By David Jones
A Buddhist teacher and friend of mine had asked if a spiritual teacher’s lineage (as important as some folks see it) is vital to preserving the unadulterated teachings of an acknowledged authority?
Or is it just another thing that divides us—another form of segregation?
I can’t speak to its necessity in Buddhism, but the early Christian culture struggled with the same basic question.
Hebrew history saw the spiritual and judicial authority passed down from teacher to student, and the student became teacher to the next in an unbroken line from Moses. But by the first century CE, there were many separate lines of teachers.
The catalyst for this was the development of the written history of the Jewish people. In fact, one of the sharp divisions between two of the major teaching lines was that Pharisees considered the oral tradition to be equally important as the written tradition, whereas the Sadducees held only to the written tradition and essentially dismissed the oral tradition as more or less irrelevant. There was even a body called Scribes who existed just to interpret the written law. So there were plenty of teachers in the land who generally held tight to their traditions in teaching.
That’s partly why this Jesus ran afoul of all of these groups at some point. He was teaching things that differed from these established groups. When they confronted him, one common question seemed to be,“By whose authority do you teach these things?”
Strictly, which lineage granted him the right or privilege to go out among the people and teach?
Jesus said it was their God who granted him that responsibility, which wasn’t good enough for any of them because they all claimed the same thing. But because he didn’t rely on a recognized and established tradition, and the people loved that, they were at odds about how to deal with him.
Of course there were others who also weren’t tied to a particular teacher or tradition. John the Baptizer was another man who taught outside the established groups. In fact, these two lone teachers show how Christianity would eventually develop clique-like cults of personality.
Over time, a teacher would gather people who came to agree with—and believe in—his message. These disciples (basically “ones who are taught”) would spread the message their teacher put forth, and sometimes these groups of disciples might clash with one another over defending their teachers.
John had set up shop along the Jordan River in order to perform his baptisms. When Jesus showed up on the scene, John told his own disciples that Jesus was the real teacher to be expecting. A few of John’s disciples went out to Jesus to see for themselves. Once convinced, these disciples left John and attached themselves to Jesus. It wasn’t meant as a disrespect to John, even if some might have seen it that way. (John 1:35-39)
While Jesus had a special circle of apostles (“ones who are sent”), he quickly amassed followers, to the point he could send around 70 into the various cities he was going to visit in his teaching ministry. Since these were also apostles in a strict sense, the inner circle became known as The Twelve. One of Jesus’s requirements was that his disciples had to be active in spreading his teachings, not sitting around chatting with each other.
Jesus didn’t make it easy, though. Some of his teachings were so challenging that disciples simply walked out on him. (John 6:60-66) And while you might be expected to name-drop rabbis who taught something in order to legitimize your teaching (by using their authority), Jesus had an annoying habit of not doing that, even in his efforts to oppose other teachers. (Matthew 21:23-27)
His radical methods included sitting on the side of the Mount of Olives and just teaching in an entirely autonomous way. “You have heard it said…” he would start off, and then he’d blindside them with “But I’m telling you….”
It’s no surprise that he stood out from the institutionalized teaching venues.
It led to people saying amongst themselves, “We’ve never heard anyone teach the way he does.” (Matthew 7:28, 29) By not relying on another man’s authority, he set himself apart from their traditional teachers.
Jesus’s arrest and execution created a crisis among his disciples. What would they do now without a teacher? By declaring that he was still alive spiritually with God, they decided to stay together and support their new body of believers and expand Jesus’s teachings.
And in a way, that’s when everything began to fall apart.
In the years following Jesus’s death, opposition grew against his disciples. It didn’t help that other so-called Messiahs appeared soon after, each gathering their own disciples to spread their particular teachings.
By the time a man named Saul was converted and his name changed to Paul, there were many challenges to the “pure teaching” of Jesus. The Twelve had been reduced to Eleven—with Judas the Apostle killing himself, so they agreed to add a new member to the inner circle.
What were the critical qualifications in choosing who would take Judas’s place? It had to be a man who had been a disciple from the beginning and heard Jesus’s teachings and witnessed his activities personally.
They selected two candidates, prayed, cast lots, and promoted Matthias into the body of The Twelve. (Acts 1:21-26) This came to be known as Apostolic Succession, trying to maintain an unbroken transmission of authority that became the logic behind having a Pope.
This test of qualification would eventually torment Paul, as he felt just as qualified to be considered an Apostle (perhaps equal with The Twelve) despite not having been associated with them while Jesus was alive.
Within a matter of years, division was rampant among the early community of believers. One of Paul’s earliest letters was written to the believers in the city of Corinth. Twice in the letter he addressed this problem of following one teacher or another to the disunity of the body.
“Some of you say you’re from Paul (meaning himself), or you’re from Apollos, or maybe from Cephas (also known as the Apostle Peter) or from Christ.” Later in the epistle he argues that by acting like this they were acting out of jealousy instead of unity, fighting amongst themselves instead of pursuing peace.
Of course even Paul wasn’t above name-dropping for the sake of validating his résumé early on, as Acts 22:3 shows.
Paul tried warning against this development of sects, but to no avail.
Into the second century the traditions were written down, compiled, and canonized (declared formally complete), and still it didn’t stop. Over the second and third centuries, “Early Church Fathers” came on the scene, writing down their own teachings concerning the written traditions labeled the Old and New Testaments. Some went so far as to decide which of these books of Scripture they supported and which they ignored.
In the early part of the fourth century, a meeting of these various church leaders called the Council of Nicea was convened to address all these divergent teachings based on specific teachers and their followers.
Their stated goal? Nipping all of this division in the bud.
During the proceedings, dates of observance were argued, teachings were clarified, and as an added bonus: a specific teacher and his disciples were declared to be heretics. That meant they were officially no longer part of the body of believers.
Through the early Church’s history (say, second through fourth centuries) all challenges to the Orthodox teachings were met with excommunication or death. The teaching lineages marked as a threat were persecuted, their collected writings burned.
That was all she wrote.
Over time the practice of choosing to follow a particular teacher led to schisms between religious groups. Sectarian division has led to much bloodletting all because of something basic, such as following a teacher’s legacy of not believing Jesus was equally God with the Father.
Rather than allow that teaching to exist in its own space, significant effort was expended to root out and destroy those who agreed with it.
Monasteries were built around specific saints and the teachings and traditions associated with them. A man decided he would attach a list of his complaints with church traditional practices in Germany and ignited the Protestant Reformation, which in turn gave birth to a whole branch dedicated to that man’s teachings.
So attaching oneself to a specific teacher’s lineage may not be necessary but it certainly is a very human dynamic. If a teacher accepts you as a student there is a feeling of mattering, of being wanted and accepted, of being special. It becomes a part of the person’s self-identity.
As long as people see value in being separated into the special family of a teacher’s disciples, lineage will continue to be a vital part of a system’s continuation.
That said, thank goodness for rebels like John and Jesus who walked their own paths their way regardless of the paths more traveled and accepted.
David Jones has a 27-year career with the United States government. He encountered mindfulness in therapy for his endangered marriage (which had led to anxiety-based depression and dissociative disorder symptoms), and writes about the experience in his blog as well as articles in various publications. He started writing articles about mindfulness for Yahoo Voices under the brand: A Mindful Guy.
Editor: Dana Gornall