Lessons from the Garden

(Originally printed in the Fall 2004 Issue of the MCOI Journal )

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, [shall he] not much more [clothe] you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:26-34, KJV)

Jesus, the Master Teacher, often used things which were familiar to the audience to communicate spiritual truth. In His comments above, He was communicating to the disciples that they should not worry, since a) worrying will not solve anything and b) our lives and needs are in God’s hands, and He will take care of His people, who are far more valuable to Him than the rest of creation.

Many of us in discernment ministries constantly remind one another that God loves the Church, because it is only too easy to lose that focus when only looking at the problems we see within her. It is essential to remember that the reason we are called to expose false teachers, false prophets, and false teachings is because God loves the Church! 

God’s Garden

While thinking on these things, I was sitting on our porch swing in the early morning and looking out at Joy’s (my wife) gardens. Over the years, they have developed into something quite spectacular. Folks walking past stop to admire them, and Joy has developed a few relationships with some of those folks over the years. Both of our children were married in her garden; and so in addition to the beauty, there are very fond memories associated with this area of the yard which Joy has developed over the years. Although beautiful, the gardens require a great deal of work and care. In the early spring, Joy spends time uncovering the rose bushes, pruning them, and fertilizing them to encourage growth. She checks and replaces portions of the fencing which she has put up to protect certain plants from some of the varmints which would do them harm when no one is looking. Weeding and light pruning must be done regularly throughout the season, along with providing pesticides against predators of the insect variety. And yes, they must be examined regularly for signs of disease, which can weaken or destroy the plants during the growing season.

Come fall, there is more work to do—mulching the plants and covering them to protect them for our sometimes very hard and cold Illinois winters. Yet for all of this work and care, there are just some things that Joy cannot accomplish for her flowers. She can fertilize them, but she cannot make them grow. She can water the garden with a hose, but she cannot produce thunderstorms with lightning, which releases essential nitrogen into the soil. A very large part of the process is just out of her hands.

What does this have to do with the Church? The Church is a spiritual entity that can be likened to a beautiful garden. The caretakers of God’s garden can do many things to encourage growth and provide protection from weeds and inclement weather, but there are many other things that are simply out of their hands. As a body, we know that one sows, and one waters; but God alone causes the increase (1 Cor. 3:7).

 Church Weeding

This analogy, as most analogies, does not correspond exactly to reality as we find it in the Church, but we feel it does give a good visual launching point. In the Church, as in the garden, there are things which the caretakers—the pastor and elders—can and should be doing to encourage growth and provide protection from various predators. In Acts 20:28-30, the Apostle Paul is meeting with the Ephesian elders and gives them a charge:

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.

To protect and heal, the gardener and the pastor first of all require knowledge. They have to know what a weed looks like and which diseases are most pernicious in their area. They need to know their rodents. They must have a familiarity with the plants in order to know what disease or pest is likely to attack each particular flower. Also, it is very helpful to be aware that some plants are very delicate while others are hardy and tough by nature. One cannot tend them all the same way: “one size” does not “fit all.” One must also exercise due caution when pulling weeds, so as not to hurt the flowers nearby in one’s zeal to get that weed out!

Within the context of the Church, this means that some of the responsibilities of the pastor and elders are watching for and exposing false teachers and false teachings. One very popular “weed” making the rounds these days is a book—The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. It looks like an ordinary novel; there is nothing on the cover about its dangers to one’s spiritual health. However, many Christians are reading it and finding themselves confused and in doubt—about the veracity of the Bible and the impeccability of Jesus Christ. We are grateful to our pastor, who took upon himself the task to read the book and preach a five-part series on the heresies and falsehoods the book contains.

He did not discourage his congregation from reading the book, if they so chose, but he prepared them to answer the challenges to our faith contained therein, which is far better!

Now, considering the fact that Brown’s book is only one weed among so many, perhaps we can appreciate the daunting task effective pastoring is. 

Knowing the Plants

An astute gardener is not going to try to turn daisies into roses or force the black-eyed Susans to look and/or act like lilacs. Guilt and manipulation will not cajole tomato plants to produce banana peppers. Astute pastors know this is true of people, too. Christians are not all banana peppers! And not all of us smell like roses. The Church is made up of a wide variety of people with different strengths and weaknesses. In healthy churches, the leadership is not so much trying to plug people arbitrarily into areas of ministry according to need, but rather, they are trying to help them discover their areas of strength and fit them in accordingly. Many very important ministries are started by individuals who have a passion and desire for some area of ministry in particular. Sound church leadership comes alongside them to encourage them and build them up in areas of weakness. As they grow in their areas of service, they become leaders who, in turn, help others to implement their particular calling.

There is no substitute for one-on-one mentoring and discipleship which necessitates being involved in one another’s lives over the long haul. It may be a slow process. In the end, this is how disciples are grown, who in turn will mentor others; and so the work of the Church gets accomplished.

