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First Corinthians 1--Two Authority Pitfalls

Feb 18, 2017

Leadership always has potential risks. Perhaps the main risk is that the better a leader does his job the more likely it is that people will follow him or her, rather than Christ. There is a fine line between honor and idolatry, and discerning this can be difficult, because it starts in the heart. It is important that leaders continually point to Christ, rather than to themselves, for in this way they remain stewards, rather than owners of ministry.

Apparently, Chloe’s letter revealed that some were following Paul, rather than Christ, so Paul renounced this first. Only then did he list the other leaders as having the same problem. Of course, some said, “I am of Christ,” which was the correct answer, though it is possible that even their hearts were following a denomination carrying the name of Christ.

Moses as a Denominational Leader

Moses faced two opposite problems regarding the denominational spirit while leading Israel in the wilderness. We would do well to understand these two problems today.

The first problem manifested itself at Mount Horeb, where the people wanted him to represent them before God and to hear His word on their behalf (Exodus 20:18-21). This is the problem of denominationalism, where the people want a man to hear on their behalf and then to tell them what God said. The problem with this is that the people fail to develop ears to hear God for themselves. Their relationship, then, is with the man, rather than with God. Their relationship with God is indirect, for a man stands between them and God.

This leads to slavery, that is, submission to men. Men are their spiritual covering, rather than Jesus Christ. In such cases, the people cannot progress beyond their leaders, for if they do, the leaders rebuke them and force them to submit to their teaching. In other words, the people do not have the right to hear God for themselves, unless it confirms the understanding of the leader.

Israel was fortunate enough to have Moses as their leader, for he urged the people to draw near to God and to hear His voice independently. He wanted each Israelite to develop an independent and personal relationship with God. But they feared the fire and thought that the presence of God would kill them.

Today, believers no longer fear God’s presence, because Jesus Christ has revealed that His presence is a good thing. But yet there is a residue of fear that lingers in the church. It is the fear of the fire of God, or the baptism of fire, which kills the flesh and puts to death the old man. I was told many years ago in a church that we should not try to hear God’s voice, because it could lead to deception.

My response was that the leaders should be teaching the word so that they would not be led into deception. Knowing the word is the primary defense against deception when a person hears the word within his own heart. The Scriptures give us a record of the word of truth that was given to past prophets and men of God. If we use the Scriptures as the foundation of truth, then when we hear God’s voice, we can better discern the difference between the voice of our carnal man, a false spirit, or the Spirit of God.

God has raised up some as teachers to teach the word, so that we may compare our own revelation to that which has already been established in the word. The difficulty here is that we must always keep in mind that the word is not the same as our understanding of the word. Genuine personal revelation is not designed to contradict the word, but to alter our understanding of it, so that it may better conform to the mind of God.

Moses as an Anointed Leader

The second problem that Moses faced in regard to leadership is found in Numbers 16. Here we find certain leaders claiming that because God is in all of the people, Moses ought to step down from his position of authority. Numbers 16:3 says,

3 And they assembled together against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”

Their argument was true on its surface. Yes, every one of the congregation (church) was holy, for God had set them apart and had sanctified them as a nation. God had told them in Exodus 19:6 that they would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” But Moses’ cousin, Korah, used this truth to destroy Moses’ calling as the leader. His appeal was that Moses ought to be more democratic, but God saw ambition in his heart (Numbers 16:10).

The dispute among the Levites was that all of the Levites should be priests—not just the sons of Aaron. The Levites had been set up as the civil servants, judges, magistrates, and record-keepers, while the family of Aaron had been appointed as priests within Israel. But since the whole nation had become “a kingdom of priests,” they said, surely all of the Levites were qualified to serve as priests at the tabernacle.

Moses appealed the case to God, who had anointed him with the authority to lead Israel. When leaders are challenged, one must appeal to whoever appointed the leader to his position of authority. If the people had elected Moses and Aaron, then the people would have had the power to elect someone else who was more appealing to them. But they had been appointed by God, not by men. Their anointings were from heaven, not from earth. So they appealed the case to God, rather than to men.

