During the times of my preparation for ministry during my seminary years and my preaching and teaching ministry over the years, there have been several, but mercifully few, times that I’ve had fellow pastors, church leaders and other believers take issue with my interpretation of a particular verse or passage of scripture. There has never been the least insinuation to my face of my ever having departed from orthodox evangelical teachings such as the Trinity, the full deity and human of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion, bodily resurrection and ascension, the personality and ministry of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and so on, as stated in the Statement of Faith of my own denomination or the National Association of Evangelicals. Rather, it’s been more like taking issue with a view on a verse which I expressed which clashed with an interpretation which they had either heard all their lives or heard about from some other pastor, teacher, professor or author, and thus they classified that view as the ‘traditional’ view, and they were aghast that someone would have a view any different than what they thought was the ‘traditional view.’ Or it may be taking issue with my stating a different take than a particular interpretation of a verse, passage or book which they had publicly stated in their preaching or teaching.
Here I’m talking about such things as:
- Having a different view than someone else on what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was
- Taking a different view than someone else of a passage or book which had been viewed ‘traditionally’ as allegorical, such as the Song of Solomon
- Taking a different view than someone else on what the ‘old Man’ and ‘body of flesh’ meant in Romans 6
- Taking a pre, mid or post tribulational view of when the rapture is to take place
- What it means for a man to ‘touch’ a woman as in I Corinthians 7
- Taking a different view than someone else on who is the man ‘sold under sin’ in Romans 7:14-25.
In some of these matters of minor disagreement, they happened a number of years ago – for some of them, decades ago – and in some of them these disagreements were with believers and leaders who were chronologically older than I was then. The reaction – or rather, over-reaction –seemed from several to be that I was being rebellious and anti-authoritarian and casting off all the hard won and precious traditions of the church, and who was I to mention even the slightest disagreement with all that. Yet the truth is that I came to my own conclusions as the result of personal study of the scriptures, often in the original languages, and with due consideration of generally agreed upon guidelines for scriptural interpretation, and I could usually cite at least one, and many times more, prominent evangelical Biblical scholars and interpreters who held pretty much the same interpretation. I personally don’t remember ever having any idea as to the meaning of any particular passage of scripture where I didn’t find some other sound evangelical scholar who held the same view once I consulted the commentaries.
At some point, it seemed that for some I was violating another one of the unspoken rules that some in our evangelical churches seem to live by: “Thou shalt never disagree with a pastor,” or, “Thou shalt never disagree with this or that favorite teacher of mine,” or some other variations on that. Or it may be an unspoken expectation that a professor, pastor or teacher has, that his or her position as pastor, teacher, professor or leader insulates them from even minor questioning and disagreement after a respectful exchange of views. And questioning and disagreement may often be ascribed to ignorance or rebelliousness rather than a serious consideration of the scriptures, and even the slightest expression of disagreement, such as an offhand remark in a conversation or a discussion in a Bible study or Sunday School class may be blown all out of proportion into someone trying to undermine the preaching and teaching ministry of a pastor, leader, or teacher. But the truth is, in the matters which I just mentioned, they are all things on which sincere believers may disagree and still have a genuine saving relationship with Christ and be walking in fellowship with Christ with a full commitment to the Scriptures and not even the slightest hint of trying to discredit any pastor, teacher or leader.
But even more, here’s the problem with those unspoken rules and expectations: they are very close to the cultish view of authority and scriptural interpretation. The leaders and their views and interpretations are beyond disagreement and serious examination, and they exude a highly aggressive hypersensitivity to even the mildest question or disagreement. And the churches and leaders who take these kinds of views tend to take on very cultish characteristics in terms of dealing with their membership such as:
- The leaders are right about everything because they are the leaders with authority from God.
- The leaders have such absolute authority from God that they can micro manage and control the lives of any members as they please, and direct and guide in areas where they have no expertise or experience.
- It is a sin to question and disagree and even more to leave if you disagree.
But I don’t see in scripture where God has given this kind of absolute authority, often verging on infallibility, to the particular views or interpretations of any professor, pastor, teacher or leader, so that they are to be accepted without question or that there cannot be disagreement where major doctrines of scripture such as the Deity of Christ are not at stake. That’s equating scripture with a very fallible human being’s particular views and interpretations of scripture. And it’s actually been said that what this amounts to is that a pastor or leader is treated pretty much as a Protestant Pope in the area of infallibility when making a statement or pronouncement on the basis of his office, and not on the Word of God reasonably interpreted according to generally agreed principles of scriptural interpretation. And even on the matters of major doctrines, the believer needs to have his or her views based on the authority of the Bible, as intelligently read, studied and understood to the best of his or her ability, and not on the authority of any particular professor, pastor, teacher or leader.
I would say, in the meantime, to anyone finds himself or herself in a church or ministry situation where leaders take consistently these kinds of positions or pick out particular people to ‘lord it over their faith’, please take a look at David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, The: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church and the website on Recovery From Spiritual Abuse. The kinds of problems that come under spiritual abuse seem to come from leaders who grew up in an addictive and/or legalistic home or who fit the clinical descriptions of pathological narcissism.
