Unity to the Head, not the arm (part 2)

Note: This article is part of a series which refers to the PDF transcript of a Network teaching. The parenthesized numbers or ranges refer to lines in it. Some of the words I quote might be different from the PDF. This is because the transcript differed from what I heard Sándor say in the audio recording. This is part 2 in the series. See also part 1, part 3, and part 4.

In the previous article, I showed errors in how Sándor interpreted passages on unity. But probably the biggest problem with this teaching was the injection of and focus on leadership. Sándor mentioned Hebrews 13, which I’ve already written about here. In the other supporting passages he referenced, mention of a leader-follower relationship is notably absent. The passages are quite egalitarian in their call for unity. Yet, one might be forgiven for thinking that this is not a sermon about unity but about obeying your leaders. It’s true that most of the passages are an apostle addressing a church, but there is still no reference to leadership in these calls for unity. The epistles, written to whole churches, call leader and follower alike to unity.

Sándor exhorted people to follow their leaders even when they are wrong, and not just follow, but obey, claiming that God honors this type of unity:

  • “…think of it this way, wives. If you trust and love and follow your husband in a way that’s pleasing to the Father and he’s wrong, what happens then? You’re honored by God.” (711–713)
  • “And I’m blessed, even when they’re wrong. God is going to honor me for this. And the greater importance of my own rightness on an issue is this family and the sympathy that we have…” (974–977)
  • “See sometimes, obeying precedes the agreeing…A lot of times, I’ve said, ‘I don’t technically agree, but oh, man, if you think that’s an important thing, I’m in. I’ll do it.’” (1006–1009)

Does God honor you when you obey your leader telling you to sin? When you obey your leader telling you to kick someone out of the church “who has done nothing wrong,” (p. 10, Planting Healthy Churches), is God pleased with your action? Does he overlook it because your leader will take responsibility for it? The answer is no. A leader’s responsibility (Hebrews 13:17) doesn’t negate individual accountability (Romans 14:12). This might seem like an obvious point, but Sándor never differentiated between different kinds of wrongness. In fact, sin is only explicitly mentioned once in this entire sermon. It’s a big problem if your leader wants obedience in the face of sin, or even what you think is sin (Romans 14:23).

Sándor rightly pointed out times in which we manipulate and maneuver to try and get our way, while posturing to appear to be doing the right thing (837–850). He cautioned against underestimating our own ability and will to do this (901–902). Yet, even though he illustrated this autobiographically, he urged trust in leaders, because “if they’re wrong he’ll [Jesus] speak to my leader on that,” and if “Jesus speaks, they’ll turn and they’ll change and they’ll come to a different conclusion.” (709–730) There are two problems with this.

First, a false dichotomy is implicitly made between Jesus speaking and a follower speaking. This means that a follower is incapable of prophecy and that God never speaks to leaders through other people. If a leader can’t hear Jesus through the words of others, then their ability to hear Jesus should be questioned altogether. The Bible is the word of God written in the words of men. Second, a mature leader with a humble mind should be more aware of their own sinful tendencies and not want the ability or authority to decide the importance “on any particular issue.” (103–104)

Strangely, Sándor also brought up King David as someone who received counsel to cover his blind spots (1016). David didn’t obey counsel; he received it, took it into consideration, and made his own decisions. Yet, just a few moments earlier, Sándor denounced the practice of receiving a plurality of counsel as a form of plotting rooted in selfish ambition or conceit:

See, I’ve heard this many times. A person that I’m leading saying I hear you and so pray for me. And what it means is, I’m going to seek Jesus, pray that he tells me what I’m supposed to do whether you’re right or not. Pray for me. I hear you and I’m gonna go consider and see God and consider what you’ve said.

I’m going to add that into the mix of the things and I’ll let you know. I’ll get back to you and let you know whether or not it’s going to make sense, I’m going to do it or not. It’s kind of what they mean. And so I’ll consider but I want to hear you. I want to hear what you think and I’ll get back to you on that. I’ll consider it. I’ll let you know.

If you have said that, or have felt that, or that’s been said to you, verse 3 is at play. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. That’s really what it is. We’re all in danger of thinking too highly of our own opinions. All of us. We’re all in danger of that because our opinions are right in our own mind or you wouldn’t think that. Agreed? (917–931)

This effectively labels everything but immediate agreement with your leader as selfish ambition or vain conceit. Such a condemnation shows a lack of charity toward others, discernment in their motives, and grossly overstates what Paul said.

Sándor spoke of testing people on how “leadable” they are by seeing how they react when they don’t get their way (949–967). It is true that people are tested and show some of their character when they are tested like this. What happens when you receive a harsh piece of criticism? Do you become defensive? Do you try to extract the truth from it and take it to heart? What is the posture of your heart when responding? Ask these questions of your leaders and consider that the Network has responded to much of the criticism from Leaving the Network, Not Overcome, and Reddit as “demonic,” or dismissed it with truisms such as, “there are two sides to every story.”

Ultimately, the Network relies too much on a kind of higher life or Moses mentality for its leaders. It positions leaders as better able to hear from Jesus, more obedient (726–729), with too much reach into the lives of followers. Followers are treated with suspicion about their ability to receive and discern counsel (917–931). Churches develop resistance to criticism. Leaders end up feeling the need to present a pristine self-image, unable to openly discuss struggles except with their own leaders. Followers are then presented with an unrealistic ideal to imitate, not knowing that leaders themselves don’t reach this goal. Leaders are not omnicompetent, nor should they try to be. A unity that relies on this leadership structure and the loyalty of its followers is not the unity of the church. Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck wrote:

We are obligated to first of all bind ourselves in spiritual bonds of unity rather than external, institutional ones. It is here, as we seek to understand the key church attributes of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, that Protestantism finds itself with a different view from Rome. Protestants do not seek these attributes first of all, as Rome does, in a specific, hierarchically ordered institution. Unity is not found in the hierarchy and the papacy but in the spiritual unity of the church with its head (Eph. 1:10; 5:23); and further, with the unity of faith, hope, and love, and of baptism, and so forth (Eph. 4:3–5). This spiritual unity is not simply invisible, it comes to expression in that which all Christians have in common in spite of their divisions. (p. 605, Reformed Dogmatics: Abridged in One Volume)

In short, church unity is a mutual union with Christ, holding fast to the Head, not to your leaders. By focusing too much on leadership, the Network ironically ends up closer to the Roman Catholic Church, which it criticizes as a false religion, in its doctrine of unity. A leader that cares too much about his own vision, who tries to realize a community perfectly adherent to it, does not nurture true Christian unity, but inhibits it. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. (p. 10, Life Together, Fortress Press Reader’s Edition)

For example, a church culture that views with suspicion people who can’t adhere to its scheduling demands hinders unity because of its vision of what a healthy member or church is. Such a culture is not one of unity but of virtue signaling. Members at times inevitably end up in attendance out of guilt or obligation, to avoid questions about their absence. Leaders must care about people more than the goal of every member attending small group, discipleship community, and team meetings. The latter is not a proxy or part of the former. A church that is too focused on its members’ regular attendance, or who tells “uncommitted” attenders to leave, is more concerned with its own institutional existence. I will cover this topic in part 3.