Eleven years ago I had the privilege of traveling to Israel for a school study tour. While it was an amazing trip, it did come at a time of great unrest in the Middle East. Many organizations had stopped sending groups altogether. There were a few tense moments when we weren’t sure what the schedule of the day would look like or if the authorities would let us visit a particular sight. At one site we actually came across signs saying “Danger: Land Mines. Do not cross fence.”To a group of American college students, this was funny. These were the kinds of signs you might find in one of our dorm rooms. A couple of the students wanted to duck under the fence to get a picture of themselves past the warning sign, standing in the danger zone. Our guide, however, warned us to be careful. The signs were not a joke. There were real land mines in the field and we would be very foolish to disregard them.
This week I left my job as a pastor. I preached my last sermon, led my last worship service, spoke my last pastoral prayer, gave my last pastoral benediction. The boxes are packed, the office is cleaned out, and I am officially on my way to my new life.
As I make my final goodbyes to the church that has been my home for the last 7 years of ministry I have to admit to feeling just a little like I’m back on that field in Israel, itching to defy the warning sign. There were so many “Do not touch” signs in my life for so long, that I’m tempted to go a little crazy breaking all the rules.
I’ve never wanted to be a smoker, but I kind of want to buy a pack of cigarettes just because I can. I know the dangers of gambling and I don’t intend to become a gambler, but I really want to buy a lottery ticket just because I can. Now that I am no longer representing this church as one of its pastors, I can do anything I want, I can say anything I want. I can blast the theology, the church politics, the denominational leader. I can get on my soapbox about ANY cause I care about with no fear of consequences. After all, what are they going to do, fire me? The filter is off and I can say and do anything.
Or can I?
It’s true that my church is no longer my place of employment. I’ve moved into a different relationship with the church, but I haven’t removed myself from it entirely. There is a certain freedom from some of the restraints they had placed upon me. But that doesn’t give me a free pass to say or do anything. Paul talks about this a lot in his letters to the churches.
1 Corinthians 10:23 “’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive.”
I have the right to buy a jar of mayonnaise and eat it with a spoon straight from the jar, but that doesn’t mean that I should.
Not all of those “Do not touch” signs can be ignored. There are real dangers in the world and the church is one way God provides to protect us from those land mines. Even if your church is a little non-traditional, everyone belongs in a body of believers who have authority over their lives.
Before I go any further, let me clarify that being under the spiritual authority of the church is NOT the same thing as spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is insidious, manipulative, and has no place in the faith. Spiritual leaders have the authority to call you out on your actions, but never to control your thoughts or feelings. Spiritual leaders are always under spiritual authority themselves, not acting as though they have a direct connection to God. Spiritual authority is an appropriate way of leading the church to becoming more Christlike, more loving, and more welcoming. Spiritual abuse is a way to control a group of people by preying on their fears and insecurities. If you feel like your church may be using spiritual abuse, check out this resource for a better explanation: Spiritual Abuse: 10 Ways to Spot It.
Having said that, here are the reasons we need to be under spiritual authority: accountability, direction, correct theology, and support and encouragement.
Accountability is necessary in the church to insure that resources are not wasted and that leaders are honest and open. If the church gives me money to help feed the poor, I can’t use that money to treat my family to a night at the movies. If the church lets me teach a Bible study, I can’t use that time to sell a line of make-up or cleaning supplies. The church keeps its members accountable through community. To truly experience the richness of fellowship with one another, we have to be honest with each other. And that honesty keeps us accountable for our actions. Some churches have specific policies in place to insure accountability in certain areas, like asking for receipts or sharing teaching responsibilities. But it is the life in community that really fosters openness.
When a member feels called to ministry or a leadership position, the church provides the direction to help that person fulfill their goals. When a member wants to start a new program, the church gives direction. When a member flounders in their education or career, the church gives direction. Obviously, the church can’t tell you which job to do, but it is the place to go to seek encouragement, prayers, and maybe even vocational advice from each other.
A rogue Christian who’s trying to live without the church can develop some wacky beliefs. It is through accountability to the community that we keep each other in check. This does not mean that the majority is always right, nor does it mean that you can never change your beliefs or deviate from what your denomination believes. It means that your theology has to come under the scrutiny of other believers. Wesleyans like to evaluate beliefs and practices using what we call a quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. The tradition part of the process is the church. Does this belief line up with the teaching of the church? It’s not the only evaluation of correct doctrine, but it is an essential one.
Support and Encouragement
The church is the place where we love and serve each other as fellow believers. Spiritual authority creates the environment where our love for each other can grow and prosper. Anyone can find a group of friends to be their cheerleaders. But true encouragement comes from people who you’ve given permission to call you out on your wrong choices.
So, I guess it’s not right to say that I have no filter. As a Christian I am a representative of Christ, or as the Apostle Paul put it, an “ambassador for Christ.” I will always have this as my filter. There are still land mines out there, and my submission to the authority of the church protects me from them. I am under the authority of Christ, and I am still under the authority of His church.