Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Pastoral Authority"? Part 2

Based upon my previous post, I'm sure it is clear that I have serious problems with the way in which "pastoral authority" is preached and practiced, both in the SBC and in broader evangelical circles. Perhaps these problems are self-evident to most, but in case they are not, let me explain.

The first and most obvious problem with "pastoral authority," is the teaching of the New Testament that the head of the Church is Jesus Christ. While it may be organizationally convenient and structurally expedient to give the authority to lead, manage, and envision the church to the "senior pastor" (much as businesses give that authority to their well-paid CEOs), this does not make the practice any less unbiblical and, frankly, un-Christian. Indeed, when one soberly surveys the references to the "head of the church" in the NT, one is convicted by the seriousness of the blasphemy involved with claiming any kind of "headship" or "authority" for the pastor.

"That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Eph 1:19-23; see also Col 1:17-19).

"God...appointed [Christ] to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way." I'm reticent even to comment, because the point seems so clear. How dare we claim any authority for any other person in the church, whether the pastor, the deacons, the elders, or any other leadership body? Granted, spiritual gifts have been distributed by Christ for the building up of the body and roles have been given to persons within the church for the orderly worship of Christ, but neither of these scenarios involves the dispensing of authority for headship within the church. Jesus is the head of his Church. Period.

Another problem I observe with the way we speak of pastors and their authority arises when we deal honestly with the teaching of Jesus on titles and the exercise of authority. Surely, if Jesus is the head of the Church, then we should yield to him when it comes to matters of leadership. And, what does Jesus have to say about it?

"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt 23:8-12).

In this discourse, Jesus is harshly condemning the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, while contrasting it with the way in which his disciples are to behave. A contemporary paraphrase of the behavior he condemns in verses 5-7, when applied to the position of pastor, might sound something like this:

"Everything these leaders do is done for men to see: They make their Bibles big and heavy, and their prayers long and flowery; they love to be given the best seats and the first servings at parties, and to sit on the stage in the church service, for all to see; they love to be recognized at the mall and grocery stores, and to have people call them 'Pastor.'"

This is not to say, of course, that most pastors knowingly and intentionally behave this way. Usually, pride, whether in great or small amounts, is much more insidious and hidden deep within our hearts. Blatant grabs at position, power, and prestige are rare, I think. But, believe it or not, I have actually been instructed by one pastor, that it would be a "spiritual discipline" to call him "Pastor," especially in front of church members and people in the community. In his words, the people needed to be "taught to respect his position," and honor his role as pastor, and the title "Pastor," which we were to use of him in every instance, would help them to learn.

This kind of thinking is exactly why Jesus taught his disciples not to allow themselves to be called, "Rabbi," "Teacher," or "Father," and it is the exact opposite of the kind of leadership Jesus says has a place in the Kingdom of God. This parallels with his pointed instruction following James and John's presumptuous request in Matt 20, where Jesus says, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Can it really be any clearer?

Another theological problem with the way pastoral authority is preached and practiced is that it is in conflict with the New Testament's teaching on spiritual gifts in the life of the Church. The pastor-teacher gift is one of many gifts (and offices) given by the Holy Spirit for the building up of the body of Christ, but evangelicals have made this gift the only truly important gift in the functioning of the body. In fact, as I said in my first post, entire organizations and businesses have been started for the sole purpose of promoting the exercise of one man's preaching/teaching gift. (Not to mention the number of churches that have begun on the basis of one pastor-teacher's gifting. Frank Viola has something to say about this in his book, Reimagining Church.).

A brief survey of the discussions of spiritual gifts in the New Testament lead me to make a few observations: (1) the gifts/offices of the church are dispensed by the Spirit of God, under the headship of Jesus Christ; (2) never is "authority" given to people possessing particular gifts/offices; (3) when "authority" is mentioned in the context of exercising the gifts, it is always derived.

The final issue I have with "pastoral authority" is the way that it is always used in conjunction with patriarchal theology and male-centered organizational structures. Just as the "ideal" Christian family unit is understood to be arranged in a hierarchy--husband, wife, children--so also, the "ideal" Christian church is understood to be arranged in a hierarchy--pastor, congregation (or pastor, deacons, congregation; or pastor, elders, congregation; whatever the case may be).

Don't believe me that these two ideas go hand-in-hand? Consider a biblical debate I had in Bible college (and have heard repeated in local SBC churches since then) over the identification of the "head-covering" spoken of by Paul in 1 Cor 11. Even as the common argument was made that the head-covering of the wife is her husband (with the implication being that she goes through him to get to God), so also I heard many students attempt to make the case that the head-covering of the single woman is... her pastor (!!!).

Talk about a hermeneutical leap, no? But, if the husband is the head of the wife and the pastor is the head of the church (in the hierarchal model), then it makes perfect sense that the pastor would be the head of the unmarried women in the church. (And, do I even need to point out how quickly this sort of thinking leads down the path of countless male-dominated cults, where the women are subservient to the men, particularly the male leader of the organization? The potential for perversion in this scenario is significant.)

In both cases, whether a hierarchal view of marriage or a hierarchal view of church, I understand the arrangement to be biblically wrong-headed and spiritually detrimental. Let me quote the teachings of Jesus again: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Authority in the Kingdom of God is reserved for Jesus Christ alone, who has been given the highest place "above all rulers and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come." When there is any authority exercised by his people, it is always derivative and always based upon his example and call: not to be served, but to serve. This goes for pastors, as well as any other member of the body of Christ.


