sample from “Have we lost our Head?” by Ron Denlinger
Table of Contents
Part I – Connection Matters
1. Do You Love Me?
2. Apart From Me
3. Weighed And Wanting
4. The Reason For Hope
5. My People Love It This Way
Part II – Connection Essentials
6. May Jesus Christ Be Praised
7. Be Examples Of What Is Good
8. Two Are Better Than One
9. An Invitation To Inadequacy
10. They Will All Have One shepherd
11. Faithful To The Vision
12. I Must Decrease
Part III – Connection Passion
13. Could It Be Like This?
14. The Status Quo
Part IV – Appendices
Appendix A: A Pastor’s Authority
Appendix B: How NOT To Lead
Appendix C: An Overseer’s Job Description
Appendix D: The things some leaders believe!
Appendix E: Summary of Scriptural Support
Appendix F: Understanding Ephesians 4:11
In 2002, the Boston Globe broke the story that was to rock the world of the religious faithful within the Roman Catholic Church. A sizeable number of priests had been molesting children. Rather than being charged with the crime, these priests were protected by the religious establishment. Victims and their families were paid off. To make matters worse, these priests were not relieved of their duties permanently, but were reassigned to other parishes where, often, others fell victim to their damaging behavior.
Following the printing of this story, further investigation revealed that this was not an isolated issue limited to Boston. It soon became evident that this was a national and even international crisis for the Catholic Church. An organization that was thought to be of benefit to society was guilty of facilitating the destruction of some of the most vulnerable, innocent lives. The news of this was like an awful, unwelcome thud to the world at large.
Something was clearly wrong with the system – at least it was so obvious after the fact. Had there been some hints or reports of indiscretion? Of course. It was impossible for something of this magnitude to go completely unnoticed. But who wanted to believe the problem was so widespread? And who wanted to consider the possibility that overseers to these priests were enablers to the devastating injury to precious young lives? No one who had a high regard for the Catholic Church would have wanted to believe any of this was true. How easy, instead, to focus on all the good that the Church was doing through its education, foster care and adoption, charity work and promotion of the Sanctity of Human Life!
The point of reminding you of this story is not to bash the Catholic Church, but to point out that something can be terribly wrong with a system – even a powerful, religious one. Further, there can be plenty of evidence that something is amiss, individuals can be hurt, and true ministry curtailed. And yet, we do not stop and investigate to see what we may be allowing.
The reason I’ve written this book is because I’m convinced that Evangelical Christianity is in crisis – at least the church in America. Are there hints to this? Of course! There are numerous individuals who have pointed out the decline of morality of Christians, of the loss of church members in North America and of the high attrition rates among our millennials. It isn’t just in the statistics; we feel these things very personally and painfully when we look among our relatives and see those who are trapped in sin. There are the young adults who we saw as “good kids” who have lost their faith after a year at the university or who have shocked us with the revelation that they are gay.
We tend to view these incidents of departure from the faith, or the watering down of our spiritual experience, as disconnected incidents. Or else we resign ourselves to seeing these things as inevitable within a culture that increasingly rejects Christianity. But have we considered the possibility that there are reasons these things are happening, and that these reasons flow from fundamental flaws in the church?
I am proposing that there is indeed a fundamental flaw in our religious system. It is related to leadership to Christ’s church. The conventional thought goes something like this: though the Bible gives us some description of how the early church was governed, none of those are prescriptive. We are free to use whatever model fits the culture in which we live. The problem with this thinking is that one fact is overlooked. There are clear leadership principles given to us in the New Testament. When we violate those principles too severely, a church can become disconnected from Christ.
How often does it happen that a church “loses her head?” I don’t know. What if it only happens to ten percent of churches? Would that be enough to cause concern? It should be! If it was discovered that “only” ten percent of churches were led by religious leaders who were molesting children, would that be considered a crisis? (Hint: This is a rhetorical question!)
