaders don’t teach the Bible to the people in the church. When one considers the repeated emphasis on teaching the church in the New Testament, this is alarming.
The biblical design for the church body is a community of believers that’s large enough to have a healthy assortment of spiritual gifts. This is the way God intends for the body to grow, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). I think it would be a wise thing for any small church to ask how well they’re living out being a community of believers with a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts. If this is problematic because of the church’s small size, it might be appropriate to ask if the church is abnormally small (especially in light of the actual size of early house churches, i.e. 60-150 people).
We also need to take into consideration the differences between first century Roman culture and our culture today. Not only do we not typically meet in the same large, semi-public villas that the Romans did (which were also places of business, with people often coming and going), but we also usually drive to the place where the church gathers together once a week. This, of course, means we have to park. In many neighborhoods, this can create a weekly annoyance for our neighbors, harming our relationship with those living around us and even hurting our witness to them. These kinds of problems have caused some communities to pass restrictions on regular church meetings in private homes. Instead of railing against these “godless” attacks, we need to hear the concerns of our neighbors and realize that our setting is not the same as the early church’s.
To conclude this post, I can’t do better than quoting Steve Atkerson’s excellent work on this (the emphases in the quote below are the original author’s):
“Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. . . . In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.”
Let’s begin with an obvious caveat: the size of a church doesn’t guarantee a church’s health. There are healthy large churches and unhealthy large churches, and there are healthy small churches and unhealthy small churches. Scripture doesn’t dictate a specific size for local churches. This isn’t an issue of obedience to an explicit biblical command, but instead one of seeking wisdom in how to best live out the purposes and intended life of the church. With that said, can the size of a church adversely affect its health? Is there an optimal size for churches? And, if so, why?
When we consider almost 2,000 years of church history, extremely large churches are a new phenomenon. There have been large churches before, of course (such as Metropolitan Tabernacle in London), but these have been noteworthy because they were so unusual, obvious exceptions to the rule. Throughout most of church history, a church of 300-400 people would have been considered a large church. It’s only been since the 1980s that we’ve seen the proliferation of what we now call megachurches. But, surprising to some, megachurches are still the exception to the rule today. One recent report found that 95 percent of churches surveyed have weekly attendances under 350, and 88 percent have attendances under 200. This compares well with other surveys of church sizes. In contrast, less than 1 percent of churches would be classified as megachurches (having at least 2,000 people in weekly attendance).
In his book The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien asks why the experience of less than one percent of churches has somehow become the standard by which we evaluate the other 99+ percent of all churches and pastors? Pastor and writer Karl Vaters notes that speakers at church conferences are almost always from very large churches, and he questions just how encouraging and helpful this is to virtually all the pastors attending these conferences, most of whom pastor churches with attendances under 200. We saw in the previous post that the early churches were gatherings of 60-150 people. Throughout history the vast majority of churches were less than 200 people, and still are today. What if it’s so rare to “break the 200 barrier” because the church wasn’t really designed to be any larger? What if the reason churches stubbornly resist growing beyond 200 people is that it’s somehow hardwired into the church’s DNA not to? What if extremely large churches are actually the abnormality? As Karl Vaters asks in his book Small Church Essentials, “What if by trying to fix a problem that isn’t a problem, we’re actually working against a strategy that God wants us to enact?”
O’Brien challenges us: “Until we stop measuring our success in terms of numerical size and growth, we may be unable to accurately analyze the faithfulness of our ministry.” And this gets to the deeper issue. What is healthiest for the church? When are we most faithfully being the church God intends us to be? Certainly, we want to continually see people coming to faith in Christ. The church should be ever growing, but this doesn’t mean every local congregation should just continue to grow larger and larger. Vaters helpfully notes that there’s no biblical mandate for churches to grow larger. We don’t see any place in Scripture where Jesus or his apostles told a local church they needed to get bigger.
But is there anything inherently unhealthy about a church growing too large? Now, let me hasten to say again that many very large churches are good, healthy churches. Please don’t write in the comment section about huge churches you’ve been a part of that were wonderful and healthy. I know these exist because I’ve been a part of some, too! I was trained for pastoral ministry in a very large church (around 1,600 in weekly attendance), and I’ve served in leadership in very large churches. And many small churches are unhealthy. This is not an invitation for small churches to dismiss their own dysfunction by condemning large churches. The question isn’t whether a very large church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very large churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church.
