Do You Have a Spirit of Rebellion?
Written by Paul Race
Before we get to the core topic, let me first stress the importance of knowing your Bible. Many Christians, and - believe it or not - many pastors get into trouble because the average Christian knows only what their pastor says the Bible says. When an overly-controlling pastor says something that doesn't "seem right," the average church member has two choices:
- Go along with it until they come to believe that the out-of-context proof texts mean what the pastor says they mean and the whole thing becomes part of their "spiritual DNA."
- Disagree with the pastor and risk being "disciplined," while having no effective way of articulating why the pronouncement that they are concerned about is "wrong."
Fear of challenging the pastor because they had no way of supporting their concerns with scripture has led otherwise good people who took the first path into error and even into sin. Worse yet, it has allowed pastors to make idiosyncratic doctrinal shifts, arbitrary decisions, and even morally reprehensible personal choices without fear of Bible-knowledgeable members acting as a "check and balance" against such behaviors. The best most members can muster is something like "this isn't what our old pastor told us the Bible says." And that, frankly, is a poor argument when the pastor seems to have scripture on his side and hardly anyone in the church knows what the Bible says firsthand.
What about people who take a stand against something they think is wrong? Whether they're in the right or in the wrong, they risk being "disciplined" as the pastor sees fit. Is the discipline Biblically appropriate? Who's to say? The other members, who have already gone along with something they felt uncomfortable about because it was safer than speaking up?
For all of these reasons and many more, you need to study your Bible, or at least read it, again and again and again. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would bring His words to our remembrance when we need them, but it's very hard to remember things we never learned in the first place.
Now you may wonder why I started this article out this way. It's because there is a sort of "spirit of rebellion" in our society as a whole, and some of that filters into the church, but it's not the what most Christians mean when they use the phrase.
Rebellion Against What?
First of all, the notion of "rebellion" presupposes the existence of authority. If a stranger across the street tells me to stay where I am until the traffic clears and he can come over to me, I can choose to keep walking. If a policeman across the street says the same thing, I had better do what he says. I can't rebel against, say, kings of other countries or pastors of other churches because they have no authority over me in the first place.
In other words, the notion of rebellion presupposes a previously-established relationship between the "rebel" and whatever authority he or she is theoretically rebelling against. As Americans, we've been condition to believe that we have the right (if not a duty) to rebel against authorities that are unfair or abusive, but as Christians we are also reminded that the concept of authority has its source in God's order, so revolution shouldn't necessarily be our first response to every little disagreement.
Secular Authority - The Bible tells us to respect and obey secular authorities. By the way, that means that slandering and spreading hateful rumors and jokes about sitting presidents is a sin, even if you think God loves your political party and hates his. (Ooops, I just lost a handful of readers - tell you what, if you can explain to me how spreading half-truths and hatred glorify Jesus, I'll amend the previous sentence.) On the other hand, most Bible scholars would tell you that if the secular authority tells you to do something that is a sin, you can - and should - resist. But should you automatically resist innocuous commands just because that authority is abusive or corrupt? What did Jesus say about rendering “unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's"?
Here's an example that would make many 21st-century American "Christians" wince - when the corrupt and abusive Roman government was occupying Judah and Galilee, any Roman soldier had the right to order any Jew to carry his armor and baggage one mile anywhere he wanted to go - on pain of death. How did Jesus deal with such abuse? He said, "If anyone compels you to go with him one mile, go with him two." In other words, being gracious under that kind of pressure is part of your "witness" for Christ. Yes, you may encounter situations under which you can not, in conscience, obey some secular law or authority. But if your first response to government you don’t like is to spread ugly rumors and jokes or to buy an assault rifle and drive to the statehouse, you probably haven't prayed about it long enough.
Spiritual Authority - The Bible is clear that you owe your pastor respect, courtesy, and obedience in spiritual matters and that your pastor owes you prayerful concern for your spiritual well-being. This relationship (some call it a covenant) is described in verses like Hebrews 13:17: "Obey your leaders and submit to them for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing - for that would be harmful to you."
At least two components are included in such a covenant:
- The leader is committed to diligently pursuing your spiritual welfare as one who will give an account of his stewardship. (The Greek term agrupnousin implies that the leaders' concern for you is literally keeping them up nights).
- You have committed to be accountable to the leader in all matters with spiritual repercussions.
Such covenants are important to your spiritual growth and the health of the church. But they can get "lopsided," if either you or your pastor fails to live up to the commitment they require.
When a church member, presumably in a covenant relationship with his or her pastor, rejects the pastor's Biblical counsel or instruction, is it automatically a sign of a “spirit of rebellion”? Not necessarily. It may just be a symptom that the covenant is already breaking down for other reasons.