If I would be able to prove that the modern evangelical church is being “decimated” by a lax attitude toward New Testament leadership principles, would that sound serious? Decimation was a Roman military discipline of a large group in which one out of every ten men was bludgeoned to death by the other nine. Today when we use the word decimation, we generally mean that a large percentage, well beyond ten percent, has been destroyed or irreparably harmed. Again, I would insist that ten percent is very significant when we are speaking of harm.
I am not saying that every church violates the New Testament leadership principles, but I am suggesting that when it happens the system does one or more of the following. It looks the other way. It may recognize the symptoms but does not identify the underlying failures. It makes excuses. It often covers up. It doesn’t seek to prevent it from happening again. Yes, the way we handle this significant and damaging flaw is very similar to the way in which the Catholic Church has largely handled their crisis.
In order to minimize the possibility of losing our head, the church must understand and follow principles for the way in which Christ wants his church to be led. I am asking us to look in this direction. I want every thinking Christian to review what the Bible says about leadership of Christ’s church and compare it with our attitudes about leadership and the way in which it is practiced.
I was a pastor for twenty-five years. I know how difficult ministry can be, especially with unreasonable expectations that are often placed upon pastors. Though I was blessed with rich and rewarding experiences in ministry, there were times when criticism and misunderstanding were hard to bear. For several years, I was in a position in which I was a ministry resource to pastors. I frequently went to bat for them behind the scenes, trying to help church boards and members to value and appreciate those who served as pastors.
Not only was I a pastor to others, others were pastors to me. When I was young in ministry, they were examples and an encouragement. Several pastors worked beside me and ministered to me as we led churches together. I also know something of what it is like to be without pastoral care. Although the Lord is always my shepherd at those times, and he is faithful, it is preferable when my Lord is also incarnational in faithful servants who speak his words and personally involve themselves in my life. I also know what it means to be the recipient of pastoral neglect and even to feel the pain of abuse by those in church leadership.
I value pastors because I believe they have extremely important roles to play in a church, especially in building up the body of Christ and in keeping the body of Christ connected to her head. Leaders of churches accomplish this when they follow New Testament principles for leadership. We must understand this. We must encourage this. We must insist on it. We must pray for it!
With all this in mind, it is even more imperative that we get the role of pastoral leadership right. Sadly, I must conclude that there are problems with the contemporary office of pastor as it is defined by our modern church culture. I firmly believe that some of the accepted views and practices of the pastoral role need to be reconsidered.
For example, incorrect views of the pastorate and unattainable expectations of those who serve as ministers can be very damaging. Much of the pain of ministry, I believe, flows out of wrong perspectives about pastoral ministry. I would love to relieve these pastors, and their families, from this unnecessary burden. I would also love to help prevent the pain that comes to those who are on the receiving end of unbiblical leadership.
New Testament leadership always points to and emphasizes the one and only great shepherd of our souls. The result is that believers will emphatically and joyfully experience that, “The Lord is my shepherd.” When Christ’s principle for leadership are disregarded, God’s people always lose. For the church to lose their head is to lose life and sanity.
Because so much of what I am saying in this book is about leadership, should I not be writing to leaders only? I would appeal to the approach of Jesus in Matthew 23. I view this chapter of the Bible as one of the most condemnatory in tone and these words are coming from the lips of our Lord. It is the seven woes (an expression of something being terribly horrible). Jesus denounces the religious leaders without restraint, completely tearing apart their attitudes and practices, giving no room for good intentions of any kind. To whom does he speak these words? The chapter opens with revealing his audience. He is speaking of leaders, but to the crowds and to his disciples.
Why does Jesus speak of “clergy” issues to the “person in the pew?” Because they need to know, and probably for many reasons. They need to have the right view of leadership because they must know what type of leadership should be followed and what should not be followed. And they must know because some of them, like the disciples, will one day be leaders.
As I present my passion for New Testament leadership, you will find that I will give plenty of real-life examples. By this I mean that they are based on true stories. Yes, names have been changed, unless the individual is portrayed in a completely favorable way.
To the extent that the stories I present are negative, their inclusion could be a stumbling block to some. Once again, I will appeal to Jesus. Perhaps we will appreciate his approach as we observe the heart of Jesus as a shepherd who is concerned for his sheep. When he saw what the religious leaders were doing to the people, how could he not become emotional and even righteously angry?