Are there unique problems for large churches? Yes, there are. Some may not be insurmountable, but they’re perpetual. The more dramatic a church’s growth, the more this growth becomes part of the church’s identity, how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves. There will be a natural tendency to begin advancing and promoting the perceived success and image of the church, rather than the mission of Christ. The more the focus is on one key pastor, preaching weekly to thousands of people—especially if his preaching is also streamed to other sites—the more the pastor gains celebrity status, whether wanted or not. It’s difficult to resist taking advantage of this name recognition to draw even more people to the church, thus making the pastor even more of a celebrity and making the church seem even more successful. The more power, acclaim, money and influence a church and its leaders have, the more the danger these things will be abused. This abuse isn’t inevitable, but it’s a very real threat that puts the church constantly in peril.
Some problems are unavoidable for really large churches. Even if you resist making your pastor into a regional or national celebrity, there is no way that regularly preaching to huge crowds of people (and maybe having your face projected onto 20 ft screens) won’t cause people to see you differently. Some friends of mine became part of a newly planted church many years ago. The church was still fairly small, and they became good friends with the pastor. A few years later, the church had grown extremely large. Whenever they would speak with the pastor, others would ask with an awed voice, “Wow, you know ______________?” Seeing the pastor as some kind of rock star—even if only within the context of that one congregation—is almost impossible to avoid when a church gets very large. It’s a radically different perception when everyone in the church knows their pastors personally. That removes the mystique and allows for more genuine ministry to occur.
The biblical picture of the church seems to be one where the people know each other and they personally know their pastoral leaders. They not only participate in the life of the church, they participate to some extent in the weekly church meeting. We’re called to encourage one another, exhort one another and to use our spiritual gifts to build up one another. In Scripture, the teaching we see happening in the church gathering is interactive, with the people responding and asking questions. A church can grow to the point where this kind of life is stunted and obstructed. Instead the congregation becomes a passive audience. Vaters makes a telling observation: “. . . if I walk into a large church, I know what’s expected of me; I will be an audience. Aside from singing along (if I know the songs), I will be a watcher and listener, not an active participant . . .” Many do become involved in ministries in really big churches, but this isn’t the reality for most. The vast majority of people attending megachurches attend once a week (at most) and have little interaction with anyone there. They come in, sit, enjoy the service, then get up and leave. They are a passive audience. If they stop attending, few if any will notice. This doesn’t fit well with the biblical descriptions of the church gathering together.
In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church, atheist Matt Casper questions evangelical pastor Jim Henderson about the way many Christians do church:
“Think about it: How do schools sell themselves? By class size. The lower the student/teacher ratio is, the smaller the class size, the better the education. It’s because you get more interaction with ‘the expert,’ and more interaction with your classmates.
“Why do churches seem to do just the opposite? Why is a church deemed successful by its size rather than its ability to truly teach its people?”
I think these are incredibly perceptive questions. Casper asks in another chapter: “Maybe if the church weren’t so huge, there’d be a better chance to really connect with people. Is this what it’s all about, Jim? Is contemporary Christianity driven by the ‘bigger is better’ maxim?”
Many of us know all too well that the larger the audience, the more we have to make sure the service flows smoothly and professionally. The energy on Sunday morning becomes focused all on “the show.” It even feels like going to a show. [I first heard this comparison from Dan Kimball.] If the operation is a professional one, then parking will be fairly easy. I’ll follow the crowd into the theater where someone will give me a program and show me where to sit. I may say a casual hello to a person or two as I move past to take my seat, but then I just look around and wait for the show to start. Then the lights dim, the professionals come out on the stage, and the show begins. If it’s a good one, I may laugh and cry and be moved. But then the people leave the stage, the house lights come on, and I get up and leave. It’s not that I don’t get anything of benefit. But I’m a passive observer. I’m part of the “audience.” I’m anonymous. I may even prefer it that way. But it’s not the church gathering that the New Testament describes, and it’s not accomplishing a lot of what the church gathering is supposed to be accomplishing.
It’s interesting that many megachurches are now trying to utilize smaller venues. This is often motivated by logistical issues. Communities are now much less accepting of massive church campuses. Neighbors are more likely to protest and resist church expansion. So, many churches are moving to multiple, smaller locations. (And I haven’t even begun to address the problem of pastoral burnout and the many who are under so much stress they’re ready to chuck it all and walk away.)