If there is such a thing as a "spirit of rebellion," it might apply to that portion of our society that flaunts a "no one can tell me what to do" attitude toward legitimate authorities behaving appropriately: parents, teachers, employers, police. . . . It manifests in job performance, personal relationships, driving habits, rages, domestic abuse, and more.
I've seen this attitude displayed by:
- A nut-case in line ahead of me at an airport (soon after 9-11) who had bought a brand new utility knife before he drove to the airport just to prove some kind of point about his "rights" and went ballistic when the TSA agent told him he'd have to leave it behind.
- A toddler's mother who dropped off her three-year-old off at daycare with the admonition, "Don't take any _____ off of anybody today" (as though a three-year old is in any position to judge whether his pre-school teacher has the right to tell him to wash his hands or not).
- Gun "advocates" (to use a euphemism) who resent those little "no guns" decals because their personal "right" to intimidate - if not threaten - everyone in a 300-yard radius wherever they go is more important than everyone else's right to a safe school or workplace.
- Drunk drivers who refuse to stop driving even after their license is revoked because "the judge was a jerk" and driving is their "God-given right."
Unfortunately, this chronic self-righteous chip-on-a-shoulder attitude does find its way into churches. In fact, some of our "Christian" readers have already stopped reading by this point and are already erasing us from their Favorites list, unfriending me on Facebook, and firing off nasty e-mails. Who do I think I am, anyway? To you, I'm probably nobody at all. And you have no moral responsibility to finish this article. But if your first reaction on reading the list above was outrage, you may be "exhibit A" for the kind of attitude I'm writing about.
People who have learned to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ should be able to temper their knee-jerk responses of outrage to legitimate expressions of authority. But they don't always. When Paul said, "Rebellion is the same as witchcraft," he may have had this sort of thing in mind: a chronic - if not deliberately nurtured - attitude of resistance toward anyone, however positioned or qualified, telling us what to do. It's Satan's stock in trade. If the phrase "spirit of rebellion" means anything in any context, that's what it means.
What about Chronic Divisiveness?
Sometimes the term "spirit of rebellion" is used to describe a perceived personality flaw - like the divisive, controversy-addicted members Paul warned Titus against in Titus 3:9-10. Often such folks are also vindictive, passive-aggressive, and manipulative. Of course such people are hardly restricted to the church - you run into them at work, you find them in every discussion forum on the Internet, and many of us find them in our extended families.
When you encounter such people in the workplace, you may have no choice but to try to find common ground or at least let them know you're sensitive to their concerns. As a professional writer, I’ve helped more than one with his or her resume, at the same time I was secretly updating and circulating mine.
Unfortunately some of these folks find their way to church, too. In fact, they're often embedded in the political framework of the church and have years of experience holding the church back or causing problems for no good reason. Sometimes they can be worked with. Sometimes they can be worked around. In some cases, the church would actually be better off without that person on the rolls. But when the pastor committed to work for the well-being of the church, he was also committing to the welfare of the church's most contentious members. When the pastor weighs the welfare of the individual against the hurt to the church if he or she stays, it should be a prayerful consideration.
Unfortunately, in many churches, the divisive person may already have rallied so many people to his or her side that taking direct action of any kind will cause a church split and/or destroy the pastor's career. Maybe that's why some pastors go right to the "nuclear option" and claim that the person they couldn't get along with has a "spirit of rebellion," possibly even inferring a demonic influence at work. Unfortunately some pastors who discover that this approach works start pinning that term on everyone who disagrees with them about anything, or worse yet, calls them out on some egregious failing.
Are there Ever Demonic Spirits at Work?
This is a minority view, but it has such extreme repercussions that it gives the phrase "spirit of rebellion" an especially negative connotation even in fellowships that don't typically spend much time thinking about demons.
In the worst cases, leaders that emphasize spiritual healing and "deliverance ministries" may claim that a person who disagrees with them for any reason must be under the influence of a supernatural demonic spirit that has subverted the "victim's" judgment and made him or her chronically unresponsive to counsel or direction from legitimate spiritual authority.
Such groups assume that the spiritual leader who has made this pronouncement is "gifted" in the "discerning of spirits," so his diagnosis of the problem (“spirit of rebellion”) must be correct by definition. The leader has only the "victim's" best interest at heart, and will gladly assist with the required exorcism, as soon as the "victim" admits that he or she has a problem.
If the "victim" refuses to admit that his or her disagreement with leadership is due to demonic influence, the implication is that the victim likes being influenced by this particular demon. This can result in shunning, excommunication, and the victim's name being brought up again and again at "prayer meetings," ostensibly for the victim's spiritual benefit, but really as a warning to anyone else tempted to disagree with leadership on any matter.
