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.

© 2010, Kris. All rights reserved.