It is not unusual to hear “Touch not the Lord’s anointed,” when someone criticises or speaks negatively about a Christian leader. The reasoning behind this statement is straightforward: the Christian leader is anointed by God. Therefore speaking against him (and sometimes, her) affronts and angers God. Recently, and across our continent, this statement is used to shield Christian leaders from criticism—resisting all notions of accountability.

This statement is used to shield Christian leaders from any sort of criticism.

Therefore in this article I want to answer a few important questions regarding this sort of language. Who is anointed by God, or who are the Lord’s anointed? What does refraining from “touching” the Lord’s anointed mean? Does it mean that we can never criticise Christian leaders? Once we’ve considered these questions I hope to offer some guidelines as to how we should go about correcting Christian brothers and sisters. But before we that, let’s start with the Old Testament phrase, typically quoted as: “Do not touch the Lord’s anointed”.

What Was Anointed By God In The Old Testament?

We first see this phrase in 1 Samuel, on two occasions (1 Samuel 24:6; 26:9). When David has the opportunity to kill Saul he refused. In both cases he says, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed”. Remember that God anointed Saul as king over Israel (1 Samuel 10:1). Recognising Saul as God’s anointed king, David would not harm him. For Saul was anointed by God. David even orders the execution of the man who claims to have killed Saul. He asks, “How is it you were not afraid to put out your hand to destroy the LORD’s anointed?” (2 Samuel 1:14-16).

The phrase has little or nothing to do with verbal criticisms.

In the Old Testament, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” refers to physical harm (see Psalm 105:15). Even though David stands against Saul, he refuses to harm or kill him. For David understands that the king of Israel was anointed by God. David even uses the incident to rebuke Saul for his unjust actions towards him. Thus the phrase has little or nothing to do with verbal criticisms or disagreements.

What Does It Mean In The New Testament?

Near the start of his ministry, Jesus reads from the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18). Jesus concludes by declaring, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. The ‘Lord’s anointed’ has arrived to proclaim the good news.

Jesus Christ is the Lord’s anointed.

A few years later, in Acts, we read: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his anointed—for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” (Acts 4:26-27; see Psalm 2:1-2). Primarily, Jesus Christ is the Lord’s anointed. He is our king, the one under whom God our Father is uniting all things, in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 1:10).

All Christians Are Anointed By God

As Christians we can only call ourselves anointed because in Christ we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit. As Paul writes, “And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:20-22). We are also told in 1 John 2:27 that we have received the anointing as Christians, which teaches us how to discern truth from falsehood.

There is not a special group of ‘anointed ones.’

It is interesting to note that in 1 John those who belong to Christ are also described as people of truth, light, and love, as well as people who are anointed by God. Thus there are no varying degrees of being anointed, with some being more anointed than others. There is not a special group of “anointed ones”. Unless, of course, you are referring to all Christians. For if you are in Christ, you are anointed by God and have his full anointing!

The Anointed Remain Accountable

So far, one thing becomes clear: we cannot use this phrase to exempt Christian leaders from criticism. This point was made compellingly in a recent article at TGC Africa. Using Galatians, the author shows that even the chief apostle, Peter, was open to criticism. If any believer in the 1st century church had a claim to being especially anointed by God, it was Peter. But he remained accountable to God and the gospel.

The article states, “Even the apostle Peter got things wrong. He made mistakes. And he repented of sin. There is a reassuring familiarity in the blundering apostle for all believers—but perhaps especially for Christian leaders. For Peter demonstrates a noticeable humility. In humility, he accepted the challenge. He was accountable to others. He was not a law unto himself. Ultimately, Peter’s authority was borrowed from God and bound to Scripture”.

Another point we can draw from the example in Galatians is that criticising Peter was not the same as criticising the gospel. In fact, Paul was showing that Peter acted in a way that contradicted the gospel. We too often mistake the defence of an admired Christian leader as defence of the gospel.

We must be wary as Christians of people who preach unquestioning loyalty.

This is further amplified by sermons that emphasise loyalty to the “man of God”. Dire consequences (sometimes even curses) are threatened if a person does not do everything that their “spiritual father” says. We must be wary as Christians of people who preach unquestioning loyalty. This point has been well demonstrated by The Rise And Fall Of Mars Hill podcast series. Peter was humble enough to accept correction. The rest of us must follow his example. For being anointed by God does not mean someone is no longer accountable to God.

Gospel Witness Requires Correction

Jesus preached, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

We need to acknowledge when Christians act contrary to the gospel.

As the body of Christ, we are the light of the world. Therefore we do not hide in the darkness. Rather, we must expose evil and wrongdoing. And if we fail to shine that light among ourselves, we will lose our public witness. Therefore we need to acknowledge when fellow Christians have acted in ways contrary to the gospel of Christ. By this we can make a defence of the hope we profess (1 Peter 3:15). For our hope is not in morally perfect and unassailable leaders but the God who saves sinners.

Defend The Gospel, Not Leaders

Today Christians seem to be under a certain level of scrutiny. This is not helped when outsiders can clearly see and call out legitimate things that are wrong—especially among our leaders. The church demonstrates to the world the manifold wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10). However, this wisdom is brought into question and we weaken our witness when we don’t allow Scripture to teach, correct, rebuke, and train us, along with our leaders (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

In order to be a light to the world, we must shine a light on the dark areas that exist in our midst

Therefore, in order to be a light to the world, we must shine a light on the dark areas that exist in our midst. We must lead the way in these conversations and show the world how to have difficult conversations respectfully and gently, rather than with the abusive and insulting language we so often see on social media. But this will not happen as long as we shield the reputation of leaders and ignore the damage being done to our gospel witness.

God Will Protect His Anointed

In Revelation 6:10, when the 5th seal is opened, we hear the saints call out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” This call echoes the warning in Psalm 105: “Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm”. A warning to all those who persecute and act violently towards the church, those anointed by God. We know that our God is a God of justice. He will act when the time is right. This should give us comfort and encourage us to pray for perseverance till the last day when all things will be set right.