(Originally printed in the Fall 2002 MCOI Journal)
You may have heard someone tell you God “anointed” him or her to be your leader. Or, perhaps, someone else pointed to another person and told you that person had a special “anointing” from God’s Spirit to be your teacher, shepherd, or whatever. That may have sounded pretty wonderful at the time, and if so, you undoubtedly began looking up to that individual, idealizing him or her, and marveling over the fact God would bless you so much by bringing such a person into your life.
Hey! — was that a beam of sunlight or did some kind of halo seem to be forming around his head when they called him the “anointed” man of God?
How those early days seemed so heavenly at times!
But after a while, the word “anointed” began to take on a different connotation. Maybe it started when you first heard a sermon on the text “Touch not mine anointed!” (1 Chr. 16:22; Psa. 105:15). Suddenly, to question the anointed leader was to question God!
In the beginning when followers spoke of the leader’s anointing, the stress was on his spiritual gifts; now the stress was on his supposed spiritual authority. How did this subtle shift occur? Was it because you missed something they explained earlier? Or did a new meaning sneak in through the back door?
If you even dared to let yourself entertain that last thought, it was only for a moment. You realized if any other followers had the slightest idea of what you were thinking it could mean big trouble. Were you already starting to question God’s anointed? You decided to “leave it in the Lord’s hands” for the time being, hoping He’d eventually help you better understand it all.
But over weeks and months, this teaching became more frequent, more emphatic, and more burdensome. Didn’t David refuse to oppose the evil King Saul, even though he was out to kill David, because Saul was “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 24:6)? Therefore, how dare you disagree with your leader or call into question his moral judgments! He’s the anointed of God! Even if you think he’s morally wrong—even if he asks you to do something that goes against your conscience—to go against him is to go against God!
Then it dawned on you something like that was bound to happen. It seemed inevitable you would eventually run into some kind of conflict with the leadership. Even though you knew of no immediate problems, your common sense told you it would be just a matter of time.
Your leader had many in his flock, and to help manage them all, he declared (on his own authority) several of his assistants were “anointed” leaders over various sections of the congregation; and they, in turn, had “anointed” leaders under them. Eventually, you realized you could hardly do anything without going through one of “the anointed,” and each one had obvious shortcomings and noticeable personality quirks. So it had to happen, and one day it did. You did everything in your power to carefully and respectfully express your sincere convictions and do what you thought God wanted without making any waves, but you soon found yourself accused of harboring “rebellion” in your heart—rebellion against God’s anointed, no less! And that was only the beginning of one long, horrendous nightmare.
• • •
You’ve been out for some time now, but all the Scriptures they used and arguments they brought to bear against you still churn ferociously through your head, haunting you in the darkness through the echoes of sobs that were once your only company through many sleepless nights. You hope the worst of your despair is over. The empty, frightened shell of a person you were (and sometimes still are) when you escaped occasionally senses a ray of sunshine. But recalling the trauma of that departure can still drain all color from the most beautiful of days and replace the happiest of moments with an aching hollowness.
You wonder: Were they right? Have I sealed my fate by rebelling against God’s anointed? All those verses! Do I have any right to think I understand the Bible better than they?
When your mind isn’t racing for answers, it’s stuck in a kind of cerebral mud, not even bothering to spin its wheels out of a sense of futility as the gloom of another hopeless day oozes down around you.
I know how it is. I’ve spent many a month trapped inside such spiritual bleakness.
God put me under that spiritual authority and I rebelled! What will become of me?
Thoughts like these can form a kind of emotional undertow that takes you away from your family and friends every bit as much as did your former leader. To the casual observer, you may appear liberated; but inside, you’re still drowning in a tormented sea of unresolved questions.
For quite a while, I searched desperately for a quick fix. Each day renewed my quest for “the breakthrough” I hoped would rescue me from unrelenting spiritual torture. For quite some time, I wondered if I’d ever find my way back to a close walk with God. “How long, O LORD? Will You hide Yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46, NASB).
And then it dawned on me: My ex-leader didn’t mess up all my thinking in a single day. He did it methodically, and hence, slowly—over a long period of time. So, I shouldn’t expect to be able to clean out all his mental garbage overnight. In fact, I realized the whole concept of “the breakthrough” was something he’d saddled me with as he rode me up and down his emotional roller coaster. Each time he won another battle to gain further control of my life, he credited me with having a “breakthrough” (which, in practical terms, simply meant he’d conquered yet another area of my Christian freedom)! He’d found a way to break through the proper boundaries between biblical fellowship and carnal control, and he encouraged me to keep letting him have more control by flattering me with talk of my “breakthroughs.”
God doesn’t work that way. Yes, He does give us flashes of spiritual insight, but not in order to fool us into surrendering to Him. Yes, He enlightens our minds (Lk. 24:45), but He doesn’t replace our minds, nor do our thinking for us. He renews our minds, but not apart from our own efforts to think seriously about His truth.
So, I finally resigned myself to the fact the path back to sanity would be long, and that it led straight through God’s Word. To ensure my dependence on him, my spiritual abuser had worked hard to destroy any confidence that I could understand Scripture without his help. God, on the other hand, tells us His Word is clear enough for anyone to understand it’s primary message (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Would I believe God or my ex-leader?
On a purely intellectual level, it was an obviously simple choice, but I had to live it out on a spiritual battlefield where Satan took advantage of the fact I was badly out of practice in the use of my spiritual armor (Eph. 6:11-17). On some days, it was truly terrifying; but I lived to talk about it. I’m confident you will, too. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t mind discussing a few things I learned about the whole business of “anointed” church leaders with you. It all boils down to a fundamental misunderstanding about how to interpret Scripture.
• • •
Perhaps you’ve noticed all the Scriptures those people used to support their “anointed” teaching came from the Old Testament. There’s a good reason for that: no verse in the New Testament supports it.
Why is that? Is it because the Old Testament was wrong in this area, and the New Testament corrected the error? Is it because Christians can’t learn anything from the Old Testament? Certainly not.
Instead, it’s because of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. You see, the Bible is a book of progressive revelation—over the many centuries during which His Word was being written, God progressively revealed more of Himself, more of His purpose, and more of His plan to more of His people. And this progress meant change, because God was working toward a goal, and the realization of His goal was going to make a huge difference in human history. Christ and His cross would change everything.
This is something so many Christians, including those who should know better, fail to take into account when trying to apply Scriptures from the Old Testament.
There were things practiced in the Old Testament that became obsolete in the New Testament, because they had fulfilled their purposes, and God said it was time to replace them with something better. A case in point: The Old Testament anointings have been replaced by something better. What, you ask, could be better than an anointing? The fulfillment of what the anointing symbolized!
You see, the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament is much like the relationship between a prediction and its fulfillment. Once the fulfillment arrives, the prediction has served its purpose and has actually stopped being a prediction. It’s now a fulfilled prediction and no longer points to the future because the future it foresaw is now in the past. Thus, the prediction should no longer command the center of our attention, and we should no longer cling to it, because the fulfillment was the whole point of the prediction. The fulfilled prediction now only serves to remind us of the reliability of the One Who made it.
So what did those Old Testament anointings symbolize? They were symbolic predictions (or figurative foreshadowings) of Christ. Now that we have Him, we don’t depend on Old Testament predictions and foreshadowings; and, therefore, we no longer depend on Old Testament anointings. God doesn’t have a whole lot of use for them, either, other than reminders to us of His faithfulness. They’re also useful for apologetics purposes, but not for current Christian practice.
The Bible makes this same comparison in metaphorical form when it teaches the relationship between Old and New Testaments is like the relationship between a shadow and the person casting it (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 8:4-6, 10:1). Before Christ came, the ancient Israelites only had predictions and foreshadowings of Him. All those centuries before He came can be compared to times when someone is coming our way, but all we can see is the person’s shadow. While we may get excited if we recognize it as the shadow of someone we love, seeing the shadow doesn’t excite us nearly as much as looking into our loved one’s eyes when we finally have him or her in front of us.
