Teaching corporate spirituality is a misplaced corrective

The rejection of evangelical individualism




Evangelicals acknowledge the current crisis in spiritual authority

There is no doubt that evangelicals are consciously coming to terms with the utter loss of spiritual authority. For example, a recently published book on the pastoral ministry entitled The 21st Century Pastor (1996) acknowledges the questions of authority emerging from today's congregations. The book, however, fails to offer any guidance to pastors encountering such a situation.

One manifestation of the loss of spiritual authority comes with "repeat-offender churches." David Goetz (1996) has documented an emerging pheonomena of churches that habitually force pastors out of their ministry. According to his survey, 62 percent of forced-out pastors said the church that forced them out had done it before. And of those who said their church had pushed out their predecessors, 41 percent indicated the church had done it more than twice. His conclusion: churches that force out their pastor will likely do it again.

Denominational supervisors seeing this happen are failing to react. Goetz found that of forced-out pastors, 40 percent indicated that their denominational supervisor was "not very" or "not at all" supportive during their forced-exit experience. The reason? Denominational supervisors assume it is harder for a church to fail the pastor than it is for a pastor to fail with the church. They're motto is, "Pastors come and go, but churches stay." