JESUS DECLARATION OF SPIRITUAL INDEPENDANCE
July 20, 2015
Early in Jesus’ earthly ministry, in his now famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blessed the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who were being persecuted. (Matthew 5:3-12) He continued his empowering sermon telling them ‘you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.’ (Matthew 5:13-16) Several months later, Jesus furthered his call to liberty when he made a declaration of profound import:
“Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
– Luke 4:14-21
Yes, that day in the 1st century, Jesus declared the spiritual independence of the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. He proclaimed good news and divine favor for all who had been misused and abused by religious authority. And he began a ministry of empowerment unlike anything the religious world had known up to that time.
Jesus’ liberating teachings brought him in direct conflict with the religious leaders of his day who basked in their self-proclaimed superiority. He once said:
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”
– Matthew 23:2-7
And in the very presence of these same religious leaders, Jesus went on to tell his disciples:
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
So how is it that we have allowed ourselves to return to elementary doctrines of class distinctions that demoralize and imprison the disciples of Christ? How have Christians allowed themselves to return to the servitude of men who dare ‘sit in Moses’ seat’ as if God is speaking directly through them? How is it that full grown men and women will freely relinquish their God given freedom of thought, their God given ability to critically analyze a matter, their God given freedom to act independent of ecclesiastical sanction? By abdicating the freedom that Christ delivered, the believer has lazily contributed to man dominating man to his injury? (Ecclesiastes 8:9) The time has surely come for us to accept Jesus’ declaration of spiritual independence from the control of oppressive religious leaders and stand as the ‘salt of the earth and the light of the world!’
Recognizing Spiritual Domination and Abuse
Jesus’ gift of the Spirit of Truth lights the way and guides us to spiritual independence. (John 16:13) Consequently, no one who is led by spirit can be made a victim of spiritual domination or abuse. Those days are long gone:
“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
– 2 Corinthians 3:15-18
Unfortunately, abuse is an insidious practice. We call it insidious because many victims of abuse are not even aware of it! They know something is not right, but they cannot put their finger on it. Abusers convince their victims that all will be better if they will only listen and obey the abuser. We see this in physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, child abuse, spousal abuse, elder abuse, and yes, spiritual abuse. Abusers want control and unquestioned obedience so they can more easily take advantage of their victims. Sadly, in many cases, the victim has a complete blind spot and simply cannot see that they are being abused, misused and controlled.
Ask yourself: How would you describe spiritual abuse? Do you know the signs? How would you know if a friend was a victim of spiritual abuse? How would you help that friend? Then turn it inward: Are you objective enough to take a personal inventory to see if there is any spiritual abuse within your own group? If you find abuse, what will you do? Is your love for truth stronger than your need to belong to the group? Is your love for God stronger than your need to please man? If we are to benefit from Jesus’ declaration of our spiritual independence, we must be honest and open, at least with ourselves.
