How many times have we heard that? After all, Paul wrote that, didn’t he? Preachers often emphasize the need to follow Christ and to follow the “minister” only as he follows Christ. Then, in the same message, they say something that completely destroys their message and, in some cases, exposes their true motive. Leaders who are seeking a following will tend to give a strong sermon about following Christ and then provide a false test for the listeners to apply to the leader as proof that he is God’s servant to be followed.
At a recent Feast of Tabernacles, a Church of God leader was giving that exact message. After lightly bantering one of his preachers by saying that he was going to send him to Nome, Alaska, he said, “I’m just kidding brethren. We don’t operate that way. If we did, God would remove me. I sincerely believe that, brethren, God would remove me.” So, the test we should employ to see if we should follow this leader or not, is whether God has removed him or not! And since he is still where he is, then, obviously, we should follow him! In light of past and recent history, when has God removed a leader who was not following Christ?
A tragic example happened back in the ‘70’s. Jim Jones used these same tactics before he took all his followers to Guyana which ultimately ended in a mass suicide. Jones literally stood on the Bible and challenged God to strike him down if he were not God’s chosen servant. Since God did not strike down Jim Jones, the people followed him to their useless and tragic deaths by drinking poison at Jim Jones’ request.
Another modern Church of God leader says this about following. “...Be followers of God along with men who are themselves also following Christ.” “...We cannot be true Christians without following a man.” And “...men will be somewhere between God and us as long as we are human....” So, what is it that we are really supposed to do regarding this topic of “following”? After all, didn’t Paul say, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ”?
There is a human tendency in the vast majority of people of wanting to follow. Most people want to follow another individual or group or belong to some group, organization or cause. Life is easier and there is less work if you are a follower of some group. One does not have to think as much or take much responsibility in leadership. This is exhibited in many areas such as employee relations, unions, causes such as pro-life or pro-choice, political parties and especially in the area of religion. We need to examine this area of religion and examine what our Christian responsibility is regarding the topic of following.
Paul wrote in a number of places regarding “following”. He wrote, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” Also, “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.” Again, “Brethren, be followers together of me,...” and, “...ye became followers of us and of the Lord....” And finally, “For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us.... but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.” (See 1Cor 11:1; 1Cor 4:16; Phil 3:17; 1Thess 1:6; and 2 Thes 3:7, 9, all KJV.)
Does it not seem that Paul is making it quite plain that we are expected to follow him?
Jesus Christ himself gave similar exhortations. He said to one of his disciples, “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” He told Matthew to “Follow me.” He told his disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Jesus even told one wealthy individual, “...sell that thou hast,... and come and follow me.” (Matt 8:22, 9:9, 16:24, 19:21.)
We can’t go wrong by “following” Christ in any respect, right? So what’s the difference in the concept of following Christ and “following” a man?
There are four different types of “following” mentioned in the New Testament:
The first type of “follow” is the Greek word “dioko” which means “to pursue, to seek after eagerly, earnestly endeavor to acquire”. This is used primarily for following after, in the chasing sense or pursuing after virtue and good things. The following scriptures all use this Greek word “dioko”: “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another” (Rom 14:19). “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts,...” (1Cor. 14:1). “But thou, O man of God, Flee these things [previously listed evils]; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness” (1Tim. 6:11). “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
These scriptures are quoted from the King James Version (AV or KJV). The New King James Version (NKJV) uses the word pursue in place of the word “follow”. Further study will show that these verses also contain the Greek word “dioko”: Romans 9:30-31; Philippians 3:12,14; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 2 Timothy 2:22; and 1 Peter 3:11.
This type of “following” that we are to implement in our lives is quite emphatic. We are to pursue or follow, with a high degree of priority, things like peace, love, spiritual gifts, righteousness, godliness and holiness. In one case, “dioko” is used when referring to the following of a man. “And they shall say to you, See here; or, see there: go not after them, nor follow them” (Luke 17:23). This “pursuing after a man” or “following a man” is obviously expressed in a negative way.