This helps us answer the question: “What’s the alternative?” It’s actually not that complicated. Instead of hoarding so much of our resources to build one massive empire, why don’t we become a resource? Instead of driving ourselves to build a church of 4,000, why don’t we release others to plant 20 churches of 200 (churches that can be much better connected to and serve a specific neighborhood, and that can provide an environment for spiritual life and ministry that is much more organic and authentic)? Why don’t we decentralize our leadership and have churches that are pastored and taught by teams of pastors (as modeled in Scripture) instead of one over-utilized rock-star pastor? Why not have churches small enough that the people can know their pastors, be discipled by them personally and be able to observe up close their examples of living faithful Christian lives? Maybe we shouldn’t just assume that bigger is better (no matter how much we may personally enjoy it), but take some time to prayerfully consider: “What will make us most effective at being the kind of church the Scriptures describe?”
Some have unfairly condemned everything about megachurches. That’s unfortunate. There are many people serving in large churches seeking to be as faithful as they can be to the ministries God has called them to, and people are being loved and reached and blessed. We need to acknowledge that. Because of this overly harsh criticism, when others present careful, balanced critiques of large churches, they still feel the need to add a disclaimer: ‘. . . not that there’s anything wrong with being a megachurch!’ I think this goes too far the other way. We need to honor each other and the ministry taking place, while still challenging each other to be willing to relinquish any way of doing church that’s out of synch with the biblical model and purposes of the church (even if it might seem very successful).
So can a church be too small? We’ll look at that next.
To begin with, you should know that my first pastoral ministry was in the mid-90s when I co-pastored a house church for three years. This was a dynamic time of setting aside church traditions and looking to Scripture alone to see what it means to be the church. At the time, I fit naturally into the house church “movement.” Along the way, we experienced a lot of the joys and benefits of meeting simply in a home, but also the challenges and limitations. We eventually merged with another local fellowship (which had a building), and not too long after this I moved to another city to pursue more in-depth pastoral training.
All of us who were sympathetic to the house church model were drawn to the example of the early churches. In the first few centuries after Christ’s resurrection the early Christians turned the world upside down with the gospel message. Somehow they were able to spread the faith throughout vast geographical areas, establish thriving churches, and train multiple generations of pastoral leaders, all without any need of a church building. Instead, these believers met in ordinary homes (which we invariably understood to be small groups of 10-20 people—maybe as many as 30—sitting in something similar to a typical living room today).
Now fast-forward to just a few months ago. We have a group of leaders and potential leaders in our church who meet together monthly and discuss church leadership issues. We had been reading together a thought-provoking book titled Jim and Casper Go to Church. One of the authors, Jim Henderson, is an evangelical pastor, and the other, Matt Casper, is an atheist (or at least was when the book was published). In the book, the two authors attend various churches together and then discuss their perceptions of the churches they visited. It’s an intriguing book, and it stimulated some great discussion and reflection among our team.
The authors visited traditional churches, megachurches, emerging churches . . . and a house church. In the chapter on this house church, the warm, simple fellowship they described triggered some interest in our leaders. Some found this way of doing church appealing, and I felt the need for some follow-up. I hadn’t really thought much about house churches for years, so this prompted some new research on my part.
While doing this research, I ran across a name I vaguely remembered from my house church days. Steve Atkerson has been working with house churches for over 25 years. He is, himself, an elder and pastor/teacher, and he writes and assists others as part of the New Testament Restoration Fellowship. Atkerson has drawn together some fascinating information regarding the early church.
First, he points out that an early church would typically meet in the home of one of their wealthy members. We see evidence of this already in the New Testament with Lydia, who was a merchant of expensive purple cloth (Acts 16:14-15); Priscilla and Aquila (1 Corinthians 16:19) who owned a lucrative tent-making business (Acts 18:1-3); Philemon (Philemon 1-2), who was wealthy enough to own at least one slave; and Gaius, in whose home the whole church of Corinth met (Romans 16:23). This makes perfect sense, of course. Why wouldn’t they meet in one of the larger homes?
