Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I Pledge Allegiance to . . . the Pastor?

As many IFB leaders continue to defend the actions of Chuck Phelps in the Tina Anderson rape case, I feel sickened by what I believe is a wide-spread problem in fundamentalism: an unbiblical, unquestioning allegiance to pastors and other religious leaders (e.g. college presidents, evangelists, missionaries). Let me first state that I am not on the attack against pastors and other church leaders. Though my husband is not a pastor, he does have a master of arts in Bible exposition, is a former college Bible professor, was a song leader for a retirement community congregation, and is now pursuing his masters of theology so that he can return to full-time ministry as either an assistant pastor or as a professor who will be training, among others, future pastors. I fully support my husband in his call to ministry. Additionally, I have great respect for my current pastor: he is a man of integrity who seeks to rightly divide the Word each week, as is the pastor of my "home" church in New Hampshire. 

As men who speak the unpopular truths of the Scriptures, pastors will naturally be met with opposition and possibly even disdain, from both inside and outside the church. When a pastor is being attacked on the op-ed page for stating that Christ is the only way of salvation or that premarital sex is outside God's design, the congregation most certainly should stand by him and even stand up for him. But what I'm concerned about is a far different thing. Let me cite a few examples I've come across recently. A Dallas-area pastor was arrested in May for allegedly raping a woman in West Virginia while he claimed to be at a pastors' conference. (News stations reported that this was actually the second such charge against the man. The first charge was in Texas.) A few days after his arrest, the pastor committed suicide in his jail cell. Thankfully, his assistant pastor, when interviewed by a Dallas news station, declared that he would not sweep anything under the rug, and I hope he holds to that. But, not everyone is willing to face the fact that the pastor they thought was a godly man was actually living a lie. A fellow preacher friend wrote an article praising the alleged rapist-pastor ad-nauseam as a devoted family man and faithful pastor, essentially ignoring the charges against him and instead referring to "mystery" surrounding his death.

Last week I listened to an audio-documentary referencing some of the more troubling doctrines of the late Dr. Jack Hyles. The producer played an audio clip of Hyles claiming his pastoral staff members were so loyal to him that they would jump off a bridge or drink poison had he told them to. Hyles praised this type of loyalty in all seriousness. Essentially, Hyles was presenting the rule—sometimes spoken, sometimes only implied—in fundamentalism that the pastor is not to be questioned. After all, he is "God's man," "God's anointed." 

These are extreme examples, yes, so I'll bring it closer to home. While teaching at Pensacola Christian College, I had occasion to hear many guest preachers in chapel. During lunch after hearing one guest preacher, a colleague had difficulty with something the speaker had said, but I could tell she was afraid to question him. I can't remember her actual words, but if I can paraphrase what she was saying and what she left unsaid, it would go like this: "He's a pastor, so he must know more about the Bible than I do; therefore, he's right and I'm wrong." No need to research it for herself: a pastor said it, that settles it.

No, no, no, no! I believe the Bible clearly demonstrates that pastors are not to be followed ignorantly. For instance, even the apostle Peter was rebuked by Paul on a doctrinal issue (See Gal. 2). If an apostle can err, cannot pastors of today? I suppose Paul could have taken the approach that Peter is God's man, one who learned from Christ himself. Like many of today's congregants, he could have thought, "Oh, Peter must know better than I" and left Peter unchecked, but he did not and could not.

Consider the New Testament warnings against false teachers. I'll just give one example from the many found in the epistles. Jude wrote, "For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ" (verse 4 ESV). Notice the words "crept in unnoticed." It sure would be nice if we could spot a false teacher or a pastor who's living in sin by his appearance alone, but we can't. Appearances are deceiving. How were Jude's readers to recognize a false teacher then? They were to compare his teachings to the true gospel. No blind acceptance of what the preacher said here. Jude's readers, like us, were to wear their proverbial thinking caps, filtering all they heard through the truth of God's Word. In the case of pastors who stand accused of sex crimes, abuse of children, tax evasion, and so on, we must be willing to investigate rather than take the pastor's version of events or claims that he is merely suffering persecution. A pastor who does not welcome such investigation is to be feared, for he is not allowing his congregation to heed the warnings of Scriptures such as Jude 4.

Encourage your pastor, thank him for his hard work, follow him to the extent he follows Christ (I Cor. 11:1); but remember, the only true and infallible head of the Church is Christ (Col. 1:18).


Michelle G said...

Amen Heather!! Amen!! We should search the Scriptures for ourselves. I, too, have had experiences with a few "men of God" that cannot be shared here. Blindly being lead by anyone is dangerous...when I was newly Saved I had that mentality - "well, he is the pastor (assoc. pastor, etc.) so he must know better than I do." Sadly, he/they did not...when I rightly divided the Word of God, I found out for myself how wrong those men in my Christian walk were - it was a sad awakening...a difficult time in my Christian walk for sure. Thanks for this Heather - a great reminder!

Juliann said...

I'm so sad that this post even needs to be written....and I cannot agree more. The word of God must always be our filter and lense! Great post....respectfully and well written!

Jenna said...

That is very sad about the pastors who have fallen into sin... And you are completely right in your conclusion. Its good to remember that even the preachers we highly respect don't have it all together, and can be wrong in their doctrine, and so can we. Great thoughts! thank you!