By James A. Wilson
I received a Facebook forward from a friend of an aphorism from Bishop TD Jakes. It reads, “When you are a giraffe and you receive criticism from turtles, they are reporting the view from the level they are on.” I admire Bishop Jakes, but this is easily interpreted as, “When lowly servants have a problem with lofty leaders – and say so – they reveal themselves as unappreciative of their betters.” The Church of Jesus Christ spends an awful lot of time and attention making that crippling and downright damning mistake.
Reality is giraffes are distinguished by long necks that are easily lopped off, an absence of vocal chords rendering them wordless, and inability to eat leaves below treetop level; they never get down to the fruit. Turtles are among the most resilient animals God created. They plod along – the hare and the tortoise come to mind – and are so difficult to kill they live a long time after their very hearts are ripped from their bodies. They wait for the fruit to come to them, at the level they occupy. Native Americans of virtually every tribe are so impressed with the enduring qualities of the turtle they call North America Turtle Island and themselves the people of Turtle Island. My money is on the turtles.
I confess I grow wearier each day of hearing some pastor, prophet, bishop or apostle touted to be a third, fourth or even fifth generation holder of that office, and somehow credible because of that. There is no mention in scripture – not one – of pastoral or prophetic DNA passing down the generations. Great doctrinal battles were fought over this issue from colonial times to the present day and the conclusion – if three Great Awakenings and countless revivals teach anything – is that God has uncountable children but not a single grandchild, much less great grandchildren. If these leaders rate respect – and many do – it is because they speak the word-already-spoken by God, not because their ancestors spoke it.
The same absurdity rears its head when we speak of academic or even spiritual pedigree in the Church. Going back to the Old Testament we find prophetic voices like Isaiah and Joel descended from priestly families with the training to match. But we find equally authoritative voices emanating from the mouths of Amos and Elijah, two country boys without pedigree, called by the Lord as they did the mundane jobs of their earthly calling. It does not matter what or where we obtained our degree, or our credentialing. The only thing that matters is whether we speak the recognizable – by the Holy Spirit – Word of the Lord.
The Lord could care less about the size of a congregation; His work is done effectively in all sized and shaped – and denominationally backgrounded – gatherings. He makes clear He is impressed not by how many programs we run – or how many pews we fill – but by the wounds we dress and the feet we wash. He finds wounds dressed and feet bathed in congregations of thousands and dozens and single digit gatherings – and says as much when He washes the feet of His closest friends on the night before His death. And the corker is giraffes can scarcely see the ground, let alone reach down to bathe ground level feet; it takes folks of turtle height to bathe their brethren and love them into a new day.
Another great doctrinal battle was fought in the fifth century and apparently needs revisiting. Back then a leader named Pelagius began teaching human perfection – through human effort – was possible. He claimed Jesus’ perfect humanity as the proof, ignoring the saving dynamic of Cross and Resurrection as the only essential for righteousness and abundant life. To make matters worse, this teaching buttressed the already budding elitism in the Church, grounded of course in standards for perfection set by the already self-satisfied. Of course this teaching flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching about leadership by foot-washing and acceptable worship only in Spirit and in Truth. Paul elaborates on this reality when he writes, “Not many of you were wise by human standards…(nor) influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish…the weak…the lowly…and the despised…so that no one may boast…”
Pelagius’ teaching was condemned as heretical – nonsense – before the middle of that century. The practical outfall of elitism is the death of vision and creativity followed by social, cultural, and spiritual decline. Unfortunately Pelagius’ descendants are resurgent today; we see their faces every time we are told we cannot appreciate people who just live on a higher level than the rest of us.
No army in history has known the unbounded and unbroken success of the Israel Defense Force. Hounded and hunted by enemies exponentially larger and wealthier, they have never lost a war against enemies so bent on their destruction their first loss will be their last. The IDF has an officer corps and chain of command like any military organization; orders given on the battlefield are obeyed. But the lowliest private is expected to question strategies and orders outside the cauldron of battle because God’s chosen people know stripes and epaulets do not necessarily confer wisdom. IDF members are concerned with getting it right, not with the rank of who claims to have it right. This attitude spills over into the private sector and accounts for the high level of innovation and incredible success of the Israeli economy despite few resources and unrelenting pressure from a world of existential hatred for them.
From a human perspective giraffes are far more impressive than turtles. However – meaning no offense to Bishop Jakes – my money is still on the turtles.
James A. Wilson is the author of Living As Ambassadors of Relationships, The Holy Spirit and the End Times, Kingdom in Pursuit, and his first novel, Generation – available at Bounty Books or at firstname.lastname@example.org