The Conundrum of Authority

Eight women in Florida have given sworn depositions charging that a megachurch pastor coerced them into sex. The pastor, Earl Paulk, is being charged with perjury because he told investigators that he'd only had sex with one. (Local coverage here.) So here we are again, back in the zone of abusive spiritual authority. When a pastor's personal agenda is blatantly sinful, as Paulk's allegedly was, believers are devastated. But they also feel manipulated when the agenda is mixed -- when in the midst of pursuing godly goals a pastor doesn't seem to notice his own vanity.

There is almost a sense now that any exercise of authority is abusive, and many believers question the legitimacy of pastoral leadership. The issue was featured in a couple of blogs this past week (unrelated to the Paulk story).

Robbymac offered a rich portrayal of servant leadership and its implications in a tale of two men in dialog about spiritual authority in a pub. The gruff barkeep becomes their model. Says one, "I’d like to suggest that real 'apostles' don't need to trumpet their status or try to get people to agree to be 'under' their authority. They just serve and people recognize their authority based on character and not on their need to have people 'submit' to them." Robbymac's post gave me good ideas to feast on, and it was so evocative that I could almost smell the hops.

Kingdomgrace sparked some lively exchanges about pastoral authority with her usual clarity of expression. Reviewing a chapter in Pagan Christianity (Viola and Barna) about the history of the clerical tradition, Grace surveys the dubious mixture of contemporary ideas of pastoring with the ancient priesthood. She writes,

I don’t believe that one person should be responsible for the equipping of the body, but rather that you will find those equipping gifts among the body. The same is true with discipling, teaching, and mentoring. None of these things should be taken on solely by the leader.

Even if this is clear in your heart as the leader, as long as there is a full-time pastor, it will be an uphill battle to prevent passivity among the congregation regarding who is responsible for ministry.

An uphill battle indeed. In fighting the consumer mentality, a pastor will always face the question, "Why are you trying to get me to do your work?"

The intensity of the comments in response to Grace's post shows how dire the collapse of spiritual authority has become. Participants were not so much questioning the character of pastors, as the legitimacy of having a paid pastor at all. Commenting on the aging evangelical base, one participant named Jerry expressed a sense of crisis many share:

I don’t think people realize how desperate a state the American church is really in. We’re less than 10 years from being exactly in the same state as Europe (barring a medical miracle).

We need Frank Viola’s and George Barna’s (and many others) to really shake this thing up. There’s a disaster pending the likes of which the church world has never seen. All we have to do to get there is hang on to the status quo.

No question, we've got trouble.

Believers have lost a sense of how authority is supposed to work biblically. Those who remember when pastors had a recognized civic role fantasize about the recovery of Christendom, while emergents at times seem frantic in their search for an egalitarian church structure. There are those who want to trust their pastors, many of whom end up getting burned like the eight women in Florida. But there are others who long ago resolved never to trust another pastor again.

We witness a bitter scattering. The question is how to return to the Shepherd.

For me, a purely egalitarian church structure -- no leaders, no followers -- is fast-acting conformism. The herd never tolerates dissent from its stampedes. Furthermore, I believe egalitarian promises are fraudulent: all groups have leaders. The informal ones who lead from charisma tend to be the least accountable.

But the old institutional hierarchies assume a cultural consensus that no longer exists. Christendom, as a cultural force, is on life-support in the U.S. In Europe, it's dead. Pastors are not authority figures anymore. But they're still acting like it.

I am trying to implement several principles as a pastor:

  • Model submission for other believers: submission to the Lord, to the scriptures, and to the other leaders of the church.
  • Lead only from the trust gained by modeling submission. This practice is empowered by the Holy Spirit (e.g. Ephesians 5.15-21).
  • Lead not by casting visions, but by applying narrowly defined biblical principles to the next decision on the congregation's horizon. Put another way, there's no grand plan, just point-to-point navigation.

These principles help me eschew the power game and nurture unity. They do not bring hyper-growth. They do not empower a great career path. They don't even eliminate conflict. But they do harness the forces of relationship, truth, and love to the work of change.

And in the bargain I will see my own soul saved -- an end I pray for the eight women in Florida and for Earl Paulk.