We are not to pursue after a man, but rather we are to pursue after godly traits.
The second type of “follow” comes from the Greek “mimeomai” or “mimetes” which means “to mimic” or “imitate” or an “imitator”. This is the word Paul used in all the examples quoted near the beginning of this article: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1Cor 11:1). “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me” (1Cor 4:16). “Brethren, be followers together of me,...” (Phil 3:17). “And ye became followers of us and of the Lord,...” (1Thes. 1:6). “For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us:.... but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us” (2Thes 3:7, 9).
In all of these examples, most other translations and versions render “follow” as “imitate” or “follow my example”. For additional study on “follow” when it means “to imitate”, examine these scriptures also: Ephesians 5:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 6:12; 13:7; 1 Peter 3:13; and 3 John 11.
Paul did not want anyone to “follow him”. In every case where Bible translations tell us to “follow” Paul, the Greek meaning is, “Follow my example or imitate me as I follow Christ’s example and imitate him.”
The third type of “follow” comes from the Greek word “opiso” (opisw) which means “to the back”. This connotes getting behind or follow from behind. This can also mean, “to go off in order to follow one, to join one’s party”. “Opiso” is quite commonly translated as “walk after”, “come after” or “go after” someone or something. This word fits the concept we have today of following someone in the corporate, political or military realm or even as children play “Follow the Leader”. This would also describe the natural human tendency of wanting to follow as mentioned earlier in this article.
Here are some examples in scripture which use this Greek word: “But chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness...” (2Pet 2:10). “Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh...” (Jude 7). “For some are already turned aside after Satan” (1Tim 5:15). Gamaliel was reviewing some recent history to the council and said, “After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him...” (Acts 5:37). Paul, speaking to the elders of Ephesus, said, “Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). Jesus said, “Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and the time draweth near: go ye not therefore after them” (Luke 21:8).
These are examples of following the leader, of joining the group or getting behind some leader or cause. This is a common human tendency whether it is for good or bad. Now, there should be a degree of this type of following regarding our following Christ. Christ told Simon and Andrew, “Come ye after me...” (Mark 1:17). James and John responded to the same call and “went after him” (v. 20). Jesus also said, “And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).
It appears that this type of “following” is only appropriate when it is Jesus we are “following”!
There is another aspect that is overwhelmingly emphasized in the scriptures which is the final and fourth type of “follow”. It comes from the Greek word “akoloutheo” (akolouqew) which means “to be in the same way with, to accompany”. This signifies a “come with me” or “walk with me” approach. This is the most common type of the translated word “follow”. Jesus Christ used this quite often when talking to his disciples and others: “Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead” (Matt. 8:22). “And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him” (Matt. 9:9). “And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him” (Mark 1:18). “Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matt. 19:21). “And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples followed him” (Mark 6:1). “If any man serve me, let him follow me...” (John 12:26).
Jesus was not asking for his disciples to just get behind him or the cause that he stood for as if to join his political party. He was desiring them to accompany him, to walk with him or to go in the same way as he was going. Jesus spoke of this same concept regarding his sheep. “But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers... My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:2-5, 27).
Christ’s true sheep recognize his voice and walk with him in the same way. We should be humble— no doubt of that—but we shouldn’t just get behind him like dutiful little subjects. We should walk with him and accompany him!
In light of all this, Jesus makes a very powerful statement: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, ‘If any man will come after (opiso) me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow (akoloutheito) me’” (Matt 16:24; cf. Mark 8:34; Luke 9:2). What Jesus said was that if you wanted to exhibit the common human tendency of joining a group or backing some cause and apply it to him, you would then need to do more than just join the group. You would need to deny yourself, take up your cross and walk with him in the same way - accompany him -walk with him, not behind him!
There is a degree of independence here. God does not want a bunch of mindless, following automatons in his Kingdom. He wants individual, thinking beings full of the character of God capable of deciding and discerning what is right and wrong. This is a powerful statement by Jesus Christ. He wants us to be with him at his side. We are brothers and co-heirs with Christ.
