We wanted to be gurus. We wanted a tribe. We may have never said this out loud. Instead we would have pontificated about our calling to leadership and passion for ministry. Then the temptation came. We were presented with an opportunity to have the very things we wanted. Years ago, we found ourselves in a room of leaders and influencers of a “movement” within the church we had strong affinity with. We stood out in the room for one simple reason: we were young. It was the combination of our youth and our education that drew the attention of the organizers of the gathering. They pulled us aside after the meeting to express their enthusiasm about our future within the movement. They spoke of the perilous position the movement was in since it depended so much on luminaries who were in the twilight years of life. What would happen when they passed away? Who would people follow and attach to? How would the movement be sustained? It was a subtle recruitment, but the hard sell was soon to come, “you can be the next leaders of the movement, the figure heads, the primary voices.”
It was only by the grace of God that we refused this offer and identified it as a temptation. In many ways our hearts were enticed by what seemed like a quick and easy path to becoming gurus. What we came to see clearly was that gurus couldn’t replace the leaders who were stepping off of the stage, because they were not gurus, but sages. They were listened to because they spoke with wisdom that was cultivated over a lifetime of faithfulness to Christ and his way. They had no aspirations of forming a tribe of followers; their ministry was simply the Spirit-led-outcome of their faithfulness in the kingdom. It was the wisdom and beauty of these leaders’ ministries that helped us see how profoundly superficial our desire to be gurus really was.
Six years ago we discerned a unique and specific call of wisdom in our lives. Lady wisdom demanded our attention in a manner neither of us could have anticipated. Over the past six years we have traveled around the world to sit with seven sages of the Christian faith: Jean Vanier, Dallas Willard, J. I. Packer, Marva Dawn, James Houston, John Perkins and Eugene Peterson. Each of these sages embodied wisdom uniquely, but common among them was a sturdiness of character, a mind formed in the knowledge of God, a heart attuned to the Spirit’s leading, and an unwavering joy.
“So, you traveled the world to meet with gurus?”
We have heard this question more than once now as we have shared about our pilgrimage in our new book The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb. To some, our journey evokes images of climbing remote mountain ranges to sit at the feet of a Buddhist monk. Or, rather than the way of the mystic, to some it sounds like we spent time with our versions of Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil.
The guru machine is big business in our culture. We pick the voices we deem credible, trustworthy, and perhaps in a certain sense “divine.” We hang on their every word, or better yet, their every tweet. We defend their maxims at all cost, even at the expense of our own credibility and integrity. We redirect our thinking and lives according to their precepts. This is why guruism is dangerous. It shapes cultic allegiances. In the words of Jean Vanier, “a cult is a community that is closed in around the figure of a guru and built on fear.” Guru’s form cults, plain and simple; they establish communities of passive, neurotic, and unhealthy dependence upon themselves. Gurus employ a power that controls other people, which is precisely what they believe power is for. For the guru, the goal is their own glory, and people are pawns used to build a platform of power.
The people we sought out were not gurus, but sages of the faith. This distinction is crucial.
Gurus make disciples of themselves, but sages make disciples of Jesus.
Gurus form tribes of loyal followers, but sages equip people for kingdom allegiance.
Gurus appeal to their own talents, insights and abilities, but sages appeal to the wisdom and power of God.
Gurus are fixated on personal legacy, but sages have a consciously eschatological imagination.
Gurus create structures of passive dependence upon themselves, but sages humbly acknowledge their own limited role in God’s broader providential plan.
Gurus seek servants, but sages serve others in the name of Jesus.
Gurus employ fear to secure control, but sages move in love for the sake of love.
In sum, the guru points to themselves and pulls into themselves, but the sage points toward Christ and invites others to grow up into him. In Ephesians 4:15 the Apostle Paul tells us, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” In Paul’s metaphor, all the parts of the body work and function properly in integration and mutual dependence, but only as they are governed and directed by the head. The head is Christ Jesus himself. Importantly, this is not merely an ideal, but an axiomatic reality of life. The question is not, “are we growing up into a head,” but rather “what head are we growing up into?”
Members of the body of Christ are supposed to grow up into Jesus Christ alone. Sages never seek to take this role upon themselves. Sages recognize that they are fellow members of the body, even in recognizing that they are members who can provide wisdom, guidance, and a proper model for what it means to grow up into Christ. Whereas the wisdom of a guru comes from him or herself, and ultimately points back to him or herself, the wisdom of the sage comes from God and ultimately points back to God.
The evangelical church today has conflated the sage with the guru. This results in two extremes, either accepting the guru model of community and leadership by commissioning our leaders with a worldly anointing of power, or wholly rejecting all forms of authority in the church for fear of this betrayal of Christ’s kingdom. On the one side we adopt the celebrity culture surrounding us and relate to certain pastors and leaders of the church as gurus. On the other side we presume that recognition, influence, and notoriety are intrinsic evils. The truth is, both Paul and Peter had positions of recognition, influence, and notoriety in their day, but they vigorously eschewed any attempt to be turned into gurus (Acts 3, 1 Corinthians 1:10-31). This does not mean that they rejected their proper vocations as sages of the church, they understood that true elders of the church were essential for others growing up into Christ. This is why Paul directly encourages the church to imitate him, not for its own sake, but for maturing in Christ (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:6; Phil. 3:17; 2 Thess. 3:7-9; also see Heb. 6:12, 13:7).
Unfortunately, the evangelical church is obsessed with gurus. When this happens Soren Kierkegaard tells us that “God is actually smuggled away.” (1) The church is in a precarious position when we cling to anyone but Christ. If God is no longer our singular focus, but rather a person, we have fallen into the grips of a devastating idolatry. Our leaders today are tempted toward guruism because this is often what people are looking for. But ultimately gurus are removed from the life of a community and live in lonely isolation. When the pastor becomes a “brand,” he is ultimately dehumanized and turned into the “head” in which we seek to find meaning and significance. No person can bear the weight of such an expectation from a community. Ultimately, the guru will either burn out, fail, give up, or more deeply entrench themselves in a kind of narcissistic vacuum of isolation and grandiosity, stomping all those who threaten their power.
The church has no need of gurus, but we do need sages. We do not need people with all the answers, but souls that have committed themselves to Christ above all. We do not need human beings simply to tell us what to do, but wise men and women who have come to know and discern the Spirit. We do not need leaders puffed up with power, we need joy-filled elders who know the power of God in their weakness. We need sages. This has always been true for God’s people. We need those who have embraced a long obedience in the same direction, who can invite us, as Paul does with the believers in Corinth, to imitate him as he seeks to embrace the way of Jesus.
(1) Soren Kierkegaard, “The Difference between a Genius and an Apostle” in Without Authority, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey: 1997, 97.