Thursday, April 18, 2024

Does questioning an "anointed" person lead to spiritual ruin?

I recently heard a prominent preacher say the following:

Here’s the thing. You have to be careful that you do not criticize people who have the anointing of God on them. Better to say nothing. Because what happens is, once you begin to criticize somebody who has the anointing on them, you’re in the flesh. And once you’re in the flesh, then you’re moving toward unbelief. And once you move toward unbelief, then you live a barren life spiritually. And that’s the danger. See, you can go out of here...chattering, and what happens is, it poisons your spirit, and it leads you to a place of unbelief.

Pastors, televangelists, and modern-day "apostles," when someone raises legitimate concerns about their doctrine or actions, will frequently warn those asking questions to "touch not the Lord's anointed." Not touching the Lord's anointed is a phrase we see frequently in the life of David, especially in the book of 1 Sameul in the Old Testament. But to paraphrase the film The Princess Bride, "You keep using that phrase. I'm not sure it means what you think it means."

Biblical Evidence

Since the Christian life is based on God's revelation of himself as recorded in Scripture, let's take a look at where these words are actually used in the Bible. 

In 1 Sam. 16:13, the prophet Samuel anoints David to be the next king, after Saul's miserable failure to obey God's command to utterly destroy the Amelekites. This anointing was a physical, observable act, that eyewitnesses knew took place. It was indisputable that David had been anointed to the kingship. (It wasn't a matter where someone gets goose bumps when the soloist hold a sustained high note, and decidee because of that the singer must be "anointed.")

"This day you have seen with your own eyes how the Lord delivered you into my hands in the cave. Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, ‘I will not lay my hand on my lord, because he is the Lord’s anointed.’" 1 Sam 24:10 

David here refuses to take matters into his own hands to take Saul out and assume the throne by the common practice in the ancient world of intrigue and regicide. God had made a promise to David through Samuel, and David was trusting God to bring it to pass in God’s time. 

In 1 Sam. 26, David keeps one of his soldiers from physically harming Saul and taking his life. Note that this does not necessarily keep David from criticizing Saul for what he was doing chasing down David to do him harm. David could still speak out against Saul's actions; he simply refused to resort to violence and murder (which would have made him no better than Saul, and would have put David in the place of taking the throne by force instead of having God place him on it).

After Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle by the Philistines, we see in 2 Sam. 1:14, 16  that David reprimands and executes the man who killed Saul when the king was wounded in battle. This was about physically harming the anointed king, not criticizing what Saul did or said.

Now, looking back over all of 1 Samuel in general, at all the occasions when Saul tried to kill David, David never once retorted with “Touch not the Lord’s anointed!”  And David definitely and irrefutably was the Lord's anointed, and many people were aware of it. Yet David never used that phrase as a threat, but rather made it his own practice not to do harm to the previously anointed king Saul.

"Saul Attacking David", Guercino, Oil on Canvas, 1646

In 2 Samuel chapters 2, 3, and 5, the people have anointed David as king of Judah (2-3) and all Israel (5), ratifying what Samuel had done in David’s youth. This was not some ethereal, mystical anointing that David claimed for himself, or something people attributed to him because of his person charisma, but rather a public ordination to service as the leader of God’s people Israel.

In 2 Sam. 12, the prophet Nathan confronts David over what he did in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah. Nathan even acknowledges in this exchange that God had anointed David (v. 7), but that doesn’t stop Nathan from rebuking (criticizing) the king for his actions. Does David say, "Hey, I'm the anointed of God. You better watch yourself!"? Not at all. Rather than doubling down and defending himself, David cries out in repentance, which we see expressed in Psalm 51. 

In 2 Sam. 15, Absolom tries to take over the kingdom, and David flees Jerusalem with those who are still loyal to him. Instead of taking the Ark of the Covenant with him to show God was on his side (as the ark represented God’s presence among His people), he sends Zadok the priest back to the city with the ark of God, saying, “If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again” (v. 25). David did not presume that God was automatically backing him just because he had been duly anointed.

Next, in chapter 16, Shimei, a man from the same clan as Saul’s family, hurls curses at David, pelting the king and his officials with stones. Shimei wasn’t simply criticizing or questioning God’s anointed king, he was verbally cursing him and physically assaulting him with rocks. Did David cry out, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed!” and order his men to arrest or kill Shimei? Not in the least. When Abishai offers to cut off Shimei’s head, David responds, “If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’” and, “Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to” (2 Sam 16:10-11). No warnings to Shimei about not touching the Lord's anointed.