Many today, as they have in the past, exhort their followers to follow them as they go forward in some mission or crusade. They use many of the scriptures above as they gather their following and support. Many of these causes and works are noble, right and Biblical. With this being the case, and now that we understand more of what the Bible teaches regarding the concept of “follow”, how should we “follow” these men in their causes?
It is very human to want to be a part of a group following certain ideals, concepts or causes. It’s easy to let some leader be in the forefront making the decisions and taking the responsibility. All one has to do is “follow” or get behind the leader. This is not to say that this tendency is always bad. It is neither good nor bad. But it can be a weakness if we do this in our lives to avoid responsibility. The number of places in the Bible this concept is used is more often shown in a negative light rather than a positive one.
We have also seen that Paul never asked, told or commanded anyone to “follow” him. In the places Paul appears to be asking for that, we have seen that what he actually wants is for us to follow his example or imitate him.
Let’s say you and I have been good friends for years and one day you read in the Bible that you are to keep the Sabbath day holy. The next time you see me, you show that to me. If I am convinced and do likewise, I will follow your example or imitate you. That does not mean that I am “following” you or “going after” you.
That’s what Paul was saying when he said, “Imitate me, even as I also imitate Christ” (1Cor 11:1). Paul did not once ask for anyone to get behind him to follow him as he went about his agenda. He asked people to imitate the good examples of himself, other leaders and even anybody.
It’s obvious that if we want to be a disciple of Christ, we do have to get behind him and follow him (Luke 14:27). But is that all that Jesus Christ wants? Does he want us to just get behind him and follow him as he goes about his agenda? Not at all! The overwhelmingly emphasized aspect of following what Jesus wants us to do is for us to join him. He wants us to walk with him at his side and not behind him. He wants us to accompany him! Each of us has to learn to take responsibility for ourselves and others in the church. We all have to take responsibility in learning and knowing what the Bible says. After all, it is the Bible that sets doctrine, not some man.
Two very serious problems arise when people follow a man rather than understanding the proper aspect of following and implementing it correctly:
In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul fought the negative effects of people wanting to just follow a man. Paul condemned this kind of activity. The church at Corinth was split up into contentious little groups, each claiming to “follow” or “get behind” their particular leader whether it was Paul, Apollos or Peter. It was because of these contentions and splits that Paul said he could not talk to them of deep spiritual matters. He could only talk to them on a carnal level. They were mere babes in Christ and could only be fed with milk and not meat (1Cor 3:1-2).
What did Paul say regarding this behavior? “For you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not carnal?” (1Cor 3:3-4, NKJV hereafter).
These people were following different leaders in the “get behind” sense. Paul said that kind of activity is carnal! After all, the natural, human tendency is carnal (Rom 8:7).
Paul attempted to straighten the church members out: “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1Cor 3:5-7). “Therefore let no one glory in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1Cor 3:21-23).
Paul made it perfectly clear that this human habit of “following” different men is nothing but carnal. He showed that he, Apollos, Peter and any other leader were just fellow workers, servants serving God’s temple. It is God and Christ that we are to look to. If we focus on God and Christ, we will then, and only then, be able to leave the carnal behind and move on to spiritual meat. Once those people got caught up in that behavior, they were no longer receptive to true spiritual meat. Acting carnally obviously affects your spirituality.
Following a man today is still carnal.. The churches of God are all divided up into smaller groups. Many are contentious, each following their own particular man “as they follow Christ”. What has that produced? It has produced envy, strife and divisions among the different branches. This does not undo the good that has been done in all these groups (Christ said good things about congregations with problems in Revelation 2 and 3).
But the good doesn’t undo this problem. Are we, in today’s advanced, modern church age, spiritual? All too often, we are still carnal! As we “follow” our own particular man, as we get behind him “as he follows Christ”, we all still end up acting carnal. One aspect of this trap of carnality shows up this way: on one hand they say to themselves and others that they are following Christ and not the man—then on the other hand they will extol their leader for various reasons and put down most all of the other ones. This, in actuality, is following a man and not following Christ. Is this the way we are to act? Is this spiritual? Paul emphatically calls it what it is: It is CARNAL!
