Rule By Example

I received two pieces of communication this week that brought home to me one of the main problems of organized churches.

One was a letter from a woman about her “discipling partner”, an appointed office in the International Church of Christ, and an office in other discipling/multiplying movements. A discipling partner is a misnomer. The discipling partner is not a partner, not someone who comes alongside. It is a boss, someone who supervises and bosses their mentee around, telling the person where to live, how to spend their time, down to each hour of the day, how many Bible studies to attend per week (five), how much money to donate to church (15%), how often to check in with the discipling partner (three times per day), and punishing the disciple if he or she disobeys. One is assigned a discipling partner, one is not permitted to choose one’s own based on an established relationship.

The second communication that got me thinking about organized religions, was a decision about a writers’ retreat I go to once a year, sponsored by a local church plant, that has been free of organized religious activities for its first five years (we just write), but this year the pastor decided to organize optional religious activities. I objected by appealing to the members of the group that attend the retreat (who are mostly Christian, but only half attend the church plant). The pastor wanted to be addressed alone, because he has the authority to make the decision. Interestingly the retreat has always had many religious discussions, but they were spontaneous and based on the relationships people had built with each other. But when the optional organized activities were announced and scheduled, the tone changed, such that now a Jewish friend and myself do not feel free to invite our (non-Christian) friends, as we did in the past.

Organized churches use the idea of authority inherent in an office that is bestowed upon a qualified person. And we can see some of this in the New Testament. But more often we see authority emanating from a person’s character and the relationships that person has with the people under his or her authority. For instance in most of the elder, pastor and overseer passages there is an emphasis on following an example, or ruling by example. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians appeals to their understanding of him as they had experienced him as the basis for his reasoning with them. This is a tough and slow process, but one that is genuine and organic. It produces results that are permanent and based on the level of care and concern that has gone into a mentoring relationship.

Contrast that with the kind of leadership that emanates from an office that someone has been appointed to. I may not know the office holder, or I may not respect that office holder, but somehow I am supposed to permit that person to lead me spiritually and obey their commands. This produces a phony relationship fraught with passive-aggression, abuse and a lack of care. You might counter by saying that nobody would be appointed to an office unless they cared about the people. I would counter with, if they care about the people, then they don’t need to hold an office to wield authority.

Ask yourself: if you have a problem and need to process it with someone, who do you call? Do you call the officeholder the church has just appointed that you don’t know, or do you call the person you have spent hours with that you know is wise and compassionate? In Alcoholics Anonymous would a person choose a sponsor they had never heard speak, and did not know? Or would they choose a sponsor who had reached out to them and that had exhibited the qualities of support and encouragement they want?

My son expresses it: Don’t pay attention to relationships based on labels: mother, father, preacher, elder. Pay attention to relationships that have been built over the years. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Notice the phrase, “If you love me,” letting us know that our obedience to his authority is based on the relationship that he has built with us, and our response to that relationship. So when my parents come to town to visit, my son remembers, when he was twelve years old, how they asked him what church he attended, and how they took him to a park and showed him in the Bible how his church wasn’t saved, then dropped him back off at our house. In the relative absence of more positive interactions with them, he does not expect a workable relationship with them. He expects them to be adults who traumatize children (and everyone in their path). And so now that he is an adult he does not attend when they come to visit. He does however go out of his way to meet with older people who have poured out their hearts into his life.

The more organized and hierarchical a church is, the more suspect I become about it. (Of course you also have to take into account the fact that I score as an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which measures genetic, unchanging traits that God has bestowed on a person. And the majority of ENFPs put little stock in officeholders and bureaucracy. We ENFPs are particularly sensitive to genuineness and phoniness in relationships.)

That is why I object so strongly to the evangelism methods of the evangelical and fundamentalist sectors of Christianity. These evangelism methods are based largely on Madison Avenue manipulation and GMO relationships rather than organic naturally occurring relationships. I know, you are going to tell me about all those who have been converted using these manipulative methods. I could also tell you about those nations that became Christian because they were conquered by armies that brought Christianity with them, and some nations were forced to be baptized or be put to death by the sword. Those nations still have Christianity as their dominant religion. Should we use that tactic? Did I hear you say, “no”?


“Do not lord it over those under your care, but rather rule by example.” The metaphor used in the scriptures repeatedly is the shepherd that leads his sheep (in contrast to many nations where shepherds drive their sheep). The sheep of the Middle East respond to the shepherd’s voice and follow the shepherd because they know they will get food and water if they follow.

The specific command is: Don’t give commands, show how to live.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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