Monday, April 6, 2009

"Pastoral Authority"? Part 1

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.


Marty Duren said...

Y'know, I've wondered if the "angels" of those churches were nothing more than the "messengers" that took the words of Jesus to that local body. In other words, normal people on an errand from Jesus, not pastors or angels.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Marty, that's definitely a worthwhile thought. Surely we believe that others can speak to the body of Christ besides the pastor-teacher. I've only ever heard it argued that the "messengers" are obviously the pastors.

That said, after spending some time studying the book, I'm convinced the "angels" of the churches really are angels--in a strange, difficult to understand, apocalyptic sense. Somehow, the angels represent the church before God in John's apocalyptic world. But, that's another matter for another time, I guess. :)

Thanks for your comment!

PreachOn said...

I teach a Baptist Polity course at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. I build the course around a theme: "Pastoral authority without the informed involvement of Christ’s people is tyranny; but church government by nothing more than majority rule leads to ineffectiveness."

In other words, there has to be leadership, but to assert that leadership as divine and unquestionable is to defeat the whole purpose of the I Cor 12 kind of church.

Practically none of the students I have taught (I've done the course three times now) are SBC. Most are African-American and a large proportion are women. They have come through the pastor-head model and are struggling with it. One of my students, as a result of our class teachings, decided she needed to leave the church where she has been interning, because it was so pastor-dominated. (The bad news is that that pastor had been one of my students in an earlier version of the course!).

Pastor dominance is not only bad theology and poor hermeneutics. It is also ineffective. People don't respond to it, at least not with any enthusiasm. When I was a pastor, I had at one time an associate pastor who was attempting to run a discussion process one Wednesday night. His instructions were illogical, and so people kept questioning him about what he meant before they would break up into their small discussion groups. Finally he said, "By pastoral authority I am telling you to go to your groups." I could see on their faces that he had lost the whole cause with that.

Gary Snowden said...

Great insights, Emily, on the subject of pastoral authority. I witnessed a lot of that emphasis while serving in Argentina with the IMB. Many had bought into Benny Hinn-style leadership and were quick to assert their authority. As you well noted, many times their appeal was more to the OT than the NT.

Charlie Mac said...

Maybe there could be a fourth point. Two things are often present or about to happen in churches where pastorial authority is uppermost. The pastor does not trust the members and at some point the members will begin to not trust the pastor.
Mac Mcfatter

ddflowers said...

As an ex-clergy member of the SBC, I can personally attest to what at first appeared as an "abuse" of authority. I later realized it was much more than that. The entire system was wrong. It was (is) a system that reflects Rome, not Jesus.

I found that Christ was not Head of his church and people would never come in to "priesthood of the believer" as long as there are hired guns and the structure of the church functions like a business instead of a family. When there is a top-down Gentile model of leadership... there you will find bondage. Jesus spoke against this with his disciples. He said, "not so among you." (Mk. 10:43)

I had enough of this system and was open to experiencing Christ in community outside the walls of institutional Christianity. A person must first see that the Jesus of the Gospels is not welcome within institutional Christianity. You can teach sound doctrine and be fired up about "truth"... but as long as the Headship of Christ is not realized... the church is chained up only to see "pockets" of the Spirit moving in the people.

It's hard for folks to leave institutional Christianity behind. But I will say it is worth the struggles to get to a place where Christ is at the center of your gatherings, not one or two "pastor" personalities. Every member brings their portion of Christ to the table of fellowship (1 Cor. 14:26). In the Body of Christ, there is none above the other. We are all equal in the Lord... each bringing his or her gift in freedom.

Once we truly take serious the teachings and example of Christ and his apostles... we shall see the entire New Testament differently. We must let the Gospels interpret the Epistles of Paul. We need to examine the specific words Paul used when referring to leadership. (See "Paul's Idea of Community" by Robert Banks)

For those who desire to "reimagine" the church of the New Testament... I highly recommend reading "Reimagining Church" by Frank Viola.

Steve said...

Luckily, I can say I've never run into this phenomenon. The SBC churches I've been in would most likely burst out into laughter should the preacher be so misled as to suggest this. Of course, there are never any Mercedes or Porches in out parking lots, either. We miss so much not being in the big city.

UnderMidnight said...

"The entire system was wrong. It was (is) a system that reflects Rome, not Jesus."

praise god someone else has noticed.

ddflowers = my hero

Bob Cleveland said...


"Anointed" seems to be "mashiyach; anointed; usually a consecrated person (as a king, priest, or saint)..."

And the verse referenced seems to make "do My Prophets no harm" a separate issue, and not explanatory of "touch not".

So if that verse applies to pastors as well as the Savior, why not to the Spirit-filled believers? Why wouldn't that admonition apply on behalf of the pastor as well as the teacher as well as the believer in the pew?

"Priesthood of the believer", anyone?

Bob Cleveland said... well as professors in Ft. Worth?

UnderMidnight said...

priesthood of the believer. yes.

it's a fine line though. the extreme of authority leads to a pastoral dictatorship. the other extreme, following the priesthood of the believer thought, leads to the nihilism of relativity.
i believe both of these extremes are where the demons lie.

where do we find the green pastures of the middle ground?
i like the idea of the pastor as shepherd of their flock, with jesus as the model shepherd they must strive to emulate.

when it comes to large congregations, the pastor becomes an impersonal leader. such shepherding is not possible. i believe pink floyd's "the wall" is a literary example of what happens in situations like this.

Joe Blackmon said...

After looking at the links on your side bar, I'm betting we would have more than a few theological disagreements. However, I agree with several of the points you made here in this post.

Some pastors remind me a lot of Band Directors. They use people to make themselves look good. They do as little as they can to get by. And they are constantly obsessed with their image and how they look not only to "their" sheep but other pastors. It's like they have their own secret handshake and start every conversation among their peers with something like "Hi, we baptized more than you did last year" or "Hi, our Sunday School is bigger than yours".

Self important ministry professionals who think that the number of letters they have after their last name qualifies them to preach. And, in my book, Associational DOM's are the worst. Even worse than FBC pastors. Well, except maybe for FBC-Decatur, GA.

Christiane said...


It's me, L's from Wade's blog.

Maybe the churches with the best pastors are those where,
as Jean Vanier would say, 'the weakest and the most vulnerable are kept at the heart' of the church, and "all are valued because all are needed".

A pastor can express that there is a need for the gifts of each of his congregation: each one, important for the gift that they bring to share with all.

In this way, the pastor models his/her church after the Body of Christ, as an inter-connected Christian community with Christ at the center.

It would take a humble pastor to know that, in his/her congregation, even the 'least of these' have many gifts from the Lord to share in community. If the pastor realizes this, then the rest of the congregation will know that they are being led by one who points to the Way of the Lord and not to himself. :)

Pax Christi. Love, L's

Christiane said...


It's me, L's from Wade's blog.

Maybe the churches with the best pastors are those where,
as Jean Vanier would say, 'the weakest and the most vulnerable are kept at the heart' of the church, and "all are valued because all are needed".

Such a pastor might express the community's need for each person:
each one, important for the God-given gifts that they bring to share with all.

In this way, the pastor models his/her church after the Body of Christ, as an inter-connected Christian community with Christ at the center.

It would take a humble pastor to know that, in his/her congregation, even the 'least of His' have many gifts from the Lord to share in community. If the pastor realizes this, then the rest of the congregation will know that they are being led by one who points to the Way of the Lord and not to himself. :)

Pax Christi. Love, L's