Jesus Christ leads His Church. He is the head of the Church, which is His spiritual body (Ephesians 5:23). All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18). He is in charge. This is what many ministers and leaders of Church of God fellowships often remind the membership.
But does He force us to obey?
Are we still free moral agents?
Do we all follow Jesus Christ, every member, every minister, every evangelist, every leader of a Church of God fellowship or organization?
Jesus Christ certainly is the head of the Church. That is exactly what the Bible says, and a minister can state that without fear of contradiction. But when it is said in the context of the authority of the leadership in an organization, if there is no further explanation of how that authority works, that statement can blur the distinction between what Christ does to lead the Church and the responsibility of the ministry to make right choices. It can blur the distinction between the direction Christ points the Church and possible wrong choices the human leadership might make.
Just because Christ is head of the Church and its ministry does not mean that the ministry is not free to choose between right and wrong. It does not mean that the ministry does not make mistakes. It does not mean that Christ endorses every decision and teaching of the ministry. It does not mean that Jesus Christ endorsed Joseph Tkach's teaching that observance of the seventh day Sabbath is no longer required under the New Covenant, for example.
It does not mean that Christ is always happy with the direction the ministry and members in His Church may be going.
Paul compares Jesus Christ as head of the Church, His body, with a man being the head of his wife. "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything" (Ephesians 5:22-24). Does a wife always obey her husband? Not in this physical life. As the bride of Christ after the Church is resurrected, we will no longer have human nature to struggle against, and we will obey Christ perfectly. But not in this life. And I am talking about converted, spirit-filled members and ministers. Besides those, there can be tares - unconverted people among us - even in the ministry (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). If converted members and ministers can make mistakes and wrong choices (and they can), how much more will unconverted tares make wrong choices?
Look at the messages from Christ to the seven churches in Revelation. He rebuked most of them for various sins and mistakes, and some He rebuked seriously, calling the church at Sardis "dead" and the church of the Laodiceans lukewarm, blind, and naked, and He told them He would vomit them out of his mouth (Revelation 3:1-3, 14-19). The leadership of these churches did not always make right choices, and they needed to repent of some of the choices they had made. And in some cases the membership needed to avoid following the mistakes of their ministers. Yet Jesus Christ is head over all seven of those churches because all seven churches were part of His spiritual body.
Now imagine a leader or evangelist or president of the Sardis church, or the Laodicean church, making serious mistakes, and justifying his wrong choices and decisions by saying to his congregation, "Christ is the head of the Church."
My point is, Christ does not lead the Church by force. He lets us make mistakes, sometimes serious mistakes. And if we make mistakes and bad choices, we need to repent and not justify our mistakes by saying that Christ is in charge.
This life is our training ground for the kingdom of God. Christ is primarily concerned with testing us and teaching us lessons. And sometimes, if we are inclined to go in a wrong direction because we do not really trust Christ and believe the Bible, Christ will let us go in that wrong direction so we can learn lessons from the painful results. He does not always stop us.
Ministers and members will also sometimes say that Christ puts members in the body where He wants them, quoting (1 Corinthians 12:18). This is true, but again, some who say this can use this to justify their choices, choices that in some cases might be a mistake. Christ can put us in one organization or another in response to our own choices, choices that may be wrong. That does not remove the responsibility we have to repent of our mistakes.
When Worldwide was going through doctrinal change, one member told me, "This is where God put me," or in other words, because God placed him in Worldwide, he was determined to stay, even after the doctrines Mr. Armstrong had learned from the Bible were completely abandoned.
Christ can put us into a fellowship by guiding us, through the Bible and through His Spirit, as we obey Him and strive to believe and live by every word of God. He can also lead us to leave a fellowship the same way. But it is our responsibility to be responsive to His leadership by believing and obeying the Bible and being submissive to God, His law, and the principles and ways of God as taught in the Bible. If we are not responsive to Christ, He may let us go in a wrong direction to learn the consequences, for our own good in the long term.
We need to respect the office of those in authority where we attend. But we must also be alert to Christ's guidance if He should lead us, through the Bible and through His Spirit, to see that it is God's will that we leave and attend elsewhere.
More to come...
Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:
A Brief History of the Scattering of the Church, Chapter 5
The Cause of the Church's Scattered Condition, and the Solution, Chapter 5
When and How to Judge, Chapter 5
Focusing on the Bible, Chapter 5
Will the Whole Church of God Re-unite?, Chapter 5
Can We Make an Idol out of a Man or Church?, Chapter 6
A Summary -- the Nineteenth Truth, Chapter 6
Church Government, Chapter 7
How Is the Church Organized?, Chapter 7