This post has been a long time coming… It has taken a while to get my thoughts together on this issue as it pertains to my life, personally, as well to the community of Jesus followers we call the Church.
I want to take a few minutes and talk about a condition that affects everyone that engages in a conversation of Faith through a local church. This idea is the transference of ideas from one party to another based on authority. Now, that may seem like pretty deep idea on the surface. But, this happens on a daily basis. Anytime we see a speed limit sign and take our foot off the gas pedal we are engaging in this phenomenon. We are acknowledging in that moment that an idea is being transferred to our attention about a safe rate of speed. The reason we view this idea as credible (or maybe not) is because this idea is presented from another party (namely a local government) that has authority to dictate to us reality that affects our life’s health and outcome. This happens daily in hundreds of different scenarios and many times the decision of whether these ideas affect our life is based on our perceived thoughts on the authorities involved. If we view them as credible or authentic we take notice, if we view them as unimportant we let them slip away.
I think this has huge implications for how we, as people, help others follow Jesus more honestly.
Historically (especially the last century), the person who helps people follow Jesus more honestly has held a very professional title: Minister, Pastor, Clergy etc. I am not saying this has always been the main emphasis of these positions over the last hundred years, I am saying that it has at least probably been assumed by typical Americans that this fell into their job description. This would infer that these professional title holders would be keenly responsible for helping normal people shift their actions or mindsets to better reflect the values of Christianity(and hopefully ultimately Jesus). For simplicity’s sake, lets call them “Jesus” ideas. Many would agree that the influence of these professional positions has diminished in social realms (morals, politics, culture) over the last 50 years. “Diminished” may be too kind of a word, especially as we have seen a rapid shift in cultural and political action away from the once “Moral Majority” in the last 20 years.
My question then is what is the resistance to the typical model used by professional clergy over the last 50 years that has resulted in a loss of effective transference of ideas? Is it the ideas themselves? Have the “Jesus” ideas become too archaic? Is love too weak of an action and choice in a “Capitalistic Society?” Those are good questions, but I don’t want to answer them, so I won’t. [Insert the song "My Prerogative.] I do believe, however, that no matter what you feel about the ideas themselves the transference of those ideas hinges on the perceived authority of the party transferring the ideas. So what has changed in the perceived authority of professional clergy and leaders of the Church that has resulted in the ineffective transfer of “Jesus” ideas?
Well, for the last 20 years we have reaped the results of shortcuts taken in authoritative transfer of ”Jesus” ideas. Let me explain, in American Christianity (specifically Evangelicalism, but, hey, we’re all guilty) in the last 100 years we have seen the rise of Academia within churches. Academics is king. This is ironic seeing as many of these same churches only a handful of decades ago would have scoffed in the face of academics in general (Hooray for FUN-damentalism!). We worship the Academic process. Two real world examples to prove my point, in many well established churches no one will consider a person without a professional degree in theological studies and many seminary programs within these professional degrees are instructing students in large majority about purely academic subjects such as exegesis and systematic theologies (as opposed to Christian Human Development such as leadership and character courses.) In a general sense I think these two examples communicate that Evangelicals care less about the quality/holiness of a possible minister and more about their biblical education. Now this, in someways, is fine. No one wants dumb people running around saying wrong things about Scripture. I am not anti-academics or anti-seminary.
However, the issue at hand is how authority is perceived due to this recent phenomenon. Well, as Evangelicalism gained strength in the United States we began to take a positional seat of authority based purely on educational merits. This is the downfall of many a great ideology throughout the years. When a way of thinking becomes the majority it is no longer right because of the merit of it’s claims it is right just because it is right and no vagrant can question the majority. So imagine you are the Pastor of First Baptist Church of Little Farm Town, GA in the ’50s, ’60′s, or ’70s, you would be literally one of the only voices of Spiritual perspectives available to that community at that time. If someone wanted to be religious and didn’t have the funds or the nerve to move to the city, they really only had one option or two. Compound the pressure to conform with the idea that you as Pastor had a degree that said you knew more about the Holy Book than everyone else and then it is a “no brainer”. You would almost automatically have the positional religious authority in that community. There would be no arguments or “checks and balances” with your authority by which to shift the community’s ideas about “Jesus” ideas. This is much of what we saw in this time period. Established Pastors, well-respected and rarely questioned. And this provided a lot of shortcuts, very rarely did a Pastor have to have philosophical debate with a church member because it was assumed the person was an expert on the issue, especially on a Biblical method. Why should we accept this “Jesus” idea (Atonement, Justification, Eschatological views) ? The matter was handled simply, “Well the Bible and the expert says so.”
But, then something big happened. While over the past few decades communication across the planet has grown at an exponential rate, something sent communications in lightspeed in the 1970′s. The modern Internet was invented. Now I know all the old fuddy duddys think the internet is just one of those crazy fads, but when Historians look back 100 years from now the Internet will be by far the single greatest invention of our time.
How does this affect our discussion? Well, all of a sudden over the last 20 years a community religious leader’s voice is not the only voice a person has access to. In fact, in present time through the Internet an individual on this planet can be introduced to millions of people and thus millions of religious perspectives. And even more impactful, they can test the authoritative position of Pastors. For example, when a local pastor gives a sermon his or her church members can listen to an opposing view from a scientist or another religious leader through podcasts or Youtube. Church members can also listen to better sermons from elsewhere in the country from remarkable communicators on a daily basis. In many ways some people who have no official theology degree have the ability to out -study and out-learn MDiv candidates and even some PH’D's without even having to enroll in an online University. Plus, many counter religious movements can harness the power of the internet to build communities and codify arguments in ways never available before. AND NEWSFLASH! All of this information is available from New York City to Ty Ty, GA (if you know where Ty Ty is 5 points for you!).
This is what I maintain, a pastor has been stripped of ALL positional authority in his or her local community. What I mean is that no amount of education or ordination will suffice to elevate a Pastor or any kind of follower of Jesus above another individual in the community of the World. Period. We can not approach other people in the world from the perspective of “you should obey the Bible because it says so and I say so.” Well, I mean we can, it just means that when our authority to speak into that other party’s life is examined they will find a resounding group of voices that agree that what we say is not all it is cracked up to be (especially when half the stuff we do and say doesn’t harmonize anyway). So, if we desire to have a decreasing impact for Jesus in the world let’s keep acting as if we have the right to boss everybody around because Jesus said so.
However, I believe it is of absolutely no importance or consequence to the mission of Jesus whether a pastor has positional authority
or not. In fact, in many ways I feel the loss of positional authority of pastors in the American community is of benefit to the movement of Jesus. Why? Because the movement of Jesus never hinged on the authority of humanity to speak into a person’s spiritual conversation but was completely reliant on the movement and authority of the Holy Spirit to move someone closer to Jesus. Any authority we attest to must come from our hope of the intercession of the Spirit. More on this tomorrow… or the next day… or the next day…