Personal Observation: When CEOs dominate their organizations, use them for their own selfish gain, run them into the ground (financially and otherwise), and escape with a "golden parachute," the nation demands that something be done to punish the offender, calling it criminal and repugnant. When "senior pastors" do the same at the helm of organized churches, large and small, the church throws up its hands, saying nothing can be done, calling it "pastoral authority." If I may say so, my friends, something is rotten in the state of Denmark...
I was a bright-eyed undergraduate student at the Criswell College in Dallas, TX, when I first encountered the matter of "pastoral authority." In chapel, I listened with eager attention to the preacher chosen to address us, as he exhorted those in the room "called to pastor." The preacher referenced 1 Chronicles 16:22 (see also Ps 105:15) and said, "Touch not the Lord's anointed and do his prophets no harm." I don't recall the exact words used to explain this verse, but the implication was clear: the authority (read: power and privilege) of the pastor to lead the flock is given directly from God and equal to the status of those "anointed" by God's Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as prophets and kings.
Since that time, I have had the privilege of serving alongside my husband in two very different churches, one of which was specifically identified as a "congregation-led church" and the other as a "pastor-led church." At this time, I'm not going to weigh-in on either model of church organization (or any of the other options vying for preeminence), nor am I going to issue my verdict on what structure is "the most biblical." Indeed, this discussion is a much bigger matter than playing hunt-and-peck with the biblical evidence and must wait for another occasion. In the mean time, I have a bit of an axe to grind...
First, in no particular order, let me share some observations about the way "pastoral authority" is spoken of and lived out in Southern Baptist life.
The most glaring observation about "pastoral authority" in SBC life (and evangelical life, in general) is that it is strictly reserved for men and exercised by men. This is an unquestioned assumption by those who defend the right of the pastor to lead the flock as he sees fit. Interestingly enough, in those parts of the SBC where women are "allowed" to pastor (yes, there are a few, teeny-tiny little enclaves where women are truly free to function), I have never heard discussions about asserting "pastoral authority." Indeed, I cannot imagine the women pastors with whom I have had the privilege to dialogue ever standing up and declaring of themselves, "Touch not the Lord's anointed." (For all the talk of women "grabbing" at power and position by wanting to become pastors, I see very little evidence to this effect. But that is another matter for another time...)
Another glaring feature of "pastoral authority" in SBC life is the fact that no matter how many times 1 Cor 12 is referenced, no matter how many times sermons are preached on the value of all the spiritual gifts in the body of Christ, it is crystal-clear that the "pastor" gift (and the "senior pastor" position), is the most important. No other position/function in the church even comes close. And, no one makes their pastors into super-stars better than the SBC and the evangelical world.
To see this demonstrated in real life, you need only to attend a meeting of denominational leaders, whether at the national level, or at the variety of regional and state conferences. The name of the game at most of these gatherings is "spot the big-wig"--also known as, locate the most influential (read: politically powerful) pastors in the room and see how close you can get to them. Maybe, if you're lucky, you will have the privilege of being introduced to them and shaking their hand. (You know you are extra special if they remember your name from the time you met last year.)
Not only are the pastors the most important leaders at such events, but they are honored and revered based not upon their character, their resemblance to Jesus, their servant-hearted lifestyle, but based upon the numbers attributed to "their" ministry: baptisms, worship attendance, Sunday school attendance, etc, etc. (Do I really need to point out how bad this is? As if the glorification of the pastor-teacher position weren't bad enough, we go on and attribute a church's "success" to his skills.)
And, please, my SBC friends. Please, don't try to deny that this is true. We may say one thing in our theology, preach another thing from our pulpits, but the proof is found in the every-day outworking of our lives. How many of us who've attended such events have said, "Ooh, hey, that's so-and-so. He pastors FBC such-and-such. He grew his church from 500 to 5,000 in two years"? You know and I know, the cult of pastor-worship in the SBC is alive and well. Indeed, entire non-profit organizations, radio stations, and publishing companies exist for the sole purpose of promoting, selling, and distributing the overflow of the teaching/preaching ministries of various popular pastors. Think about it...