For those who would argue that a purely positive message is the most edifying approach to take, the outworking of that would have been for Jesus to have reduced the message of this chapter to one verse: “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). He didn’t do that, and if he had I don’t think it would have communicated nearly as much to us. This bright spot and very wonderful principle would probably not have caught our attention if not against the revelation of the darkness of the leadership status quo.
In pointing out deficits, it is not my desire to harm but to be of help to Christ’s church. I’d like my words to be words of hope. Even if we have lost our head, there is the possibility of reconnection and life in him. I believe the principles of New Testament leadership are clear and can be followed. When they are applied consistently, Jesus Christ will be upheld as our chief shepherd. The return of Christ to that position would bring needed life to his church.
Walk with me as we, step by step, look more closely at what it means for the church to be connected to Jesus – our head.
Chapter 1 Do You Love Me?
The big question
In the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye unexpectedly asks his wife a question. With his daughter getting married and the trouble in the town, one would think Tevye would have more important questions to ask than, “Do you love me?” Perhaps it arises from indigestion. Maybe, as his wife Golde suggests, he is a fool. Yes, he knows he is (a fool), but, nevertheless, this is his question to his bride of 25 years. “Do you love me?”
I, too, have a question. And, like Tevye’s query, it may not seem to be the most important or relevant question at a time like this. With major shifts in our culture, including our nation’s embracing socialism as never before and all the destruction it will bring (the trouble in the town) and the huge question as to whether or not marriage as we know it will any longer be regarded as sacred (with our daughters getting married), one would think I might be wrestling with more relevant issues than the one on my heart right now.
My question is also related to love and marriage—the love relationship between Christ and his church. Do we, as a church, love him?
I would suppose there are countless believers who truly have never been more in love with the Lord than they are today. Against the increasing darkness of this world, they shine more brightly than ever. The same may be true of many churches. But what characterizes most communities of believers? It is important that we know the answer to this question. Do we as a church love him? And how would we know for sure?
Like Tevye’s inquiry, maybe I am a fool to raise the question. Perhaps it is indigestion. And yet I persist. Do we love him?
Put another way, I wonder if we are close to him or really connected with him in the way that Scripture says we should be.
Yes, there is trouble in the town, and sometimes it is amid such chaos and upheaval that we ponder the elemental and most important. Is there any question more necessary for the church than this: Do we love him? I’m convinced there isn’t a question that is more relevant. If we can answer it positively and with confidence, then we can move on to other questions. If we aren’t sure, then we’d better invest time and thought and prayer and study of his Word until we are certain we can humbly answer in the affirmative.
What does it mean to love?
My wife and I are certified in foster care to medically needy children. Let me tell you about one little boy we cared for. His mother was very affectionate toward him. In that sense, I am sure she loved him. The State of Pennsylvania, however, determined her affection was inadequate to meet his many special needs. They separated him from her. It was intervention on their part that eventually brought him to our home and into our care, and we came to love him deeply. The difference between our love and the love from his mother was that his mom loved him according to what she wished him to be (a normal, healthy little boy). Our love did not close our eyes to the obvious severe developmental delays. Neither could we ignore the seizures and his eating inabilities. Though Mom loved him, under her affectionate care he was a failure to thrive child. Our love included seeing the truth in his condition. We immediately went to work to provide both the affection and the medical care he needed, and as a result, he began to thrive.
It was one of the saddest days of my life when our time with this precious little boy came to an end. It was February 14. After the social worker left with him, I sobbed uncontrollably for at least an hour. After that, my wife and I headed out for a “Weekend to Remember.” How romantic for my wife, as I couldn’t stop thinking about the valentine I had just lost. The happy side of the story is that during the time he was in our care, his mother gradually came to accept the reality of his condition. As a result, she changed the way she responded to him. He was returned to a mom who now loves him in a way that better cares for his needs. As foster parents, we were rewarded in seeing her love for him as more complete.
