While most Nigerian Christians have heard this statement brandished around, they probably don’t know it is from 1 Chronicles 16:21. We assume we know the meaning of the statement even though we don’t know if it’s in the New or Old Testament.
We commonly use it as a defense for our ministers- don’t call him out or speak that way to him because he is the Lord’s anointed. At one extreme are those who believe you can never call out or “speak evil” about or to a “man of God.” These are the “pastors can’t do any wrong” camp. At the other extreme are those who believe you can say anything to any minister; they are men like us, aren’t they? These are those who make it a duty to find the wrong in anything any pastor says or does.
Sometimes last week, I was reading through 1 Chronicles 16 and came across 1 Chronicles 16:21. Because I was reading through the text systematically (from the first chapter), it was easy to discover this particular text’s meaning. Surprise! Surprise!! It doesn’t say what we have always thought it said. In a sense, it says the exact opposite. “Touch not my anointed” is one of those phrases we all think we know what it says but don’t. Isn’t it obvious? No, it is not.
In this article, I want to consider what 1 Chronicles 16:21 is saying and then explore what the scriptures say about how we relate to the spiritual authority that God has set up in his visible church.
Enjoy the ride (or the flight, if you will).
Who are the Lord’s anointed?
David decided it was time to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. He mobilized the priests and Levites, and they went to Kiriath Jearim to bring back the ark. It was during the journey from Kiriath Jearim that God struck Uzzah (1 Chronicles 13). David was angry with God and left the ark at the house of Obed-Edom (who became the recipient of many blessings).
Later on, after David had constructed his house and a place for the ark, he led another expedition to bring back the ark to Jerusalem, the city of David (1 Chronicles 15). All Israel was in jubilation mood and David more so (even his wife was pissed off by that depth of joy. “Why would a King disgrace himself like this because of an ark”).
He sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings in celebration and appointed the Levites who would minister before the ark. Overwhelmed with joy, David wrote a psalm of thanks to the Lord and gave it to the Asaph-led “choir” (1 Chronicles 16:1-7).
In this psalm of thanks, he extolled God and called all and sundry to remember his wonders, miracles, and judgments. David called men to praise God for his faithfulness to his covenant. He then traced that covenantal faithfulness from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Israel (verses 15-17).
David went on to trace the history of God’s faithfulness to Israel-from Egypt to their wilderness journeys. It was in this context of God’s faithfulness to Israel as the covenant people that he praised God for not allowing any man “to oppress them” and for rebuking kings on their behalf (verse 20). By rebuking kings on their behalf and preventing them from oppressing his people, God was effectively declaring: “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.”
God issued this command (do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm) to the kings (who were potential oppressors). And the anointed ones and prophets are the covenant people- Israel. The reference to oppressors and kings during Israel’s deliverance and wilderness wanderings includes Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan (Numbers 21:21ff).
Therefore, the anointed ones and prophets are not the spiritual authorities God set over Israel but the people as a covenant community. All the children of Israel, traveling through that wilderness, were God’s anointed ones and prophets.
We should not be surprised at this. God already referred to Israel (on the condition of covenantal faithfulness) as a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). Even though there were actual priests who ministered in the tabernacle (the anointed ones – Exodus 29), all God’s people were priests in a sense. It is no surprise that God would refer to all of them as his anointed ones and prophets.
The priesthood of all believers
While the priesthood of all Israelites depended on covenantal faithfulness, the priesthood of all believers in the New Covenant is a fact purchased by Jesus’s covenantal faithfulness. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
John and the twenty-four elders proclaimed that believers are kings and priests (Revelation 1:6, 5:9). Every believer is a king and priest unto God. Like the old covenant people of God, we are all anointed ones.
One of the expectations of the New Covenant is that “no longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:34).
No wonder John, in his epistles, insist “you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth,” his anointing teaches you about all things (1 John 2:20-27). Kings and priests in the old covenant were anointed for service (1 Samuel 10:1, Exodus 28:41). As God’s kings and priests, we have an anointing from him.
