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Friday, January 27, 2006

Thoughts on Authority

One thing I've noticed over the years is how very dependent ministry tends to be on authority. Pastors preach with the authority given to them by their calling, position, and seminary education. Church planters operate out of the authority of the Great Commission and of the agency that sends them. We teach our people to evangelize out of the authority of scripture. What I've come to understand, though, it that I don't actually have any authority. Not only that, but I'm better off without it.

Pastors who lord spiritual authority over their church members end up being resented. I know this because I once had a pastor who knew ancient Greek. To him, this secret knowledge made him the authority on all things pertaining to the scriptures. His sermons were long, boring lessons in parsing Greek verbs and ancient etymologies. Anyone who questioned the pastor's interpretation was answered with, "But you don't understand the original Greek." The attitude of the entire church was affected by the pastors "authoritative" influence. Members eventually gave up trying to search the scriptures, because they felt inadequate.

When I was a kid, we went through evangelism training that focused on the authority of the Word of God. "Don't share the gospel out of your own experience," I remember the teacher saying, "only the Word of God has any authority in evangelism." At the time, we agreed, because, as we had memorized in week six, it was "the power of God unto salvation." The idea of having authority was empowering to us. From then on, when we were made fun of for trying to share the Roman Road with the cool kids at school, we comforted ourselves with, "They aren't rejecting us. They're rejecting God."

Church planters often cite Matthew 28:19-20 as the passage of scripture God used to call them to the mission field. The verses speak to the subject of authority with Jesus saying, "All authority in heaven in earth is given to me. Therefore go..." I always took this to mean that He was the boss, and therefore we, as His followers were obligated to obey. Maybe that's where we get the idea that we need some sort of authority in order to do ministry.

Authority is a funny thing, though. It has to be given by someone higher up in order for it to be legitimate, and it has to be honored by the people under the authority in order for it to be any authority at all. The scriptures, for example, are indeed authoritative. But there are millions of people who do not respect that authority. Their disregard doesn't make the Bible less true, but it makes its authority a moot point as far as they are concerned.

So in sharing the gospel with people, we could assert the Bible's authority (or our own, as professionals), but it seems that what people need to hear is the usefulness, or the beauty, or the power of the Word. Rather than "Because it says so, that's why." (Did your mom ever pull the "Because I said so?" How did you respond?) We might instead share our personal stories, even though we have no authority at all. We could even ask permission to speak to certain issues, and follow cultural norms in order to get to a place where we can share personal spiritual experiences in appropriate ways. I know. My Evangelism Explosion teacher would be very disappointed with me.

I know what you're going to say: "The Bible is our authority, and it's theirs too, whether they like it or not." And then you'll say,"The gospel is offensive. You shouldn't water it down or candy-coat it in some lame attempt to make it attractive." While you may be right, I would probably just delete your annoying comment because, well, I have the authority to do that sort of thing around here. Even if you post in ancient Greek and quote lots of scripture.

I'm kidding. Mostly.


Wes Kenney said...

I appreciate this post, not so much for what is says as for what it says about you. It seems you believe, as I do, that an authoritative evangelistic message is useless outside the context of relationship. For the first two years in my previous ministry (youth), there were very few visible results (public decisions, baptisms, etc.). I invested myself in getting to know students and being involved in their lives. I announced basketball games, I painted pretty logos on the football field, I drove our church bus to away games, I spent time at the school, I did whatever I could to be with students. And I was not pushy about getting them to church or anything else. I just invited and stayed involved in their lives.

There were those in the church who complained about the lack of results, but when one of the most popular students in the school, one of our members, committed suicide, I was in a position to do more ministry that week than I could have possibly done in the preceding two years.

I have also had experience with an 'authoritative' pastor. This one had no need for Greek, as he spoke seventeenth century English just fine. To this man, eschatology was, not just theology, but soteriology as well. If you didn't share his pre-mil, pre-trib, human-history-as a-week-of-thousand-year-days dispensationalism, chances are you were lost. And this 'authority' had a similar discouraging effect to the one you describe.

Thanks for the post; I hope my thoughts contribute...

Wes Kenney said...

Okay, I didn't intend my opening sentence above to sound dismissive of what you had written. Sorry. I am suddenly incapable of making sense. I need a nap.

Thanks for your work...

stepchild said...

Thanks-your comment said it better than my original post! So now I have a question for you: Why is it that a real relationship needs to be the context of evangelism? (I touched on this a while back, but I'd like to hear what you have to say.) Is it a new thing, a societal change due to postmodernism? Or has it always been this way, and our spiritual fathers took some "shortcuts" with their evangelistic endeavors?

I've received a couple of emails lately, and I thought I should let you know- I have several co-workers that read this site almost daily. For now, they aren't comfortable posting. But they appreciate your input into the conversation!

Wes Kenney said...

My grandfather was a pastor for the last half of his life, and he would wear a red ribbon on his suit jacket (which he wore even on Saturdays) so that people would ask him about it on the street. This was before the days of awareness ribbons, and he would witness to anyone who began a conversation. I don't know how many were saved as a result of this, but he did it for several years. I recognize that is the Spirit that does the drawing and converting, so I believe He can use this method effectively to draw people to Himself.

But this is obviously a contrast with the type of relational evangelism we are discussing. I think that our effectiveness is multiplied when we share Christ with those with whom we have an established relationship, because the 'discipleship' begins with the relationship, in that that is how long they have been observing our life's example. A street preacher might gain a convert, and I trust that God can lead that person to an outlet for effective discipleship, but a relational evangelist being used by the Spirit almost always makes a disciple.

I was going to say something brilliant about Christ's example of meeting physical needs, but my brain is now empty.

Praying for you...