Nobody is above Question
There are two dangerous attitudes in the church, and I suspect in any human endeavor. One is the idea that certain leaders are above question. In the church the words “touch not mine anointed” (going back to the KJV, Psalm 105:15, and we could discuss the context) are often used to express this idea. This line can be used to shut down any questioning of one who is called a pastor, teacher, prophet, apostle, evangelist, bishop, or whatever other title people have chosen. On the other hand, there is the hypercritical attitude, in which no leader can possibly be good enough, doctrinally correct enough, educated enough, or whatever enough to suit.
Unfortunately, rather than seeking balance in our own lives we tend to go to one or the other extreme, and then yell at each other for our failures to meet the standards of the other camp, whichever that is. If it were not tragic, it would be hilarious to observe the criticism heaped on one church leader for questioning another, when both the questioner and the questioned have some sort of claim to this “God’s anointed” status.
Over-critical attitudes, backbiting, and unwillingness to work with a team have led many church leaders to discouragement and even out of the ministry. Lack of healthy questioning allows problems to grow until they’re out of hand. Right now, however, I want to address this reluctance to question people in leadership, and then give some suggestions as to how we can question without being destructive.
I’ve been on the destructive end. In seminary I became so bright (in my own mind) that nobody could preach a sermon good enough for me. This critical attitude was one of the factors that led me out the doors of the church shortly after I was done at the seminary. So I can speak from experience. At the same time, I have observed destructive behavior in leaders, behavior that should have been corrected by others, but because the leader was so respected, and people didn’t want to question them, their behavior went unchecked, and they were able to harm more and more people.
We’ve seen an example of this in the Roman Catholic church with the sexual abuse scandal. A tendency not to question leadership at all levels of the hierarchy allowed the church to cover up its problems for decades. Eventually, the problems came to light, at which point the church had to face repeated issues, dealing with decades of abuse in a few years. And dealing with it is hardly complete.
But protestants should not have any illusions that we have less problems. We have a hierarchy that is less efficient at covering up, so we have dealt with these problems over a longer period of time. That gives us the illusion that we’re doing much better. We still run into similar problems. The person who is above reproach, who cannot be questioned, is in a position of great temptation, whether that temptation is moral, doctrinal, or financial.
In a church that is divided into hundreds of denominations, we have to make determinations. Will I become a member of this church or that? To what extent is my loyalty to my local church or denomination, as opposed to the broader body of Christ in the local community. Is Pastor X someone I should follow, or are his teachings a danger to me and to the church?
I have illustrated a case recently in which I felt something was far enough off the mark that it was appropriate to speak out, with some comments by Pat Robertson on tithing. I have seen discussions of Bishop John Shelby Spong and of Joel Osteen. These latter two provide a good illustration of my point. There are those who would regard Bishop Spong as outside the bounds of Christianity, while they defend Joel Osteen against any sort of criticism. Why? Both have been ordained by Christian organizations. Both have said things that many Christians question. Why should someone consider one or the other above criticism?
The difference, of course, is in which doctrines each espouses. What is important to you? But by making that very decision, you are deciding, for yourself, which leader to follow. Good! That’s what you should do. Test it. Hold what’s good. Turn away from evil. (See 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22, making sure to emphasize verse 17.)
But then why would you deny that same privilege, no, duty, to another Christian?
And make no mistake. I am definitely saying that my duty to discern also often comes with a duty to speak up and discuss that decision with others. Just because someone is famous, well-loved, called “anointed,” helpful to some people, wonderfully charismatic, extraordinarily well-educated, or just plain special doesn’t mean that person is always right.
My tendency is to try to keep quiet in many cases. My wife often pushes me to speak up. That is a matter of personality. But for each of us, hopefully guided by prayer (go read 1 Thessalonians 5:17 again), there is a duty to uphold the right and speak out against what is not right.
So how can we do this without becoming hypercritical?
