Some of our worship services are so self-conscious that consciousness of God is hardly possible - show-business productions where excitement is the watchword, success is the goal and Jesus Christ is not the superstar.
In organization, we have wedded business and church and brought forth a religious corporation with a basically unworkable system. Preachers and elders are in positions that almost inevitably lead to conflict, power struggles, and disappointed expectations.
Preachers are expected to function as pastors - shepherds - while denying that they are pastors, and members are careful to avoid calling them pastors. (For all our talk about "the truth," many of us see labels as more important than reality.)
Elders - who are to be called pastors - are expected to function in absurdly contradictory roles regardless of their abilities or limitations. They are expected to be shepherds in a corporation or executives in a sheepfold. Shepherd-type elders who can't manage are criticized; management-type elders who can't shepherd are criticized.
Usually, the elders' number one responsibility in the church is hiring, firing, or supervising a preacher. They try to hire an expert who can juggle all the jobs; who is willing and able to shepherd the sheep, preach the Word, organize the corporation and keep it solvent. Elders then are considered to be his bosses and advisers - licensed backseat drivers who tell the preacher how to do what they admit they can't do themselves.
If the preacher goes along with their advice and it doesn't work, the preacher gets the blame for the failure. If he doesn't go along, he's criticized for not being in subjection to the elders.
The sheep always hear the voice of the functioning shepherd. If that happens to be the preacher, the sheep are accused of being preacher-lovers who rebel against the "authority" of the elders.
Some members meekly and dutifully pray: "Help us follow the wisdom of our elders" as though men were given sudden, miraculous wisdom at elder-installation ceremonies. (We're supposed to ask wisdom of God.) Or they pray: "Help us unite under the leadership of our elders." (We're supposed to unite as disciples of Christ.)
Trying to live up to this mystique of pope-like authority can be a burden and a strain on humble men. But some become imperious and virtually put themselves in the place of Christ or thoughtlessly allow others to do so. Both preachers and elders can be corrupted by the power thrust on them and forget to remind themselves: "I myself also am a man."
As sheep, we should follow the right shepherd. As the body of Christ, we should take directions from the right head. As a kingdom, we should honor the right king.
If all we are is a corporation, we need efficient executives to run it. If show business is our legitimate work, we need talented performers and smooth masters of ceremonies and innovative producers. If we're strictly a system of law and tradition, we need more Pharisees to fiddle on our roof.
But if we are truly sheep, we need shepherds patterned after the Good Shepherd, not bosses or public-relations men or super administrators. We need to be taken care of, kept safe from wolves, led beside still waters and in paths of righteousness that honor the Lord's name and not our own.
The ones who seem best able to follow the true shepherd without confusion are saintly, silver-haired ladies and a few others who are left out of the political scene - who care nothing for power, money, prestige, or appearances and think of lime else but devotion to God and service to others.
I'm not one of those who follow without confusion, and I long sometimes - not courageously - for a simpler life in Christ. Again and again I face familiar contradictions and define problems without seeing solutions. They are problems that pull often at my roots and have a profound, life-disrupting effect on me and my family.
I'm in a quandary shared by many others, judging by the weeping, angry, bewildered sheep who recurrently bleat into our telephone and at our door. Sheep and shepherds alike are suffering.
Lovers' quarrels are very painful. God help us all.