Those who cling to “anointings” and “anointed leaders” are unwittingly clinging to mere shadows of Christ and losing sight of the substance of His Person. Instead of looking straight into His eyes, beholding Him, and honoring Him, they’re crawling around in a vain effort to grasp His shadow, usually without even realizing that that’s what they’re doing. They certainly don’t appreciate how much of Christ they’re missing. And He’s not at all happy about it.
How can you know what I’m saying is true, you ask? Please, bear with me as I explain.
The only people who were anointed in the Old Testament were prophets (1 Kgs. 19:16), priests (Ex. 28:41) and kings (1 Sam. 15:1). These three offices symbolically foreshadowed our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the ultimate and final Prophet, Priest and King.
In ancient Israel, the act of anointing (by pouring perfumed oil on the subject’s head) was the standard way of declaring a person to be chosen by God as a prophet, a priest, or a king. It might be helpful to think of the anointing of kings, for instance, as comparable to the kind of coronation ceremony we still occasionally witness in countries that have monarchs. Every culture on earth has some kind of ceremony that effectively installs new leaders in their offices.
These days, we inaugurate presidents and prime ministers whom the electorate chooses. We ordain ministers whom churches choose. In ancient Israel, they anointed prophets, priests and kings whom God chose—and those three offices combined foreshadowed Christ Himself.
While God is free to send prophets whenever He chooses, it’s a simple fact that, in more than 2,000 years, other than Christ Himself, He hasn’t sent a real prophet since John the Baptist. That’s because He wants us to remember Christ is our Prophet!
We also no longer have priests who regularly offer sacrifices for sins, because Christ’s death on the cross was the perfect sacrifice, that covered all our sins, and put a complete end to any further need for that type of priest. Christ is now our great and sympathetic High Priest! Furthermore, Christians don’t (or shouldn’t) go around anointing “kings” for believers to follow, because we have our anointed King — the Lord Jesus Christ!
But, someone might ask, can’t we talk about Christians being “anointed” in a more general sense? Maybe we can’t talk about anointing one Christian as the leader of all believers, but can’t we talk about Christians being “anointed” as leaders, say, over local churches or denominations?
That’s a fair question. Now, let me ask you a question: Is Christ the sufficient source for all of your spiritual life—both in this world and in the world to come? If so, why would you want to “anoint” someone besides Him? If He’s not that sufficient source, then you need to re-read your New Testament (especially Colossians 2)! I’m afraid the real reason so many clamor for “anointed ministry” these days is because they aren’t satisfied with Jesus. They act as though the “anointed” person they can see, hear, and potentially touch is somehow more “real” than the Anointed One Who sits at the right hand of the Father, when precisely the opposite is true. Any self-proclaimed, “anointed” minister is as phony as a lunar real estate agent.
But, I won’t dodge the question. Yes, it’s true many Christians talk about “anointings” today. They talk about everything from anointed leaders (for example, over local churches), to anointed TV preachers, to anointed singers, to anointed puppet ministries. They mean well. They’re simply trying to honor those whom they believe are truly gifted and called by God to their ministries, so I would never condemn them for this practice. I just wish they’d find a more appropriate word. The New Testament doesn’t support this use of “anointed,” and it plays straight into the hands of those who teach we must obey “anointed” human leaders the same way we obey Christ. Once the word becomes commonplace among a group of Christians, all cult leaders, false shepherds, and other spiritual abusers have to do is string together a few Old Testament verses to create massive confusion and enslave God’s children. We’ve seen this time and time again.
In sharp contrast to that authoritarianism, notice the only time the New Testament uses the word “anointed” — other than in reference to Christ — is when it discusses the anointing shared by all believers (2 Cor. 1:21-22; 1 Jn. 2:20-28). The New Testament teaches there is no special class of “anointed” Christians. Instead, it teaches all believers receive a spiritual anointing from the Christ of Scripture that remains in us, reminding us to stick close to Him—not to some human leader (1 Jn. 2:27); and, thus, He will be our source of security and stability (2 Cor. 1:21-22).