It is not our prerogative to determine arbitrarily what love is and what it is not. Just because we say we love or feel a good measure of affection does not necessarily mean we love. Love must bond with what is true. In the case of the church and love for the Lord, love must be according to his definition.
Time to ask the question
Tevye sees how deeply his oldest daughter is in love. It gets him thinking about his own marriage, so he asks his wife Golde a question he had never asked her until that moment, “Do you love me?”
To first ask that question after 25 years seems unthinkable to me. Love and marriage, love and marriage, they go together… in my mind, with love coming first, just as the horse pulls the carriage. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to think of it any differently. I would not have been driven to a state of matrimony because of its value as a socio-economic relationship. I had first fallen in love with Joan, now my wife. And I can’t see being required to accept an arrangement made in pledge by my father and my father-in-law to be (followed by a round of drinks for everyone to seal the deal). Pursuing her was of my choosing. I loved her and made that clear long before our wedding vows.
Whether or not Tevye and Golde should have thought this through beforehand is irrelevant now. Here they are. They are married with children. Perhaps love was not the driving force, but does it exist now? Tevye persists with his question.
Golde thinks about it. She reviews their life together. She has served him. She has washed his clothes. She has cooked his meals. Her bed is his. Twenty-five years of acts of love lead her to conclude that yes, she would suppose that she does love Tevye. The evidence, the facts, the truth is clear enough. Tevye supposes he also loves her. Having now put it into words, to attach the word love to what they’ve lived to this point, doesn’t really change a thing, but after 25 years it’s nice to know.
And here we are, as bride to Christ. Are we ready to ask a self-evaluating question? We know he loves us, but do we love him? If a particular church today can do a full and honest evaluation of its activities and its relationship to Christ and conclude that yes, we really do love him in the way he calls us to love him, and yes he is truly our head and our connection with him is evident, then it may not change a thing. Even so, it would be nice to know—to be able to say so with certainty. Knowing what true love for Christ is might also help keep the church on track. On the other hand, if the answer isn’t so clear, she should not despair but understand that she has a great opportunity before her. A thorough evaluation might result in many necessary and wonderful changes resulting in love and life.
Chapter 2 Apart From Me
The teenager grabbed the chicken from the ground and slung it onto the stump and with his other arm brought down the ax to instantly separate the chicken’s body from its head. Tossing aside the head, he took hold of the next bird to repeat the process. The first chicken, now headless, flapped its wings ferociously, even getting airborne for a moment or two then ran around the yard with no clear sense of direction before finally losing energy. After expiring, another member of the family picked it up and put it into a large pot of boiling water, a process that would make plucking its feathers an easier and cleaner task.
My son Jeremy, seven years old, watched at first with horror and then with fascination and amazement. Though I wasn’t as surprised, having heard my mother talk about butchering from her days as a child on a farm, I found the scene before me a bit repulsive. Seeing a body separated from its head is unnerving, even if the subject is a chicken.
When head and body are separated, life doesn’t remain for very long, though in the case of a chicken it is impressive how much flapping and flopping can still happen afterward. Head and body need connection—constant connection.
I might use the word “connection” to describe putting two strings of electric Christmas lights together, or I might use it to explain how I think I know a person. (“Isn’t he the one who made local news after…?” “Yes, that’s where I heard about him before. Now I’ve connected the dots!”) Such connections can be short-lived. In the former illustration, it lasts until we take down the decorations. In the latter, it lasts if the memory allows it to.
Other examples of connections are stronger or at least longer in duration. “I’ve been a member of this church for over 40 years.” “Our company has been a distributor of Briggs and Stratton parts for 25 years.”
Stronger still in the way we use the word is in reference to two pieces being significantly intertwined. People can be emotionally intertwined and dependent (whether in a healthy or unhealthy manner). The more ways in which we are connected, the more difficult separation can be. My arm is connected to my shoulder. This connection is made up of blood vessels, skin, muscles and ligaments, nerves and the like. The parts of my body are so interrelated that I mostly don’t divide them in my thinking because they are all part of me.
