Pastor-Centric Christianity?

It’s something that has rubbed me the wrong way for a long time.  I have categorized this under “Just a Thought,” so I allow myself the freedom to be wrong in what follows.  But it seems to me that unhealthy lines between “pastor” and “laymen” have been drawn in my particular flavor of churches.  One of the primary historical criticisms of the Catholic Church is the way that the Church Universal ultimately revolves around the pope and the individual parishes ultimately belong to individual priests, the responsibility of humble parishioners being to show up, pay their dues, and shut their mouths.  How different is this really from the SBC church you belong to?  A pastor leaves or a pastor falls, and a church falls apart altogether, as though the one man were the glue that bound the church together rather than love (Colossians 3:14), the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3), Christ (John 17:3; Ephesians 2:20-22), or one another (Ephesians 4:16).  Too often we settle into a mindset that the pastor will hold the church together as God in turn holds him together.  My brothers, these things should not be so.

In theory and in orthodox theology, obviously this is light years apart Evangelical ecclesiology.  But in practice?  I think far too often we have constructed 16-inch-thick steel barriers between clergy and laity.  Or maybe the church has elevated the pastor to a 10-foot pedestal.  Or maybe the pastor has elevated the pulpit to a 10-foot pedestal towering over the rest of the congregation…

I write this myself as an associate pastor.  I do not write this with only senior pastors in view and certainly not with just my own senior pastor in view, but generally with all “full-time ministers” (because apparently not all Christians are supposed to be about full-time ministry in their lives…?) in view.  The criticism of the medieval Catholic Church was that it took the Bible out of the hands of the laity.  Obviously, all members of Evangelical churches today are both allowedand even encouraged to own their own Bibles (and in some cases, even pick their own translations).  But I think that just as the old Catholic Church took the Bibles out of the hands of their people, we have taken the ministry of our churches out of the hands of our own people.

Again, this is an issue that has bugged me for years, but yesterday as I was looking through the monthly newspaper of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, it hit me strongly (as it has before) that virtually every article in the paper was about “Pastor _____” and what he was doing at his church.  There was an article on which churches had baptized the most people in the SBTC (a misleading stat in itself, of course) and gave the name of the pastor of each church.  In some way, there seems to be an underlying assumption among us that the ministry of any given church belongs to its pastor.  If it is externally successful, it is because it is led by a good pastor.  If it struggles, it is because its pastor is lousy.  Do yourself a favor and search for this: “As goes the pulpit.” You’ll get such various answers as, “So goes the pew,” or “So goes the church,” or “So goes the nation.” Where is this in the Bible?  I heard it said in seminary, “The highest calling is the call to pastor a local church.” Again, where is this in the Bible?  To me, it would seem that the highest calling is, “Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.”

When we so elevate the God-ordained task of pastoring churches to the point that we degrade what it is to be a simple child of God, we are doing the church no favors.  Sermons are important.  Sunday school and small group lessons are important as well.  But they are no replacement for where I think the true vitality of churches lies: in the prayer closet.  I’ve never heard and sermon in church, lesson in Bible study, or lecture in seminary that has shaped me as much as times of personal Bible study, prayer, and communion time with God.  This is where pastors should be pointing their people–not to themselves and their sermons but to God.  In good sermons and lessons, people get to know theology and Biblical content.  In personal devotional life, people get to know God.  He is the Treasure hidden in a field.  He is the Pearl of great price.  He is the Living Water that satisfies undying thirst.  He is the Bread of Life.  He is the reason for living single-minded, whole-hearted lives.

This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
– John 17:3

Let me briefly list off a few of the ramifications of operating under the pastor-laity divide that we have created:

  • Pastors are not allowed to stumble, fail, or fallI have known some of those who have fallen, and believe me, they are not allowed to get back up.  They are done, and God is (apparently) done with them.  Bible, anyone?
  • Run-of-the-mill church members are not allowed to help the pastor up.  Because of the rigid divide, lay men of the church cannot be privy to the private struggles, temptations, and sins of their pastors; therefore, they cannot strengthen him in weakness, they cannot encourage him in discouragement, and they cannot even intercede for him in his sin–for to know that the pastor sins would be mandate that he be removed from his position.  Is this the Biblical model of church edification?
  • Run-of-the-mill church members do not feel empowered (or responsible) to help one another up.  Ever seen this one in your church? “Oh, that’s the pastor’s job,” or “That’s what we pay the pastor for.”

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.  For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.
– Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Yes, this passage is from the Old Testament, but I know of no other place in Scripture that better speaks of what the relationship between brothers in Christ should be.  Two men looking out for the good of one another in all areas of life: faith, marriage, witness, and character.  The pastor cannot fill this role for every man in his church, and he obviously cannot fill this role for the women of his church (being a “one-woman man” and all).  Instead, the church is to be a more communal, organic, living, and breathing organism–a body whose members operate for the good of one another, bound together under one Head, who is not the pastor of that church but Christ Himself.

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