I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was talking with a very wise and experienced man of God seeking advice concerning some people who had recently been walking in rebellion. As I asked his advice on how to handle their repeated and increasingly brazen acts of rebellion, I will never forget his response — “Pray for them!” He said this in a very serious tone, and with an even more sobering look on his face. He went on to share the sad tales of a number of church leaders with rebellious hearts who had left his church to start churches of their own. After they rebelled against the authority God had placed in control of the church, each of them unknowingly sailed off on a course that shipwrecked their journey of faith. I’ll spare you the depressing details, but here is the bottom line. The first one is no longer in ministry, but is now selling aluminum siding, and as of last report his daughter is a prostitute. The second example he shared had suddenly died at a rather young age of a strange lung disease. And the third one has had to undergo repeated surgeries, and the church they started has dwindled down to a couple dozen people. He told a few other stories but the conclusions were always the same — the tales of those who embraced rebellion always ended with terrible spiritual shipwreck. As he shared the stories of the sad fates of these spiritual rebels, I heard no “serves them right” attitude in his voice. Quite the contrary, his voice was filled with a sad, fatherly disappointment that those who had once ministered alongside of him had reaped so bitterly for the rebellion they had sown.
God Judges Rebellion
These stories are not some strange and unusual occurrences. In the Word of God, we find story after story where God judges rebellion quickly and severely. If we examine the Exodus story about the people of God leaving Egypt and going into the Promised Land, we can glean valuable lessons about how seriously God takes rebellion. First of all, it is interesting to note how differently God treated rebellion compared to other sins. In the desert Israel tempted God ten different times by murmuring, and they doubted God five times. All this saddened God but was quickly forgiven. However, when rebellion arose, God stepped forth quickly and powerfully to bring judgement. Let us look at just a couple of examples.
In the twelfth chapter of the book of Numbers we see Miriam and Aaron speaking words of rebellion due to jealousy. “Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman); and they said, ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?’” (Numbers 12:1–2). It seems Miriam was disappointed and jealous because Moses’ wife had supplanted her place of influence with Moses and perhaps, to some extent, her self-perceived position as the “leading lady” of Israel. Aaron had a pliable character (remember him making a golden calf at the people’s request while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments?), and went along with his older sister in the rebellion. But God knew that it was Miriam who held the jealousy and rebellion in her heart. Miriam’s protest sounds rather egalitarian. “God is looking for a holy people, not just a holy person. We are not called to be just a one man show. God doesn’t speak just to Moses. He’s also used us prophetically.” What Miriam failed to understand in her accusation against Moses was that having a gift does not necessarily result in having authority, and we should never try to use our giftings to apprehend authority.
How often this happens in the Church. Someone who has been in leadership and whose gifts have been used by the Lord to bless many, suddenly finds their influence decreasing, or things not going the way they think they should. With that, the cry goes forth, “Does the Lord only speak to him (them)? Doesn’t He also speak through others, like me?” But notice God’s speedy and strong response to this type of rebellion. “And the Lord heard this … At once the Lord said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, ‘Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you.’ So the three of them came out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud; He stood at the entrance to the Tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When both of them stepped forward … The anger of the Lord burned against them, and He left them. When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam — leprous, like snow” (Numbers 12:4–10). Miriam got leprosy and then had to spend seven days separated from the rest of the congregation all because she let jealousy and a desire for influence breed rebellion in her heart. It is important we learn the lesson God expected her to learn, “Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Numbers 12:8). We must honor those God has placed in authority and use the gifts He has given us to work with them, not manipulate them.
You would think that God’s quick and clear judgment of Miriam would have made the camp of Israel a “rebellion free zone” from that point on. But once again in Numbers 16 we see rebellion rearing its ugly head. The story begins by explaining that Korah, who was Moses’ cousin, incited a rebellion against Moses. He did this with the assistance of a couple of other men, and the backing of “two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation” (Numbers 16:2). “They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3). Against Moses and Aaron the accusation went forth, “Who do they think they are? Why are they so puffed up? We’re just as good as them!”
This was all said under the guise of “Remember, every believer is part of God’s holy nation.” But the true motive was once again jealousy and control. The Levites were not satisfied with serving God in the Tabernacle and ministering to the people. They wanted to have the authority God had given to Moses and the position of Aaron, whom God had appointed to minister unto Himself.
There is nothing wrong with aspiring to become greater in the kingdom of God. In 1 Corinthians 14:1 God tells us to eagerly desire spiritual gifts. And 1 Timothy 3:1 gives us this trustworthy statement: “if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” Wanting to be able to do more to advance the kingdom of God is a noble desire. The problem arises when we try to make ourselves more by tearing down or undermining those God has placed over us.