When God joins a man and woman together in marriage, they are no longer two but one. This is a connection of the strongest type, a strong bond that is not to be undone. They are a unit now, and they are one. The purpose for this design is blessing. Intimacy has come. Isolation and loneliness are gone. It is this level of connection that is comparable to the relationship between Christ and his church. “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior” (Ephesians 5:23).
God’s design is for the husband to be the head. This plan is not at all an obstacle to love and intimacy. The principle of headship does not get in the way of love and intimacy. To accept the idea that “roles don’t ruin romance” requires different thinking. To take it a step further, consider that true and lasting romance requires that roles have been clearly established and are being fleshed out in an others-oriented, self-sacrificing way.
It isn’t my goal to present apologetic rationale or proof for any of this other than to state that Scripture presents true love in this way. Whatever cautions you have about roles and their application to married life, I would ask that you set those aside and recognize headship and submission is essential to the love relationship between Christ and us as individuals in the church, as well as Christ’s relationship to the church as a whole.
Christ is the head of the church. He loves us perfectly and completely, and we are to respond to his love by giving him the respect that he deserves and by submitting to him and obeying him.
The night before Jesus was crucified, he told his disciples many things about what a believer’s relationship with him would look like. He told us of the extent of his love, that he would die for his friends. He also said that the way we can show love in return is to obey his commands. And he didn’t say this in a cold, demanding, authoritarian way but in the context of friendship. He calls us friends because he has been very open with us, passing on everything that he learned from his Father. (John 15:13-15)
Earlier that evening, in the intimate setting of that upper room, Jesus repeatedly told his disciples that they needed to remain in him. He used the word picture of a vine and its branches. He is the main trunk line and each of us is a living offshoot of that vine. We have no independent roots or any other means of getting the nourishment we need if we became separated. We would dry up in no time and the only thing we would be good for is kindling. On the other hand, if we stay connected, we remain alive, we will flourish, and we will produce fruit. But apart from him, we can do nothing.
Jesus Christ (the Lord and Savior) is the head of his church (that vast group of us who believe in him). We, the church, are his body. Head and body go together. The head cares for the body. The body looks to the head. He laid down his life for us. He purchased us, his body. He is going to take care of his body; he isn’t going to let us go; and we won’t survive without him, our head.
The depth of our connection with Christ
Let me make one more point about how closely we are connected to Christ. When we believe, we aren’t merely signing on to a set of beliefs, we are connected to Christ himself. We become children of his; we are part of his family through adoption.
As has often been noted, in Christianity, close connection with its founder seems to be both unique and critical to the practice and the benefits of Christianity. To prove the point, note how often Scripture uses the phrase “in Christ,” and the times in which Jesus says we are “in him” and he is “in us.” He even goes so far as to compare our connection with him to the close connection he has with his father.
Let me try to put all this together. The loving relationship between Jesus and us requires our understanding that he is the head. He is the perfect, self-sacrificing, providing, loving-leader who is in charge. We show that we love him in return by staying connected and being obedient to what he commands us to do. In the process of staying connected, we are alive and growing and fruitful. This is true for us as individuals, and it is true for us as the corporate body of Christ.
The alternative is for the church to be like a headless chicken with lots of activity, for a while, but without being productive and with its life being drained out of it.
There is one more layer to be added to this discussion. As we are receiving life from him, within this body, something else is happening that is wonderful. We are building up one another. We are causing one another to grow, and we become more the bones, organs, blood vessels or muscles (or whatever part we play) that the other parts of the body need. In other words, it isn’t just the relationship we have with him that is life-giving. As we do our part (while receiving nourishment from him), we also give life to one another. Ephesians 4:16 is a source for this truth. Another, by negative example, is 1 Corinthians chapter 12. This passage shows the negative in that members of that church were living as though they had no need for other members of the body. Paul goes to some lengths to show them how ridiculous such thinking is.
I am assuming that anyone who has been a believer for a while is familiar with these verses, but are we living them out as a church? Do we love Jesus? Are we connected with him, and is his life flowing in us and to others? Or is it possible that we think we’ve got this down quite well but aren’t connected at all or are just hanging on by a thread?