In the midst of all this, its no wonder that there has emerged a troubling confusion regarding the role of the pastor-teacher in the body of Christ. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we have gradually allowed the pastor to become the "head" of the church. In the SBC, just as pastors preach at least once a year on the need for wives to submit to their husbands, so also we've begun to preach and teach that churches need to submit to their pastors. Indeed, you'd think Ephesians 5:23 said: "the husband is the head of the wife as the pastor is the head of the church."
This mindset is evidenced in the way we interpret other parts of the Bible, as well. I've already mentioned the use of a verse about Old Testament prophets and kings to refer to the pastor-teachers of New Testament churches. Surely if we think deeply about this reference, we can see the problem. Monarchs in the Ancient Near East were unquestioned representatives of God on earth. They held absolute sway over the lives of their people, able to promote them or enslave them at will. Prophets were the mouthpieces of God, capable of ordering the deaths of pagan prophets and speaking to the monarchs on behalf of the Almighty. Is it really a good idea to compare our churches' pastor-teachers to the prophets and kings of the Old Testament? Let's think about that one...
If we fast-forward through the canon to the end of the Book, we find chapters 2-3 of the book of Revelation. The oracles to the seven churches of Asia have been interesting fodder for sermons for many, many years, but it is the reference to the "angels of the seven churches" that has often intrigued pastors. It is well-known that the Greek word for "angel" can also mean "messenger." So, when the Lord Jesus addresses each of his seven oracles to the "angel" of the particular church, the speculation has been that he is not referring to the actual angel of the church (even though this makes the most contextual sense in an apocalyptic book like Revelation), but the "messenger" of the church--that is, the preacher of the church.
Think about the importance this places upon the pastor/preacher of the church, if it is really believed that Jesus is addressing him (because it has to be a him) as the representative of the church. Think about the spiritual power the pastor-preacher of the church is viewed as possessing if he is the one person to whom Jesus speaks in reference to the acceptability of the church before God. In this sense, our theology is informing our Bible reading and our Bible reading is then informing our theology. And, in my humble opinion, this "hermeneutical spiral" is not resulting in truth.
A final observation I'll make about "pastoral authority" in SBC life is the primary occasions upon which the subject is broached. In my experience, more often than not, you will hear the power and authority of the pastor invoked in one of the following scenarios:
(1) When the pastor in particular or the pastoral staff as a whole want something to take place in the congregation that the congregation, in general, does not. That is to say, the pastor asserts his authority when he wants to use it to usurp the authority of others.
(2) When the pastor is insecure in his position in the church (that is to say, his influence over and level of respect from the congregation), his position among the staff, his overall ability to exercise the shepherding and/or preaching gifts, and his skills as a leader (read: CEO of the church).
(3) When the pastor is attending a conference of pastors, in which the main speakers do their best to bolster the esteem of those in attendance by proclaiming their significance and undeniable authority to lead their flocks. (This is not to say that there are not a significant number of battered pastors in need of encouragement. Indeed, many times my husband has been one of them.)
(4) When the pastor has a "guest preacher" or evangelist fill the pulpit, who takes it upon himself to rally the congregation to the pastor's side for one reason or another.
Now that I have made my observations about the issue of "pastoral authority," I have what I think are some important points to make about the real problems with pastoral authority as preached and practiced in SBC life. Of course, its very clear, I'm sure, what my overall "take" on the matter is based upon my words thus far. But, I'll be taking up those matters more thoroughly in Part 2 of this post. Stay tuned.
Author's Note: I have been a member of Southern Baptist churches since my commitment to Christ as a teenager. I'm sure the problem of "pastoral authority" is not limited to the SBC's tiny corner of Christendom, but that is the corner with which I am most acquainted at this point in my journey. And so, it is out of this experience that I must speak to the issue. I should note that I am neither a pastor, nor have I been the spouse of a "senior pastor." Furthermore, most of my readers know that I am at a point in my theological journey where the SBC "label" no longer comfortably fits. That is as much to do with the collective right-ward shift of the denomination, as it is to do with my own personal and theological transformation. Nonetheless, this where I am today, for good or ill, and this is the position from which I think and write.