Human beings are rather complicated. On one hand, we are built to operate socially (in groups), and yet we are unique, individual units. While some things can rightly be done as a group, there are other things that require solo action. For example, Christians become part of a group (the body of Christ), but still remain individuals. At conversion, God says "you are Christ's body, and individually members of it." He places "the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desire(s)" and distributes spiritual gifts "to each one individually just as He wills." (1Cor 12:11,18 and 27). One's individuality is actually enhanced (by the addition of spiritual gifts) in this group. But, ... let's take another step back.
The most important, the most crucial, indeed the most non-negotiable of all solo actions, centers on the salvation issue. This matter begins and ends with the individual and the Creator. There is no activity more solo. And it puts us in the weakest of positions because "all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do" (Heb 4:13). It's no wonder we hide "in the trees" like Adam - looking for cover (Gen 3:8). It is ironic that the shield of choice is often ... religion.
In this context, I want to look at the Christian religion.
The Christian Religion
In my mind, the Christian religion and the Christian faith are two different things. It is not imperative that you adopt my demarcation between the two, but if you think (for this moment) in the framework I am presenting, the following discussion will make more sense. When I think of religion, I think; "ceremony, ritual, dogma - and formulas for these things." When I think of faith, I think; "inquiry, study, knowledge - and persuasion of what is true."
Using this definition, the Christian religion ... is easy. There is a "formula" for salvation - followed by clear directives for "the good Christian life". Altar calls, confirmations, or baptisms are soon followed by church membership, tithing, and the church calendar.
It is a natural weakness for man to fall into religion. There is a simple explanation for this. Religion tells the follower everything he/she must do. The directives are not to be questioned - just obeyed - and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, those who obey the prescribed actions often feel like they have actually done something. This has great appeal for the participant - and often provides great comfort. But, this comfort does not end in life.
The Christian religion is built upon two pillars. First, the pews are populated with sheep. They must be led. And the second pillar is (you guessed it) - the leaders. They are to be obeyed. Two huge blunders are created by this model. First, calling Christians "sheep" is a "figure of speech" - not to be overplayed (Jn 10:6). Sheep are depicted as naive, defenseless and quite dumb (However, they only answer to the trustworthy voice of their master ... and pay no heed to a stranger's voice [Jn 10: 1-5,16,27]. People would do well to imitate this. They often follow "strange voices" ... who lead them into death). But, where does Ezekiel's verse fit in the "dumb sheep" analogy? "'As for you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are men, and I am your God,' declares the Lord" (Ezek 34:31). Paul even exhorts the infantile Corinthians with this: "in your thinking be mature ... Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong" (1Cor 14:20 and 16:13). Does God call His sons and daughters to be stupid sheep?
Secondly, the leaders of the Christian religion are exempted from this "figure of speech". They are overseers of the dumb sheep. But, they themselves ... are not dumb sheep. One of the most oft quoted passages supporting this position comes from Hebrews: "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" (Heb 13:17). At first glance, it does appear the religion model is accurate - sheep are supposed to obey leaders. But, a simple language lesson will demand a closer scrutiny.
There are three problems with this translation.
First, in the English translation: "Obey" is a verb in the active voice. But in Koine Greek, this is a verb in the passive voice. The passive voice means the subject is acted upon - not doing the action. The actual word translated, "obey" (peitho) has several potential meanings (just as English words do). The root meaning of "peitho" is "persuasion." Blind obedience is outside the circle.
Second, in the English translation: "leaders" is a noun. But, this is a participle in the Greek - not a noun. A participle is a verbal adjective. There is a huge difference between "the leading ones" and "leaders." In this instance, "the leading ones" refers to the more mature Christians "of you all" (a plural genitive). They seek to persuade the less mature by instruction and example - and call for imitation. "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ" (1Cor 11:1 - and this is the Apostle Paul ... to the Corinthians!).
Third, in the English translation: "to them" is a prepositional phrase. This is not in the Greek at all and should just be forgotten.
Hebrews 13:17 should be translated more like this: "You must allow yourselves to be persuaded by the leading ones of you all ... and yield." The less mature are commanded to allow themselves to be persuaded (passive) by the more mature among them - and then yield to accurate handling of the word of God (doctrine and lifestyle) - not to them. This is totally consistent with all the other foundational Biblical injunctions of the Christian faith. "Examine everything; adhere to that which is good" (1Thes 5:21). The Bereans "were more noble minded than those in Thessolonica ... examining the Scriptures daily" to see if Paul's assertions were correct (Acts 17:11). "Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!" (2Cor 13:5).
Those who are leading must account for how they led. But, they are not responsible for wrong choices by their listeners (assuming they had led correctly). Paul was not guilty before God for the errant choices of the wayward Corinthians or the bewitched Galatians. Their choices did bring him grief ... but not guilt.
I cannot explain why translators have so fouled this passage from Hebrews. If you can find a Greek scholar who can explain this - let me know ("Peithesthe" is not a middle deponent verb to be translated active either). By the way, Jesus did talk about leaders one time. "Do not be called leaders; for One is your leader - Christ" (Mt 23:10). Does He need to repeat Himself?
The Christian Faith
This arises when individual circumstances converge on a person - forcing an intense search ... for the Creator. While God may use people, or even some of the structures of religion as cited above, these things are secondary (at best). The Christian faith is the search for God. "As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God - for the living God" (Ps 42:1,2). Furthermore, He tells us, "You will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer 29:13). This is hard. In fact, I don't think we can really know when we have truly sought Him with all of our heart. Duplicities, known and unknown, infest us.
God calls people to the Christian faith. He calls them ... one by one. No one can get into heaven on the coattails of another. Adhering to the greatest of preachers ... will not work. Supporting, or participating in, the most fruitful Christian church ... will not secure entrance into heaven. Even heart wrenching pleas to God by the most devout mother ... will not usher one into glory. There is but One Advocate before God the Father who can make a successful case for one's inclusion into His favor (1Jn 2:1). And one must deal with Him solo. Nothing we will ever undertake is more solo - and absolutely necessary.
The extreme emergencies of life ... are faced alone. The only One who can help us - is God. When Stephen was being stoned to death, he needed Christian faith - not some version of Christian religion (Acts 6 and 7). Our situation will be different, but the reality of need will be the same. The Christian faith requires spiritual independence from man ... and total spiritual dependence upon Jesus Christ.
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