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.

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.