Last time, I told the story of Elephant and the Rope.
In the story, the huge elephant had a simple rope tied to his foot and would not break free even though he had the strength to do it. He had been trained not to move.
Have You Been Trained Into Silence
To keep your freedom in Christ, you need to be aware of a particular bent of Christian teaching. In some Christian circles, it is taught that the Christian Pastor is equal to the Old Testament King and Priest in his authority. Today, especially in independent churches, Pastors often blend of this claim of kingly authority with Old Testament priesthood. Because of this claim, some Christians give men authority over their lives that should belong to Christ alone.
Colossians 2:10… and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority.
Although I don’t often deal with doctrine in this blog, today I will.
I hear people all the time, elevate their pastor to a god-like level of fear and respect. As a consequence, instead of Christ being the head of their life, they look to their pastor as a mediator between themselves and God. If the Pastor demands they obey, they’re scared God will strike them dead if they don’t. In fairness, I was one of those that fell into the total “obedience to your Pastor” category.
It’s from the polluted air that often comes with being in an ultra-conservative congregation that seeks to control the lives of its members.
At one time, I believed in “Don’t question the Pastor, just obey.” I was such a military-minded person, a team player. Anything to make the work of Christ move forward. I even believed that God would bless you for your obedience, even if the Pastor was wrong because you respected who God placed as your leader. Well, I’ve since learned that God will bless us in spite of our mistakes because of our innocence and because He just loves us, not necessarily because of our obedience to men.
Some churches go so far as to say that you’re backslidden if you choose not to take a Pastor’s counsel and advice. I know of several cases where a person was treated as if they had left Christianity because they chose not to take the Pastor’s counsel. This makes no sense when some things are just my decision because it’s my life. Christ can easily speak to me directly about such personal matters, thank you.
The scripture does say to obey them that have the rule over you, submit yourselves, for they watch for your soul. However, many times this last phrase “watch for your soul” is eliminated, and just “obey them that have the rule” is quoted. It goes from obeying because of care for your soul to… obey… just …because. We can sometimes forget that a Pastor’s rule must be based on the word of God, and the ruling should come from care and concern over spiritual health, not just the whims and personal feelings of the Pastor.
“As they that must give account” to God. This part of the scripture is often de-emphasized. The reason the writer of Hebrews is ASKING submission or obedience is twofold: 1) the Pastor has a responsibility to answer to Christ who is Chief Shepherd and 2) it is profitable for the individual if the Pastor can joyfully lead them.
Notice I say ASK, not demand, for that, is the tone of this scripture.
The encouragement of this scripture in Hebrews 13:17 is to implore the individual to submit to their elders for their own soul’s sake and spiritual safety, not just because of his or her position. They have a charge as under-shepherds to watch over you and keep you from spiritual harm. Unfortunately in some churches, in practice, it may become demands based on an idea or feeling the Pastor has about anything.
If he or she doesn’t like something, anything, or if he or she feels a certain way, then just submit to their demands.
That is not how this is supposed to work.
It is the method and the madness with which this particular scripture is practiced that often makes the difference between simply working with your spiritual leader to grow and stay safe in Christ, and complete dictatorship to a boss baby.
To be clear, the obedience encouraged in Hebrews 13:17 is based on things that would put your soul in danger. The implication is that you are free not to submit, but the writer requests that you do, and he tells them the reason: so that the leader can lead with joy and not with difficulty (groaning) and how that would ultimately be of no advantage you as a person. He is reasoning with them to encourage obedience.
Do we see such kingly authority wielded over the church in the New Testament? No. In fact, if we go by what Jesus said in Matthew 20:25-27, the early church practiced just the opposite.
The Hebrews 13:17 scripture is often cut off at just “obey.” This gives the scripture an entirely different flavor. It hands the person in charge of a congregation a level of authority that is not supported in scripture.
Our problem (and it had been mine too) is that we often merely fall into a church culture and accept it because good Christians don’t cause trouble.
In my church culture, when I would bring up something, where a Pastor had to think hard or come up with a reason for what he or she was doing, I’d get the following line from other people: “Don’t make it hard for the Pastor, He’s already under so much stress”.
Wow. I can’t imagine my job saying “You’ve got so much stress, I won’t ask you any questions or require you to explain anything. It’s way too much work.” Asking a Pastor to explain something or go through how he or she came to a decision was put on the level of being mean and uncaring!
How does it go from being all about Christ to all about the Pastor? The unsaid message, even if it’s unintentional is, cater to the Pastor. The Pastor is there to serve your spiritual needs, and if that involves being questioned to the satisfaction of a congregation or giving a biblical understanding to a person, the servant leader should show up.
Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand. (2 Corinthians 1:24)
And Now… For Some Deeper Stuff About How We Got Here
Pastoring is the gift of shepherding or caring for a group of Christians. In scripture, it’s not mentioned as a title so much as a ministerial gift that is given to the people of God to build them up in Christ.
