I saw a friend of mine today– a woman who has attended a certain Christian church for 10 years now, and it hasn’t been feeding her for some time. So, as one might reasonably expect, she stopped going to that church. Seems simple enough. It’s not — at least not at her church, with her pastor, at this time.
She decided to be nice when she left because the Bible says (and she takes it literally) “do things decently and in order”. She asked the pastor for what we would call a “letter of transfer”. In her church, they call it a “letter of release”. (Already, for me, a red flag goes up! Is she being released from indentured servitude? But hey, that’s just me). Anyway, she is polite and asks, and he says, in return: “I’ll let you have the letter of release if you a) attend all my church services for the next month or so; b) pay all your tithes to me; and c) submit to my authority for the next month (maybe 3 months, I don’t remember). He goes on to say “if you don’t, you’ll never have a father figure, you’ll never re-marry and you’ll never be successful”. Earlier in the week, he had said that her leaving his church “condemned her family to hell”.
She’s done-had-enough-of -that-noise and said she wouldn’t do it. He asked her who she followed. She said, “Jesus”. He said, missing the point, “Me!” (I kid you not, folks.) When all was said and done, he asked for a hug and said “Who loves you?”, expecting her to answer. She didn’t. In case no one’s ever said this to you before, this is an abuse of pastoral authority. Why do I say this? My own theology tells me so.
She was hurt and had spent the whole last day “wounded in her spirit” and talked to the wife of the pastor where she’s been attending for the last month (not her former church). That woman told her not to let anyone get in the way of her going to church, and to listen to her own spirit to tell her what to do.
Which of these has pastoral authority — the man who claimed it or the woman who didn’t? You guessed it — the woman who is “just the pastor’s wife”! Why? Because she let the woman (my friend) figure out for herself what God wanted her to do. She didn’t a) confuse herself with God and claim authority she doesn’t have and b) She didn’t get in the way of God. In other words, she let God do the leading and my friend do the listening. That is, she acted like a shepherd, rather than a bully. Jesus complained about another religious group, the Pharisees, saying that “they lord their authority over others”, but his followers aren’t supposed to be like that. People who acknowledge Jesus’ authority, then, don’t lord it over others. Any pastor who makes you do something against your will (Give them a hug, for instance or anything else) is not acting as a follower of Jesus. They have no pastoral authority because only Jesus\God\the Spirit grants that authority.
Where did the pastor go wrong, in my view? In so many places, he makes a great object lesson. How did this happen? He did really bad theology. He made the number one mistake a pastor can make: rather than believing he was called by God, he believed he was God. As an ordained minister myself, I can tell you that there are soooo many days I wish I were God (I’d straighten things out!) and I think that God trusts me enough to do what’s right, and I think I know God well enough to do His (Her?) will but… nope, can’t go down that road. The pastor’s problem? He did. It’s not up to him whether or not her family goes to hell. It’s not up to him whether she gets married or is a success. It’s up to God who actually runs the universe, not those of us who would like to.
Here’s the thing: There’s only one God, and it’s not you or me. It’s not a political party, or a specific denomination (no matter how much I like my own). If a person, group, etc. doesn’t know this, they commit idolatry — they are replacing the living, breathing God with something else. Historically, the Church has said this, in a thing called the Barman Declaration which said, (against the German churches of its day and to Hitler’s chagrin), “Hitler is not God. There’s only one God, and Hitler’s not it”.
This went over with the people of Germany about as well as you’d expect. People who signed the Barman Declaration were considered traitors. And, well, they were to the authorities — just not to the Only Authority That Matters. My friend was not a believer in this pastor, and he made her feel like she was a traitor to him. She might have been, but he doesn’t matter. She’s not supposed to be following him. And any pastor who asks you to follow them and not what your conscience tells you has no legitimate pastoral authority. He or she has the right to ask you to believe in their guidance and their education and their connection to God, but — in the same sentence — they need to leave it up to you and God.
When a pastor is called by God — ordained in some way or another by the Holy Spirit — they do not stop being human. They can still be a jerk, they can still be wrong, they can still have a mental illness, they can still make mistakes. Biblically, the apostles fought, disagreed, and did horrible things to each other. All they can say is that, maybe, they have a clearer connection to God and they’re trying to do God’s will. If, in fact, they’ve met God and stood in God’s presence, they know how fallible they are.
Just because they hear God, they — if they were anything like me — don’t always like what God says. Big deal, God’s going to win anyway (see the story of Jonah and any number of pastoral examples.
When a pastor is called by God, they are supposed to represent God. If your pastor hurts you, they are not representing the God who wouldn’t hurt you. They have no pastoral authority. This, of course, assumes that your picture of God (your theology) believes that God wouldn’t hurt you. But you have to do you own theology to know that. And, I think, God wants you to, with God’s help. But, hey, that’s just me.