Let’s remember that scripture itself commends someone taking the time to examine carefully any leader’s preaching and teaching by Scripture. For instance, Jesus himself challenged the Jewish religious leaders, “You keep on searching the scriptures, because you think that in them is eternal life, and they witness about me” (John 65:39). And even after his resurrection, he took pains to demonstrate and explain that all that had happened to him was in accord with the Old Testament revelation of the Messiah (Luke 24:24, 47). And, moreover, scripture compliments the Beroean believers that they examined all that Paul had been teaching them according to scripture (Acts 17:11).
So let’s take another look at what the epistle to the Hebrews had to say about regarding and following human leaders within the church:
“Remember those who are leading you, who spoke to you the Word of God, and as you observe the outcome of their conduct imitate their faith . . . obey those who are in leadership over you and be in submission, because they watch over your souls as those who have to give account, so that they can do this with joy and not laboriously, because this would be a bad situation for you” (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
So the manner of genuine leadership in the church is to be that of humility and responsibility to God as someone who stands under judgment of God, and as a servant of the Word, and of Jesus Christ and his church (Luke 22:24-27, John specially II Corinthians 4:5, “But we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants on account of Jesus” ). God does command his people to follow the Word of God and example of faith of the leaders, and to act in submission and obedience to leaders – but here they are described as responsible messengers of the Word who are looking out for the good of the people in their charges, and not for themselves nor acting in a despotic manner over anyone else. This means, then, that the pride of position which seeks to crush and quash even minor disagreement with the aggressive assertion of personal pastoral authority is fully out of line with scripture and with all that Jesus Christ commanded regarding servant leadership within his church, and is therefore an abuse of position and of people.
Let’s then address these kinds of minor disagreement according to what scripture says:
1. Let us accept one another as believers in Christ when we demonstrate full assent to the primary teachings of scripture regarding the major matters of scripture, such as the creation and providence of God, the Trinitarian nature of God, the deity and real humanity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, etc. Our acceptance of other believers as believers and into fellowship is not supposed to be an enticement into a situation where we try to give them a complete personal and doctrinal makeover.
“Therefore receive each other, just Christ has already received you, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7; see also Romans 14:1).
2. Let us not try to strong arm another believer into believing, thinking or doing the same kinds of things that we believe, think or do by the mere assertion of personal or pastoral authority, especially in matters where that person has already formed a conviction and is being guided by his or her conscience. The import of the following passage about dealing charitably with differences in personal convictions applies to leaders as well; there is no special rider attached that gives anyone who asserts church authority to try to override the sincerely held personal convictions and responsibility of someone else who has a minor difference in opinion or practice.
“Not one of us lives for himself, and not one of us died for himself; because if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So if we live or if we die, we are the Lord’s. It was for this purpose, that Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of the living and the dead. You – why are you are judging your brother? Or why are you holding your brother in contempt? For we must all stand before the judgment seat of God, because it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will confess to God.’ Therefore each one of us will give account to God” (Romans 14:7-12).
3. Let us avoid getting all worked up about minor matters and matters on which we are to show charity, acceptance and forbearance to each other, and never insinuate or exaggerate any minor disagreement to the level of a major doctrinal error or opposition. Even more, let’s seek to put to rest any attempts to blow minor issues so far out of proportion that they become prolonged conflicts which poison the loving unity of the body of Christ:
“I, the prisoner for the Lord, encourage you therefore to conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and meekness, with patience, as you bear with one another in love, as you make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
4. Let’s deal with genuinely serious disagreements according to the guidance of scripture. I have never heard the following passage either taught in a seminary or explained in Biblical preaching and teaching as the scriptural guidance to dealing with serious disagreements and opposition. I think that the translation suffers from an unnecessarily added third personal pronoun, and I think that this distorts the application of the passage. The passage should not be twisted into dealing with personal disagreement as personal opposition to the pastor, but rather with those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18), such as Hymenaeus and Philetos (II Timothy 2:17-18), who were teaching such egregious error and disrupting the faith of others in such a way as to be legitimately described as being, “under the wiles of the devil.” Such people may not begin with personal opposition to the pastor but rather attempt to seduce him into their false ideas first, and then go into open opposition if the pastor refuses their influence. But in any case, the primary application of the following passage definitely does not need to be those who believe in and love Christ with all their hearts, who have full assent to all the major doctrines of the faith and to the Bible as the Word of God, and may yet have minor disagreements with a pastor or who respectfully demur where a pastor attempts to rule outside the sphere of his wisdom, expertise or authority, but rather those who are in really serious doctrinal disagreements and who are instigating serious schisms in the body of Christ. (And at the least it also is a command for the leader in the church to avoid being drawn into other people’s disagreements, controversies and battles. I’ve used it as the scriptural authority for me to avoid being drawn into other people’s battles in the past.)
“But swear off foolish and uneducated controversies, since you know that these breed battles. And the servant of the Lord must not fight, but must be gentle to all, ready to instruct and patient. He must instruct those who are in opposition, so that somehow God might grant them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth, and that they might regain their senses from the trap of the devil, since they have been taken captive to do the will of that one”(II Timothy 2:23-26)