This is what happened in Korah’s rebellion. Instead of steadfastly seeking God so that they could come into a closer relationship with God, serve Him more fruitfully, and walk in more of His authority, they accused the most humble man on the earth of pride, and demanded Moses and Aaron give them what only the Lord could supply. Once again they misunderstood the fact that though God wants to speak to every believer, not every believer is given the authority of Moses or the position of Aaron. We all have direct access to God, but God grants authority and positions in the Church at His discretion. When we reject or rebel against them, we are really rejecting God’s leadership and rebelling against Him! “... whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:2 ).
This short-lived rebellion in Numbers 16 had a dramatic conclusion. “So the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the congregation, saying, “Get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”’ … Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods. So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit; the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly” (Numbers 16:23–33).
Rebelling Against Authority
Obviously God takes rebellion very seriously, but what exactly is rebellion? The word “rebellion” is defined as: “an act of defiance toward any authority, often designed to cause the overthrow of the ruling authority.” God not only shows us in the Bible that He judges rebellion harshly, He tells us clearly that He judges all who resist authority. “The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who walk according to the flesh in the lust of uncleanness and despise authority. They are presumptuous, self-willed” (2 Peter 2:9–10). God especially reserves judgment for those who despise authority — those who embrace rebellion. He sees them as arrogant and self-focused.
If we want to see rebellion as God does, all we have to do is look at 1 Samuel 15:23, “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry.” If we examine this verse in Hebrew, we find that the words “as” were added to help bring clarity. Unfortunately, they do not really bring clarity to the verse at all. They simply water it down. This verse literally says: “Rebellion is witchcraft.” Most Americans, including many Christians, like to think of themselves as independent and having “a little rebellious streak.” But no true disciple of Christ wants to be guilty of practicing witchcraft. Yet that is exactly how God sees rebellion!
If rebellion is so repugnant to God and so devastating to those who embrace it, why don’t those in church-leadership address and correct it — both for the sake of the body and the ones in rebellion? Generally, it is because most rebellion (especially in the early stages) is not open. It is hidden and subtle. Open rebellion, which clearly and publicly declares its feelings, is easily reproved. When rebellion is brought out in the open, it allows confrontation and challenge, which can result in conviction, confession, and change of heart.
I remember when someone with a rebellious heart shared with me about a certain church leader who they felt was operating under a “controlling spirit.” After listening long enough to be certain of what they were implying and to understand where their heart was, I replied, “I don’t think they’re operating under a controlling spirit. After all, they don’t need to cooperate with a spirit of control. God’s already given them the authority. They’re in control.” After a brief discussion, they repented of their judgmental and rebellious attitude.
Satan knows that direct rebellion is easily identified and quickly repulsed by God. After all, having been the first one to openly rebel against God and face judgement for it, he should be an expert on the subject. Satan seems to have learned his lesson. His scheme these days is to draw us into subtle, indirect rebellion. He does this through a careful strategy of questions and statements. When Satan asks a question, it is not to gain information — he has a definite agenda. His questions are meant to demean authority and create doubt about the character or motives of those in authority. Listen to the question the serpent asked Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). In this question it is implied that God is harsh and holding out on us. At other times, the enemy will bring forth statements (often laced with a strong dose of truth) that are designed to deceive and lead astray. These statements are carefully crafted to get us to tolerate a “baby step” of rebellion, to come into some measure of agreement with him.
While this subtle type of rebellion may at first sound relatively weak and ineffective, listen to what Gary Ezzo, the author of Growing Kids God’s Way, has to say about hidden rebellion: It is the hidden, unspoken defiance that causes the most harm. Open rebellion is both easily identified and can easily be addressed. But hidden rebellion subtly waits, giving the impression of submission while all the time being rebellious in the heart.”
Rebellion — The Wedge Of Division
The enemy is willing to work diligently to develop rebellion in our hearts because it is a powerful weapon of division. Consider the following scenario which, unfortunately, is common across the Church. At first we see a body of believers walking in love and unity of purpose. They have great vision from the Lord, and as a body they are walking in His purposes and advancing His kingdom. Yet just a few years later, we find the church has split, and both sides are weakened and hurting. What once appeared to be a vibrant body of believers is now two broken, hurting congregations. How could this family of faith be fragmented into two separate, disunited groups? The enemy snuck a wedge of rebellion into the hearts of some in the congregation. With each affirmation of that rebellion, with each rebellious comment, the wedge of division was driven deeper until at last what was once unified has now been split apart.
Unfortunately, the problem does not stop there. When a group of people leave a church in anger or disappointment and pioneer a new ministry with rebellion in their hearts, the entire group of people have just been taught by example that they can dishonor God’s authority and rebel against leadership. Now those in leadership of this new church have something very sobering to face in the future. There will come a point in time when some of their congregation are going to respond to them in the same way they responded to the last leaders. And the cycle of rebellion will be reproduced all over again.
