Discerning When to Follow People or Not

Church history is littered with examples of how we as Christians are followers and identify our behaviours or beliefs according to the person we follow. That’s why we have Calvinists, Arminians, Lutherans, Hutterites, Mennonites, Wesleyans, and so many more. They’re all named after a leader. But how can we discern who we listen to?

On the positive side, labelling ourselves is a convenient way to identify us or others in terms of beliefs and behaviours. But on the negative side, it has also been the source all throughout history, of many quarrels, fights, divisions, and even deaths!

Remember 2 Timothy 4:3, “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear.” 

Paul chastised the Corinthian church for divisions. “For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. Some of you are saying, ‘I am a follower of Paul.’ Others are saying, ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Peter,’ or ‘I follow only Christ.’ Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not!” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13).

When one of you says, “I am a follower of Paul,” and another says, “I follow Apollos,” aren’t you acting just like people of the world? (1 Corinthians 3:4)

Conversely, Paul also said, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 KJV).

Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. (Philippians 3:17)

Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. (Philippians 4:9)

 So I urge you to imitate me. (1 Corinthians 4:16)

For you know that you ought to imitate us. (2 Thessalonians 3:7)

How do we discern when to become a follower of someone or not? Is it OK to be a Swindollist or a MacArthurite today?

Here’s what the Bible says about not following people. It tells us, “Don’t put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there” (Psalm 146:3). Unlike God, even powerful people are frail and dying.

Scripture tells us that following people just because everyone else does is unwise because the crowd is often wrong (Exodus 23:2). Following people of bad counsel can cost us much (1 Kings 12:1–19; Proverbs 28:19–20).

Finally, following false religious teachers harms the cause of Christ and brings about spiritual damage (2 Peter 2:1–10). We need to always exercise discernment so that we recognize and reject leaders who teach false doctrines or model bad behaviour.

We should never blindly follow or totally depend on people just because they are great leaders or have great ability or charisma. All people, even the best of us, are subject to constant limitation and error of judgment. We shouldn’t become so enamoured with gifted people that we think they themselves could meet any of our real needs.

Here’s what the Bible says about following people. First and foremost we are to follow the example of Christ (1 Peter 2:21; Ephesians 5:1) just as He follows His Father’s example (John 5:19).

So why not just follow Jesus rather than following imperfect spiritual leaders? The answer is because the Bible teaches the necessity and the benefit of human example and leadership in God’s church. While we must never follow people instead of God, we must be discerning when to follow the example of those who follow God.

We are to respectfully follow and honour our leaders in the body of Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13; Hebrews 13:7, 17) and they are instructed to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1–3). An example is someone to be followed, a pattern. All God’s people should recognize their need for some person wiser and stronger to teach us and to show us how to live in matters of conduct and service. 

We are also to follow the example of godly Old Testament believers—people like Job, Elijah, and others in being patient, persevering, and prayerful (James 5:11–18; Hebrews 11). We are to make Paul a pattern for our lives (1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:7–9; 1 Timothy 1:1) and follow the example of other believers in their generosity (2 Corinthians 11:9). In short, we are to follow the examples set by godly people, past and present.

Biblical precepts teach us what things are our duty, but examples assure us that they are possible. When we see frail and flawed people like ourselves in control of their passions and overcoming the most glittering temptations, we are encouraged in our walk with Christ. This is the beginning of discerning when to follow people.