Why congregations need to show grace to their leaders.
Satan and his demons will do anything to silence the Church. When external persecution is impractical for whatever reason, they exploit human frailties within individual churches. Leaders, especially pastors and priests, find themselves in complex moral, social, and cultural battles on a regular basis. The Church has a calling to step into a season of reconciliation in the midst of cultural upheaval, but it comes at a high cost to pastors. There is a reason James cautions against becoming teachers; they are held to a higher accounting of ethical and doctrinal excellence than those who do not teach. Congregations need grace for their leaders as they support them through prayer, compassion, and space.
“Where do you go to church?” It’s a natural question when believers meet each other. The answer can reveal more than the words themselves. Commonly, the response is something to the effect of “I attend [pastor’s name]’s church.” But the local church does not belong to the senior pastor. The larger the church, the more dangerous it becomes for a church to be known more for its pastor’s fame because, when that pastor is revealed to be a mere mortal, the church suffers. And when the individual church suffers, so does the Church writ large.
A podcast series in early 2021 revealed some of the ways in which a church known more for its pastor than its doctrine can fall. The series itself received mixed reviews, but the facts of the demise of one of the fastest growing churches in the US were clear. The church was built on the personality of its leader, who ultimately abused his power, and when he resigned in disgrace, the church collapsed. It is not the first local church to undergo such trauma, but the speed at which it rose and fell made the situation notable.
Pastors are fallible, sinful, weak human beings, saved by the same grace that redeemed the rest of us who are fellow fallible, sinful, and weak human beings. For a church to put a single person in a position of such power–or for a pastor to put himself there–is both dangerous and unbiblical. Paul addressed this very practice in his letter to the Corinthians. Corinth was a city very much like large prosperous cities in the US. It was known as a trade center and its citizens were from all over the known world. It was a cultural center whose elite were powerful influencers on all parts of life, including the church. Because personalities were important to the Corinthian people, they elevated speakers who represented particular points of view, much the way 21st century Americans elevate politicians based on party affiliation. The same kind of elevation happened within the community of believers in Corinth. Paul heard of the divisions and acted quickly to stop the practice:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name.1 Corinthians 1:10
By citing Paul or Apollos or Peter as their leader, they divided the church itself into cultural factions instead of a united body of Christ. In the same way, when we assert that we follow a particular pastor, we similarly remove the focus from Jesus and place it onto a fallen human being. And when that pastor disappoints, there will be repercussions that may cause some to question their faith altogether. The Church, in both its universal and local representations, must stand on the promise of “Christ crucified…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
Local churches may try to avoid the cult of personality in a number of ways. Some denominations rotate senior pastors on a regular basis. Others require pastors to be accountable to a council of elders. Still others may rotate teaching responsibilities between a senior pastor and other teaching pastors within the local congregation. However church leadership chooses to ensure congregants do not become attached to one particular teacher to the point of idolatry, grace is the key to unity. As believers, we must not follow Pastor so-and-so, but rather we must follow Jesus through the teaching of the pastor(s) whom God has called to the local church.
What does all of this have to do with grace? Three dominant things to be explored in future posts: how congregations treat vocational pastors, how congregations support the structure of pastoral succession, and how congregations represent Jesus by their words about pastors outside the church walls.
Over the next few weeks I will share from what I am learning from pastors about these three expressions of grace (or the lack thereof). In the meantime, consider these words from E.M. Bounds, written in 1914:
“Pray for your pastor. Pray for his body, that he may be kept strong and spared
many years. Pray for his soul, that he may be kept humble and holy, a burning
and shining light. Pray for his ministry, that it may be abundantly blessed, that
he may be anointed to preach good tidings. Let there be no secret prayer
without naming him before your God, no family prayer with carrying your
pastor in your hearts to God.”Purpose in Prayer by E.M. Bounds