Those who’ve attended a spiritually-abusive church have more than likely heard some version of a warning drawn from the pages of Scripture about not challenging a leader’s authority: “Touch not God’s anointed.”
There are a couple of big problems with this kind of talk. First, in an authoritarian church system, challenging a leader’s authority might mean anything from not showing up every time the church doors are open to daring to ask a question or express a doubt about something a leaders has said. Second, this warning (which, let’s face it, sounds pretty ominous when its pronounced over a congregation in KJV English) is yanked out of its context. The phrase is found in 1 Chronicles 16:22 and Psalm 105:15. Both of these passages celebrate God’s protection over his Chosen People (“God’s anointed”) during their wanderings before entering the Promised Land and have nothing to do with our relationship to human authority.
However, the verses have long served as a shorthand way of expressing the proper response of subjects to the Divine right of kings. The example drawn from Scripture to affirm that a ruler’s authority comes from God and we humans should not in any way meddle with it is David. He is the exemplar of someone who chose not to touch God’s anointed, King Saul, even though Saul was bent on destroying the young man who’d been anointed to be his replacement.
However, being chosen to lead a congregation is a far different proposition than being anointed by God to rule a nation. I’ve heard versions of “Touch not God’s anointed” in rigidly fundamentalist congregations influenced by the teachings of Bill Gothard. I’ve also seen it at work in Charismatic congregations where a leader’s spiritual power and authority are signifiers of God’s blessing for all. In both settings, “Touch not God’s anointed” is another way of saying that once a leader is in place, he or she is covered in a thick coating of spiritual Teflon. Woe to any who may challenge this cozy arrangement. I learned the hard way in an abusive congregation that whistleblowing looks suspiciously similar to those in charge as an attempt to touch God’s anointed.
When “Touch not God’s anointed” is the rule, the sheep become tasked with protecting their shepherd. It is an upside-down version of the way in which Jesus spoke of his role as a shepherd, and the way in which pastoral gifts of shepherding are meant to be exercised.
I’ve heard the suggestion in authoritarian circles that the best way to apply the “touch not” mandate is to focus on the content of a leader’s teaching, rather than “attacking” his or her character. While character assassination is not a fruit of the Spirit the last time I checked, this dialed-down version of the rule protects pastors and teachers who may be excellent communicators but toxic human beings. In the case of the abusive church my family and I attended, the pastor’s teaching was orthodox. His character was the issue. He was given to fits of rage. The rage worked as a moat around his real problem – he was a porn addict and had been carrying on an affair. Because of the “touch not” culture he’d created, the church elders coddled and enabled him for years, choosing instead to demonize, shame, and shun anyone who got too close to the truth.
True authority is marked by humility, honesty, and love. I’ve seen enough imperfect but faithful church leaders whose shepherding is marked by these traits to recognize the difference. A “touch not” leader is a toxic blend of charmer and bully, which is another way of saying that fear and anger are the primary motivators behind the culture they create. A good shepherd is someone who is becoming more fully human as they seek to follow (imperfectly!) their Good Shepherd.
A “touch not” church culture may give the appearance that it is a growing, vibrant organization. However, it can’t cultivate maturity in its members because fear and anger make lousy fertilizer.
Have you ever been a part of a church with an authoritarian culture? What first drew you there? Leaders, do you believe there are instances when it is appropriate to tell members “Touch not God’s anointed”? If so, when?
This post originally ran on the Jesus Creed blog