 Growing Pains

Who then is Paul, and who [is] Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. (1 Cor. 3:5-7)

Things haven’t changed much between the first century and the twenty-first century. In First Corinthians chapter three, Paul is discussing the issue of factions who gathered around various leaders in the church. The penchant to idolize popular teachers was then, and continues to be, a big problem serving to distract people’s focus from God. The local pastor very often feels the pressure of being compared to a widely known radio and/or television preacher. This is patently unfair. The local pastor is close enough at hand for us to be able to note and count the blemishes on his face; but the national preacher’s faults are hidden from our view, unless they happen to be so glaring that they catch the attention of 60 Minutes or some other national media outlet.

Then there is the “perception of success” that the national star is able to project. Though our ideal of “success” is not grounded in God’s view of reality, it is difficult for the local pastor (who may count his “successes” one by one) to compete with the perceived stellar achievements of the national hero, nor should he ever have to. Peter, Paul and Apollos were undoubtedly “stars” of the early Church; but in reality, they were humble servants of God whom He raised up for particular tasks. Paul, in an attempt to stave off this foolish and counterproductive veneration of one leader against another, pointed out that he planted and Apollos watered; but God is the one who caused the growth.

Local pastors are gifted differently than are nationally known pastors. The local pastors’ work is vital, as they are the ones who are actually involved in the day-to-day lives of those for whom they care. The great disembodied voices coming across the air waves are not the ones who sit in the hospital waiting room comforting the woman who just lost her spouse or child. The media pastors may very well be able to present an especially heart-rending teaching from a distance, but they are not the ones who are performing the marriage ceremony for a young couple embarking on their new life together. Both ministers are being used by God, but even comparing the importance of one over the other is a little like asking which is more important: the face or the big toe? The face is what is seen in public, but the toes keep us from falling over! Without them, our faces would be in trouble.

God uses each of the various teachers in the way He has gifted them in order to bring about His purposes. They cannot control the spiritual growth of the Church. They can clear the way, provide the pruning, and faithfully teach the Word; but they cannot control the outcome. Paul expresses this idea in his letter to the Philippians. He writes:

Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform [it] until the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)

It is the Holy Spirit’s job to grow the people, not the pastor’s. However, even though the pastors and elders are not responsible for the spiritual and/or numerical growth of the congregation, there are important issues that they do affect—for good or ill. The leaders do set the tone and direction for the congregation. Organizations tend to reflect corporately the personality of the leaders. Their views on the nature of the Church and their definitions of authority and servanthood will shape the personality of the local body of believers. 

The Corporate Church

As we pointed out in our last issue of the MCO Journal, if the church leadership views the church as a place to market the Gospel and broaden their market base, then marketing principles will guide their decisions. In this structure, the personality of the church becomes one of a professional corporation where the CEO (pastor) and board of directors (elders) make policy decisions which will guide the church in numerical and financial growth. Members are encouraged to grow and are promoted over time through corporate ranks into team leader positions. One of the positive aspects of this type of church structure is the opportunity for an individual or group to develop a ministry within the church that really fits how God has gifted and called them. One person may be particularly gifted in the area of finances and is encouraged to teach other believers how to handle their finances. Some, gifted in apologetics, may be profitably called upon to help congregation members who have been caught up in cults or cultic teaching or to prepare others to reach out to the cultists who come to their door. Others are gifted to teach children or lead small groups of adults.

That being said, there are serious concerns regarding this idea of the church as corporation. Within this type of structure, spiritual growth is important, but it is secondary to numerical growth. Sound doctrine is affirmed, but it is not necessarily well-taught as the focus becomes better packaging and promotion. Unfortunately, in this corporate environment, members may choose to serve in various capacities, less as a result of personal spiritual growth, and more because of a “Membership Contract” that outlines the corporate expectations.

All this is not to say there is no concern for the Gospel in the corporate-type church. In fact, the very opposite is generally true. The desire to reach the unsaved is such a driving force that the bulk of the time, energy, and talents are devoted to finding better and more successful ways to bring unbelievers into the church, which tends to blunt the Gospel to make it palatable to pagan ears. These churches don’t tend to be authoritarian or legalistic, since the ideal is broadening the market base, not shrinking it. However, there is generally no question that the CEO and board make the decisions, and those who don’t like it can pack up and move on down the road.

Of Captains and Kings

Authoritarian churches take a different personality. The leader or leaders are the unquestioned “boss” and rule from the top down. They hold an unbiblical view of authority that is very similar to the one held by the cults. We’ll use the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society* (WTBTS) as an example. The June 1, 1967 Watchtower states on page 337: 

What, can we say, is the basic principle underlying the movement of Jehovah’s living organization? It can be expressed in one word: OBEDIENCE.