Atkerson then takes time to explain the typical home in which these churches were meeting. A house owned by a wealthy person in Roman culture would have been much different than our familiar suburban homes in the West. These homes had shops or storefronts in the front with a hall leading back to a large atrium. Off this atrium would have been a business office, kitchen and dining room. Beyond the atrium was an even larger courtyard surrounded by bedrooms and other living areas. These households included servants and/or slaves, and so would have already been fairly large by our standards. A typical day would find people coming and going down the hall, through the atrium, into the business office, and then back out again. These houses would have been much more public than what we’re accustomed to.
Now it gets even more interesting. The early house churches met in the mostly-covered atrium area of the house. In the smaller Roman villas, these areas would have seated 50-60 people. In larger homes, they could have seated as many as 150. What does that mean for us? It means that when we’re imagining an early house church it’s not accurate for us to picture 10-20 people scrunched together in a living room. Instead we need to think of an open area with anywhere from 60-150 people gathered for worship. (They even had something called an “impluvium” in the center of the atrium under an opening in the roof. The impluvium captured rainwater, stored it for use around the house, helped to cool the house in hot weather—and likely served as an early baptistry!)
This is the setting for the churches described throughout most of the book of Acts, and it was to churches meeting in these kinds of spaces that the letters to the churches were written. Obviously, this is quite different from the typical Western house church today. Atkerson (who remember has worked with house churches and house church leaders for over 25 years) contrasts the micro-house churches of today with the Roman atrium-sized house churches of the early church. Ironically, meeting in a modern-sized home may actually hinder a fellowship from following the early church model! (And Atkerson notes that when the early Christians went to their house churches, they didn’t have to find a place to park their cars and risk becoming a weekly irritant to the neighbors.)
So, other than the actual size of the early church gatherings, how big should a church be? Does it make any difference? What are the advantages and disadvantages of mega-churches, micro-churches, and mid-sized churches (i.e. Roman atrium-sized churches)? We’ll look at this next.
We will remain focused on our mission of helping people become and continually grow as disciples of Jesus Christ:
- We must live as missionaries in our communities, workplaces, schools, etc. We must be real, seeking to live authentic, Christ-like lives that will be witnesses of God’s love and truth. We must strive to truly understand the culture around us, so that we can more effectively communicate and live out the gospel in the context where God has placed us.
- While we want everything we do to be well-organized and done with excellence, our priority must be what is most edifying spiritually, rather than what is entertaining or impressive.
- We must follow and apply the consistent New Testament emphasis on teaching in the church. Our criteria for all ministries must be what best facilitates real worship and real learning and spiritual growth, rather than what is entertaining or impressive.
- We must provide opportunities for genuine learning and spiritual growth for every age and level of spiritual maturity—from young children or non-Christian seekers to experienced believers who are biblically knowledgeable, and everything in between. Everyone in the church should be part of a process of growing as a disciple of Christ.
- Every believer is spiritually gifted and has an important part to play in this transforming, multiplying life of the church. We must help the people understand their gifting, provide training in how to develop their gifting and opportunities to use their gifts to love and edify others.
- The whole body does the work of ministry, not just the leaders. We must maintain a joyous expectation that every Christian be part of ministry. We must ensure they are not merely filling a needed ministry slot, but serving according to their gifting and passion. This is an integral part of the discipleship process.
- We must be faithful to provide substantive, effective, ongoing training and equipping for leaders and teachers in the church. This too is an integral part of the church’s discipleship process.
- We must intentionally foster a culture of discipleship (including evangelism) in the church. This should be a natural, organic part of everything we do, whether through structured classes or more relationally through informal fellowship.
- We must design our church gatherings and ministries in ways that most effectively produce real learning, real spiritual growth and real disciples of Christ. We must be willing to reevaluate and change anything we do to make us more effective at fulfilling this vital, biblical purpose.
We must have a plurality of pastoral leaders and teachers:
- The New Testament model of church leadership is one of local churches being led by teams of pastoral elders (with no mention of a senior or lead pastor). These elders serve in differing capacities depending on their gifting and available time, but they all share in the shepherding of the church.
- While accepting that some elders/pastors may seem more prominent because of their gifting, we must guard against the unhealthy perception that any particular elder is the pastor of the church.
- We will only appoint as elders/pastors men who are ministering pastorally by leading, teaching or tending. The elders must be the pastors of the church, not just in name but in actual ministry.