Another aspect of this trap of carnality shows up this way: people, after much inner turmoil, will finally face the fact that their current leader is very wrong and possibly corrupt. They take the big step of leaving the fellowship of this one group and join another group following another man. Many of these people then extol this new leader and, at the same time, refuse to look at the actions of this new leader with the same critical eyes. Again, they are now following a man and not following Christ. Is this spiritual? Again, it is carnal! We have got to stop following these men and put aside all these problems so that we may go on to spiritual things.
Problem #1 that arises when men follow a man: People remain carnal and do not develop spiritually.
Adam and Eve demonstrated another big tendency of mankind when they were confronted by Satan and had a choice as to whom they would obey: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:6, 8). From that moment Adam and Eve wanted to hide themselves from God. They did not want to deal directly with God. They pushed him away.
When God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, what was their reaction to God speaking directly to them? “Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, ‘You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die’” (Ex. 20:18-19). The people there did not want to deal directly with God, either. They preferred to follow the man Moses as he followed God!
Samuel was judge over Israel and his sons were more interested in dishonest gain, bribes and perverted justice. “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make for us a king to judge us like all the nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ So Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them’” (1Sam. 8:4-7).
God then had Samuel tell the children of Israel all the evil things that would occur — all of the oppression — from any king they chose for themselves (1Sam 8:9-17). And then, God told them through Samuel the result of putting a man between themselves and God — the result of choosing themselves a king: “And you shall cry out in that day because of your king which you shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day” (1Sam 8:18).
But, like so many people in the turmoil of God’s church today, the children of Israel wanted to “follow” a man: “Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; That we may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles” (1Sam 8:19, 20). How much like these people we are today! Many people don’t think it’s a “real” church, unless they have a “minister” to tell them what to do and to “fight our battles” for us.
Apparently, the children of Israel (as do many of us today) felt that they were still too close to God and wanted to conform completely to the world’s way of doing things. They were much more comfortable following a man and submitting themselves to a man’s government than taking the personal responsibility to follow God’s way, submit to him and stay close to him.
Problem #2 arises when men follow a man: “Following” a man puts distance between us and God!
When a person follows a man (as a spiritual leader) he is putting that man between himself and God. He is in actuality replacing God in his heart. What usually comes with the leader is some form of government. That government becomes an important fixture in the organization. What does God say about this?
Now some of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me. And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity. Should I let Myself be inquired of at all by them? Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Everyone of the house of Israel who sets up his idols in his heart, and puts before him what causes him to stumble into iniquity, and then comes to the prophet, I the LORD will answer him who comes, according to the multitude of his idols, that I may seize the house of Israel by their heart, because they are all estranged from Me by their idols.
Therefore say to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Repent, turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations. For anyone of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from Me and sets up his idols in his heart and puts before him what causes him to stumble into iniquity, then comes to a prophet to inquire of him concerning Me, I the LORD will answer him by Myself’ ” ’ ” (Eze 14:1-7).
God severely criticizes people for setting up idols in their hearts. I’m sure that they did not think that they were setting up idols in their minds, as do many today, but that is what happens when you start following a man in place of God. It does not matter who it is whether it is Billy Graham, the Pope at Rome or Herbert W. Armstrong. By following a man, an idol is set up in the heart. That’s why Paul or any other apostle never once told, suggested or even hinted that anyone follow them.
That’s why Jesus overwhelmingly emphasized that we get away from this “follow” mentality and begin to walk with him and accompany him.
So, what is the proper approach that we in our different groups should take?