Well, for me, simply realizing how fallible I am has been very helpful. I now have had too many occasions when I’ve been reading the Bible and suddenly thought, “Wow! I’ve been wrong about that for years!” I’m going to post something on my Participatory Bible Study blog, hopefully later today, about an issue on which I’ve been wrong for at least 15 years. And my wrongness on this issue does not exist in isolation. Once I have written about how I changed my mind, there will be people who will think I was right and am now very wrong. I hope they’ll speak up. They should!
So here are my ideas:
- Address behavior or teaching, not personality or the person. For example, “I think Joel Osteen is a false teacher” is judging the man and his ministry as a whole. Unless you’re one of the elders of his church (or the equivalent), that’s generally not your business or probably even competence. “Joel Osteen said _____ and I believe that’s wrong” is a much better approach. Even better, “Here’s what I believe about _____ and here’s my scriptural and theological basis for believing it.” People can figure out the personalities for themselves if necessary. Sometimes, however, it’s a good idea to identify a person who has made a public statement, if that statement is widely known.
- Be sure you have actually understood what a person is saying. For example, “Bishop Spong doesn’t believe in the resurrection” and “Bishop Spong does not believe resurrection involves resuscitation of a physical corpse” are two different statements. Be sure you’re responding to what the person actually said.
- Realize that everyone is fallible, especially you. There is an expression derived from French, “de haut en bas” it refers to speaking from above someone, from a position of superiority. You are not the judge of Bishop Spong or Joel Osteen or of me. That doesn’t mean you cannot question each of us. Do your best to speak from a position of humility. When something really stirs you up (as Pat Robertson’s statement did the other day), this may be more difficult. But don’t just be prepared to be questioned. Welcome questioning. Invite questioning. Be open. Listen to the questions. Re-examine your own beliefs. If you come to the same conclusion, fine. But you’ll be stronger for it.
- Don’t be narrow. Sometimes we have such a narrow range of beliefs we find acceptable that nobody can possibly live up to our expectations. For me, the problem was technical accuracy. A pastor might preach a sermon that was really great, but use a verse that I didn’t think was handled properly. The whole sermon would become chaff in my mind, and the sorry individual who was careless enough to misuse scripture (or other sources) in that way would be struck off my list–until I no longer had a list. Humorously enough, others were busy striking me off their lists. When we do this, the body of Christ becomes one finger, or one nose, or some less honorable part (read 1 Corinthians 12-14 several times, OK?) and there we go. I had to do a great deal of repenting and “list restoration” to get back into action with the body.
- Don’t be afraid. People will get annoyed whether you are questioning a popular leader or defending him or her. Don’t let fear, whether the fear of what people will think, or the fear of being wrong, stop you. Wrongness is an easily correctable problem!
- Moral standards are more important than errors in teaching. Depending on the teaching, it’s possible that it could lead to bad moral standards. I know of a pastor who came up with a new doctrine of divorce after he–you guessed it–wanted to get divorced. Sexual abuse of minors, sexual misconduct, financial misconduct, and actions that are hurting members of the body need to be dealt with. That isn’t a matter of judging the person. It’s a matter of protecting people who need it.
I hope that these few ideas will be helpful. I know there are those who would prefer that we simply let those known by great titles or popular as leaders slide. They may be doing great good. But they may also be doing harm in the background. I know there are those who are afraid of excessive criticism. What I’m suggesting is a broad-based openness to questioning, both of ourselves and of others. But let it all be done as gently as possible.
Another winner. Thank you.
I think I struggle the most with #4. I think you are saying, “Give grace.” This is good advice, and a principle I hope to do a better job of heeding in the future.
P. S. Phil. 4:5 comes to mind — “Let your bigheartedness be known to all people. Remember, the Lord is coming soon!”
I think the hard part is to both uphold truth and give grace. I believe both are biblical. As humans I think we tend to uphold truth by withholding grace, the opposite of what Jesus modeled!
Excellent essay, Henry. Reprinting on UM Insight, with your permission, with links back to your blog. Thanks!
Thanks! And of course you have my permission.