Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pastoral Authority

Apparently the topic of pastoral authority remains a lively topic of discussion out there. Doing a Google search of the words in the title within quotation marks I secured 60,800 hits. I then added the word Lutheran outside the quotation marks and still got 8,720 hits. I further added LCMS to the list and received 358 hits. Using the word "Lutheran Church Missouri Synod" only raised it to 396 hits. Interestingly enough, Dr. Mary Todd's book Authority Vested was the first listed in that last search.

Having served as a pastor for over 20 years I have seen a variety of reactions to pastoral authority. Some view the Office quite highly, deferring to the pastor on any and all questions pertaining to the church. Others approach the issue from the opposite side of the spectrum, challenging anything and everything the pastor says. Certainly those who hold this office have at time abused its authority and claimed power outside the boundaries of the Call and should be challenged. They rule their parishes with the iron fist of a little dictator. To the other extreme we have those who are glorified door mats over which all walk indiscriminately without any thought of his presence. Disrespect to the man brings disrespect to the Office and thus to God Himself.

I suspect that the majority of average Lutheran parishes fall somewhere in the middle as with most things. My experience itself falls in that in-between zone. It has never been my practice to 'demand' respect, since those who don't have it certainly cannot be forced. Sometimes people become conflicted between the man occupying the Office and the Office itself. They dispise the man so much they cannot bring themselves to respect him despite the Office. One sees this a lot with people in political office as well. In times past we used to tell our children that even if they didn't 'like' the person they had to respect the office that person held and act accordingly.

A dilemma, though, presents itself in the actual practice of using pastoral authority. For example, at what point does a pastor firmly assert his authority, especially in a public meeting? And how does he assert that authority? Of course, the only authority a pastor has is the authority of the Word of God. If God speaks clearly in His Word, His people must listen and heed. Yet what about those times when God's people are at odds over the interpretation of that Word, each side passionately insisting that their point is the Truth? When debate gets overly emotional and the pastor's authority is questioned and the Office is not respected, should a pastor himself suspend the meeting and quietly leave until another time can be scheduled when the 'climate' has cooled enough for more rational discussion? Surely allowing an argumentative atmosphere to develop in a public meeting is never healthy, and is never productive.

In our society today authority of any type seems at a low point once again. Every man is his own expert, and every man is his own authority. Individualism trumpts community. Such is the cultural terrain we must travel even on the holy ground of God's Temple.

Any thoughts or insights out there?


Jeff said...

I think it would be great to have 2 groups in the congregation be passionate about the truth! It is the pastor's job, just like Philip, to explain the Word and guide them in the truth. However, I have not seen that (passion for the truth) to be the case and it is especially frustrating to find that it isn't the truth that many members seek. They want their opinions to be verified (ie open communion) and any pastor that will not agree with that must be the wrong pastor for them. I would like to think that as a member of an LCMS congregation everyone at one point was instructed in it's doctrine. So why such a division? It isn't just the lay members of the church either, as you well know. When a new pastor comes in and has to basically start from scratch teaching the fundamentals of what the members should have known all along you have to wonder where our leaders are. But then, as I recently found out, some of the leaders can't even interpret their own Constitution.

Thank you for an enligtening topic!


Don Engebretson said...

Thank you, Benny, for your comment.

Like you there are members out there who are "passionate about the truth," and that is encouraging to pastors such as myself!

I think one of the areas that causes problems is when people feel they are passionate about the truth, but don't fully understand the issue. They are passionate about the truth as they believe it to be. The pastor was usually the resource to help such people work through their confusion, but, as the topic of this post addressed, some don't respect the pastor's authority and training in the Word, feeling that their thoughts and opinions are equally grounded in truth. It then becomes no more than a "he said, she said" kind of argument.

Anonymous said...

The most difficult situations arise for me as a pastor with members of the congregation who repect me but not the Office. In conflict situations among members it makes it difficult to lead and thus the congregation flouders for lack of perceived authority, guidance and leadership. Programming stagnates, morale declines and fingers point. How can we in such corcumstances move the people of God forward?