Monthly Archives: September 2014

In Praise of the Curmudgeon

In a second attempt at pop-social science books I recently finished Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior and this time I was not disappointed. I’m not sure how many studies I quoted to my wife but I’m pretty sure I met my quota for the year.

The second-to-last chapter in the book talked about the irrational pull of group conformity, read: peer pressure. The authors illustrated the strength of this pull by citing a study wherein the researchers told the participants that they would be taking a visual acuity test. Basically, they would be shown three lines of varying lengths and would be asked which of those three lines matched a fourth line. The test was designed to be easy.

The interesting thing about the test was that they would be taking it in a room with other people. The other people in the room were (unbeknownst to the participant) actors who were all instructed to give the same wrong answer. When all the actors gave the wrong answers most of the participants would give the wrong answer as well, having been pulled by the desire to fit in with the group. After hearing the answers of the actors the participants would doubt their own judgment: “Maybe I misunderstood the instructions” “Maybe I’m looking at this from a strange angle.” For whatever reason, the unanimity of the group, though they were giving the wrong answer, was enough to sway the participant.

But, as the authors of Sway point out, the power of group conformity comes from unanimity. A single dissenting voice is enough to “break the spell.” The researchers performed the study once again except that this time, one of the actors gave a different answer from the others, though they still gave a wrong answer. Nevertheless, having a single dissenter in the room was enough for most people to feel brave enough to give the correct answer (even when the dissenting actor was someone who was obviously vision impaired).

Group conformity and group dynamics

Sway moves on from this study to talk about group dynamics. Research cited identified four roles that are commonly filled in groups: the initiator, the support, the observer, and the blocker. The initiator is the person who comes up with the idea for the group and the blocker is the one who often opposes those new ideas. (Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Ferris is the initiator and his friend Cameron is the blocker). While we often think of the blockers as the curmudgeons of the group, Sway points out that these blockers play an important role.

Often times, initiators are overly optimistic and don’t see the dangers or pitfalls inherent in their plans. Blockers are like the breaks of a car. They prevent the group from careening towards disaster.

What’s more, the blockers are often the dissenting voice in the group, saving the group from the kind of group conformity thinking mentioned in the study above. Even if the blocker is wrong, and is eventually overruled by the group, they still contribute to the discussion, helping everyone to see the situation in a new light. Dissenting voices often force the majority to consider opposing positions and revise their position if necessary.

Group Dynamics, Blockers, and Church

Like any group, churches (staff, boards, committees, Sunday school classes, etc.) play by some of the same rules. In our staff meetings we have initiators, observers, supporters, and blockers. Sometimes we switch those roles around, depending on whose turn it is to speak. I have been reminded, however, of the important role of the dissenting voice. Leaders need to allow and listen to dissenting voices. Even if that voice is sometimes wrong, it forces the rest of the group to look at the situation from a different angle. Thank the blocker in you group today.

Pastoral Authority: What it is and what it isn’t

Several recent discussions, one on the pastoral role in general, one on pastoral abuse, and one regarding the role of women in ministry, while disconnected in content, have brought up the question of whether or not pastors (or church leaders, elders, etc.)* have authority and, if they do, what the nature of their authority is. Since I am a pastor, this is probably something I should have a handle on and it is this topic I would like to explore in this post.

Do Pastors have authority?

I need to confess that I come to this topic with a perspective this is anti-hierarchical. I believe in the priesthood of all believers. I am wary of anyone, pastor or otherwise, who claims to speak or lead with authority. So, the first question is this: Do pastors have authority in the church?

I would argue that yes, there is a place for pastoral leadership in the church and that leadership carries with it authority. Hebrews 13:7 says, “Have confidence in your leaders and respect their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” 1 Peter 5:5 says “you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders.” In this context, the term “elder” is probably referring to the office (see 1 Peter 5:1-2). In the qualifications for overseers Paul says that an elder must “manage his own family well and see that his children obey him” since to do so demonstrates that he would be able to “manage” God’s church (1 Timothy 3:4-5). So, it seems, that God intended some hierarchy within the local church structure and that the members of that church should “submit” themselves to those leaders, holding them in high esteem (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

What is that nature of that authority?

First, we need to say what it is not. Jesus teaches an “upside down” kingdom. He instructs his disciples:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28).

Similarly in the 1 Peter 5 passage referenced above Paul says that elders should lead “not pursuing dishonest gain… not lording it over those entrusted to you.” Church authority is not a power grab. It is not coercive. Submission to authorities is not something demanded by leaders, but something given voluntarily. Godly leadership looks a lot different from worldly leadership. Godly authority looks very different from worldly authority.

Authority exercised by pastors is also not independent. It is a secondary, derivative leadership. First, pastors must act in submission to Christ. There is only one Senior Pastor (Chief Shepherd) and He will hold all other under shepherds accountable (1 Peter 5:4). Second, pastors are subject to the Word. Preaching can be described as an “authoritative” action but that authority only goes so far. The Bible is authoritative but the interpretation is not. The sermon a pastor preaches can, and should be, evaluated by the hearers to ensure that it aligns with God’s revealed Word. A congregant who comes to me afterwards and tells me they think I misinterpreted a portion of Scripture is not disrespecting my authority, since my interpretation wasn’t authoritative anyway. We are both subject to the Scriptures. If I were convinced my interpretation was correct my aim would be to convince the congregant, not simply tell them to defer to me because I am an “authoritative teacher.” Third, church leaders submit themselves to the church, in a sense, since the church must watch the life and teaching of the pastor to ensure that they remain eligible for church leadership per the requirements of 1 Timothy and Titus.**

So what is the purpose of church authority? It is given for the building up of the body (Ephesians 4:11-13) and for the shepherding of the flock (1 Peter 5). The pastor is the servant following the example of Christ (Matthew 20:27-28). Pastors are to follow the example of Christ, giving of themselves for the sake of the church and doing all this as those under authority.

