Is it possible for a Church of God member to sometimes make an idol out of his pastor or the top leader of the Church of God fellowship or organization he attends? Is it possible? By idol, I mean putting the leader's or pastor's teaching above what God teaches in the Bible. I mean being more loyal to a human leader and the organization he leads than to God.
Is that possible? Could that happen in any of the fellowships and organizations that call themselves "Church of God"?
Does your pastor think it is possible, that some members, somewhere, make an idol out of their human leader, following the human leader that they can see and hear more than following the invisible God? Probably, most pastors know this - they can see it happening in some other organizations, not their own.
Men in ancient times, and some today, often wanted a carved or molded image to look to in order to picture the god they worshipped. Carnal man finds it difficult to worship the true, invisible God, "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24). Carnal man craves something he can see and perceive with his physical senses, such as a physical idol. This is prohibited by the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6). That is human nature.
But we in the Church of God also have human nature. We have God's Holy Spirit, but we still have carnal human nature. Paul admitted he had carnal human nature. "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin" (Romans 7:14). We have to fight our human nature, and God's Spirit within us helps us do that. "For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish" (Galatians 5:17).
Paul sometimes called this carnal human nature "sin that dwells in me". "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me" (Romans 7:15-20).
"I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:21-25).
We are not immune to being tempted to violate any of God's commandments. Jesus Christ was tempted on all points just as we are tempted, but without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Therefore, a temptation to violate any one of the points of God's law, any of the Ten Commandments, can come upon some members somewhere in the Church of God.
Do you think that no Church of God members are tempted to commit adultery, either in the spirit or the letter (seventh commandment)? No, some are tempted to commit adultery. Do you think no Church of God members are tempted to dishonor their parents (fifth commandment)? Some are tempted to dishonor their parents. Do you think no Church of God member is tempted to commit murder, either in the spirit or the letter (sixth commandment)? No, some are tempted on that point.
Do you think no Church of God members are tempted to worship a physical idol, to use a physical representation as an "aid" to worshipping the invisible God (second commandment)? No, some are tempted on that point.
But taking that last example, is using a "holy picture" or a carved or molded image to picture God the only way of violating the second commandment and the only temptation for Church of God members to violate that point of God's law? Perhaps some Church of God members who were Catholic or came out of a denomination that used images may be tempted to go back to using them. But I think there is a different temptation that is more common in the Church.
We see it at work in some fellowships and organizations. Some Church of God members show more loyalty to their COG leaders and pastors than to God and the Bible. They listen to their teachers tell them things that are so clearly wrong and contrary to God's word, yet they accept those teachings as if they are from God Himself. They take the worst kind of spiritual abuse from their leaders, even allowing their leaders to lead them into sin, because they believe their physical leaders whom they can see, hear, and touch more than they believe the invisible God and His word, the Bible.
Why is that? What is happening here?
I think that some Church of God members are making physical idols out of their leaders and ministers just as the ancients made carved and molded images to represent God. These members let their leaders and teachers serve the same purpose, helping them see what God is like, helping them "picture" God, not in the sense of physical form and shape of the face and body, but in the form of teaching. Studying the Bible, believing what God says, crying out for understanding, is too much work for them. They want an easier way. They want their leader or minister to interpret the Bible for them.
But that is not worshipping God "in spirit and truth".
You can see the evidence of this in the errors, not small errors, but serious, character and life-damaging errors, members in some organizations swallow, support, believe, and practice because their leaders tell them to, even when it is very plain in the Bible that those teachings are wrong.
Perhaps those members are not reading their Bibles. Maybe reading their Church's literature, books, booklets, and articles, and listening to sermons has become a substitute for personal, private Bible study. Maybe they think, I don't have to read the Bible cover-to-cover or spend much time reading the Bible because I am reading my Church's literature and listening to their sermons which quote the Bible and are based on the Bible. They may think, if God wants me to know something, He will lead the minister to tell me. Or maybe they read their Bibles, but interpret everything they read to fit the teachings of their ministers.
I will state here that I believe it is common sense, based on the principles of God's word, that we should spend more time with personal Bible reading and studying than with reading any Church of God literature or listening to sermons. Listen to sermons and read COG literature as much as you want, but read the Bible more. If you spend an hour a day reading your Church's literature, read an hour and a half a day of the Bible, for example. That is putting God first.
But it is not the extremist, wayward Church of God fellowships I am concerned with. I am concerned with the members of the "better" Church of God organizations, the ones that seem to be more sound and balanced than most in doctrine, in policy, in doing God's work of preaching the gospel and feeding the flock.
Maybe the leaders and pastors of those Church of God fellowships do not teach their members to make idols out of them and do not want their members to make idols out of them. But nevertheless, can those members be tempted to make idols out of their leaders and ministers, even in the best Church of God fellowships?
