The issue I would like to take up here is that of the church and authority. This is another broad and varied topic, so in the interest of focus, I want to relate the role of pastor as authority to the typical view of authority in culture at large. In order to expound on my points, I will be doing some interacting with an article written in Faithworks.com on the role of preaching today.
It has been argued often that one of the hallmarks of the postmodern age is that authority has been stripped of its power, or as one emergent leader puts it, the “Wizard of Oz has been revealed” and there is no going back. I would agree to a certain extent that postmodern skepticism has lead large portions of our culture to question authority, but I would argue that this is only one side of the coin. I think it is actually impossible to tear down one authority without erecting another, so the more accurate picture of postmodern anti-authoritarianism is not one of a vacuum of extra-subjective authority, but of a search for other extra-subjective authority. Another possibility is total subjectivism, but since postmodernism places such a high premium on community in its intentions, I will avoid that issue for now.
Specifically it is said that the role of preaching has shifted, or more appropriately needs to shift, from a role of authority to one of “fellow traveler.” I find this point of view unconvincing for several reasons. First, let me qualify my position. In no way do I think pastors are experts in the sense that they should or do have the answers to every question and the right apologetic argument for every occasion. But I do think that pastors are in a unique position with regard to the church, and just as Medical Doctors are expected to know more about human anatomy than the average patient, pastors should be more conversant with Scripture, Theology, and Christian spirituality than the average congregant. In short (because this is a blog and not a full-blown article), to be any less on purpose is negligence on the part of the pastor. I don’t believe God places people in roles of spiritual leadership because they are extra-emotional or ultra-sensitive to spiritual matters; He calls people who have a “knack” for pastoral/teaching/prophetic leadership.
Reading the interview in Faithworks.com highlighted this point. The leaders interviewed firmly believed that the walls of authority needed to be broken down between the pastor and the lay-person. Do they want the same thing from tax lawyers or emergency room doctors? I doubt they do. If this is true and they don’t want “expert” pastors but do want expert doctors and lawyers, I think they are open to the charge of building an artificial wall between science and religion-a distinctly Modern point of view. Why should science need trained experts and religion not need them? In this point of view, it is because science is an objective and “hard” discipline and religion is a subjective and “soft” discipline. I don’t think the pastors interviewed for Faithworks.com really want to argue that.
Secondly, the pastors in the article intimated that they were experimenting with new and fresh ways of sermonizing. They said they were preparing less and less in a traditional way (commentaries, language helps, etc.) and depending on spontaneity and the inspiration of the moment instead. A key point in their argument for this new form of preparation was that they did not see how preaching, traditionally understood, ever helped anyone. I have made similar points before, but it is interesting to me that a movement (Emergent ministry) which claims to be digging back to the origins of Christianity can miss so much historical detail. Preaching, traditionally understood, has moved not only the lives of individuals, but nations as well. We should be reminded of the power of Augustine’s homilies (and by extension, Ambrose’s preaching) or the abolitionist preaching of the 19th century in England and the United States. Maybe slavery wasn’t really that important of an issue, though. Ultimately, the point of view that traditional preparation only stifles the moment and impact of preaching is based on a faulty argument.
I want to return to my fundamental point. In trying to get rid of the authority of the pastoral role, ministers simply replace it with the authority of the masses. In essence the masses have become sovereign. This is another large issue, and I can hear people saying that that is exactly the point, but I think it is a dangerous road to travel. First, the church has no sovereign but God and His specific revelation. Anything which replaces that is idolatry. Second, the masses are never a good test for truth. Just because people like something in droves or majorities does not make it right. To interpret and apply Scripture according to the voice of the masses is a dangerous, and relativistic, enterprise. Pastors need to be pastors. That does not mean they should be or ever will be perfect in their knowledge of God or spiritual application, but they should never replace diligence and their vocational call with laziness and intentional ineptitude.
Again, I am not arguing for an authoritarian role for pastors. What I am arguing is that to strip the position of pastor of these responsibilities (study, interaction with other sources, etc.) is too much of a capitulation to contemporary culture. Pastors need to be (and in fact are) fellow travelers, but they also need to be more than just that.