Young friend B. is 22 years old. She is, I think, the most spiritually hurt by all this of the family. She is suspicious of anybody attempting to assert "spiritual authority." Now, among many charismatics and evangelicals, "spiritual authority" is a big deal -- and often a cover for simply, "do it my way." It seems to me that B. (as I have written of myself on another occasion) just wanted "to believe and to belong." What she got handed was a whole mess of manipulation, conditions, and theological mumbo-jumbo: I'll love you if . . . Your problem is . . . But true Christians . . .
Some of you will recognize this pattern. My friend B. is a victim of abuse. This is not to say that cultists or theological perverts were running her church. Most abuse is just the way dysfunctional people love each other. But the fact remains that her experiences with her former church have left her questioning God, suspicious of others, both desperately wanting the church and desperately holding it at arm's length, and trying to sift through all the house-of-mirrors way of talking that crazy people use on each other.
There are too many congregations -- of every flavor -- like this. And this post is not about THEM. This post is about "spiritual authority." B. says she doesn't get those bad vibes from me or several other clergy she knows. I think she assumes that's just 'cause we're nice guys. But I was trying to tell her last night that our niceness is only a part of the whole deal. Our view of spiritual authority is very different from what she has been exposed to. So what I want is to describe what healthy spiritual authority looks like.
When I was ordained, they laid hands on me and said, "Take thou authority to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments in the congregation." That's my basic stock in trade. The Church invests a certain trust in me, and I am given a certain deference as for one who is performing an essential function. I am not to be interfered with in that function -- no one can tell me what to preach, or whom to baptize, or how often to celebrate -- but nobody is required to put up with any bossiness from me, either.
I am not running things, I can only testify to what works. I can't make people behave themselves, I can only describe how life ought to be lived. I can't fix people or prevent them from hurting themselves, I can only be there to help them pick up the pieces after they go over the cliff they insisted on leaping from. And I can't require anything from the people who come to church, who are free to leave if they think I'm a jerk. (Many of them are holy enough to love the jerk in the pulpit for the sake of Xt and the Church, and this is a wonderful thing -- but that's another issue.)
My duty is to speak the truth in love. If I do not speak the truth, I am a renegade; but if I break people's heads with the truth and do not at the same time speak love to their hearts, I am a crank -- or worse. The essence of what I do is to stand at the nexus of all the relationships in the Church and help to straighten out what is crooked, connect what is broken. The Church is about a right relationship with God -- and right relationships with others. We ain't sellin' grace by the pound, and doing what it takes to "put seats in the seats" is not all there is to evangelism.
People who have been hurt by the weirdness of dysfunctional churches litter the landscape. Like survivors of abusive families, they will probably have a very hard time finding the love they seek. And those of us who would like to bring them into really right relationships with God and others find that their ability to respond is damaged. But I pray that people like my friend B. will find those with the patience and the wisdom and the love to show them what life in Christ should be like, and can be like.