Where Does Pastoral Authority Come From?

November 3, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

In this site’s almost-3-year history of discussing Sovereign Grace Ministries churches’ issues, another theme that has come up again and again has been that of authority – the church’s authority, a pastor’s authority, even a small-group leader’s authority.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • After much prayer and thought, a family has concluded that their SGM church is not for them.  But instead of simply departing and starting to visit other area churches, the family expends much mental energy on coming up with a “strategy” for “leaving well.”
     
  • A man learns that he has been offered a promotion that will require him and his wife to move to a far-away city.  He and his wife are both excited about the opportunity, as it will benefit their family in a number of ways.  But their excitement dims after they discuss the potential move with their small-group leader and pastor, who both question them in such a way as to clearly demonstrate disapproval.  One of the main issues seems to be that the far-away city does not have a Sovereign Grace church.  At one point, the pastor actually utters the words, “I would hesitate to release you to move there…”  The couple leave these conversations feeling extremely conflicted and confused.
     
  • Another family experiences bad treatment by their SGM pastors.  After attempting to get their pastors to acknowledge the bad treatment and rectify the situation, they find themselves embroiled in an ever-deepening conflict with the men.  But rather than deciding, after the first couple of fruitless and disturbing meetings with their pastors, that enough is enough and it’s time to leave SGM, they instead continue in their membership for years.  Their pastors continue to set all the terms and conditions of the “reconciliation” process, even when the members find themselves feeling ever more beaten down, ever more unheard.

The bottom line in each of these scenarios is that the members involved somehow seem to feel a deep and abiding sense of obligation to their specific SGM churches, as well as their specific SGM pastors.  Whereas in other areas of their otherwise successful and “take-charge” lives they would not hesitate to speak their minds, stand up for themselves, or make decisive moves, they find themselves believing that they must wait for their pastors’ approval when it comes to what they can choose to do in their church lives. 

I think an entire book could be written – or, better yet, some sociologist could do a dissertation – about how SGMers are trained to view their relationship with their SGM churches.

This would encompass how they’re taught to view their leaders, too…and how it is that they define WHO their leaders are, and how final and extensive those leaders’ authority is.

Over the past 3 years – particularly after listening to C.J. Mahaney’s frequently presented teaching, The Happiest Place On Earth – I’ve asked one question over and over and over again, and to date I have never yet received an even halfway satisfying answer.  The question?  Here it is, copied again from an ancient thread:

I would DEARLY love to know how we are supposed to know, in this age of thousands of Bible-believing, Gospel-proclaiming churches, which one we are to “marry” (in the SGM mindset) and which pastors then become our leaders, worthy of our blind obedience and absolute submission in all things, as it works out within Sovereign Grace Ministries?

I mean, you’ve [Kris says:  that “you’ve” is referencing the individual to whom this comment was originally addressed] already clearly stated that we cannot trust our hearts.  So the old, “Well, you’ll just know in your heart that God has “called” you to be someplace” cannot be the answer, by your own reasoning.  And unless you are willing to state that SGM is the only ministry that gets everything fully correct, you can’t say that we are all meant to submit to SGM pastors.

C.J. Mahaney himself did not practice this principle when he first founded TAG and PDI.  He separated from his ordained authority – the Roman Catholic church in which he was raised – and struck out on his own, completely without any governing body over him.  Who ordained C.J.?

What makes HIS authority more valid than that of other men?

SGMers are trained (overtly, and by implication) to believe that when they choose to become SGM members, that choice requires the same level of commitment as choosing a spouse, and the covenant they sign with their SGM church is as binding as a marriage covenant.  In such thinking, of course, “divorce” would almost never be an option…because after all, only “unfaithfulness” (as in “unfaithfulness to the scriptures”) is a legitimate reason for separating from one’s church.

But we simply do not find – anywhere in the Bible – these parallels between marriage and church membership.  Especially not as church membership occurs and is worked out and defined in our modern-day world.  Sure, there is the biblical metaphor of the “Church Universal” (the entire worldwide body of believers) as being the “bride of Christ.”  But as far as I know, there is no biblical mandate for the believer to equate membership in a specific church congregation with a lifelong commitment to one’s husband or wife.

If, as SGMers claim to believe, the “Church Universal” or “Church Invisible” is made up of more Christians than those who comprise SGM, then there are any number of other Scripturally faithful Christian church authorities out there who are equally as worthy of honor and obedience and submission as SGM pastors.  Moreover, since the Bible does not expressly lay out any sort of criteria for finding and committing oneself to a particular church organization – or even expressly articulate what level of loyalty a Christian is expected to demonstrate TO the church organization to which he commits himself – I do not understand how SGM can justify placing so much emphasis on pastoral authority.

Or why SGMers typically feel that their pastors’ authority is so binding upon them.

