On Authority – Part 3

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on my thinking about the subject of spiritual authority. If you are just beginning to read on the subject and are interested, check out part 1 and part 2. In the final installment of this series, I will attempt to determine what ideal spiritual authority is.

After surveying the disaster of spiritual authority that I saw all around me, I set about trying to understand what good authority might look like. I began at once to wonder if spiritual anarchy was the way to govern a religious movement. I quickly dismissed this after a small amount of thought – in my experience, it was a humble leader, whose authority came only from his/her adherence to a moral/scholarly standard external to themselves that got things moving. Any movement gains momentum though a charismatic champion devoted to some cause external to themselves. This seems true of a religious movement as well.

If a spiritual leader championed intellectual study with a focus on fostering a personal relationship with God, I would be a happy follower. But I would not be a follower in the sense of being an unquestioning servant, I would instead be a brother to the leader, but a servant to the cause. So how again is the spiritual authority actually in some kind of “authority” over me?

One thing that must be made apparent is that if God is understanding about the sordid state of affairs – of bad religion and corrupt spiritual authority, He must put the ability to choose who is to be in charge of us in our own hands. We as spiritual people are to choose who our authorities are. This sounds good, but suddenly muddies the definition of the concept of “authority.” If we have the choice, it appears that they are not authorities at all in the sense that I understand it.

So what is spiritual “authority” and why should I be a “servant” to it? Well, I guess I have begun to think of it this way: First and foremost, I am a servant of the truth, and as long as there is spiritual truth, I am a servant to it as well. I want more than anything to find truth and live by it, even if it goes against the leanings of my selfish nature. So just as I would willingly listen to the opinions of great scientists that excel in some area of study of the natural world, I would willingly listen to a religious scholar in their specific area of study regarding the spiritual world. Why? Because what makes a great scientist or religious scholar is their devotion to the best standards and methods for finding truth – either about the natural world or the spiritual one. So I am saying that I will listen to them based solely on the merit of their truth-finding methodologies – in other words, their command of common sense, logic, and rationality.

What this means, of course, is that as a servant of truth, I must become very familiar with the best methods of finding it. There are many truthful things in life and in this existence to be discovered, and specific kinds of truth require different methods for determining if it is reality or not. The physical world has its tools, and likewise the spiritual. Specifically regarding the spiritual, it is safe to say they are not as obvious and straight-forward as the ones available to the physical one. But as a student of all truth, I must learn these intricacies. If I do not, I will be at the mercy of quack scientists and corrupt religious authorities.

Based on my previous reasoning, I believe the bible scholar to be the only legitimate authority for spiritual truth in today’s civilized society. So one may ask, where does this then leave the pastor/priest or other non-scholar type in terms of authority over others?

Here is my best guess on this as of today: these are the middle-men, the ones who relay the work of the scholars to the non-scholar. But a scholar can do the same though books and speaking engagements. It seems that more importantly, these people are also the ones called by God to continually work and pray for the spiritual growth of those they come in contact with as anyone who attends the church, not just the paying members or even the regulars. This is work a scholar does not have time to do, because there main focus is detailed scholarly work.

So any authority beyond this description is a pastor who has overstepped his/her bounds and is no longer operating in a legitimate fashion and should be ignored. I have read books that say there can be no Christian organization that is not under the authority of a pastor, such as any para-church ministry. But their reasons are hypocritical. There reasoning is that these ministries have no accountability, so they will slip into corruption. Yes, and so will any pastor or denomination lead by one person or a board of people – all are susceptible to the same moral corruption as the para-church ministry.

And this leads to my final point that I will only summarize here. That is the concept of spiritual accountability. It seems that an everyday spiritual person needs accountability to continue living a thriving spiritual life, and leaders are not exceptions. I do not believe that corruption in leadership can be removed by the presence of an elder-lead church, nor a denomination led by a single person, or even one led by a board of directors. I have seen each of these systems fail entirely, so neither the little king model, the non-profit business model, nor the franchise model work for thriving spiritual communities because they have continually failed in my experience to insulate themselves from corruption, I believe because they have neglected the vital role of accountability within their structure.

My next step then is to explore how the aspect of spiritual accountability can successfully take place and be effective, both to the everyday person and more importantly, to spiritual authorities. If my spiritual life is to thrive, I must figure this out…

    4 Responses to “On Authority – Part 3”

    1. Behind the Infamous Veil (BiV)

      I will certainly be interested to read your conclusions. I think this question is especially vital to Mormons. I’ve experienced quite a bit of ecclesiastical abuse within my church, for all the reasons you have mentioned. But an additional element which you haven’t really covered is fear. For us, there is always the fear that if you don’t go along with the authority of your spiritual leaders, you will lose your membership through excommunication. I think all Mormon leaders, from the prophets and apostles to the local leaders, have an inordinate amount of power over their members because they always have the option to remove a threat to their authority in this way. So while there is accountability to a hierarchical organization, there really is no accountability to the general membership. We can’t decide, as a congregation, that our leader is out of line, and remove him from his place.