- The New Testament doesn’t show the church to be a dictatorship of the elders or a democracy of the people. The elders must truly lead—gently, humbly and in a Christ-like way—but at times they must lead the people in reaching true, biblically-informed, spiritually-mature consensus on major issues.
- We must strive to apply this New Testament principle of plural leadership consistently throughout the church. The plurality of the elders in pastoring the whole church should be an example to the teams of leaders overseeing all other ministries within the church.
We will intentionally emphasize, as a key priority, New Testament principles of what we are as the church, what we do as the church, and how:
- We must first study the Scriptures, striving to understand the biblical principles of what the church is and does. Then we will prayerfully seek to wisely and faithfully apply these biblical principles in our cultural context.
- We must guard against sacred cows. We must not blindly follow church traditions—no matter how familiar or comfortable, and we must not uncritically adopt new trends or innovations—no matter how cool or appealing.
- We must guard against both complacency and the perception of success. We should passionately seek to be and do everything God has for us to be and do, but we must not sacrifice real and ongoing witness, growth and maturity for what seems impressive now.
- We should not seek change for the sake of change, but we must be willing to reevaluate and change any ministry practice or method in order to be more biblical and, thus, more genuinely effective.
We will remain graciously and uncompromisingly evangelical:
- Everything we are and everything we do must be rooted in, centered on and permeated by the evangel, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Before anything else, we are worshipers of God, disciples of Jesus Christ, and are to love him with all of our hearts, souls, strength and minds.
- The Scriptures must remain the continual, ultimate authority and standard for our faith and lives as individual believers and as a church.
- We must not allow ourselves to be co-opted by any other identity. While remaining absolutely committed to the biblical Christian faith, we will seek to be intentionally diverse racially, culturally, politically, generationally and socioeconomically.
- We must speak the truth in love. We should strive to be loving and gracious in interacting with our community; we don’t expect a non-Christian world to live like Christ. But we also must not compromise or lay aside biblical truth to seek to be more acceptable to the world around us. Real love and truth are inseparable. To over-emphasize either love or truth at the expense of the other is to risk losing both.
- We will strive for complete unity regarding the essential truths of the gospel, and provide as much freedom as possible concerning secondary issues. We’ll only take a definitive position on debated, secondary issues when it’s necessary for mutual fellowship and ministry as a church.
Our church has been going through a “chrysalis” process of replanting and revitalization. As part of this process, we just finished an intensive 12-week study of biblical principles concerning the church: what the church is, what the church is to do, and how we’re to do it. I’ve condensed these principles into four core commitments. I’ll post an updated version of each commitment with fuller descriptions, but here are the basic principles to which we commit ourselves as a church:
- We will remain graciously and uncompromisingly evangelical.
- We will intentionally emphasize, as a key priority, New Testament principles of what we are as the church, what we do as the church, and how.
- We will have a plurality of pastoral leaders and teachers.
- We will remain focused on our mission of helping people become and continually grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
I’ve had the privilege of helping train young leaders and teachers. It can be a little dizzying for these new leaders as they begin to access all the myriad books and resources we have available to us today. I’m often asked who is my “go-to” writer. Who is the one source on whom I can always rely? Or which is the one commentary series that is unfailingly solid and reliable? What they’re looking for—even if they haven’t really thought this through—is a recommendation for an authoritative standard. They want the simplicity of having one source for accurate biblical interpretation, and the ability to measure everything else by this one flawlessly reliable standard.
It’s not hard to find examples of believers who make one pastor or leader their primary teacher and subtly (or not so subtly!) evaluate everything else based on this leader’s views. It might be “Piper cubs” who view John Piper as the obvious standard for right doctrine and practice in the church today, or those who look to John MacArthur, or Jack Hayford, Wayne Grudem, Charles Stanley, RC Sproul, NT Wright, Mark Driscoll (until recently), etc., etc. Or it might be those who favor a teacher with the sheen of a century or two (or at least decades) of being quoted and referenced, like John Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, AW Tozer, Charles Spurgeon, CS Lewis, etc. But regardless of the specific writer/teacher to whom they look, the pattern is strangely similar. Whenever theology or ministry is discussed, this person invariably appeals to the views of their teacher. They look to him (or her) as a standard of what is right and healthy for the church.