It’s simply not there in scripture…especially if one asks the questions of 1) how pastoral authority is conferred; 2) is that authority something that can never be revoked; and 3) just whose right is it, anyway, for that authority to be revoked?

No matter how SGMers try to parse all this, there are really only two options for how far they should take the notion of pastoral authority.

The first option is that if they’re going to promote binding pastoral authority and mandatory 100% obedience to that authority, that authority must be directly conferred upon the pastor by God Himself (through the chain of command from the apostles).  And if it is conferred by God Himself, then the logical outworking of that sort of belief is that ultimately, all Christians should submit to that same authority.  Therefore, “evangelism” would ultimately be about getting people to join the organization.

The second alternative is that authority is actually conferred upon the pastor by each individual’s personal consent to submit to that authority.  And if that is the case, then such pastoral authority ultimately cannot be binding and can be “unconferred” at the individual’s will…which of course would make what SGM teaches about authority false and would also negate all the angst in the scenarios mentioned above.

After all, without believing that a pastor holds binding authority over his church members, there is really no requirement whatsoever to stick around in the face of pastoral bad behavior…or to believe that a pastor’s counsel about matters like marriage or moving to another city is somehow binding…or to expend a great deal of mental energy on an “exit strategy” so that one can “leave well” (which means, typically, leaving with one’s pastors’ approval).

So, SGMers – what’s the deal?  Do your pastors have binding authority over you?  Are you obligated to submit to your pastors pretty much no matter what?  If so, WHY?  Please explain where the Bible tells us how we can know which men are our authorities.  Also, please show me where Scripture spells out the idea that becoming a member of a specific denomination family of churches is as binding as marriage.  And please, address the issue of how it is that you can be certain your particular SGM pastors MUST remain your authorities, and why you cannot pick up and leave your Sovereign Grace church and start submitting to the authority of the pastors at the church down the street.

I really want to know.  After three years and countless hours of dealing with the fallout of SGM’s teachings and policies about their pastors’ “The Buck-Stops-Here” authority, I’d love to hear from members about what it is that drives them to be taken for this ride.

In Pursuit Of Perfection?

October 25, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

It’s hard to believe, but in a few short weeks this site will have been around for three years.  In honor of that upcoming milestone, I thought it would be interesting to revisit some of the questions and objections that have been raised most frequently.

Today’s topic is the concept of the “perfect” church.

From the beginning, there’s always been a segment of our audience who claims to be supremely happy with SGM and who will jump into discussions here to assert that the folks who have shared their stories about bad SGM experiences are wrong.  Or, they’ll comment to say that I’m wrong for hosting the site.  Or both.  I’ve come to think of these commenters as being “Sovereign Grace Ministries Defenders.”

When explaining to us why we’re wrong, the typical SGM Defender will almost inevitably include the line, “No church is perfect.” 

This is a straw man.

It’s a straw man because the implication is that those of us commenting here somehow believe that SGM should be perfect, or that perfection is somehow attainable…like criticisms of SGM are invalid because the fact that no entity or person will be perfect means that we have to turn a blind eye to ALL imperfections or flaws, no matter how glaring or grievous.

But of course, NOBODY here is stupid enough to believe that a “perfect” church exists.  We all KNOW – duh! – that no church is perfect. 

Excusing SGM and telling us we can’t talk openly about SGM’s abuses because “no church will be perfect” is kind of like saying that one cannot discuss abusive parenting because, after all, “no parent will be perfect.” 

I think we can all agree that such thinking is silly and illogical.

What’s been interesting to me, as I’ve dealt with the “No church is perfect” line again and again, is that ironically, this type of silly and illogical knee-jerk defensiveness in the face of criticism reveals that SGMers DO believe in SGM’s perfection, after a fashion. 

After all, while SGM defenders will pay lip service to the CONCEPT that SGM is not perfect, they will – if pressed – then go on to exhibit a total mental block about addressing any SPECIFIC way in which SGM displays imperfections.

I can’t remember any more who it was, but awhile back some defender came along and dialogued extensively with us about this site.  I can recall asking this person – who’d said that he was aware of areas where SGM needed to be changed or improved – just how he’d go about addressing his observations.  I mean, if you see a mistake or error in your SGM church, what avenues do you have to pursue change?

This person basically admitted that there actually ISN’T any way for the common member to pursue change, beyond offering up a “humble” suggestion to his or her pastor and hoping that the pastor will agree.

But immediately after that admission, this SGM defender disappeared and never came back.  It seemed obvious that he felt he’d somehow veered into sin by acknowledging a specific flaw within SGM’s system.