      You mentioned several models of spiritual leadership–which do you think the Mormon church falls under? It seems to resemble the non-profit business model in many ways, but there are many elements of dictatorship involved.

      I have enjoyed your discussion of these issues and think they are quite important to the spiritual life. I agree with you that spiritual authorities are helpful and perhaps necessary when functioning properly. It’s difficult, without higher authority, to stay on course doctrinally and spiritually. It’s helpful to have a goad, an arbiter, a leader within each group of believers. I don’t wish to negate the need for spiritual leadership. So it’s important to discuss the issue of spiritual accountability and models of spiritual leadership.

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    2. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      BiV, Great to hear from you again!
      That is discouraging that you have to deal with fear of excommunication… That isn’t the case with Protestant Christianity – if you don’t like the leadership, you just leave for the next church down the road. I suppose that is good thing and a curse.

      Sounds like the Mormon leaders you talk about have the same leanings as my old pastor – remove people who threaten your leadership. (I hope they are not all this way!) My old pastor did this by ridiculing people in sermons, and referring to them in generalized terms about how they are “black sheep” or “wolves.” As things go, not too bad really– I’m sure it gets much worse for other people in other bad churches, but it really upset me. He did other things that I’ve best heard referred to as “spiritual abuse” – they can turn other people in the congregation against you – your friends and everyone, because you don’t agree with them. That’s what really upset me the most.

      Out of all the leadership models I’ve seen – it appears like you are a different brand – I would use your term – the dictatorship model. It would be a combination of vassel kings and a dictator – all organized and centralized with the power to excommunicate a person from the entire body. This is way too much power for people who by nature will become selfish and corrupt. The system needs to have some checks and balances. A better system would be to de-centralize leadership. This way the corruption isn’t pervasive, you can just go to the independent church down the street and be back on track again if the top dog in your church doesn’t like you because of their ego problem (that you are exacerbating).

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    3. carol

      Hi, I just saw all of your postings, simply because I am in a situation with my pastor that is quite distressing. I want to leave my church and attend another in my city, both are solidly grounded in the true gospel. I have been told that the only way to leave is death, excommunication or transferring my membership, but it must be prefaced with a legitmate Biblical reason. I gave him a reason in the beginning, which consisted of my oldest daughter, son-in-law, and grandson, are finally going to church, and I want to be able to go with them. I am so excited they are finally in agreement after about 5 years. However, I have been told that I am being self centered and only thinking of what I want and that I need to explain myself. He sent me a very hostile email, and I am trying to understand whether church membership is a disputable matter, in the sense of my deciding where I go based on Biblical foundations. It would be nice to hear your opinion. THanks so much

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    4. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      Thanks so much for stopping by and reading! I’m sorry to hear about things turning sour at your church. I obviously don’t know the whole story, but it definitely does seem strange that your pastor is being so hostile over you leaving to be with… your family at another church?! A more appropriate response would be sadness to see you leave, but an understanding that your family and their spiritual growth is important and something you should be involved in! A family in our church just left so they could be close to another family member who just became a Christian and wanted to attend a church close to where he lived. They left so they could all attend another church together in another town. You have legitimate reasons for wanting to go!

      My father has been in the ministry all his life. My wife’s father was also in the ministry as a pastor. Both of them have been involved with various Protestant denominations. In their opinion and understanding, church membership is mostly a modern thing that has more to do with churchs in this country being non-profit organizations and thus need numbers for the books for the IRS. It has very little to do with anything spiritual. Not being a member of a church has nothing to do with any Biblical rule from God, but just a cultural thing for today. I haven’t been a member of numerous church’s I’ve attended in the past. No big deal.

      A baptist church I attended took things to the extreme and told me that if I left a church, I needed to take transfer papers stating why, and that not being a contractual “signed” member of a church at any point is actually a sin. Your pastor sounds unusually strange if he is threatening you with excommunication. Such a thing is impossible to do in Protestant Christianity – a pastor has no authority to do such a thing – why would God listen to a fallen human being to determine another’s eternal destiny?! Ridiculous. Only God makes those decisions since he is infinitely knowledgeable in who you are.

      As I said before, I obviously don’t know you’re whole situation, but you are absolutely within your right as a Christian with freedom to go to any church you want, especially if the church you are going to is becoming a bad place to be. I think this happens a lot. If a church turns bad, God will lead good people away from it and move them to a healthier congregation where they can heal and once again enjoy a good community of Christians.

      Good luck! I will be praying for you!

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