Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in
the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your
charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you
do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be
examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory
that never fades away. In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of
the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one
another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
--1 Peter 5:1-5 NRSV
In the evangelical churches I grew up in, the pastor was often seen as a sort of super-Christian. He (and it was always a he) was a combination prophet/CEO who stood over and above the congregation. If the pastor lacked humility (a virtue in short supply among clergy I knew growing up), his authority went unquestioned, at least right up until the whispered news came out about scandal or abuse. It’s funny how there often seemed to be a correspondence between authoritarian pastors and scandals.
When I moved into mainline congregations, it was a bit of a shock to see how little authority was given to pastors. At church board meetings there have been times when I have felt like the “paid Christian” only invited into the room to pray, occasionally bring up scripture and insert Jesus into the conversation. My contributions were ignored while board members made decisions according to whatever values they imported from the business world or the community’s social scene. It was fine to hear a sermon on Sunday, but when it came to money and property the pastor’s voice was ignored.
In the “free church” tradition of which the Disciples of Christ is a part, there is no bishop, presbytery or ecclesiastical higher up to tell the local congregation what to do. The local church makes its own decisions regarding ministers, property, bylaws, etc. We also subscribe to the belief in the “priesthood of all believers” which says each person has her own relationship with God and can interpret scripture and tradition without an intermediary between her and God. That’s a lot of freedom, and so figuring out the role of the pastor can be difficult for churches like ours.
Ideally, there should be a mix of authority and freedom: authority given to the minister to guide the congregation with the understanding that each member of the congregation has the freedom disagree with that guidance. All my life I have been leery of churches with controlling pastors, but I have learned to be just as leery of churches who dismiss the pastor’s calling to be shepherd and guide. The only way I can see to hold this tension between authority of the minister and freedom of the congregation in a healthy way is through humble commitment demonstrated by all parties.
I don’t have room here to discuss what the term “elder” means in the New Testament and how that relates to how our church views clergy and elders, but for simplicity’s sake, we can say the passage from 1 Peter printed above refers to spiritual leaders in the faith community (elders) and the congregation (those who are younger). This classification isn’t about age but about callings, giftedness and maturity in the faith. The point of the passage is not about church organization but rather that all people in the community must be committed to one another and do so with humility.
All of this means that a healthy church acts in a way that is radically counter-cultural. In our world today, when a person disagrees with another, person 1 can simply “unfriend” person 2 with a click of a mouse. Then both parties can retreat to their separate cable news channel/internet news provider that will offer a worldview distinct from that of the other person. Compromise is not valued. Healthy disagreement is not allowed. True relationship does not occur. Our churches mirror our culture and become more homogenous by the day. Yet, this is not the kind of relationship we are called to as Christians.
From the beginnings of Christianity, Christians have disagreed with one another. At worst, Christians have gone to war against one another. At best, Christians have learned to have healthy conflict where everyone remains committed to loving the other even when they disagree. Committed relationships that can withstand conflict are rare in our culture and increasingly more rare in churches.
To have a healthy future, Park Hill Christian Church must learn to disagree in love and humility. That means members must on occasion disagree with their pastor and vice-a-versa. We humans learn best when we encounter views different from our own, the church is no exception to that truth. Yet, many, if not most, churches today are so worried about declining numbers they fear any kind of conflict whatsoever dividing their already dwindling membership rolls. Such fear lacks trust among church members and clergy, and it also lacks trust in God to hold a faith community together in love.
So, go ahead and disagree with your next pastor, but do so with humility considering her point of view and trusting she is offering it in love. When you disagree with your future pastor, don’t fire of an email, but make an appointment for coffee. Sit down together, listen and share your perspective. Have that conversation trusting your relationship with your pastor will grow stronger from this exchange of ideas. Demonstrate the kind of grace, compassion and commitment that our culture no longer values. The church is called to be an alternative community, and in today’s fractured and fragmented times, I can think of no greater alternative than faithful people who can disagree in love while remaining in relationship with each other.
Grace and Peace,
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.