Your Pastor Isn’t Your Authority

At my church – Imago Dei in Peoria, ILwe’re having a conversation about generous orthodoxy. Each Sunday I’m teaching during our first service, then during the second we’re doing a question and response; a moderated discussion. I intend to post thoughts here over the next couple of weeks. For the first week we started with “what is a church?” which led us to “what authority does a church have?” Who knew our church was so full of anti-authoritarians?

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Boy, do church people love talking about authority. Does the Bible have authority? Does the church? What is the extent of the authority of a pastor? Who’s the final authority in a marriage?

If you don’t know “church world” very well, this might seem like an odd conversation to be having — especially when the American zeitgeist is so strongly anti-authoritarian, all the way back to the Boston Tea Party.

But I think this obsession mostly comes from a good place. I think most Christians genuinely believe that there is a best way to live and so all the discussion about authority is really a discussion about “how do I know who to trust to tell me the right way to live that will please God?” In other words, what authority is going to tell me how to live?

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Sincere woman in our church in our question and response: “Charlie, as the pastor of Imago Dei what do you think is the basis for your authority?”

Me: “Ummmm…..Next question?” (laughter)

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I believe pretty radically in the “priesthood of all believers.” This is a doctrine that emerged out of the Protestant Reformation and asserted that we don’t need priests or “the church” to mediate our experience of God. All Christians believe in this priesthood to a varying degree. For example, the Roman Catholic Church believes that the priesthood of all believers applies to the spread of the Gospel, while most liturgical and sacramental functions are reserved for the ordained priesthood.

There is a whole range of ideas about what the “priesthood of all believers” means, and I fall on pretty much the exact opposite side of the Roman Catholic Church on this one. I’ll give credit to my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist upbringing here. (See? I DO say good things about Baptists sometimes!) While we granted the pastor a degree of authority, we were fiercely (and might I say, proudly) independent of any denominational interference.  We believed authority rested in the congregation, not in any one man (as there were no women pastors in that particular context).

So, in this conversation about the authority of the local church and by extension the authority of the local pastor, I’m radically committed to the priesthood of all believers. I don’t claim any authority for the church as the pastor. None. Zilch.

Rather, I believe any “authority” I have is something my parishioners have voluntarily granted to me. It’s not because of the title. It’s because of the relationship.

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When it comes to the news, I consider NPR an authority. Because of its reputation, because of its journalistic standards, because I think NPR works to maintain balance in its reporting, I trust NPR in a way that I don’t trust a random article that someone posts to Facebook declaring President Obama the spawn of Muslim aliens from the planet Zorg.

I think this is how authority works in the spiritual life too. There are pastors, writers, teachers, organizations and close friends I trust when it comes to helping me follow Jesus, and I’ve granted them various levels of authority in my life. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything they teach, say, write or do, but it does mean that on the whole, I trust them. They’ve proven effective at helping me along in my spiritual journey.

Of course, it’s a sliding scale. I’ve granted a lot of authority to some people in my life, much less to others and to some, none at all. Some people are on the rise — I’m granting them more and more authority — while others are waning and I’m not listening to their voice in the same way that I used to. Some authorities in my life I know very well, others I only know from a distance. Some I grant authority because of the investment they’ve made in me, others, I grant authority because of a position or expertise they hold. Some have an authority in one area but none in another (think of your accountant, lawyer or doctor in this regard).

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Back to my church…I don’t believe I have an innate authority over the people of my church because I have an advanced degree or because I have a particular title or because I’ve been ordained by a particular group (I haven’t been ordained at all, by the way). I don’t believe I get “special rewards in heaven” or have a “direct line to God.”

However, in the context of my local ecclesia, because I stand up in front of a group of people week after week, and because I have a role that gives me the freedom to study, to think, to meet with people, to listen to their stories, to stand at their bedside when they’re sick and to stand with them at the altar when they marry, they in turn, grant me a lot of authority (in fact, probably more than I’m comfortable with, most of the time!). Or, as I summarized it on Sunday, because of my role in the church I have a greater opportunity to be granted a degree of authority in individuals’ lives.

I know that many of you have religious contexts that may teach something quite different from what I’m saying here about pastoral authority. But this is the one that seems most comfortable to me. How do you think about it?

 

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