And just in case some hapless Jehovah’s Witness doesn’t quite understand the pecking order within the chain of command: 

It is a theocratic organization, ruled from the divine Top down, and not from the rank and file up.1

Obedience may sound like a fine standard for an allegedly Christian organization to demand of its adherents, until one considers the absolute and unbiblical power this places in the hands of these mortal rulers. Let us not forget: The idea here is not loyal obedience to God’s Word, but to mere men! In fact, this underlying principle of top-down obedience makes the WTBTS one of the most dangerous of religious cults, with the blood of thousands on their hands, since one major organizational policy that must be obeyed unquestioningly is their ban on blood transfusions, even to save a human life! Thousands have died in OBEDIENCE to this completely unnecessary prohibition, that is based upon a gross misinterpretation of a point of Levitical law. Many JWs have even sacrificed the lives of their children to remain “faithful” to a group of old men in Brooklyn, New York—the captains and the kings.

Yet, how close to this cultish view of authority is the one espoused by the supposedly “evangelical” Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles: 

After the centurion asked Jesus to come and heal his servant, it occurred to him that just as his life was structured around a “chain of responsibility, “so the kingdom in which God operates must have a similar structure of authority.2

This mistaken view is derived from an incorrect understanding of the story of the centurion in Matthew 8:5-10. But we should ask, as we wrote in our book about Bill Gothard: 

Is the point of this story that God’s kingdom is structured around a “chain of authority” (or “umbrella of protection”) similar to that of the Roman Empire? No. The point of this story is the centurion had such great faith in Who Jesus was, that he knew Jesus did not need to come to his house in order to heal his servant. Jesus was God. He could heal long-distance.3

In authoritarian churches, as in the cults, the pastor and/or leaders, in an effort to get the congregation committed and serving, resort to ruling the church through the use of guilt, fear, manipulation, and intimidation. In some cases, they may come across as “meek and humble,” especially in one-on-one interactions; but there is no question of who is in control. To the individual who has been indoctrinated into an authoritarian mindset, to question the human authority is akin to questioning the authority of God Himself. That, friends, is a lot of power! Add to this the threat that God may punish the “rebellious” doubter by bringing judgment upon him in the form of financial failure, ill health, or family problems; and only the bravest of the brave will call anything into question. The sermons are generally geared around working harder, giving more, and redoubling your efforts to please God and “His servant”—the human leaders. Serving becomes a chore which must be endured in order to be deemed spiritual and worthy of blessing. Having a daily, growing relationship with the Lord is as rare as flying frogs in this environment, while the inevitable discouragement and depression becomes a heavier and heavier burden to bear. The communal personality of an authoritarian church is not one in which believers can let their guard down and trust one another with hurts, struggles, and fears—lest they be deemed unspiritual and possibly judged to be unsaved. It’s a long, hard grind in service to a human taskmaster.

Is this a Biblical model for the Church of Jesus Christ? Should the Church have a similar authority structure to that of pagan Rome’s (as Bill Gothard and other authoritarians believe)? NO! When the disciples were arguing over which among them was going to be “greatest,” Jesus told them:

… The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye [shall] not [be] so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. (Luke 22:25-26)4

This teaching is 180 degrees opposed to top-down rule. The focus is on being a servant. Far from being a king of all he surveys, the leaders in the Church are to be the servants of all.

Not only does the authoritarian approach lead to spiritual abuse, it also indicates that the human “rulers” do not really trust God to take care of His people and bring them to maturity. 

Imitate Godly Leaders

Jesus’ teaching on Church leadership also helps us to understand a Scripture that often has been misused in the service of authoritarian leaders. 

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:16-17, NASB)

Submitting here has the idea of choosing to yield to a mature and godly leader—it does not demand unquestioned obedience. It is not burdensome to follow servant leaders, because we observe and imitate their lives as stated in Hebrews 13:7:

Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. (NASB)

Far from justifying autocratic rule, this passage encourages the believer to imitate the conduct of godly leaders. As we have learned from the words of Jesus, what will the conduct of the godly leader look like? Here’s a clue: He will look like a servant, not a king! If he rules like a king or demands obedience like a tyrant, he is not a godly leader to be emulated at all! As we imitate the faith and conduct of a godly leader, we will learn to be humble servants ourselves—leading by example and focusing on the needs of others.

Body life is much different in a church with Godly leaders. The congregation takes on a  personality of humility, kindness, and gentleness as they observe these qualities in the leadership. The Apostle Paul spends a great deal of time on the issue of leadership; and in 2 Timothy 2:24-26, he writes: 

The Lord’s bondservant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (NASB)

Kindness, gentleness, patience, and dependence upon God for the outcome are the qualities you will find in a truly godly leader. 