The leaders benefit from these witch hunts, because even members who know that what the leaders are doing is wrong will still keep quiet for fear that they'll be singled out next. It's one of the most popular control mechanism in abusive sects and cults. Unfortunately it doesn’t stay there.
Are there demons at work in such churches? If there are, I believe that they are working much harder behind the pulpit than they are in the pews.
Guarding Against Chronic Rebellious Attitudes
At this writing, I've been a Fundamental/Evangelical Christian for forty-two years. I've been a member or heavily involved in five churches in four different Fundamental denominations. In three vastly divergent denominations, I've heard the phrase "spirit of rebellion" used to intimidate, control, and - in some cases - to demonize members in good standing who had done nothing worse than to hold a different opinion from the pastor on some relatively trivial point.
That doesn't mean that rebellious attitudes don't exist or that they're not harmful. Even in my personal experience. I have plenty of experience resenting authority, even legitimate authority operating within proscribed bounds. How dare that patrolman give me a speeding ticket? Didn't he see the guy who went around me like I was standing still? But after the rush of embarrassment and frustration passes, it's up to me to admit that I was in the wrong, and that the patrolman was right to pull me over. My resentment is my problem, no one's fault but mine.
I have a bigger problem with authority that is unfair or abusive in some way. After some forty years in business and forty-two years in the church, I'm sure that I could assemble a pretty impressive (and depressing) inventory of folks in authority who have lied about me, manipulated me, used me as a stepping stone in their career, or otherwise mistreated me to achieve some benefit. If I was inclined to dwell on such things, I could turn myself into one of those people who resents all authority period. But so far I haven't fallen into that trap. I’ve been around too many people who have, and results aren’t pretty.
Do You Have a Spirit of Rebellion?
On the flip side, I have gotten over the notion, deliberately instilled in me in the first two Fundamental/Evangelical churches I belonged to, that every opinion or notion a pastor has is "ordained of God," and that disagreeing courteously, even behind closed doors, is the church-age equivalent of Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebelling against Moses' God-ordained leadership. In churches that promote such doctrine, Heaven help you, literally, if you speak up against something that is truly wrong in the church. To leaders whose choices are so bad that they constantly find themselves in a defensive posture, it's the one-size-fits-all way of deflecting even legitimate concerns or criticisms. Here's how it works.
- "Pastor, the color you picked for the sanctuary walls will clash with the carpet.” “I don’t have to listen to you because you have a spirit of rebellion.”
- "Pastor, money keeps mysteriously disappearing from the church's accounts." "I don’t have to listen to you because you have a spirit of rebellion.”
- "Pastor, the youth director is bringing young boys into the church when no other adults are around." “I don’t have to listen to you because you have a spirit of rebellion.”
Sadly, the last two are real, and not uncommon examples. But you can see how attention is immediately deflected from any concern - trivial or critical - to the person who brings it up. Maybe you've been there.
Chances are that if you have a naturally rebellious nature - if every legitimate expression of authority causes an automatic knee-jerk response of outrage at the violation of your supposed “rights,” you've abandoned this article long since. If that’s the case, you probably have a "spirit of rebellion" in the only sense that is worth considering. But you wouldn’t know that, because I've already made you mad enough to stop reading.
On the other hand, you could be a committed Christian church member, doing your best, who’s been accused of having a "spirit of rebellion" because
- You had the nerve to disagree politely and privately with a spiritual leader's arbitrary decision, or
- You rejected a demand to do something outside the scope of the leader's authority, or
- You pointed out something that was morally wrong or at least looked wrong.
In that case, you may be the victim of a "witch hunt." How do you know the difference?
- Is it your goal to increase your influence and control over the church and its programs?
- Do you have a history of serious disagreements with, not only your current pastor, but also your previous pastors and other authority figures?
- Do you enjoy putting the brakes on the pastor's ideas just to show you can?
- Do you spend more time worrying about your position in the church than you do about your final destination?
If the answer to the questions above is no, you're probably not the person you've been accused of being. But don't take my word for it. Pray about it, and study the relevant Bible passages.
Next time you're unfairly accused of having a "spirit of rebellion" by an authority figure who is overstepping his bounds, tell your accuser that he has a "spirit of arrogation" (which means roughly “overstepping his bounds”). Frankly, I see far more evidence of that in churches that throw around such terms than I see of “spirits of rebellion.”
If nothing else, it should give you time to breathe while he goes and looks it up.
If what should be a mutually beneficial covenant with that person has turned (or has always been) one-sided, and you can’t fix it from your end, remember that your covenant with Jesus is still intact, and that’s the one that counts after all. Which takes you back to the Bible you have likely been neglecting all along. Blow the dust off the cover. Get an easy translation if you need to. Find some like-minded, committed believers to fellowship with. But above all, recognize that your relationship with Jesus can not be broken by false accusations and promise-breakers.
God bless and guide you,
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