Saturday, December 7, 2013

What We've Learned Lately About Evangelical Ecclesiology

Matthew 23: 1-4

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 

Mark 10: 42-45

 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Acts 19: 23-29

 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”
When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul's companions in travel.

In the last few weeks we have witnessed another scandal upsetting the apple cart in mainstream evangelicalism.  Without commenting on that directly, I thought I would highlight what this latest incident reveals about the kind of ecclesiology in vogue among modern evangelicals and their celebrity pastors:

1.  It is virulently anti-democratic.  When the power structure of a church is in the hands of a few, and the congregation's role is limited to adopting the pastor's jargon and vision and following blindly, dictators are easily bred.  This is more likely in churches where the congregation's call to act as Berean-like watchmen is diminished or outright challenged by bully pulpits with a "do as you're told" attitude, which discourages and silences any healthy criticism meant for the good of the body.  In these environments the role of the celebrity pastor is indistinguishable from the rulers and authorities in the secular world who lord authority over the people, and therefore cease to fulfill Jesus' command: "whoever would be first among you must be slave of all".  

2.  Silence.  Whereas Paul and Jesus taught the church to practice discipline on the basis of two or three witnesses, today there is a pervading air of silence when a celebrity pastor falls from grace or is questioned about his impropriety.    Where congregations are effectively silenced or threatened with censure, you would expect the wider church to speak up for their sake.  But aside from independent bloggers, radio apologists, and pastors at odds with the evangelical subculture, evangelical parachurch organisations that seem to function as an accountability group for pastors instead become enablers for further transgressions.  When the money and prestige that a celebrity pastor brings might be at stake, its easier for parachurch groups to remain silent and even to call for boycotts on anyone who would dare to criticise.  Rather than protecting the congregations of wayward pastors, these groups are ultimately self-serving, looking out for their "old boys network" (built on the cult of personality) when it comes under attack.  The behaviour of Christian leaders in this respect is no different from the Ephesians who rioted when the apostle Paul threatened their livelihood based on the manufacture of shrines of the goddess Artemis.  When an idol is challenged, even one in the shape of a celebrity pastor, Christians can and do respond with anger at the thought of their idol being toppled and brought into disrepute, especially if worldly gain is on the line.

3.  Lack of accountability.  With congregations at the mercy of the celebrity pastor leadership model, what accountability is there?  With the rise of the unbiblical practice of vision casting, pastors tie elders and the congregation into a covenantal arrangement where all agree to follow the pastor's supposed 'vision from God', or otherwise "get thrown under the bus".  Unfortunately in this arrangement elders become little more than 'yes men' who exist much like everyone else to bow down at the pulpit.  Since most churches in this seeker-sensitive/purpose-driven mould follow the Baptist model of autonomy, it leaves Christians without a wider hierarchy for them to appeal to in cases of false doctrine and pastoral malpractice.  Silenced within by controlling pastors and unquestioning elders, and silence without with no Bishops or synodical authority to call to for help, Christians often feel forced out to the detriment of their faith and spiritual well-being.

4.  Higher standards.  In both letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul stresses the ethical standards required of pastors and elders to Timothy.  One of these standards is that "an overseer must be above reproach".  Is this true of celebrity pastors today?  The recent cases of Mark Driscoll's alleged plagiarism, Stephen Furtick's financial spending, and Ed Young's "sexcapades" on the roof of his church building prove that the higher standards Scripture commands of pastors doesn't somehow apply to them.  Again because they are protected by powerful forces within and without that rely on their book sales, conference appearances, charisma, etc.  And also due to the pastor's own spiritual pridefulness and blindness to their own sin and need for repentance.  This spiritual blindness can lead to hypocritical messages issued from the pulpit when they speak out on issues in which its revealed that they haven't followed their own advice.  Similarly Jesus warned the crowds of the Pharisees' hypocrisy: "they preach, but do not practice".  When pastors fall into hypocrisy because of lower ethical standards set for them, church ministry suffers and the spread of the Gospel is undermined, as the outside world looks on with cynical eyes.

What is our response to these errors, betrayals, and outright idolatry within the body of Christ?  It would be easy as Lutherans to shrug off much of what we witness as evangelical hi-jinx, however Paul does warn us to not imagine ourselves beyond temptation.  We should watch ourselves putting any pastor on a pedestal, and likewise we should keep a watchful eye for Lutheran pastors building a foundation on their personality and who think themselves beyond reproach and correction.  For such leaders, the Scriptures carry this warning for those betraying the cause of Christ:

1 Corinthians 3: 10-15
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Insightful and concise. You make many valid points. When Jesus’s role in a church is relegated to that of a supporting act and the pastor is up front occupying center stage, the kind of problems you point out naturally follow. The value of a historical liturgical service is, from what I’ve seen, naturally Christ-focused, rather than leading up to the moment when “the man of the hour” assumes the platform and brings “the message” from God.
    It’s a short walk for celebrity pastors to begin to bully others and silence those who don’t fall in line. My daughter blogged about this here: