In the decades before Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, persecution began to ramp up a bit — specifically in the form of the only two empire-wide persecutions the church experienced during that time. After the persecutions were over, a new problem arose for church leaders: how to re-integrate people who have fallen away as a result of persecution. Some who had undergone great persecution but had not died began to be revered as people of great spiritual fortitude, and people even began to seek them out as spiritual authorities.
Now, this may not be the most obvious candidate for a “Why Church History is Relevant” post. We in the West don’t deal with a lot of overt persecution, and we certainly don’t have beaten and bloodied people challenging our pastors for spiritual authority. However, I was recently reading a book about the early church with a couple of friends in Abilene. One chapter in that book is devoted to early Christian perceptions of what the church is and what ministry is. A member of the book club who is a lawyer asked, “So, what was the early church’s attitude toward authority?” His law training has taught him to be a close reader but also one sensitive to issues of coercion and consent; further, he is a Christian who loves the church, and he is concerned about how spiritual authority “works” in the modern church.
Here’s the deal: most of the people where I live are from the Protestant tradition, and the university community of which I am a part is historically and currently connected with the Churches of Christ. Both of these movements have historically said that authority is simply found in the Bible… and yet in both groups there has always been some kind of mediation, like a preaching pastor, a traditional way of reading that Bible, etc., to help us understand what the Bible is actually saying to us. Crucially, though, in both groups that attitude is combined with a strong American individualism that rebels against any authority that is perceived to be coercive or overbearing.
The real problem, honestly, is that pastoral authority often involves talking with people about how they live their lives. That is not surprising given how we treat our spiritual leaders… but we should also remember that the words used in the early church for their leaders were names that had to do with age (and presumably wisdom), oversight, or shepherding. All of these words have to do with relationship and guidance.
These days, and in most cases, someone who is struggling with an issue can easily read the Bible and make some conclusions of their own, perhaps based on how they think “God is speaking” to them through the Word. If they go talk to a counselor, the counselor might ask how they feel about certain alternatives that they themselves have considered. But if they talk to a pastor or a spiritual friend, that person might actually say, “You should do X” or “You should not do Y.” And as Americans, we often don’t like that.
But then again, we do in fact let people tell us how to live our lives. Some of us let political commentators tell us what to think. Some of us let athletes or artists tell us (without words, sometimes) what a good life looks like. Some of us let pastors who are not our own – someone we might listen to online, or someone whose blog or books we read – tell us how to live like Jesus. Why do we do that? Why do we trust people who do not know us to tell us how to live our lives?
I think the answers can vary, but they often involve our respecting them in some way, or our wanting to be like them. That makes sense, but from a Christian perspective, there’s a problem: those people don’t know us personally. That’s true enough of celebrities, but even the pastors of our churches may not have the kind of intimate knowledge of us and our lives that would help them help us, beyond having something good to say generally. To put it bluntly, people with whom we are in some kind of personal relationship know us more like the ways Jesus knows us, and thus they have a better ability to pastor us, whether formally or informally. In other words, I think it may be more beneficial to us to allow people with whom we are in relational proximity to have authority over us. They may not know us well, but they hopefully know us to some degree.
But then, of course, the final problem comes in: the human heart. As Americans — as I noted above — we don’t like people telling us what to do. That blends with the brokenness of our wills and hearts in troublesome ways. Here’s what I mean. We could have sensitive, thoughtful friends or pastors who know us well. They could have full knowledge of a particular problem in our lives, and they could have prayer-filled advice to give us. But what if we don’t want to take it? What if our hearts are too hard? That, my friends, is what preachers have been dealing with for 2,000 years — sometimes with persecution and “unforgivable sins,” or in more recent days with adultery, financial sin, and/or family brokenness. May God bless us with authority figures who know us and whom we respect — and may God also give us the willingness to obey!