Do Christian churches really believe God leads individuals apart from and possibly in contradiction to their own church?
Most say they do, but I’m not so sure they all really believe what they say.
The Catholic Church comes right out and says the Holy Spirit does not lead individual Christians concerning doctrinal truth, or if he does, he will only lead them to the same conclusions the church has come to. They reason it just can’t be that he is leading people contrary to what the church determines. As proof they point to the Protestant denominations with their 30,000 sects and more popping up every day, each contradicting the other. God is not the author confusion, and THAT is confusion.
This is an extreme view not shared by Protestants. Protestants believe individual Christians can be led separately and in contradiction to their churches, and if enough of them follow the same leading they might just form a new church, and that’s a good thing because they can leave behind whatever un-truth they saw in their former church. That’s how we believe every denomination got started to begin with, starting with Martin Luther. That’s why our founding fathers left England, so they could put to practice how the Holy Spirit was leading them.
If you ask any Protestant he will say God does lead like that, but here are some things that indicate to me that a church doesn’t really, deep down inside, believe that:
Doctrinal Requirements for Membership. It’s one thing to say, “This is what we believe, in case you are wondering,” but it’s quite another thing to say, “This is what we believe, and you must believe this to be a part of us (officially).” What that really says is, “We have come to the truth, and we will never discover that we are in error, and there is no chance that you might have the truth if you vary from what we believe, and there is no chance you are going to come in here and teach us anything.”
That’s pretty much what the Catholic Church says. If a church really believed individuals are led by the Holy Spirit apart from their church regarding doctrine they would make a way for it to happen and learn from whomever. They would recognize that the bible is a big book and Christians come from a variety of theological backgrounds, abilities in biblical interpretation, and levels of scholarship, and any given church might just learn a thing or two from the guy in the pew or the new guy in town looking for a church body to belong to. He might be allowed to attend the services but he won’t get to vote on anything or be in leadership or have much influence until he signs on to the church’s doctrinal statement.
I realize there are other reasons for doctrinal statements but those reasons aren’t all good ones, in my not-so-humble opinion. One is for the sake of unity. This is an admission that people in a church can’t work together unless they all believe the same things about certain things. That’s really a sad indictment about how carnal we all are. It also says we don’t trust the Holy Spirit enough to have worked enough maturity in our church leaders that they can work together while holding widely divergent doctrines.
Monarchial Leadership Structure. We know how in the Old Testament God led by monarchial leaders such as with Moses, the judges, or the kings. That was before the Holy Spirit was given to the people so it only makes sense. In the New Covenant, where godly character is written on the heart rather than the Law being written on stone or on paper, we see a shift toward shared leadership among a collegium of elders who had demonstrated Christian maturity. We also see voting for elders, not like we do in our civil governments where we vote between two people for one position but rather members casting a vote of confidence for their leaders rather than having them chosen without approval for them by a senior pastor or denomination.
Just as democracy recognizes the worth of the individual and the collective wisdom of the people the shift in the New Testament church toward egalitarianism recognizes the leading and influence of the Holy Spirit in the individuals and as a group.
Communist leadership believes the people aren’t smart enough to govern themselves. Monarchial leadership operates on the premise that the people don’t know what’s good for them so need either God-ordained kings or God-ordained popes and pastors to have complete control without interference from the people. If you are up on history you might remember how one of the issues in the public squares before the American Revolution was the idea of the Divine Right of Kings. It was thought, and the hierarchical Church of England (Episcopalian) taught, that you are going against God if you go against King George.
In America there was no state church established so the sentiments of the Congregationalists who had a more democratic church government could be heard and many people questioned the whole idea of the Divine Right of Kings. “No Taxation Without Representation” became a rallying cry in the Colonies because there was an underlying sentiment that the people could indeed govern themselves and probably do it better than people puffed up with pride and power who respected themselves more than the inherent worth of the people who were created in God’s image.
It shouldn’t be too hard to see how churches that have a Senior Pastor or denominational headquarters at the top who has the final say on everything is there because the people believe in the Divine Right of the Pastor or the Divine Right of the Denominational leadership. These monarchial pastors and oligarchic denominations teach it, not in those words perhaps, but they teach a form of this, often quoting a poor translation of “submit to those who have the rule over you,” (KJV, translated by the Anglican Church of England) and the people believe it.
Having a Democratic Republic like ours where the people don’t make all the decisions but elect people wiser than themselves strikes a balance between a need for the people to be respected and have a say and the need for wiser people to work out the fine details of the will of the people on their behalf. Likewise with churches. Having a church led by elders who are approved by the people strikes a balance between recognition of the Holy Spirit working in all the people and the need for wiser, spirit-led people to work out the fine details of the will of the people and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Having a monarchial church leader or oligarchic denomination headquarters who has the final say and chooses who else will be in leadership indicates said pastor or denomination does not truly believe the Holy Spirit will lead the people contrary to how he believes he is being led by the Holy Spirit.