Furthermore, this anointing teaches us about all things, which means we know the truth. God’s truth is available to every believer because we have an anointing from God that teaches us all things. What Jeremiah prophesied is now a reality – they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.
Moses once wished that all the people would be prophets (Numbers 11:29). For them all to be prophets, the Spirit of God would have to be on them all. This universal presence of the Spirit of God is a New Covenant reality. Everyone who says Jesus is Lord has the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Anyone who belongs to Christ has the Spirit (Romans 8:9). The possession of the Spirit by all believers is not a second blessing; no one can say Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit.
Because we all possess the Spirit of God who guides us into all truth and teaches us all things, there is a sense in which we are all God’s “prophets” (not in the sense that we receive direct revelation from God but in our duty to declare what God has already revealed in Scriptures). The truth of God is available to us all, and we proclaim it. We speak the word of God to one another (Colossians 3:16, Hebrews 3:13) and proclaim those words to outsiders (Mathew 28:19-20).
We are all God’s possession (Ephesians 1:14), sons (Galatians 3:26), and peculiar people (Titus 2:14).
Spiritual authority among anointed ones
However, though God calls us all as his anointed ones, he has also placed spiritual authority in the church, as he did in Israel. God loves order (1 Corinthians 14:40), which extends to his ordering of his covenant people.
In the early church, there were apostles (Acts 2:21, 5:12ff, 15:6), elders (Acts 15:6, 11:30, 14:23, 16:4, 20:17, 21:18), and prophets (Acts 11:27, 13:1) exercising spiritual authority over the church. There were also deacons assisting in the “serving of tables” (Acts 6:1-6).
There were only twelve apostles and Paul. One of the qualifications for apostleship was a physical experience with Christ in his ministry until his ascension (Acts 2:21). Christ appointed twelve apostles and Paul. This qualification above (physical, personal encounter with Christ) was why Paul went to great length showing that he had a physical encounter with the risen Christ (Galatians 1, 2, 1 Corinthians 15:8, for example). The calling of Paul to apostleship was confirmed by the other apostles (Galatians 2:1-10).
Since the twelve apostles and Paul passed away, we no longer have apostles of Christ. Also, the prophets worked together with the apostles as the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20, 3:5). Once the foundation was laid, the apostles’ and prophets’ work as God’s mouthpiece, bringing God’s direct revelation to the covenant people, ceased.
In their foundational work, they left us with the apostolic deposit or witness that we are now to hold on to and proclaim (1 Thessalonians 4:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6, 14, 2 Peter 3:15-16, 1 Corinthians 11:2). That apostolic deposit or witness is what we now have as the New Testament scriptures.
In anticipation of his death (2 Timothy 4:6-8), Paul instructed Timothy to teach the word. The apostles and prophets have brought the revelation of Christ; after them, the church leaders are to teach the word and pass on the apostolic deposit. Paul gave Timothy instructions on appointing elders and deacons in the churches (1 Timothy 3).
In his letter to Titus, he commanded him to appoint elders in all the churches. When Paul anticipated that he would not see the Ephesians again, he called the elders and gave them important instructions regarding the church’s health (Acts 20:25-31).
Once the apostles and prophets had laid the church’s foundation, the church’s spiritual authority (in the post-apostolic period) was primarily centered on the elders. They are the ones who “direct the affairs of the church” (1 Timothy 5:17). They are the overseers over the church, the Shepherds of God’s flock (1 Peter 5:2).
The ministry of the deacons also continued in conjunction with the elders (1 Timothy 3).
The point of all the above is that while we are all anointed ones, God still has people he calls to spiritual authority over the church. That is, the church is not a direct democracy. In the apostolic period, the spiritual authority included apostles, prophets, and elders (deacons have a serving rather than a ruling function, but to the extent the rulers delegate tasks to them, they have a kind of indirect authority). In the post-apostolic period, they are the elders (again, the authority of the deacons is delegated/indirect)
(Elders are synonymous with bishops/shepherds/pastors/elders/reverends in current parlance)
Our attitude towards spiritual authorities
Remember that our interest in this article is to examine two opposite trends in how we treat “men of God”- the “touch not my anointed” camp and the “who cares if he is a pastor/elder/bishop” camp.
