Monday, October 14, 2013

Pastoral Authority and the Good of the Church

The man sat in my office, his lip quivering from a mixture of fear, guilt, sorrow and hopelessness.  Tears streamed down his face as he finally mustered the courage to look at me and confess actions he never thought he'd be capable of.

Pastor Joel, I cheated on my wife.

I can share this account, and everything that comes after, and still keep confidentiality because, sadly, this scenario has happened many times in my 20-plus years of ministry.  What is even more sad is the typical scenario that follows.

We pray together, cry together, and I ensure him of God's love for him and desire to see him restored, and my love for him and commitment to walk with him through what comes next.  After about an hour of hearing his story--including all the feelings and events that led to his sin, we begin to talk about where to go from here.  My counsel in this situation is fairly uniform:

You have to tell your wife, and you both need to have that conversation in the context of supportive professional crisis counselors who can help you.  Our church can help arrange that meeting, and I will be there also.  God forgives you, but you will still need to face the consequences that come with the fact that you have broken your marriage covenant.  In doing so, your wife now has the option of deciding whether she wants to help repair what has been broken, or exercise her Biblical right to leave you.  This is her decision, and it is her right to know the truth from you so she can make it.  Regardless of what happens, God loves you, we love you, and want to see you restored, and if your wife agrees, your marriage restored.

With full confession to his pastor complete and the beginnings of a plan in the works, the man leaves my office, thankful for the prayer and support he has received.  Then, usually a day or so later, I get a phone call:

Pastor, I don't think this plan is going to work because [fill in the blank with whatever excuse you want.  Every single one I've ever heard in the last 20 years has been lame].  Plus, as the head of my home, I don't feel my wife is ready to hear this yet.  But can you and I continue to meet? Because I know I still need counseling.

Again, my counsel in response to such nonsense has also been historically uniform.

For one thing, no male who is not man enough to confess this kind of sin to his wife is qualified to be "head" of anything.  If you want your headship back, you have to first reclaim your manhood, which was severely marred when you broke your marriage covenant.  We have offered to help you, and give you and your wife the support you will both need to get through this.  When you last left my office, you and I had an agreement, which you are also now trying to break, so no, I will not see you for counseling, as you have not yet followed my initial counsel.  When you decide you are ready to do the right thing by your wife, as I have instructed, I am ready to give you all the help you need.  But until then, you and I have nothing further to discuss.

And then comes the big one.......

But, but, you are supposed to be my PASTOR!

The Scriptural term "pastor" is adapted from the agrarian function of a shepherd--someone who watches over and cares for his flock, protects them from harm, guides them on the right path, and always acts in their best interests.  In the New Testament, this term (poimen, best translated "shepherd"), is coupled with two other terms:  episcopos (best translated "overseer") and presbeuteros (best translated "elder")  And in order to get an accurate and fully-orbed view of the duties of a pastor, all three terms, and their relationship to each other, must be well-understood.  When linked together in a Scripturally accurate way, the picture that emerges is of a man who possesses the spiritual "age" (elder) to discern spiritual matters accurately among the people God has called him to lead, the spiritual strength (pastor) to serve them in a way that understands their best spiritual interests, and the spiritual authority (overseer) to guide them in truth.

Yet somehow in the modern age, the pastoral office has been reduced to that of a family chaplain who simply pats people on the head and recites spiritual platitudes to make them feel better.  In my own denomination, the job description for many pastors as spelled out by most churches includes the phrase, "he shall watch over and care for the flock."  Ask any average church member what that means, and they will tell you it means he needs to be present in hospitals and nursing homes.  Somewhere along the way, we've lost sight of the Biblical role of pastoral authority.

The shepherds of the first century didn't just carry a staff.  They also carried a rod.  And some of the most difficult people to pastor are those who are offended when the rod is employed.  But if your pastor is going to stand in front of Jesus and give account for doing what is always in your best interest, then blessing your idols, excusing your sin, and refusing to hold you accountable in the local church context will result in THAT day being a very, very bad day for him.

Those who sit in our churches week after week need to remember that a good pastor wants good for his people, and the path to good doesn't always "feel" good.  Conversely, Pastors who truly have a heart for their people will occasionally break out the rod of correction when there is clear evidence that its needed.  Shepherd-like compassion mixed with Elder-like discernment will sometimes result in Overseer-like authority being exercised, because we'd rather see our people temporarily uncomfortable than permanently harmed--or worse yet--eternally damned.

Which is why phone calls like I've referenced above usually end in this way:  Yes, I am your Pastor and I take that role seriously.  I love you, and I want good for you, which is why I will not stand by while you seek to control a situation to your own short-term benefit.  When you are willing to follow my counsel, I will invest as much time in you as is necessary to get you where God wants you.  Until then, know I'm praying for you--that God would break you as I can't so that you will come back to Him where you belong.

Sometimes its hard, gut-wrenching work, but those I've counseled have one thing right: I'm supposed to be their pastor.

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