I believe it is possible to be deceived into thinking we have a better connection than what we do. In Colossians, Paul warns against a specific breed of false teacher, and likely of the sort who sees himself as exceptionally connected, but he isn’t—not at all. Colossians 2:18-19 states, “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into extensive detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.”
Paul is telling us about a man who could derail individuals and even an entire church if members bought into his stuff. In this short description, we see this guy has the potential to be very convincing because he really believes in his message. He has had personal experiences and visions of some kind, and he truly thinks he is something because of his religious insight and practices. And he is so “humbled” to have become the person he is. And connections? Does he ever have connections—even with glorious angels whom he worships. It is possible, even likely, that what is described here is some form of Gnosticism, which was an early Christian-era belief system that removed Jesus from deity yet claimed to hold him in high regard. Furthermore, this religion touted that these special secrets were revealed to a select few.
Whatever the exact religion (Gnosticism or something else), it is all very real and spiritual and revelation-filled and awe-inspiring—except that it is not. It is false. It is unspiritual. This man has nothing to be proud about for his mind is filled with idle notions, and he is clearly not connected to Christ. He is convinced, however, that he is super-connected, is on the inside track, and has secret truth to reveal to others.
The NIV translation might lead us to believe that this person once had a connection but that he lost it. Versions that take a more word-for-word translation approach interpret the phrase this way: “not holding the head” (YLT) or “not holding fast to the head” (NKJV, NASB). In other words, there is something that he has failed to do, something that requires strength, getting and keeping a grasp. My sense is that he never did have the connection. Very likely he had the opportunity to make that connection but didn’t, and he, therefore, lost an opportunity.
True believers, by contrast, are connected to Christ. They are admonished to hold fast and are commended for doing so. The following verses show believers “holding fast.”
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess” (Hebrews 4:14).
“God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged” (Hebrews 6:18).
“I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name [word-for-word translation: hold fast my name]. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives” (Revelation 2:13).
Jesus admonishes his disciples (who are branches that are connected to him) to remain in him. It seems reasonable to conclude that there are degrees to which we might or might not look to him as our head, just as there are different degrees to which we might be obedient to him as our head.
Most believers understand the importance of a close relationship with Jesus. Many of us have seen individuals who think they are closely connected with Christ but aren’t. They are deceived.
What applies to individuals is also true of churches. A church can be closely connected to her head and drawing life from him, or she could be deceived. In the next chapter, allow me to show you examples of the latter, and let me explain why this possibility should be of concern to each of us.
Chapter 3 Weighed and Wanting
My neighbor was heartbroken. He was sitting in our living room still trying to make sense of it all. His wife had left him for another man. He was in shock. He hadn’t seen it coming.
Her adulterous relationship began at her workplace, out of his sight, but not completely out of the sight of her coworkers. She seemed to have good reasons for working late, reasons that made sense to her husband. Besides, things at home were going well. They were building a life together. They had recently bought a house. They had gotten it at a great price because it had been in foreclosure and in need of a lot of work. Tackling the project wasn’t beyond them. They were hard workers and worked well together. Their efforts were bearing fruit, both inside and out. Above all of that, they had a beautiful little girl whom they both adored. They were living the American dream.
Joan and I had heard rumors and had seen some of the signs. The more things floated around the neighborhood, the more we were inclined to believe it was true. At times we wondered if we should share these things with the husband. We hesitated because we weren’t sure he would believe us. (We found out later there was legitimacy to our reasoning. He had in fact heard some of those rumors and dismissed them without any investigation.) We also knew the primary source of our information wouldn’t want to be named. What should we do? We didn’t remain in our quandary for long. The truth undeniably came out when she left him.
What an awful thing, to be losing a relationship and to have no idea it is happening. We could play armchair quarterback and suggest my neighbor should have known, that surely there had to be signs he was missing. I’m not sure that would be fair. Those who are unfaithful often work overtime to try to make everything appear to be fine. People who normally are honest become highly deceptive under these circumstances. They must be in order to pull it off.
None of our speculations of how or why it happened change the devastation of a marriage unraveled, nor is the pain diminished. Perhaps it is most hurtful when the one left behind believed everything was going fine.
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