Mandatory Tithing. By mandatory I mean any hint that God expects Christians to give 10% of their income. The New Testament alternative to mandatory tithing is give what we purpose in our hearts to give, give as we are able, don’t give out of a sense of obligation (to God or anyone else), and don’t give unless you can do it cheerfully. That puts giving totally at the discretion of the individual who is to purpose in his heart if, when, where, and how much to give. If a pastor’s salary depends on it, and it usually does, who can blame him for not wanting to teach the truth? But if they know the truth and they don’t teach it that’s a good indication he doesn’t trust that God knows how much the church really needs and will lead the people to give enough to meet the church’s needs.
Have you ever heard a pastor admonish the people to give even if you don’t know how you are going to make ends meet? Just give in faith and trust God will orchestrate people and things so that your needs are met? Have you ever wondered why the church doesn’t do the same thing and just trust God will lead the people to give what the church actually needs?
Lots of Rules. Both the Old and New Testaments give a lot of “rules”. Many of those rules are rather subjective, such as, “Don’t work on the Sabbath.” They are subjective because it doesn’t explain what it means by “work”. Is washing the dishes after your meal work? Do we only do the necessary things, like cleaning the baby when he poops his pants? What if helping someone avoid an accident requires a lot of physical exertion? Is it only work if we break a sweat? Fortunately in the Old Covenant the faithful had the Scribes and Pharisees to figure all this out for everybody. That’s why they got paid the big bucks. They deemed it was OK to lift the weight of a dry fig on the Sabbath but not the weight of a wet fig. Half-dry fig? Well, you were on your own for that one because they didn’t specify.
Jesus came along and did something you weren’t supposed to do. He used personal discretion and decided for himself how to follow God’s Sabbath Law. He was the most spirit-filled man alive and thus knew deep down in his heart that healing people on the Sabbath was a perfectly good thing to do, especially for someone who wants to honor God. That didn’t sit well with the rule-makers who judged him as a Sabbath-breaker rather than a Sabbath-keeper. That didn’t deter him though. He knew trusting the Holy Spirit to guide him rather than the rule makers was the way to go.
Do Christian churches do the same thing? Yes and pretty much for the same reason: we can’t just let all these people use personal discretion, i.e., be led by the Spirit, to decide how to work out in everyday life such scriptures as “Without holiness no man shall see God,” “Be ye holy as I am holy,” “Be not conformed to the standards of this world,” and “Don’t yield your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.” If we allow such lack of discipline the churches will descend into worldliness and carnality, it is reasoned. We must save the people from themselves.
In other words, we can’t trust the Holy Spirit to do His job which is to make people more Christ-like, or if we do we don’t have the patience to wait for all these unspiritual and immature Christians to get sanctified like the rest of us. We HAVE to have standards, or else things will get out of hand.
Once the rule has been set, such as how long a guy’s hair can be without looking “worldly,” or how low a woman’s neckline can plunge, or to what degree we can or can’t celebrate a holiday with pagan origins like Christmas, there is no possibility for the Holy Spirit to lead the individuals. That kind of personal discretion just isn’t going to be allowed.
For the past 2000 years we have lived in a New Covenant. That covenant is a covenant of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of changing our inner nature to conform to a standard. That standard is Christ, not a code written in a book. Jeremiah specifically prophesied as such in 31:31. That Holy Spirit wasn’t for just a select few, or the leaders of the church, or for those who prayed the most. It was for everybody.
If we are going to truly, deep down inside, believe in the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we need to walk in faith and allow others to do so as well and not expect doctrinal conformity and holiness standards, and lord it over the sheep. We need to be “ministers of the New Covenant,” as Paul puts it in 2 Cor. 3:6. How do we do that without telling everyone what to believe and how to act?
By being examples.
Examples of what it means to be a mature Christian. Examples of what being Christ-like looks like in this day and age. We don’t say, “You must do it this way,” but rather, “This is how I do it.”
As ministers of the New Covenant we don’t say, “There is one way to God. That’s the way,” but we say, “There is God, I’m heading in that direction, I pray my example helps you to find God too.” We leave the actual path through Christ to God in the hands of the Holy Spirit without defining for everyone else how that path through Christ is supposed to look. What makes us think we really have all that figured out? Yes, he said, “No man comes to the Father but by me,” but he never explained in detail what that is supposed to look like for every human being on the planet since the beginning. We would be Pharisees to think we have it all figured out for the whole human race. We’re lucky to get that all figured out in the context of 1st century Judaism where all of our examples come from, let alone apply any of that information to other cultures, including our own.