Pastoral Authority and Questions

Alastair Roberts and I have some interesting points of contact.  He lives in Durham, likes English cricket and cathedral cities, and enjoys word games.  Yesterday, I listened to Test Match Special while driving through Durham.  In the last two days I also hit cathedral cities in Lancaster and Oxford, and Sunday passed Westminster Cathedral and Abbey, and walked around St. Paul’s.  My feet hurt, but my cathedral city bona fides are impeccable!  Not only that, I play a mean game of Boggle! 🙂

That’s all fun but irrelevant.  What is relevant is his article on a really important topic.  The title, The Loss of Pastoral Credibility in the Age of the Internet, doesn’t really do it justice (not that I have a better suggestion).  The essence of the article is that many pastors are losing credibility because they can’t answer questions or challenges well.

I’ve found this to be true.  Some pastors can’t handle being questioned.  Even when they preach / teach the truth, they aren’t prepared to answer questions as to why their teaching is true.

Why do I say the article is not optimally titled?  Simply, this was an issue long before the Internet.  The ‘Net encourages people to challenge or question claims to truth and authority but also encourages credibility for those who support what they say.  The Internet really does nothing more than highlight the real problem — some pastors are not able or willing to back up what they say.

Around this point, it can start to dawn on one that many church leaders have only been trained in forms of discourse such as the sermon and, to a much lesser extent, the essay. Both forms privilege a single voice—their voice—and don’t provide a natural space for response, questioning, and challenge. Their opinions have been assumed to be superior to opposing viewpoints, but have never been demonstrated to be so.

Ever know a pastor like this?  I have.  The following paragraph is (in my view) the most important of his article:

The teachers of the Church provide the members of the Church with a model for their own thinking. The teacher of the Church does not just teach others what to believe, but also how to believe, and the process by which one arrives at a theological position. This is one reason why it is crucial that teachers ‘show their working’ on a regular basis. When teaching from a biblical text, for instance, the teacher isn’t just teaching the meaning of that particular text, but how Scripture should be approached and interpreted more generally. An essential part of the teaching that the members of any church need is that of dealing with opposing viewpoints. One way or another, every church provides such teaching. However, the lesson conveyed in all too many churches is that opposing voices are to be dismissed, ignored, or ‘answered’ with a reactive reassertion of the dogmatic line, rather than a reasoned response.

If I do not, as a pastor, model how to learn the Bible, how to interpret it, how to interact with those who question, challenge, or outright disagree, I am not teaching the people in our church all they need to learn.  If I do not listen, I am not teaching listening.  If I do not interact in a godly way with those who have questions, I am not preparing anyone to deal with questions.  If I do not do these things, I am not training people to lead, I am just training people to be loud.

Alastair’s article is excellent.  I would encourage all to read it.  If anyone in our church wonders about my references to context, or the Biblical history behind a text (what was going on in Israel when Isaiah wrote?), or my occasional mention of the original languages, or even a comment that other Christians might believe differently, Alastair’s article gives much of my thinking.  If you wonder why I so welcome questions, even challenging ones, he explains it.

In my preaching and teaching, I am not merely trying to give you the right answer on the text, I am trying to model how to arrive at the right answers.  I do not want you to accept MY answer, because I am fallible.  I want you to see for yourself that it is really what the text is saying — and to question me if you can’t see that.  I don’t want you to be surprised or unprepared if someone challenges what I teach or what you believe.  I want you to be ready to answer, not be easily swayed.

What Alistair says about what pastoral ministry is right.  Pastors should be prepared to give the reasons, the basis, for what they say and teach.  They should be ready to listen to questions and deal with the substance of them.  They should not crumble when challenged.

But unfortunately (and somewhat ironically, given his challenge to pastors), Alastair mostly fails to give the real reasons, the real basis, for what he is saying — mostly, he just asserts it.  He provides some key elements of a Biblical philosophy of pastoral teaching without actually providing the Biblical basis for it.  And presumably, we should start with Scripture in figuring out how pastors should teach.

So on that point, I’ll help him out. 🙂

Pastors should encourage people to test what they say by the Scriptures, rather than wanting them to accept teaching unquestioningly.  Such behaviour is “noble.”

Acts 17:11  

These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

Pastors need to be able, not just to tell the truth, but to show why false teaching is in error.

Titus 1:9

Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.

Pastors should listen carefully, and not become angry when questioned or challenged.  They need to make sure they actually answer the question (sometimes that means listening well enough to hear beyond the words, to the real question, and not being impatient with those who struggle to express themselves well).

Proverbs 18:13

He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.

James 1:19

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:

Pastors should be patient teachers, listening and carefully responding to questions and challenges rather than brushing them off or (worse) engaging in conflict over them.  

II Timothy 2:24

And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient,

Pastors should be equipping others in the church to answer questions and refute error, and we can’t equip others to do it if we don’t do it well.

II Timothy 2:2

And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.

Alistair’s article doesn’t give the Scriptural basis for the points he makes, but they are Scripturally sound.  The instructions in the verses I’ve cited predate the Internet by a few years. 🙂 Pastors are not popes, handing down infallible ex cathedra answers from on high — that model of teaching / leadership is Biblically and spiritually bankrupt.  We need to teach, and respond to questions and challenges, in a way that reflects what the Bible says a pastor is — even if it is harder work and requires a lot more humility and preparation.  But when did more humility and diligent study ever hurt a pastor?



About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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6 Responses to Pastoral Authority and Questions

  1. Brian says:

    Nicely put Jon.

  2. If a pastor ever says he is not to be questioned, then he is nothing more than a cult leader.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hi, Glenn. I agree with the sentiment, but I have to consider that an overstatement. Many who teach and preach the truth have been taught a wrong view on pastoral authority, and may say such a thing but would never actually take it to the extreme of saying people should condone false teaching or pastoral sin.

      This one area of error is certainly cult-like and very dangerous, but it doesn’t necessarily characterise a man’s entire ministry. I left a church in large part over just this kind of teaching. It is horrible. But I would never call that pastor a cult leader.

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