Christopher said...

I don't know you, so hopefully this won't be too awkward...just kind of stumbled onto your site via a friend.

I too have spent my 20 something years in a SBC church. I have been under some very godly and wise pastors, others (sigh) only time will tell. I resonate with your thought of many pastors negating the shepherding of their flock (which I would say is very biblical) for CEO-ing of the church. Granted someone has to do it, but I think that job is not the Senior Pastor's job, but the job of his staff and a Associate Pastor whose strengths are such of "CEO-ing" (aka looking at the statistics, numbers and all and saying this is where we are kind of thing).

As far as church leadership being a male-dominated thing, I am not too sure where you stand on this. Your language tends to lead me to believe you may have issue with Pastorate and Eldership/deconship being a male only office. I would recommend "Recoving Biblical Manhood and Womanhood" edited by Piper and Grudem. You can download it free from If you read it, I hope you find it helpful.

I say all of this as someone who is struggling with their current pastor and his seeming overly dominant "rule"instead of leadership (noting the latter as biblical and correct, the former not). So thanks for your thoughts on CEO's and not Pastors.

Oh...just my two cents again. I think that Pastor is good term to use. It acknowledges the earthly leadership of the local body of believers that God has put in place. Not to make an idol out of the man, but to point to the fact that I respect him and acknowledge that in the body of believers I associate myself with, I acknowledge him as the leader that God has placed to guide us a flock to Himself. And just honestly, it just fits better to call some pastors Dr. So-and-so and some people Pastor John. But much as you would refer to your Medical Doctor as Dr. So-and-so, I think is perfectly viable to refer to your pastor as Pastor so-and-so. Or give you are very intimate friends, simply by first name. In closing I think it comes to respect, if you respect your pastor it is no hardship to call him Pastor, Dr., or Rev. for you endear his leadership, but I do think it is hard to revere via a title someone for whom you have no respect. Maybe that is redundant. Thanks for your thoughts, I hope this is not too long. Best wishes on your journey, we are all in this journey together.

ddflowers said...

Hey Emily,

Keep on pressing on!

You are definitely outside the traditional paradigm of the institutional church. Unlike others who think they are radical because they change their language within that model or only move the furniture around the room (e.g. women in the ministry, changing titles, switching venues, etc.)... you are going beyond these things to discover the headship of Christ in the church.

Everything now passes through the baptismal waters of the example and teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Gone are the days of forcing the old model into the first-century Scriptures. Revival and reform will not do... only a revolution back to a church that looks like Christ.

May the Lord continue to give us a revelation of his Person. Amen!

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thank you for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

You are correct in your evaluation that I am not in the same place you are theologically when it comes to the issue of "male headship," in church and family. I believe this doctrine is a misinterpretation of Scripture and a misunderstanding of the person and Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am very familiar with the Piper and Grudem volume you reference (I own two copies, actually), and with the writings of many others from the same perspective. Indeed, having received my undergrad degree at Criswell College (a very conservative SBC Bible College), I am very familiar with the perspective because I believed it and wrote from it for some time. (For example, I was a contributor to the Women's Evangelical Commentary on the New Testament, edited by staunch complementarians Dorothy Patterson and Rhonda Kelley.)

I can assure you, therefore, that I have spent many years researching, praying, and struggling through these matters and have not arrived at my conclusions flippantly. I departed from the complementarian "fold" after quite a long journey.

That said, I share your desire to honor the people God has gifted to serve as pastors, teachers, and shepherds among us. This is not because of their special status (or their education, or their gender, for that matter), but because of the Holy Spirit's obvious gifts in their life and person. I would add that the gifting of pastor-teachers does not supersede the other gifts in the body of Christ. And, churches are remiss not to rethink their structure in order to allow the free-functioning of all the gifted members of the body.

Thanks again for your thoughts, Christopher. If you explore my blog archives a little more, I'm sure you'll find more information about my views on the male headship matter, as well as many other things.

Grace and peace to you,


Paul Burleson said...


Thoroughly biblical in research and presentation, very gracious in reponse to comments, and a testimony to giftedness. It doesn't get much better than this. Thanks.

UnderMidnight said...

you could be my pastor anytime.

Bennett Willis said...

I knew I always referred to the "preacher" as "brother" rather than "pastor"--and now I know why. :) It helps keep things in the proper perspective.

Bennett Willis

Lory said...


I agree with your ideas and thoughts here. Since I've been working through what it means to be a leader, etc. in Price's class lately, I've been thinking about this in relation to authority....

What is the difference in exerted pastoral authority and granted pastoral authority? How do they differ and how are they similar? Just some things rolling around in my head.


Aussie John said...


As one who has spent a lifetime (69 1/2 years) in the church, preaching/teaching for fifty of those. Fourty of those years in the parallel denomination to the SBC in this country, which have given me much time for observation, reflection and study, which cause me to come to similar conclusions, and to rejoice when I see writing such as yours.

I have been greatly blessed in that time, but much soul searching caused by my trying to fit the traditional/denominational mold.

Your words need to be read by a wider audience.