There’s a difference between respecting the responsibility of a person’s calling in the Christian church and elevating them to the position of being a mediator between you and God. Although functions of elders and bishops are explained, the New Testament never gives an overseer special anointing or power that elevates them above any other Christian.
This idea of special anointing came from the 2nd-century change in the church where a class of priests and levels of the priesthood were developed and instituted in the Christian church. Pastors are mentioned in Ephes 4:11 once in the plural as a ministerial gift to be used along with other gifts of teaching and preaching for the building up of the body of Christ. These gifts are not all combined in one person. But the scripture says such gifts to whoever is used to build the church.
Over the last 20 years, we see a greater emphasis in the American Christian church on Pastors
One of the great changes from the old to the new covenant was that the entire body of believers is called (I Peter 2:5, 9) priest.
All Christians are first and foremost servants of Jesus Christ. In the original structure of the church, the ministerially gifted people were not separate from the laity, all were under the headship of Christ, working their gifts together in the kingdom.
25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. 26 It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave
This is the model Jesus left of the servant leader.
When I was a young Christian, it was rightly explained to me that the only difference between my Pastor and me was the responsibility for the congregation through his gifts. Yet, often people look at ministers and especially pastors as being almost mediators and place them on a pedestal.
I have worked among ministers and pastors for over 25 years. Most of them feel a certain level of power and authority by virtue of their title alone. To them, they are so high and anointed that the average church member cannot handle the information they handle. They tend to believe their members cannot offer them advice (they are out of their place) or cannot do the things they do as effectively. They tend to believe that if something is publically wrong, they have no obligation to report back to the members about what is being done nor should the members ask. Inquires and offers of assistance have often been met with the phrase “you’re not a pastor.” They have trained the people only to come to church and support them rather than teaching them to be active members in the progress and work of the kingdom.
Yes, we should and do have leadership in the church, but no one supersedes the head of the body, Jesus Christ. It’s easy to go from obeying out of respect for the responsibility to obedience out of fear of the title. There is a difference though. Obedience to those that have the “rule” evolved into to full control over the lives of the people out of “respect.” How far is too far? I had gone from respecting to obeying from obeying to loyal support to ignoring wrongdoing and then making excuses for bad behavior “because that’s a Pastor.” I had always been taught no matter whose wrong they need to be called out; the judgments of God were preached day in and day out, but only faced outward towards the people. The people couldn’t seem to turn around in kind and hold judgment on the Pastor.
A Split Based on Differing Understandings
Pastors can become drunk with power. Yet, if we follow the new testament, the power is in the hands of the people (Congregational). We should be independent which means “the local church congregation is supreme and final within its own domain.” During a church split in 2001, Acts 15 was used to indicate that our local form of church government should be Episcopal which means “the church is governed by bishops, priests and deacons” where a hierarchy makes decisions for the laity. However, it went quickly from bishops and ministers have this authority to “bishops only.” And submission was demanded based on title and position only.
When it comes to non-catholic churches, Americans tend to go between the congregational and episcopal forms in independent churches. However, Most Pastors consider themselves not only elevated above the general body but elevated above other parts of the ministerial body by a special anointing.
Thus, levels of the hierarchy are created by practice, while verbally denying unique elevation and giving lip service to equality in the ministry and the body the body of Christ. Very confusing.
I Corinthians 12:18-19
18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. 19 And if they were all one member, where were the body?
Two Quotes from Church History Study
The New Testament clearly speaks of elders (presbuteros) and overseers (episkopos). “But these ministers are nowhere represented as priests in any other sense than Christians generally are priests with the privilege of a direct access to the throne of grace in the name of their one and eternal highpriest in heaven. Even in the Pastoral Epistles which present the most advanced stage of ecclesiastical organisation in the apostolic period, while the teaching, ruling, and pastoral functions of the presbyter-bishops are fully discussed, nothing is said about a sacerdotal function”
Sacretodal meaning priestly functions.
Lorencin goes on to quote “History of the Christian Church” by Philip Schaff and says ““The New Testament knows no spiritual aristocracy or nobility, but calls all believers ‘saints’ though many fell far short of their vocation. Nor does it recognize a special priesthood in distinction from the people, as mediating between God and the laity. It knows only one high-priest, Jesus Christ, and clearly teaches the universal priesthood, as well as universal kingship, of believers. It does this in a far deeper and larger sense than the Old; in a sense, too, which even to this day is not yet fully realized. The entire body of Christians are called ‘clergy’ (hleroi), a peculiar people, the heritage of God”
Claiming strong Pastoral authority can be especially dangerous when there is no formal oversight of pastors. As we see more independent churches emerging, as we have in the last 25 years, this is something we should all take care to notice.