By Lisa Robinson
I have encountered an expression on a number of occasions that goes something like this… “I don’t follow man, only God.” Sometimes there might be “denominations” thrown in, to emphasize that following God does not mean following denominations. Of course, that is the sentiment behind not following ‘man’. By man, I don’t mean male but anyone that represents Christianity. I believe the idea behind this thought, is that people have opinions about Christianity or about what the bible says. It does seem more spiritual to say that one does not follow such opinions but only relies on what the bible says. But not only is this thought counterproductive to real learning it is antithetical to Christianity.
Throughout the pages of scripture, God placed people in positions from which His people should take cues, instruction and learn from. There was Moses and Joshua, the judges, the kings and the prophets. Jesus Himself, instructed his disciples to make disciples and teach them everything He commanded. We see a beautiful portrait of this in the early kernels of the Church as new converts sat under the apostles teaching (Acts 2:42). Paul commended Christians under his tutelage to follow him as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). He gave instruction for leadership to carry on the apostolic witness in the teaching of Christ. This necessarily comes with the expectation that Christians must follow man in order to understand Christ.
To say that we don’t follow man, is the same as indicating we don’t need teachers and we can arbitrarily decide what is best for ourselves. It is an attitude that we learn according to our own private interpretations, that says I only need me and my bible since the Holy Spirit will give the interpretation. However, this contradicts the fact that God has always given his word to His people, organized to learn from each other. An examination of Ephesians 4 indicates that the body of Christ, united by Spirit baptism, contributes to each other’s growth under the tutelage of leaders. The same goes for 1 Corinthians 12. We must rely on others as each one contributes, and learning from others is a part of the package.
The reality is that unless we live in complete isolation, it is a false statement to say that we follow no one. There is usually someone or a group of someone’s influencing our bible interpretations. I actually find it ironic when the ones who insist on not following ‘man’, are being influenced by like-minded thinkers who have listened to their brand of interpretation. The danger here is that private interpretations, and particularly ones that have rejected the historic witness of the faith for something “new”, can create interpretations and biases in such a way that removes Christian faith from its very foundation.
Yes, tradition is important because it teaches us how others have followed Christ. I am dismayed at how those who have gone before are dismissed and disdained, as if we can’t possibly learn from them, or that it is unspiritual or academic to inquire about historical thoughts. But if those to whom we are united in Christ, even if they are no longer here, have taken time to put their thoughts in writing, there is something to learn from their contributions.
And that leads to the premise that we are to follow people with understanding. I have observed, and particularly in American evangelicalism, an alarming acceptance to anyone who articulates ideas about Christianity using scripture, and call it bible-based. And we won’t even get into what is being promoted in the internet. Just because one uses scripture does not necessarily mean it is accompanied by understanding in relation to God’s overall redemptive program as outlined in scripture. Church history has witnessed that even heretics can use scripture to support erroneous ideas and those ideas have stemmed from a lack of understanding how their proof-texts are rooted in the foundation that God laid.
Thus, understanding comes from how it all fits together. I worry that so much of modern day teaching is nothing more than a set of Christian principles to live by. Christians are learning isolated proof-texts under topical teaching that wants to support whatever the pastor/teacher thinks is important. Don’t get me wrong, there are principles but those principles must be understood according to the very foundation of Christ. It takes more than just isolated passages, but Christians must learn Christ according to who He is and what He came to accomplish. There must be an understanding of His redemptive act in accordance to what God progressively revealed with the law and the prophets, his covenantal promises and ultimate fulfillment.
I propose this is the job of the leader whom the Christian is to follow, to teach the whole counsel of God not just isolated proof-texts. When Paul commended his hearers to learn from him, it was more than just him giving a set of Christian living principles but him following Christ according to his revelation. And by that I mean Christ’s unveiling of His fulfillment of what had been promised. The instruction to pastors and elders is to exhort with sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). Well, that doctrine is formulated based on the foundation that was laid. It is this foundation that will give Christians sure footing in their Christian walk, not just because they’ve learned a set of Christian living principles. In fact, I think principles without foundation will soon crumble under the weight of trials and temptations and most likely contributes to the overwhelming expressions of doubt.
So this means that while we are to follow ‘man’, that person is following Christ according to a holistic understanding and conveying that to the flock. A test of this would be how they handle isolated passages of scripture. Are they tying it to the whole thing? Have they taken time to examine the cultural and historic backdrop to understand what the original author is addressing? This is why I love it when pastors and leaders teach whole books of the bible in an expository fashion always correlating what is going on in the text to the overall foundation that was laid. This demonstrates that they are committed to understanding.
Bottom line is that we are to be led by sound leaders. So we should get out of the mindset that we don’t follow man. God designed it so we would.