When David’s troops go out to fight Absalom’s army, which have caught up to David’s position east of the Jordan River, he tells his soldiers to “be gentle with the young man Absalom, for my sake” (2 Sam 18:5). Here is David’s own son trying to kill his father and seal his own claim to the throne, yet David does not claim that his son is somehow cursed for trying to “touch the Lord’s anointed.” When Joab, one of David’s chief commanders, kills Absalom and David finds out, he goes into mourning for his rebellious son (2 Sam. 18:33). He doesn't say, “See! That’s what happens when you oppose someone with God’s anointing on their life!” 

The Oft-Cited Psalm 105:15

Psalm 105:15 is often quoted by people who consider themselves God’s “anointed.” (This same Psalm is recorded in the narrative of 1 Chron. 16). It says, “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.” But remember that a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want to make it say. If we look at that verse in its actual context, it is talking about God’s preservation of His people from the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, down to the Exodus and wilderness sojourn on the way to Canaan. Verses 14 and 15 together say:

He allowed no one to oppress them; 

for their sake he rebuked kings:

“Do not touch my anointed ones;

do my prophets no harm.”

This command to touch not God’s anointed ones isn't about the people of Israel questioning the king or the prophets (or in our contemporary context, church members voicing reasoned critique of church leaders' teaching or actions), but rather is at the kings of other peoples who would have harmed Israel during their journey. The modern application would be that God warns the worldly powers against harming His chosen elect, the church, which is all true believers, not just some elite leaders.

What it Means Today

Was Paul in the flesh in Antioch, when he confronted and criticized Peter, who was one of the preeminent early church leaders, one of the Twelve who had walked with Jesus throughout His earthly ministry and been named an Apostle by Christ? No. He was addressing an instance of spiritual hypocrisy that threatened to derail the inclusion of gentile believers as full members of Christ's body.

Was Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk in the Roman Catholic Church, operating in the flesh when he questioned and criticized the practices approved by the Pope, the duly elected leader of that religious body? No, he was pointing out error, compromise, and corruption of the biblical message that existed in the church of his day. 

Individuals, especially church leaders, should be extrremely cautious about claiming the title of "anointed" for themselves. According to 1 John 2:20, which says:

But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.

all Christian believers are anointed. The “you” there is plural ("y'all" where I live), referring to all the believers in the group of Christians to whom John is writing. The Spirit gives different gifts and abilities to different indivifual members of the Body of Christ, but they are all anointed. 

So if a person in a position of leadership or authority in the church wants to use "touch not the Lord's anointed" to deflect scrutiny or criticism from himself/herself, then he/she should think twice before criticizing another Christian who has no special rank or position. If we were to consistently interpret that phrtase the way so many people try to use it, then any correction or discipline in the church would be impossible, since all believers are anointed.

But we know from Scripture that correction and discipline in the church are ordained by God. So that phrase simply cannot mean what many seem to think it means.


In reflecting on this some more after posting it, I believe it is a fear among the people in a church around asking questions or voicing their concerns that often allows leaders who may start out well to end up with a prideful attitude, to the point of abusively shutting people down with claims of being "God's anointed." Someone with a legitimate question or concern about a teaching they hear may not feel free to ask it, thinking, "Well, Pastor Smith went to Bible college (or seminary), and I don't have enough training to even know how to ask the question correctly, so I'll just keep it to myself." Or, "Pastor Jones has been in ministry a long time, so she must know what she's doing. If there were any real issues, I'm sure one of the other leaders would have pointed it out, so it must just be me."

The thing is, there may be multiple people with the same concern, each one assuming it is just him or her that has the doubt. And each one of them may actually be sensing a prompting from the Holy Spirit to say something. But each one feels ill-equipped or inafequate, so the question never gets asked, and the concern never gets raised, And because no one ever questions, the pastor or leader may think everything is just fine, and go on assuming they are correct. 

If the pastor or leader never has to submit their ideas to others for review (be it a board of deacons or other elders, someone higher up in the structure of the church governing polity, or even just getting honest feedback from various members of the congregation), they can start to get a sense that God speaks only to/through them. Later, when someone does raise a question or bring a point of critique, they interpret it as an attack on their leadership, knowledge, or person, and begin to threaten that God will punish the person for "touching God's anointed." 

Now, I'm defintely not advocating for a "ministry of questions/critique" to keep pastors and leaders from getting the big head and feeling untouchable. But I am saying that when you have what you feel is a legitimate question or concern, you should not be afraid to voice it in the proper manner and with a proper attitude. 

Questioning or bringing a critique isn't in and of itself being in the flesh and falling into unbelief. In fact, failing to raise a question or concern could truly be the act of unfaithfulness, especially if that concern has arisen from time in the Scriptures and prayer and reflection. After all, our ultimate loyalty is to God and His revelation, not to any human leader.

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