While we have established that 1 Chronicles 16:21 is not about “men of God,” so to speak, does it mean we can treat spiritual authorities with a cavalier attitude?
1 Timothy 5:17-20 contains some useful pointers.
Verse 17 informs us that “elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” Paul pointed to the OT instruction about the ox to reiterate the need for elders (especially those who preach and teach) to be well compensated. The ministers’ proper remuneration was also a concern in 1 Corinthians 9, where he quoted the same OT text.
(In churches that still hold to this NT ideal, there is a body of elders that govern the church. The pastor is a member of the council of elders who has the preaching and teaching role, vis a vis 1 Timothy 5:17. Since these elders are lay elders-they have vocations outside the church-only the preaching and teaching elder-the pastor-gets remuneration)
Consequently, the proper remuneration of elders (especially those who preach and teach) is a duty we must faithfully discharge.
Verse 19 says something very important: “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses.” Elders occupy a sensitive position where their reputation is important (1 Timothy 3:7). Therefore, other elders cannot tolerate an accusation against an elder without the proper judicial requirement – two or three witnesses.
(In the NT, churches had multiple elders presiding over their affairs rather than a sole minister who takes all the decisions without accountability to other people with the same level of authority)
An elder’s reputation cannot be dragged in the mud by gossip or a solitary accusation. This judicial requirement goes back to the OT judicial procedure (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15, 18). You can’t believe every accusation against an elder without the proper judicial foundations. Elders are not to entertain charges against another elder without the basic requirement of two or three witnesses.
One implication is that believers cannot jump on every accusation against an elder without this basic requirement. Similarly, elders, like everyone else, are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. We cannot prove them guilty in the court of public opinion or assume that they are guilty without a proper adjudication process.
In verse 21, Paul urged Timothy to “keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.” For the believer, it is the truth that matters. We don’t pander to clichés like “believe all women” or assume that the rich and influential person is always the guilty one. Paul’s admonition reminds us of Leviticus 19:15: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” Social status or gender is not necessarily a truth factor (the poor and lower class are not immune from original sin). Showing favoritism to the poor is something (contrary to our assumption that the poor are always the victims), and it is as evil as showing it to the rich.
What is this proper adjudication process? If it’s a matter without legal ramifications (the civil authority does not need to get involved), the adjudicator is the church under the authority of the other elders. They are the ones to entertain the accusation (if it meets the basic requirement) and pronounce a guilty or not guilty verdict.
If the issue has legal ramifications, the civil authority also has interest and authority in the matter.
The point of the above is that comments and accusations on Twitter or Facebook do not count. “Everyone thinks he is guilty” is not the same as “he is guilty.” Whatsapp, Facebook, and Twitter are not adjudicators. One thousand likes or shares does not equal one witness in biblical accounting.
We must never join the “crucifixion,” whether online or offline. Our desire for truth and justice must triumph over our desire to be trendy, join in the conversation, defend the church, or “have our say.” Virtue signaling is a thing, a dangerous thing for believers. We are God’s children, and we live by the standards of his word, online and offline (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Verse 20 teaches us how to deal with elders who are found to be guilty: “those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” Though this text may have a wider application, the immediate context (verses 17-19) shows that the elders are the primary referent.
Elders can be rebuked publicly, but only for sins they actually commit. The rebukes can be done in a way that others take warning.
It’s important to state that the above applies to cases where an elder has been accused of some moral improprieties (say a lady accused the elder of raping her or someone accuses him of “chopping” the church’s money).
If an elder, for example, teaches heresy in a Facebook post or curses someone in a tweet, we don’t call the other elders of his local church to determine if he actually thought or said that. Unless his account was hacked (which is a possibility and one more reason why we should not be hasty), he did teach or said that.