So, as far as the mantra of, “No Church Is Perfect” goes – well, sure, that’s true.  But it’s also a straw man that SGM has set up in response to ANY and ALL criticism.  To reiterate, NOBODY has ever said that they want SGM to be “perfect.”  Nobody has ever believed that any church COULD be perfect.  It’s a given that humans will stumble and make mistakes.

But since that’s the case – and since SGM is run by the self-proclaimed “worst sinners they know” – then why don’t they have any governance structures in place to address this?  Why are there no formal avenues of accountability for leaders to the people whom they’re supposed to be serving?  Why does accountability grow more and more vague and informal, the farther one travels up the ever-narrowing leadership pyramid? 

Until Sovereign Grace Ministries amends its polity to provide clear formal methods for addressing problems (or “imperfections,” if you will), it seems rather obvious that SGM’s leaders do, in fact, believe that SGM must be pretty close to perfect.  The commenters (and moderator) here aren’t the ones holding SGM up to some unattainable standard of perfection.  Rather, SGM’s own leaders are doing that every day that they continue to operate without formal accountability to the congregations who pay their salaries.

The Strange Case Of The Church Bouncers

September 27, 2010 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Awhile back, a reader using her full first and last name (which I’ve now edited to just “Cathy”) posted the following:

I and my family worshiped for about four months at a church seeking SGM affiliation.  We had already come into conflict with four different ministers over the course of twenty years who, though they were ministers in the OPC, PCA and CRC, suffered from the kingly delusion you describe in this post as characterizing SGM ministers.  On “Adoption Sunday” we were greeted in the parking lot by two bouncers, one of them the associate pastor, who informed us that we were not welcome at [Church Name], for they had identified us as blots on their love feast.  We tried to contact the pastor, with whom we had been friends prior to ever attending the church, but discovered that our phone number had been blocked by his phone service.  The catalyst of this situation appears to have been a facebook post I made two weeks previously asking for discussion concerning whether looking at Christ was really the same as looking at the Cross, which the pastor had intimated in a sermon.  My husband had responded to my posts saying, no, Christ is not identical with his cross and giving a Scriptural defense for thinking that Christ can no longer be found on the cross, just as he can no longer be found in the grave.  Whatever you think of this discussion, we were shocked to be turned away at the church door.  We knew immediately we were dealing with a cult.

Having come across this discussion on this blog, I thank God for His protection.  The scourge of authoritarian, dogmatic and bigoted pastors is hitting the church hard.

I will admit that when I read this comment, my first thought was that it sounded too outrageous to be true.  I mean, yes – throughout the nearly three years that I’ve been moderating this site, I’ve heard far more about Sovereign Grace Ministries’ “dark side” than ANYONE would ever want to know.  I’ve heard so many stories of manipulation, control, and pastoral abuses of authority that it’s difficult, sometimes, for me to remember which situation was which. 

But those stories have all followed a very similar pattern:  usually, ex-SGMers will have been heartily welcomed (“love-bombed”) into their SGM churches, often going on to spend years (or decades) serving as faithful members, only to at some point have reason to question their pastors’ unchecked authority.  Then – and only then – will things begin to go downhill.  Then – and only then – will they experience the bitter fruit of an authoritarian ministry, fruit like finding out they’re no longer embraced by the churchfolk they were instructed to regard as “closer than family.”

There are exceptions, of course, to the typical pattern of a bad SGM experience.  But the exceptions – the bad SGM experiences that do NOT center around heavy-handed unchecked pastoral authority – usually involve people who are still in the investigation stages, people who have attended their SGM churches for awhile but have not yet become members.  The exceptions will typically focus on oddities within SGM’s culture, oddities that newcomers to SGM eventually find off-putting enough to make them leave SGM before SGM can kick them out.

In other words, I’d never before heard of visitors or non-members being given the cold shoulder.  Actually, I’d never before heard of anyone who had been officially and obviously physically barred from attending a Sovereign Grace Ministries church.

Had an SGM church stooped to a new low, I wondered? 

I asked “Cathy” to provide additional details for us.

For whatever reason, she did not.

At that point, “Cathy’s” situation sort of slipped my mind.  What a lot of people might not understand is that I’ve never had to go hunting for interactions with SGM’s bruised and battered victims.  Maybe I should have been more curious about the veracity of “Cathy’s” story, but the reality is that I typically have more people contacting me than I can sometimes even interact with effectively.

So I kind of forgot about “Cathy.”  But another reader did not.  This reader – we’ll call him Tim – recently wrote and shared the following:

That whole Cathy [Last Name] thing was bugging me.  I kept wondering if her story was true at all.  That church’s site has a contact page, so I just went on there, referenced your blog — since this Cathy person is obviously not trying to hide and since I’m sure they read anyway — and asked about the scenario, saying that “I sure hoped it wasn’t true.”  I really did.  I wanted to see if anyone would even respond.