There are several books written about spiritual, religious and authoritarian abuse which itemize various ways churches and religious authorities abuse their members. Not all of the factors apply to all abusive organizations, but here are a few that seem to apply across the board:
1. Absolute authority of the leadership. Apotheosis or exaltation of the primary leader or leaders to a God-like status over the group that has the effect of making the group believe they must strictly obey the leaders in order to please God. ‘Setting themselves up as Gods.’ (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4)
2. Elitism. Leaders view themselves, their understanding and their counsel as superior to all others. They separate themselves from other groups, and openly judge the other groups as inferior. (Luke 18:9-14)
3. Image Conscious. Spiritual abusers give inordinate attention to maintaining their public image at the expense of taking corrective measures. (Matthew 23:25-28)
4. Fear of Dissent. The group must go beyond respecting the positions held by leaders. They must loyally submit to the leaders without any right to disagree, question or challenge the decisions made by the leaders. (Acts 7:51-60)
5. Isolationism of Thought. The group cannot read or accept any spiritual information or instruction that does not originate from the group’s leaders. (John 7:45-52)
6. Doctrinal Terrorism. Frequent teachings creating a fear of disobeying or leaving the group. Presenting the group as the only means of salvation. (John 14:6)
7. Erosion of Personal Autonomy. Unreasonable control of a person's basic right to make their own decisions on spiritual or natural matters. (Matthew 23:4)
8. Isolationism. Separation, disenfranchisement, or parental alienation and estrangement from family and friends outside the group. (John 9:20-23)
9. No Honorable Exit. No member can decide they no longer want to be a part of the group without being labeled as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demonized, apostate, enemy of the church or enemy of God. (John 16:1-4)
Do any of these characteristics sound familiar? For example: Are you required to give unquestioned obedience to those taking the lead in your group? What would happen if you openly questioned or expressed disagreement with the teachings? Would your question be viewed as fair criticism or would you be viewed as a troublemaker or an apostate? What would happen if you read material that criticized the teachings of your group? Would you have to do it in secret? If others knew, would you be chastised or disciplined? What would happen if you decided you no longer wanted to be a part of the group? Would they say to you ‘go in peace’ or would you be called names, labeled an apostate, shunned? Do you have the freedom to follow Paul’s counsel:
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?”
– 2 Corinthians 13:5
If you cannot freely examine, question and test ‘whether you are in the faith,’ you are being unduly controlled, you are not experiencing spiritual freedom and you are not enjoying the spiritual independence Jesus gave his life for.
From the outside it is easy to see spiritual abuse. But it is not always easy for those in an abusive relationship to see it. But questions such as those presented above will significantly help in testing whether a certain religious association is in harmony with Jesus’ teachings or still under the veil of the ‘old wine’ of religious authority. (2 Corinthians 3:15-17)
If you discover that the group you are associated with has oppressive and/or abusive practices, what should you do? If you were able to be in direct conference with Jesus, what do you think he would tell you to do? Clearly, it is time to emancipate yourself! It is time to accept your spiritual freedom from man-rule or clergy-rule, and declare your spiritual independence. Let it be known to all that you ‘obey God rather than human beings’ (Acts 5:29) and then be about the Father’s business!
Exercising Spiritual Independence
Spiritual independence is not without responsibility. Each person who accepts their spiritual independence is required to conduct himself or herself in a way that honors both the gift and one who gave it. As the Apostle Peter wrote:
“Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”
– 1 Peter 2:16-17
And as Paul counseled:
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
– Galatians 5:13-15
Neither is spiritual independence absolute. It is contingent upon justice, intelligence, maturity and fairness. It is liberty, not license. We can serve God without fear of men, but we must also recognize our divine obligations to one another. Have self-respect; but not self-admiration. Serve your neighbors and your brothers, looking out for their best interests; but do not exploit them for your own advantage or attempt to exercise unjust power. (Philippians 2:3-4; 1 Corinthians 10:24) Do not accept your own independence and then imprison your brother. (Matthew 18:21-35) Remember, the sheep belong to Jesus, not to men. It is not our kingdom, we are just its ambassadors.
We share these thoughts to encourage our brothers and sisters to accept what Jesus fought hard to deliver to us – spiritual freedom, liberty and independence. Instead of looking to men for guidance and approval, look to the spirit. The Spirit of Truth coupled with the Father’s indwelling Spirit will bear witness with you as to whether you are experiencing spiritual independence or are suffering from spiritual abuse.
And if you discover to your shock that you have somehow fallen victim to spiritual abuse, do something about it immediately so that you can protect your eternal future and not be led into the pit. (Matthew 15:14) Spiritual independence is both a gift and a responsibility. But the rewards are self-respect and dignity now, and in the future, eternal life. Let no man disqualify you, cheat you, or deprive you of the prize. (Colossians 2:18)
And, as always, we welcome your comments.
“Your Brothers in the Faith"