In those cases, the thousands and millions of us who saw the posts are more than enough witnesses. Here we are not making an accusation but pointing to a tweet or a post. While the elders of the church are the ones who can discipline him for such teachings or statements (if it is a matter of church discipline), he is already out in the open.
Paul confronted Peter for acting out of line with the gospel (Galatians 2:14). I guess here is also the place to say that Mathew 18:15-18 (if your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you …) applies to private offenses (sins against you), not to public ones. Private sins should be treated privately, and public sins can be treated publicly. (Read this article by D.A. Carson for more on this point)
The elder that taught heresy on Facebook can be confronted, and the one who cursed in a tweet can be cautioned, and that publicly. An elder hurting my feelings on a visit to his home (private) is not the same as preaching heresy on a pulpit or saying something nasty on Facebook (public).
I can critique his post or sermon without sending my critique to him first. I may send it, but I don’t have that obligation. Public errors can be publicly addressed.
Some other commands
1 Timothy 5:17-20 is not all we have. Hebrews 13:17 commands us to obey our leaders and submit to their authority so their work may be done in joy.
Hebrews 13:7 also admonishes us to imitate the faith of our leaders. Paul told the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). We should learn to imitate the faith and faithfulness of our spiritual leaders. Imitating such faith and faithfulness begins with recognizing them. But for some people, using the word pastor and faithfulness in the same sentence is taboo. We must not be in this camp.
Here is 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13: “Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.”
We are to hold our ministers in the highest regard and acknowledge their labor. This command to honor ministers extends beyond the church’s elders to include missionaries and evangelists who don’t have direct spiritual authority over a particular local church. Paul, giving instructions about Epaphroditus, a fellow missionary, admonished the church to “welcome him in the Lord with great joy and honor men like him” (Philippians 2:29).
Believers must treat their elders and all gospel workers with honor and respect (remember Mathew 10:41 and Mathew 25:31-46)? Together with us, they are God’s anointed ones, but God demands that we hold them in the highest regard based on his calling on their lives.
We can’t make it our duty and calling to always find opportunities to drag our leaders like generators. We are to hold them in the highest regard and imitate their faith/faithfulness. If you never find anything to imitate or hold in regard but everything to critique, something must be wrong somewhere.
There is a section of believers who don’t have respect for elders (I am careful of using pastors because not all elders are pastors in our way of using the word “pastor”). They jump on any and every accusation against a pastor, like gossip blogs. They are glad when a pastor shows a moment of weakness. The fact that a pastor even earns money from the church is a reason for rebuke in their books.
The above attitude is ungodly. We must desist from it. We must honor the leaders God chose over us. Let’s desist from entertaining gossips and accusations without two or three witnesses or presume them guilty before any adjudication.
However, some think pastors can’t be wrong, and any attempt to say they are is unrighteous. It is this view that is unrighteous. Paul told us that elders could be guilty, and they should be rebuked. They can also be guilty of public sins that require a public response.
But Paul told us that “if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Galatians 6:1). If elders sin, they should be restored to the church (restoration to the ministry is another thing entirely).
Paul issues an important warning here-“but watch yourself, or you may also be tempted.” Restoring others should be done in the spirit of humility that recognizes our sinfulness. Hypocrites are quick to identify others’ sins. The self-righteous Pharisee is quick to latch on to every word and deed. But those whose hearts have been transformed by Christ reflect that Christlikeness even when they have to correct others. They do it in love for the offender, God, and the church; they do it with humility. Humility means thoughtfulness, carefulness, commitment to the facts, and the absence of impetuousness.
Every believer is God’s anointed and prophet. God has called us into Christ and given us his Spirit.
As he binds us together in local churches, he appoints spiritual leaders over us. Though we are all God’s anointed, God “anoints” some people as elders in the church.
God has commanded us to honor such men, imitate their faith, pay them for their work, and hold them in the highest regard. We should not entertain accusations against them without two or three witnesses.
However, when they do sin, we must deal with such sins as God has commanded in his word.
God’s anointed, priests, and prophets must learn to live and do everything in obedience to the scripture, including how they relate with spiritual authority.