How do church leaders exercise their authority?

To say that pastors are fundamentally servants does not, however, flatten church structure, it just defines the way in which pastors and elders exercise leadership. Some “leadership” activities of pastors include guarding and transmitting sound doctrine (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:13-14), appointing and installing leaders (2 Tim 2:1-2; Titus 1:5), shepherding the flock, which includes feeding with spiritual food and keeping out the wolves (Acts 20:28-31). Pastors and elders also bear much of the responsibility for church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 13, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15; Matthew 18:17).

Perhaps the best “modern” word to describe the role of pastors is “responsibility.” Pastors and leaders have a heightened degree of responsibility since they are the primary teachers, interpreters, and guardians of the gospel. Their lives and teaching are viewed more closely and are held up as a model for right living. This means that leaders sometimes need to exercise authority for the protection of the flock as a whole.

This heightened responsibility, when faithfully carried out, makes pastors and church leaders worthy of respect, but they are never “above the law.” In fact, if I understand Scripture correctly, they will be judged more severely (James 3:1). It is wise and necessary, therefore, for pastors and church leaders to hold their position with utmost humility.

Bottom line: Pastors have been granted limited, derived authority, not to be “lorded over” others but for the purpose of shepherding the flock with utmost humility. If you’re a church member, godly leaders should be respected for their service. If you’re a church leader, don’t “demand” that respect. Instead, serve your church by appealing to the truth of the authoritative Word and pointing them to the true Chief Shepherd.

*From here on I will be using the term “pastor” to describe the highest leadership position in the church. Depending on your view of church structure you could read this as pastor/elder, church board, bishop, etc. The NT more often speaks of church leadership in general than pastoral leadership in particular. However, I use “pastor” here since it is the position most commonly associated with local church leadership. If pressed, I would probably argue that “pastor/elder” would be the most precise term but “pastor” smoothes out the language of the post.

**In a Baptist setting (like the one in which I am a part) this is formalized in church policy. The congregation votes to call pastors, appoint elders and deacons, and modify the church constitution. In a strict sense, the board is the “boss” of the pastor and the voting members are the “boss” of board. Even if, in your church, this isn’t upheld by church policy individual Christians still bear the responsibility to evaluate the life and teaching of their leaders.

Book Review: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming is an extended reflection on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son as recorded in Luke. Nouwen views the parable first and foremost through the lens of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name and, especially in the introduction and conclusion, through the lens of his own life. The book is divided into three parts; the younger son, the elder son, and the father. Nouwen sees himself in all three roles and invites the reader to recognize where they, too, might fit within the parable. The Return of the Prodigal Son is, as one would expect from Nouwen, honest, personal, and poetic.
There is much to love about The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen exalts in the goodness and love of the Father. His call is for readers to allow themselves to be loved as true sons and then to extend that unconditional love and favor to others. The story calls us to come home and reclaim our place as true children of God and then to become like the Father, continually being remade in his image.
For Nouwen, the primary obstacle to returning home is self-rejection and it is here where Nouwen and I begin to part ways, if not in actual theology then in emphasis. Nouwen sums up one of his key points as follows: “Here lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self-rejection, self-contempt, and self-loathing” (109). Nouwen longs to be loved but cannot imagine that he is worthy of that love so he keeps trying to earn it. This negative self-concept leads him to pride and keeps him away from his Father’s house. He begins to see himself as a slave instead of as a son. His eventual return home only happens when he understands his position as a true son who his heavenly Father loves unconditionally. I applaud Nouwen for his raw honesty, to be sure, but I worry a little about how The Return of the Prodigal Son might be understood, especially in terms of its cultural context.
There are two ways to understand Nouwen here. (1) We are valuable because we are valuable to God. We are worthy because He first loved us. Or, (2) we are valuable. Because we are worthy, God loves us.
The question is “Which comes first, our worthiness or God’s love?” One position exalts in the love of God and understands our humanity in terms of that love. The other position exalts the self and understands God’s love in terms of our inherent worth. One position describes the Biblical view. The other is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I believe Nouwen holds to the first view, that our worth is something given by God because of his first love for us. If that is the case then Nouwen’s call to self-acceptance and self-esteem is a call to realize and accept the unconditional and unlimited love and forgiveness of God. If this is Nouwen’s view then I completely agree. The problem is that our culture is swung so far into a Moralistic Therapeutic view of God (see Victoria Oosteen) that The Return of the Prodigal Son might just as well be understood as an anthem of self-love, rather than an anthem of love for God.
Adding to my concern is that Nouwen often characterizes the Father as weak and powerless to bring his children home. For Nouwen God is seeking (a view which I wholeheartedly agree with) but is only ever able to plead with his children to return. This is a popular concept of God, but one with which I am uncomfortable. Nouwen expresses God in such a way as to draw out his compassion and to highlight human will. Somehow, though, I believe we must have a view that, while affirming God’s compassion – even suffering compassion – and human free will, does not diminish God’s power to not only seek, but effectually call his children home, to raise the spiritually dead to new life.
Despite all this I still believe The Return of the Prodigal Son deserves much of the “classic” status it has already achieved. This book was spiritually refreshing for me. It was an important reminder to me that I am truly God’s child, that I am truly loved, that I am truly and unconditionally forgiven, and that I am truly free within the presence of my heavenly Father.
I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.