Authority in the Local Church

Ah, now that word authority is likely to get some to have a few things to say. Many of us might sympathize with Joseph Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry, when he says this:

One Sunday I informed my congregation that I would not make a very good Democrat because I do not trust big government. Then I remarked that I would not make a very good Republican because I do not trust big business. Finally, I said that I probably do not make a very good pastor … because I do not trust big-church religion (205).

Hellerman then gives examples of misused authority by church leaders. What is going on? Why? Hellerman proposes:

The volatile combination of (a) emotionally needy, narcissistic leaders appealing to (b) naively receptive followers (c) corporate, institutional settings proves to be a set-up  for the abuse of ministerial authority (256-257).

Add to this an almost solo concept of power or authority, and add to this the fact that knowledge is power and pastors have knowledge (often unchallenged), and you’ve got the making of problems. And add to this the desire for people to come to church and hear a good sermon, so that the good sermon-maker rises to the top of a church and, bingo, you’ve got churches that are shaped not by the gospel but by something else. Churches need crosses at the front of their buildings to remind the congregation (and the pastors) that the Way of Jesus is the Way of the Cross. Rome had its throne, the church has its cross.

In a recent lecture of mine at Northern Seminary on Paul’s praxis of pastoral authority in the Corinthian letters I came again up against nothing less than an astounding set of categories by Paul — just read passages like 1 Corinthians 9 or 2 Cor 2-7 and you will see a man whose concept of pastoring was established by the Way of Jesus, outlined in poetic form in Philippians 2:6-11, instead of anything approaching the authority-obsessed expressions we hear so much of today. I wonder if we could imagine Paul even using the term “leader” the way it is often used today. Paul had rights and obsessively chose to surrender rights for the good of others.

Hellerman is not a radical: he does not believe authority is the pastor or in the congregation, but more in Christ working through shared leadership. But the church’s pastor emerge out of the congregation marked by community life. And leaders need to be marked by three features: (1) spiritual maturity, (2) transparency, and (3) community exhibited among the leaders/pastors.

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