All of God’s people are different and we all view the Bible a bit differently from each other depending on our backgrounds, experiences and what we see in life. We all have the basics, the fundamental elementary principles of Christ (Hebrews 6:1-2). We all understand that God’s law is important. We all have a basic understanding of who and what God is. We also know that God’s ultimate plan for man is indeed a wonderful and incredible plan. We also know that we, as members of Christ’s body, have some kind of work to do today. We look into the Bible and see that it tells us to preach an Ezekiel Warning, to feed the flock, to go into the world and make disciples, or to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God till the end comes. But what happens? We each put an emphasis on different parts of the work depending on how we see it. We then align ourselves with others who see things the same way.
We, as a group, then think that how we see it is more important than the way other groups see it, even though they may all be Biblical. A competition begins to develop to gain support for a certain emphasis. The leaders begin to stress “follow me, as I follow Christ” as they collect their following. Other members then exercise their natural human tendency by joining a group that closely suits their particular way of seeing things and end up following some man. We now have a situation not unlike the Corinthian one. Are we all spiritual? No, “for you are still carnal...” (1Cor. 3:3).
The real shame in all this belongs to the leaders themselves! They encourage this kind of carnal behavior. Many of them stress an importance of following them and not the others. They compete for the brethren as if they were prizes to be won. They describe how their organization is better and in so doing they often put down other groups.
They often boast about growth while playing the numbers game. They end up keeping the brethren restricted to milk, preventing them from going on to meat. They keep them on the carnal level instead of bringing them along to a more spiritual state. Occasionally there is a leader who does not worry about building an organization, who is not interested in power or position and who actually feeds spiritual meat to any who will listen. Such men are few and far between!
Another angle occasionally used by some who are building their own following is the misapplying or twisting of this scripture: “And Jesus called a little child to him, set him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt 18:2-3). It is often said about this passage, “You are to have the faith of a little child - the innocent, trusting faith that little children have. After all, you will need that to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But is that what the Bible says? “Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:4). The childlike trait that we are to have is humility not faith! The faith a child has is a blind faith, not a Christ-like faith. This is an entirely separate subject, nonetheless, men who use this tactic are twisting scripture to make it seem to support their “follow-me” appetites.
Obviously, the first thing we should all do is to stop following men! We have seen that nowhere does the Bible command, encourage or even suggest that we follow any man. The only individual we are to follow is Jesus Christ.
Joseph Thayer defined our following Christ as, “to cleave steadfastly to one, conform wholly to his example, in living and if need be in dying also.” “And he who does not take his cross and follow (akolouthei) after (opiso) me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:38; cf. 16:24; John 12:26, 21:22). Jesus used both Greek words here. Nowhere are we told to give this kind of allegiance to a man! Christ said that we are all brethren (Matt. 23:8). We have to realize that we are all a part of the body of Christ. We must also realize that the work of God is diverse. If it’s in the Bible, it is of God. All of these different aspects are important.
God does not tell us which is more important than the other. He does not prioritize one aspect over another. So, who are we to say which aspect is definitely the most important? Most will say the aspect they focus on is the most important and will back up their position with some form of Biblical reasoning. There is nothing wrong with doing what you understand to be best. We all have to prioritize things in our lives. However, to say we understand God’s will for everyone else is extremely presumptious. It is not our position to criticize or condemn someone else’s priorities if it is also Biblical. In this context, we must remember that God sets the members in the body as it pleases him (1Cor 12:18).
Secondly, if you find a group that is following the Bible, and you agree with the emphasis they place on doing God’s work, then support it with your time, service, prayers, tithes and offerings. But don’t follow the man or the group. Imitate any good examples that you see. Pursue righteousness. Be involved and work with the group. Do not be afraid to support other works if they are also doing a work of God. Walk with Christ.
Thirdly, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Take control of your life. Fight against the tendency to just sit back and let others make decisions and take responsibility for you.
We all have to stop being carnal and begin being spiritual. We have to go on to perfection, moving on from spiritual milk to spiritual meat. Let’s do this as we all pitch in to do God’s work. There is so much to do and so little time in which to do it!
© 1995 by Norman A. Brumm, III
410 Lightfoot Ct, Canton, GA 30115