Now, I’m not at all accusing these teachers and leaders of seeking this kind of devotee. I’m not blaming the leaders themselves for this phenomenon. But, sadly, this often happens to those who strive to be faithful teachers and leaders. What they intend to be helpful thoughts and insights for the church, others misuse to place these teachers and their works on a pedestal. I can almost see these overly revered teachers responding as Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14, pleading with the people not to do this.
The Christians doing this aren’t intending to misuse or misappropriate anyone’s ministry; they’re usually seeking to be conscientious, faithful disciples of Jesus. So, just to be clear: What exactly is wrong with looking exclusively or primarily to one human teacher? There are two big problems I see:
Human teachers are not infallible.
Of course, Christ is an exception to this because he isn’t merely human but also divine. And his specially-appointed apostles were able, under divine inspiration, to speak and write the teaching of Christ with his authority. But we don’t accord teachers today this same level of authority (or at least we shouldn’t).
Even the apostle Paul didn’t expect the people to automatically accept anything he taught simply because he was an apostle. He strongly warned the Galatian churches against receiving any other gospel, even if it was proclaimed to them by Paul and his associates or even an angel from heaven (Galatians 1:8). The Bereans didn’t automatically accept Paul’s teachings, but first checked them out to make sure they were scriptural. And they were commended for this (Acts 17:11). The people were given the responsibility to scripturally evaluate what they were taught.
The fist time it happens can shock and disturb us. We’re reading or listening to the teaching of a parent, a pastor or favorite teacher and we suddenly realize, ‘. . . I just can’t agree with that!’ Of course, we shouldn’t arrogantly look for details to pick apart, but it shouldn’t surprise us if we occasionally, humbly disagree with even a noted writer (that is, unless we expect them to be completely without error). I think God mercifully allows these infrequently different viewpoints so we won’t rely exclusively on one lone teacher. This kind of over-reliance can be dangerous.
But when we, in our opinion, have found an error, this isn’t necessarily cause for us to reject a teacher or commentary either. We can’t expect inerrancy anywhere but in God’s Word itself. We must all endeavor to accurately interpret and teach the Bible, but we must also be patient with each other when we don’t do this perfectly every time. Some of us are far too eager to put someone on a pedestal, and then when they show any imperfection we gleefully knock them back down! This leads to our second problem:
We can put a teacher or leader in the place of God in our lives.
Now, this might sound too strongly worded. Sure, maybe we’re sometimes guilty of relying too much on a particular pastor or teacher, but is this really idolatry?! ‘I mean, I may be listening to only one guy, but he is teaching the Bible after all.’ But let’s think about this. If I evaluate everything by one pastor’s teaching of Scripture, am I really trusting the Bible or am I trusting this one individual’s interpretation of the Bible? Am I seeking God’s instructions in Scripture, or Charles Stanley’s (or John MacArthur’s, etc.) instructions about God’s instructions? Am I committed to the historic, biblical Christian faith or to the historic, biblical Christian faith as explained and clarified by NT Wright?
It’s not hard to see how this can become idolatrous. It can also be quite divisive, as I pit my favored teacher against that of another. And, if these merely human teachers really are fallible, the implication of relying on only one teacher is alarming. I would be binding myself to one teacher’s errors, and blinding myself to anything this teacher hasn’t seen.
So how do we avoid this? Let’s resist the false security of an authoritative standard other than Scripture itself. And let’s fight the inclination in ourselves toward hero-worship and exalting certain leaders. Let’s not identify ourselves with a particular teacher or group in opposition to other teachers or groups. Let’s be willing to learn from any mature Christian leader or teacher, even if we disagree with them on some issues. And when you encounter a teacher or leader who refuses criticism or evaluation, but seeks to draw disciples after themselves (Acts 20:30)—run!
One final reminder to those who are teachers and leaders: Don’t be surprised when people want to look to you as their authoritative standard. We need to be vigilant, ready to put a quick and decisive stop to this. Years ago in a Bible study, the discussion turned to a controversial issue. A young man looked to me and asked, “What do we believe about that, Curt?” I smiled and responded, “I know what I believe about that, but I don’t have a clue what you believe about it!” I went on to explain that he needed to know what he believed and why. We don’t want to make the people dependent on us, but on Christ. We need to take every opportunity to point them back to the Scriptures, to not just give them answers but teach them how to find the answers in God’s Word for themselves. Let’s not make any teacher or leader into some little tin god, and let’s not allow anyone to make us into one. Let’s be, and make, disciples of Christ and Christ alone.