No Longer Infants

The individual believer has a responsibility in this as well. Authoritarian leaders would have no one to rule if that power was not given to them by the followers. He would not be able to twist the Scriptures concerning authority or anything else if the individual believer knows well what the Scriptures teach. We are not to give ourselves over to the control of others, and to do so can possibly lead to the shipwreck of our faith. No one is called to put his mind on the shelf and robotically follow others. Rather, we are to grow up in the faith—to leave our dependent childhood behind—to be able to distinguish between good and bad teachers and true or false teaching. Consider the following: 

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. (Ephesians 4:11-14, NIV)

What do we need, Christian, to be able to discern between true and false teaching? Our minds, of course! We must think, judge, and weigh what we are being taught! What do we need to determine whether a teacher is good or a “cunning deceitful schemer?” Again, we are going to need an independent mind. You and I are responsible for what we allow ourselves to be taught, and whom we allow to teach us. This is in diametric opposition to the concept of authoritarian subjugation.

To the congregation elders, Peter writes:

To the elders among you, I appeal to you as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3, NIV)

According to the words of Jesus and the qualifications which the Apostle Peter laid out, leaders are servants, not lords. And the individual congregants are to be mature adults, not infants. They are to work together for the good of the body as a whole.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is our Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:15-16, NIV)

Pastoral Care

Being in a counter-cult ministry (Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc.), we are all too aware of the problem of authoritarianism and spiritual abuse. But, to change our focus a bit, it is not enough to point the finger at flawed leadership to explain problems in the church. The congregation has a huge responsibility as well. There is undoubtedly spiritual abuse committed by leadership within the church body. However, we have identified another big problem which we call pastoral abuse—the maltreatment of the pastor by the parishioners. It is likewise rampant in the church, and it is not pretty. We have certainly witnessed this phenomenon during our church experience over the years—board members who believe that it is their job to make the pastor’s life miserable, people who bring every little slight, real or imagined, to the pastor’s attention so he can “straighten out” the offenders, backbiters, carpers, meddlers, and gossips. Why is there so much burnout among pastors? We should consider how pastors often are treated by the very people they seek to serve. Ravi Zacharias speaks directly to this issue in his talk, “Is There Not a Cost?” 

I have been in churches where people have betrayed one another. Where the infighting becomes like a cancer, and there’s always a broken heart, and sometimes the ones whose hearts are broken most are the young children who do not understand the political ramifications of religious convictions. Stand firm together brethren. Let there be no scheming. If ever you have something against somebody, go to that person. Don’t go behind that person’s back. Listen to what Sidlow Baxter says, “It seems an awful thing to say. Yet it is true that there are betrayers like Schemiah and Noadiah in most Christian congregations today—men and women who have professed conversion to Christ, who share in the fellowship and labors of the saints; who, nevertheless, seem to find cruel pleasure in the fall of a Christian leader. To his face they are friendly, fussy, [and] saintly but behind his back they are mischief makers. They profess loyalty and concern, yet if he slips or falls, they love to gossip it among the brethren and talk it around the town. Oh, what heart pangs such disloyal brethren give to the Christian ministers, pastors, superintendents, and leaders. They are Tobias quislings, Satan’s fifth columnists.”5

Ravi and Baxter are correct. Congregants, elders, and deacons ought to take a look at the way they are treating their pastor. Is he loved and prayed for as much as he is criticized and torn down? Is he expected to grow the church single handedly—fix everything, know everything, and be everything to everyone, but offending none—all the while raising his “perfect” children in a fishbowl? This is not going to work! Give the man a break, please!

A successful church is not one that is the wealthiest, or the largest, or has the most dynamic programs. A truly successful and godly church is one in which love is apparent and God is exalted above all.

To sum up, the Biblical charge to pastors is: Preach the word, protect, warn of dangers, weed and feed, provide an example worthy to follow, and trust God to provide the increase. The Biblical charge to the congregation: Be mature! Study God’s Word independently, and do not put all the responsibility for your Christian education and growth on your pastor’s shoulders. Hone your discernment skills, and engage the unbelievers around you in a loving and thoughtful way. Love and pray for one another, and show grace to your brothers and sisters even (and, perhaps, especially) those who are giving their lives in service to you.

*WTBTS is the clergy or government of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.Ω

© 2017, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.

  1. The Watchtower, December 15, 1971, p.754.
  2. Basic Seminar Textbook (Oak Brook, IL: Institute in Basic Life Principles, 1979), p.20.
  3. Don Veinot, Joy Veinot & Ron Henzel, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life (Lombard, IL: Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc., 2003), p.106.
  4. Don Veinot, Joy Veinot & Ron Henzel, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life (Lombard, IL: Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc., 2003), p.106.
  5. “Is There Not a Cost?”, Ravi K. Zacharias, (RZIM, Norcross, Georgia), 1996, CD Track 4

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