Well, the pastor wrote me back and here’s what he said:

It does not surprise me to see this post on the blog.  As always, there are always two sides to every story.  We have never had to do this before but after problems started to arise with this family, and after talking to several other churches in the area that they had attended, it was determined that these people (particularly Cathy) were “wolves” in our church.

As I have stated, we have never done anything like this before with any other family and we regretted having to do this.  

I write this just so you know.

Grace,

[Pastor’s Name]

I [“Tim” still speaking] think it’s interesting that he says there are two sides to every story when, actually, their two sides seem to line up pretty well.  The verbiage is different, but the attitude seems the same.  Cathy said they were told they were “blots on their love feast” and he said they were “wolves.”   To me that says, “We were told we were garbage” and the pastor agreed.  

I mean, am I reading it all wrong??

I wasn’t sure what to tell Tim.  So I suggested that Tim write back to the pastor and ask for clarification.  Here is Tim’s report:

Well, [Pastor’s Name] wrote back immediately.  

Here’s his response in its entirety:

We were their 4th or 5th church in several years (from talking to other pastors), and every other church that they went to, it ended badly.  One of those churches was the church of a good friend of mine in the PCA.  They put him through 2 months of sleepless nights.  When the same patterns started repeating themselves in our church we simply asked them not to attend until they had reconciled with the other churches.  We also told them that if they would like to talk, we could set up a meeting.  Instead, they went on the attack.  So, in other words, we didn’t “ban” them, we simply asked them to go back and make things right with these other churches before they attended our church.  

Also, this had nothing to do with SGM.  We tried to contact them prior to this particular Sunday (adoption) but they would not answer our calls.  We run our church as an independent leadership.  We were taking our job seriously, according to scripture, to protect our own church body from a family that was and is divisive.  I am still grieved that it had to come to this and am hopeful that someday I can be friends with them again.  As I have stated, in 17 years of ministry, this is the first time that we have ever had to do this with a family.

Here is a sermon by Mark Driscoll that might be helpful.  It is a little edgy but gives a good perspective of ministry:

http://www.marshillchurch.org/media/conferences/christ-controversy-and-cutting-words

Grace,

[Pastor’s Name]

So [Kris here again], I think I owe “Cathy” an apology for ever questioning her.  As “Tim” points out, “Cathy’s” story and the pastor’s story line up pretty perfectly. 
 
And you know, I think the pastor’s responses raise at least as many questions as they answer.  First of all, was “Cathy’s” posting on Facebook the same action that this pastor believes was exhibiting “the same pattern of behavior” as she and her husband had engaged in at those other churches?  Secondly, it sounds like “Cathy” and her husband had attempted rather desperately to get in touch with the pastor on the Sunday morning they were actually prevented from entering the church.  He never addresses why (or disputes that) he – their supposed longtime friend – did not respond to their calls.  Wouldn’t there have been a much kinder and gentler way of dealing with them on that Sunday morning?  Rather than having other church members function as bouncers, wasn’t there some other course of action that would perhaps have diffused the situation?
 
Thirdly, I’m curious as to what, exactly, this pastor thought “Cathy” and her husband would be able to do during a single Sunday meeting that would have been so dangerous to the rest of the church community.
 
Fourthly, this pastor may believe that this situation “had nothing to do with SGM.”  But that makes absolutely no sense, considering that as an adopted congregation, this pastor and his church now absolutely do represent SGM.  We know the adoption process is long and arduous.  This pastor and his church would never have made the cut if it hadn’t been understood by all parties concerned that they would be good representatives of the SGM brand.  And if this pastor really believes that he still operates his congregation “independently,” he might want to educate himself about the various situations where de-giftings have occurred.
 
Finally, now that he definitely knows that “Cathy” has shared her story online, I’m wondering what he has done to pursue reconciliation with her and her family.  He claims he wishes that he could be friends with them again.  If such a thing is true, then I’m sure he has attempted to reach out to them to clear up the misunderstandings about “Cathy’s” Facebook posting and how that could not possibly have been enough to get her and her husband barred from attending.  I’m sure he has carefully explained to “Cathy” and her husband just which of their behaviors constituted “going on the attack,” and what they did that was so horrific that it would cause him to label them as “wolves” and have no apparent qualms about sharing that loaded and judgmental label with any random person who asks him about the situation.
 
Anyway, people, there you have it.  It’s true:  there is a Sovereign Grace church out there that has bouncers.  (Or at least, has guys who “serve” their SGM church in the capacity so that they can perform the duties of bouncers, preventing undesirable “wolves” from entering meetings.) 
 
Even more creepy, it’s apparently OK for SGM pastors to go around gossiping with other pastors in the community about the members of their flocks. 
 
All in the name of protecting you, their helpless and stupid sheep, of course.