Since no Church of God fellowship has a monopoly on human nature, and since Christ was tempted in all points as we are (implying that we also collectively are tempted on all points, including the second commandment against physical images and idols - Hebrews 4:15), the temptation to make an idol out of our minister or leader can be a temptation suffered by some members in ANY Church of God fellowship. That does not mean the leaders and ministers are at fault in encouraging it, just that members have human nature to fight.
A woman is not necessarily at fault because some man is tempted to lust after her. She may be very modest in dress, in appearance, in behavior, but a man may still be tempted to lust after her. The temptation comes from Satan and our human nature, not necessarily the woman. So it may not be her fault.
Likewise, it may not be the fault of a pastor or Church of God leader that some members may be tempted to make an idol out of him or may give in to the temptation and make an idol out of him.
But I think wise pastors and leaders should recognize that the danger exists and actively teach their members to avoid that sin.
To avoid it, they must recognize it. They most know the signs. And their pastors, leaders, and teachers should actively teach members how to recognize the signs that they are making an idol out of their pastor or top leader specifically or the ministry in general.
It is not enough to keep silent about this. If you are a pastor or leader in a faithful Church of God fellowship, think about how members of some extreme Church of God organizations make an idol out of their leader, and ask, could this way of thinking happen here? Could some members be making an idol out of me and I don't know it? Could they be substituting loyalty towards me for loyalty towards God, and maybe they don't realize what they are doing? If I told them to sin, would they obey, putting me in place of God, somehow justifying it by saying, "God must be leading him to tell me this"? If I told them something contrary to the Bible, would they believe me more than the Bible, letting me twist and interpret the Bible for them?
How do you know? How do you identify the problem? How do you teach against it?
This is something worth studying and thinking about. If this problem exists, it may not be easy to spot. Anyone who makes an idol out of his pastor may seem to that pastor to be the most dedicated, hardest-working, most loyal, most faithful, most cooperative, even the wisest member in the congregation. But what that pastor may miss is that all the cooperation with the pastor may be based on personal loyalty to the man, not to God. This can happen. It happens in some organizations all the time. It can happen in ANY organization. It is a danger that is hard to spot.
Even in matters of doctrine, such a member may seem very wise and knowledgable to the pastor or leader, because that member agrees with him.
Consider a lesson from an account in the book of Acts. "Now Herod had been very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; but they came to him with one accord, and having made Blastus the king’s personal aide their friend, they asked for peace, because their country was supplied with food by the king’s country. So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. And the people kept shouting, 'The voice of a god and not of a man!' Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died" (Acts 12:20-23).
Did Herod, say, "I am a god, not a man"? No, there is no record of that. But the people kept saying that, and Herod's sin was that he did not stop them.
Likewise, it is not enough for a minister to avoid telling members, "Be more loyal to me than to God, believe my interpretation of the Bible, believe me more than God, do whatever I tell you to do even if you think it contradicts God's law." You may not say that any more than Herod told the people he was a god. But you are guilty if you let any of your members practice that way of thinking. You have to exercise due diligence, out of love for your members, to prevent that misplaced loyalty. For if that is a temptation for some of your members, to take the easy way of following a man they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, more than they believe and follow the invisible God, to substitute your sermons and your articles for Bible study, and if they succumb to that temptation, then God will know it, and those members will be in trouble with God. If you love them, you will want to prevent that.
You have an obligation to warn them about that, and to teach any members who may have made an idol out of you to be more loyal to God and the Bible than to you and your writings and speaking.
Pastors are to warn both the righteous in their congregations, that they not turn from their righteousness, and the wicked, that the wicked should repent of his wickedness, or the blood of the members will be on the pastor's head. "When I say to the wicked, 'You shall surely die,' and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, that same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand" (Ezekiel 3:18). "Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you did not give him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand" (Ezekiel 3:20).
Also, notice this rebuke from God of those shepherds who do not bind up and heal their sheep: "The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them" (Ezekiel 34:4). If the sheep in your congregation have spiritual problems, you have an obligation to help them, even if they are not a problem for you and others - if they are a problem for themselves, you have to try to help them. And you must actively seek out those who are spiritually sick, and not wait for them to come to you, because they may not know they are sick.
The Bible teaches limitations on the authority of the ministry, and ministers have an obligation to teach those limitations. Silence is not enough. Ministers do not, for example, have dominion over the faith of their members. "Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand" (2 Corinthians 1:24). The faith of the members should be towards God and the Bible, not the Church and its literature. This is something pastors should actively teach.
Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:
The Source of Our Beliefs, Chapter 6
Faith, Chapter 6
God Speaks Through the Bible, Chapter 6
Does the Bible Teach Us to Follow Tradition?, Chapter 6
Should Each Member Promote His Own Opinion?, Chapter 6
Did Mr. Armstrong Point to Himself as the Authority for Belief?, Chapter 6
A Possible Problem in the Church, Chapter 6
Proving the Truth, Chapter 6
Can We Make an Idol out of a Man or Church?, Chapter 6
Organization of the Church and Limitations on the Authority of the Ministry, Chapter 8
Chapter 9 - Repentance