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Willard on Church Leadership

23 February 2007

We can only tantalize ourselves here with an excerpt, but Dallas Willard has some interesting things to say about our inclination to create cults of personality around charismatic leaders, who then strip from us our sense of need to hear from God ourselves. The whole section is worth reading, pp. 80-84 in Hearing God.

Spokespeople for the Christian community as well as the general public are frequently heard to lament the way in which cults turn their adherents into mindless robots. In our highly fragmented society, which is dominated by gadgetry and technology, lonely and alienated people are ready prey for any person who comes along and speaks with confidence about life and death – especially when that person has some degree of glamour and professes to speak for God.

There are now more than two and a half thousand distinct cults active in the United States alone, most based on the premise that God speaks to one or several central people in the group in a way that He does not speak to the ordinary members. These members are taught not to trust their own minds or their own communications with God except within the context of the group, with all its pressures toward conformity to the word from on high. Frequently adherents are taught to accept pronouncements that are self-contradictory and fly in the face of all common sense if the leader says they must…

…But the more mainline religious groups, if they would be honest, might find that their own models of leadership actually prepare the way for cult phenomena because they too use these methods to some extent. I must ask myself, as a Christian minister, to what extent I, in order to secure enough conformity and support to maintain and enlarge my plans, might be prepared to have people put away their minds and their own individual experiences of guidance and communication with their Lord. [emphasis added]

Willard goes on to concede that “having everyone personally confer with God does risk disagreements and uncooperativeness.” He suggests that the answer is not to avoid the circumstance, but rather to understand that “if the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets, individual prophets may from time to time find themselves earnestly questioned and examined – perhaps overturned – by those they are appointed to lead. These leaders will then…need a true humility – everyone thinking others better than themselves (Phil. 2:3) – for them to carry on with their work.”

Willard’s argument begins earlier in the process and goes further into the implications of both individual conference with God and leadership that does not foster it. But he confirms a great deal of what we have been saying here out of, for example, I Corinthians 14, in which we find Paul saying that individuals (what Willard calls whimsically the “ordinary people”) ought to aspire to the gift of prophecy, not merely assume that one person – generally today identified as the all-powerful “senior pastor,” but perhaps including a small cabal of sycophantic “elders” – has the sole responsibility of hearing God and then conveying the truths to the congregation.



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