Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pastors-Their Role in the Church, Their Role in the Culture

I recently picked up America’s God by Mark Noll and ran across an idea early in the book that struck a chord for me. Several authors have written about the decline of the position of clergy in the American culture. It was once the case, in colonial and later history right through the 20th century, that the local minister was the resident expert on nearly every issue of importance and a highly respected individual. Recent surveys show that pastors and priests no longer hold a position like that in our contemporary culture.

Most of the time, when people lament this reality, it is framed in terms of anti-intellectualism and popular perceptions of ministers picked up from scandals and televangelists. I think these analyses have a lot going for them, but Noll brought something to this table I found interesting.

He noted that local pastors were held in high esteem in large part because of the theology of early America. Because, theologically speaking, the role of pastor was a position of high calling and esteem within the body of Christ, it became a public reality that ministers were held in high esteem.

Advancing Noll’s comment to current trends in ecclesiology and theology, one of the factors that may be leading to the diminished cultural role of the pastor is the diminished role he or she plays within the church. With evangelicalism’s thirst for everything contemporary, while corporate authority structures have been allegedly “flattened,” giving more of a team atmosphere to employees, our ecclesiology is following suit. If American people want to feel empowered and have a significant role in the direction of a church, it seems evident to many that we should flatten the authority structure, thus implicitly (if not explicitly) reducing the status and role of the pastor. We are, after all, a nation of priests, aren’t we?

Is the flattening of the church structure a good thing, bad thing, or mixed bag? Has it helped lead to the relative irrelevance of pastors in the culture at large? Has this trend in evangelicalism traded an ecclesiology gleaned from Scripture for one pulled from today’s best sellers?


Roopster said...

Here are my thoughts on this subject:

Anonymous said...

Well, sir, I'm hardly an expert on the subject, so take my two cents with a grain of salt.

Now, not to pick on any particular denominations, but I once asked our pastor (PCA) what had led to the decline of the Presbyterian church in our country, given its predominance in the early years of the nation. He had said that part of it was the encroachment of theological liberalism, but that wasn't the whole story, because that affected all of the big established denominations. Another large aspect was the Presbyterian church's insistence on educated pastors (a good thing), which meant that there was generally a lower supply of them available as the nation's population started exploding westward. Other denominations (eg Methodists and Baptists) had less of an insistence upon such highly educated pastors, and so they started to predominate with expansion.

As to your last question, however, personally I think it's a bad thing. I think that, if you look at the Titus and 1 Timothy qualifications for deacons and elders (and hence pastors), it's clear that these are high callings. The priesthood of believers has to do with a person's ability to approach God personally, not with a person's ability to clearly and precisely expound the Scriptures and lead the ekklesia.

Oddly enough, while it seems that the authority structure is in many ways flattened in contemporary churches, at the same time there is an over-emphasis (IMO) on a "dictatorial" single authority figure at the head of the church. Too much emphasis is placed on one man's personality. Personally, I am glad of the fact that our pastor is a "teaching elder" and does not bear the full responsibility of leading the church.