Growing A Rebellious Heart
Growing a rebellious heart that divides a church takes patience. Normally it must develop step by step over time before it bears its deadly fruit. This is how it evolves: What you tolerated yesterday you will accept today, and embrace tomorrow. The seed is planted by an act of rebellion or a rebellious statement that may even outwardly shock you or cause you to step back. The secret to getting the seed of rebellion sprouted is for you to tolerate it. Perhaps you are in a small group and you decide not to confront this rebellion because of the woundedness of the one expressing it. Maybe while you are at a restaurant after a service you choose to overlook a critical, rebellious discussion because the ones sharing are those who have been such a blessing to you, and you can clearly see so much caring and so many wonderful gifts in their lives. Or, perhaps there is a problem in the church and someone calls you aside to discuss it. However, something about the spirit of the conversation does not glorify God, and you sense an element of rebellion in it. But you are afraid to address it because you might be seen as the one who doesn’t believe the best about others. The enemy will use mercy, appreciation, or fear — anything he can muster — to get you to tolerate the seed of rebellion he wants planted in your heart.
If you are surprised but not appalled when you encounter rebellion, and you tolerate what you should confront, you will end up moving into the second step, which is accepting rebellious thoughts and actions. Once you tolerate rebellion in others, it becomes easy to cross the line to where you begin to accept it in yourself. Now when someone says something rebellious you sympathize with the rebellion. “After all,” you reason, “they do have a valid point, and I can understand where they’re coming from on that issue.” This begins to happen even if they are speaking in a way that is disrespectful to leadership and violates the law of love. You begin to give more honor in your heart to the rebellion than to those in leadership. Eventually, you will not only sympathize with the rebellious attitudes, you will begin to defend them. Perhaps it starts when you applaud someone who is speaking rebelliously because they are expressing courageously what you feel needs to be expressed; what you really would like to say but are afraid to. After all, somebody was just being bold enough to lay it on the line and “be real” the way you have been wanting to. But up until this point you have held back both because you felt it was wrong and you knew it could bring consequences. You know your acceptance of rebellion is well established when somebody does finally speak up against all this rebellious talk, and you find yourself defending it.
The last step on this dark journey down the path of rebellion is when you actually begin to embrace it yourself. At this point, the rebellious thoughts are not only justified and defended by you, they have become part of you. If they remain unchallenged for long, you will eventually consider the rebellion you are part of not only correct and appropriate, but God’s leading — “the Word of the Lord.” Your heart will declare, “It’s really no rebellion at all. It’s more of a revolution for reformation!” At this point hidden rebellion has led to deception and open rebellion is operating in your life. If unrepented of, it is certain to lead to spiritual shipwreck.
The good news is that God is uncovering rebellion in these days — even the developing rebellion still hidden in our hearts — so we can overcome this scheme of the enemy. How do we overcome rebellion? We do this by uprooting, through repentance, every rebellious seed that has taken root in our hearts, and then sowing seeds of submission in their place. While you were reading this, was the Lord gently pointing out any area of your life that needs to be taken care of? Ask the Holy Spirit to examine the garden of your heart and root out every rebellious weed. “God, I don’t want rebellion in me. Show me any area of rebellion I have embraced, accepted, or even tolerated. I am sorry for any way I have despised authority in my life. Forgive me for making room for rebellion in my heart. I ask You to uproot it and remove in completely. Give me a heart of ‘zero tolerance’ toward rebellion. Amen.”
The place in our hearts filled with rebellion is designed by the Lord to be occupied by submission. To remain free of rebellion we must do more than repent of rebellion; we must also embrace submission. Submission is the spiritual inoculation that protects us against rebellion. We know from James 4:7 how to make the enemy flee. “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” But remember, it does not matter how hard you are resisting the devil if you have not first submitted to God. And we are only fully submitted to God when we submit to those God has placed as authorities in our lives. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). This call from God to submission to those in authority includes the elders (pastors) who God has called to oversee the local church that you are part of. Listen to the Bible’s exhortation on this found in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.”
Choosing to submit to the authorities God has placed over our lives does not guarantee that we will have perfect governors, pastors, spouses, parents, or bosses. But Jesus told us to be obedient and submissive even to bad leadership (see Matthew 23:3). While this may not always be easy or enjoyable, it does mean our lives will be obedient to God as we honor those He has called us to honor. This will give us many opportunities for humility and reliance upon God, while putting us in right standing with the Lord and protecting us from sailing into spiritual shipwreck. May the prayer of our hearts be: “Lord, help us to keep our hearts properly submitted to every authority you have put in place, whether we like them or agree with them. We choose to honor them and not accept any attitudes or actions that disrespect them. Help us to walk this out every day of our lives, that we might be a people well-pleasing to You, who have Your favor and display Your love and Your glory. Amen.”