Korah and 250 Levites who sought the priesthood were instructed to take their censers to the tabernacle and to perform the duty of priests. In this way, they would see if they were truly called (Numbers 16:16, 17). So they did so the next day, and “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation” (Numbers 16:19). Moses knew what would happen, so he instructed everyone to move away from the would-be priests and to stay away from their tents. Then the earth opened up and swallowed the rebellious Levites (Numbers 16:31, 32, 33).

Then “fire also came forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense” (Numbers 16:35).

So God Himself confirmed the leadership of Moses and Aaron insofar as the priestly calling was concerned. In the next chapter God confirmed the civil leadership of Moses by telling the princes of the tribes to lay up their staves in the tabernacle to see which would bear fruit (Numbers 17:4).

The point of this is to show that authority is valid as long as it comes from God, for Romans 13:1 says, “there is no authority except from God,” or more literally, “there is no authority if not from God.” Though all believers are holy and are called to hear God for themselves, yet there is also legitimate authority in the earth. These principles are not contradictory to those who understand that Christ is the Head of the Church. He has been given “all authority,” and all others are given authority under Him.

Hence, when a man or woman exercises authority within the confines of his or her calling, all should submit to that authority. Essentially, no one should submit to men, but all should submit to Christ in men. No matter how small one’s authority is, when it is exercised, all are required to submit to it, from the least to the greatest. If the Spirit of God comes upon a five-year-old girl, who then prophesies, even the greatest apostle among them ought to submit to the word that is in that little girl.

This is God’s government. It is not a democracy, where the people have the right to vote on whether or not to accept the word of God. The only right given to the people is the right to hear God’s voice and thereby discern if the word coming forth is from the flesh or from the Spirit of God. The Levites who were led by Korah were following the voice of ambition and rebellion. They did not see it that way, of course, but the judgment from the divine court proved all things.

When Leaders Differ

From a practical standpoint, we know that all leaders differ in their understanding of the word. Hopefully, those differences are minor, but the more important problem is the spirit of ambition, disguised as a sense of one’s calling. Korah desired a calling that was not his. Perhaps he was unaware of this. Perhaps he genuinely thought that he had a priestly calling. If so, it was because he lacked the ability to discern the idol in his own heart.

As I showed in my book, Hearing God’s Voice, it is not enough to hear His voice. Once we begin to develop our hearing, the next big project is to deal with heart idolatry. This is possible only by the baptism of fire as God leads us through experience, so that we see clearly the condition of our own heart. When idols fall, they can cause great personal earthquakes that destabilize us for a time. But in the end, it is worth the effort, the heartache, and the humiliation. Such idols fall only when they are seen—not seen by others, but by the one carrying the idol. One must see the idol in order to repent and be delivered from it.

In Corinth, there were at least four factions, each of which desired to follow men, rather than God. Peter was not there, but perhaps some of Peter’s followers had arrived to teach things that Peter was teaching. Apollos was an Alexandrian philosopher who was well educated and eloquent. He appealed to some of the educated class.

Paul too was educated, but he differed from Peter. Peter’s calling was to the Jews; Paul’s calling was primarily to non-Jews. Peter was reluctant to offend Jewish sensibilities; Paul was quick to rebuke those Jews who thought they were more chosen than non-Jews and who considered non-Jews to be second-class citizens of the Kingdom.

The apostles themselves had to deal with their own differences of calling and understanding. They were more successful than their followers. As time passed, the Church was increasingly divided, and new regulations and teachings were established to try to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, in later years they used fear, coercion, and threats to maintain unity, not realizing that it better to have disunity than to fail to love one another. But love was sacrificed on the altar of unity, and thus the Church lost its first love. It became a religion of creeds and rituals, rather than a way of life in manifesting the character of Christ.

Likewise, Church leaders soon learned that giving everyone the right to hear God’s voice only seemed to cause more division, they removed that right from the people. Christians then were required to hear the priests, who had learned the church creeds and rituals and who were in submission to other men in the hierarchy. Once again, the benefits of Pentecost were lost, and the believers committed the same folly as seen in Exodus 20.


This is part 5 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians


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