All believers have the Holy Spirit’s anointing (1 Jn. 2:20-28). Therefore, just because someone is a “Christian leader,” it doesn’t automatically follow the “leader” has more of God’s Spirit than any other run-of-the-mill Christian. This being the case, true Christian leaders will not ask believers to do anything that violates their consciences (Ac. 5:29). True Christian leaders will not order others around like their own personal servants, but will serve them instead (Mk. 10:45). And true Christian leaders will not make accusations against other believers that cannot be proven in keeping with Scripture (Mat. 18:15-17). Under these criteria, does your former (or even current!) leader sound like a true Christian leader?
True Christian leaders will remind their followers that, in Christ, believers enjoy a relationship with the Father that is better than the one had by Old Testament believers. In Galatians 3:23-26, the Apostle Paul compares their position to that of spiritual children, in contrast to our position of spiritual adulthood. Through the transforming events recorded in the gospels—Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension—God’s people came of age. We grew up, as it were; and, thus, we no longer need the things children need. We don’t need the Law to act as our spiritual babysitter (Gal. 3:25). We don’t need a human “king” to rule over us so we can live in his reflected glory. We don’t need “anointed” leaders in whom to take pride.
The problem is, however, that like so many children, we don’t want to grow up. Being adults means taking responsibility for ourselves, and that seems pretty scary at times. We’d rather pawn that responsibility off on somebody else, and let them take care of us.
Just as Israel demanded a king so they could power posture like the other nations (1 Sam. 8), we want someone who will strut back-and-forth and say the things we’re too timid to say in public so that we’ll respect him enough to do whatever he says. We want to go backwards in God’s plan, and there are all-too-many preachers, gurus, and shepherds out there who’d be more than happy to take us there. True Christian leaders will get out of God’s way and let us grow up. Is that the kind of leader you have?
• • •
When God transitioned His people from the Old Testament to the New, things changed. The nature of anointing changed because Christ’s coming changed the role of human leadership among His people. In the Old Testament, anointing was physical; and the role of human leadership in Israel was to foreshadow the authority of Christ. In the New Testament, anointing is spiritual; and the role of human leadership in the Church is to declare and defer to the authority of Christ.
Therefore, your leader—whoever he or she is—does not have Christ’s authority. Only Christ has Christ’s authority (Mat. 28:18), and He never “delegates” it to anyone. Therefore, your leader cannot exercise Christ’s authority. He or she can only call upon you to submit to Christ’s authority.
Does this mean there is no such thing as church discipline? Of course not, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Just remember: Church leaders are appointed according to scriptural qualifications (Tit. 1:5), not anointed. This means believers don’t need any special “anointing” beyond what they already have as Christians to serve in church leadership. However, it also means leadership appointments are as fallible as those who do the appointing. There is no such thing in the Bible as “appointment for life” or “once an elder, always an elder.” So, if an appointed leader is subject to recall, how much more suspect are the credentials of a self-appointed leader? Such “leadership” is more than merely worthless—it’s downright dangerous!
Christ has come, and He remains with us each day even though He’s ascended into heaven (Mat. 28:20). The anointing He received is far superior to anything ever had by anyone else (Heb. 1:9; Psa. 45:7).
So, why be afraid of those who can’t harm your soul (Mat. 10:28)? Why waste another minute of your life wondering if you rebelled against God by having a difference of opinion with someone who can’t tell his own random thoughts from Scripture? Why worry about anointings that don’t exist, claimed by people whose cruelty renders their Christian testimonies suspect? Many of their kind will wake up one day to realize that blowing all that hot air during their lives was a rehearsal for their eternal occupations.
Meanwhile, you’re heading in the opposite direction, and it’s time you started doing that joyfully!