The Folly of Release Theology

“It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.” (Psalm 118:9)

There is a peculiar teaching among some Christians, and particularly among some Christian circles, concerning what I will call “release theology”. This theology states that your pastor is your ultimate authority when it comes to spiritual things, and he has the authority (given by God) to either let you do something or not. If he says “no”, and you proceed anyway, then you have transgressed against the Lord, because your pastor is “The Lord’s anointed”.

This expression, “The Lord’s anointed”, is first found in 1 Samuel 16:6, when the prophet Samuel thought to himself, prior to anointing king David, “Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD”. It is used, therefore, to refer to kings of Israel, but it is never used in the New Testament to refer to church leaders. Yet many church leaders see nothing wrong with assuming the title for themselves.

One problem I have with this is that, first, the New Testament clearly warns us about false teachers. Paul said, when leaving the church at Ephesus, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). Again, Jesus warned us in Matthew, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

If my pastor’s teachings and instructions are beyond questioning, then I have opened the gate wide for such a “false prophet” (or “ravenous wolf” as Jesus would call him) to begin to systematically destroy my life. I know, and God knows, that people are not infallible and do make mistakes. Some (like these “ravenous wolves”) are downright mischievous. If I cannot question the teaching presented to me by my spiritual authorities, I have become mindless in my faith. I might as well close my Bible and just “follow orders”. Contrast this with the Berean believers who studied the Scriptures daily to see if what their spiritual authorities taught them was true or not (Acts 17:11).

Thankfully, Christianity is not mindless. Christianity is not a military parade as demonstrated by some kings of Israel. It is not a “do this or you die” type of thing. Rather, it is a relationship with God himself, as Father, on the basis of what Jesus did for us in dying on the cross. There is a huge difference between a king of Israel and a church leader. Yes, we are, in the Biblical sense, “soldiers” of the Lord (2 Timothy 2:3). But no, our commander is not our pastor, it is Jesus himself! And the way he leads is far different than any earthly king, too! For example, Jesus said, “the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.” (See Luke 22:25-27)

What then of “release theology” which says that your pastor is “The Lord’s anointed” and must be obeyed before you can do certain things? I think one needs to be very careful. As I read the Bible from cover to cover, I do not see a picture of Christians as being those who are controlled by one single person, but as those who are ultimately controlled by God himself. Yes, God uses people like pastors and church leaders and others to help us in our faith walk. But no, I do not see God as giving us leaders who are there to control us. The wise Christian leader, in my opinion, will “back off” when it comes to trying to control people, because he knows that his mandate is not to control, but to provide a safe environment where people can grow and be nurtured in the Lord.

If you fear that you are in an environment where you are being controlled by your leaders, perhaps I can offer you a few diagnostic questions to help you discern whether your current church is the right one for you or not. First, do you feel that you are being given a chance to grow and use your spiritual giftings? The correct answer is, of course, “Yes”. Second, do you feel pressured to give money or else you don’t meet the pastor’s (or God’s) approval? The correct answer, which may be surprising for some, is “No”. Third, do you feel like you are not able to leave your current environment without obtaining the approval of your pastor? The correct answer is, you should feel the liberty to leave whenever you want, but as a courtesy, it would be nice to thank your current pastor. Remember, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17), and if you do not have the liberty to find another church without first obtaining permission, you must seriously ask yourself whether the spirit of the Lord is present at all.

On this last note, receiving a pastor’s “permission” to leave, versus his “approval” to leave, can be a fine line. If you feel like you require his permission to leave, then you may possibly be involved in a cult situation, which would extremely unhealthy and spiritually damaging to you and your loved ones. If that is the case, you would want to politely excuse yourself from that situation, and pray for those who are still caught in it. If the pastor is truly mature, then leaving to go to another church should not be a problem at all. I have seen a pastor use 1 John 2:19 (“They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”) in an attempt to make those who were leaving his church look bad. This is sin and downright bad exegesis.

On the other hand, if you decide to leave a church in favor of another one, a pastor may approve or disapprove; either way, you are entitled to your opinion, and if, in all sincerity, you believe God is calling you to move on, then you are entitle to do that. Do not fear moving on, and, remember, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, But with many counselors they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22). Note that this verse does not say, “one counselor” (meaning your pastor), but “many counselors” (meaning many God fearing Christians, pastors included). This is where the “rubber hits the road” with regards to “release theology” and those who expound it. They would say that your pastor has “ultimate authority”, and must formerly “release you” before you can move on, but by saying that, they are opening the door wide for abuse, and once again, there is no basis in the New Testament for such a belief structure. Paradoxically, you would usually only find a “release theology” like this present in churches where a controlling spirit is present.

Finally, a pastor may wisely use his spiritual authority to speak blessings over his flock, by “releasing them” to carry on with the Lord’s work, thus releasing them from fear and the disapproval of others who might otherwise try to keep them suppressed. A wise pastor will use the authority that has been entrusted to him by God, to teach his congregation that the Lord is One to be followed, and not man, and by so doing, will help his flock to put their trust and confidence in the One that it truly belongs to. It is he, the Lord, and not man, who is the true “Anointed One”, who is worthy to be followed, which is what the word “Messiah” (Hebrew) or “Christ” (Greek) means. He is the one, the Bible declares, before whom “every knee will bow” and “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-12).

“Do not trust in princes, In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Psalm 146:3)

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Scripture verses are from the NASB (New American Standard Bible).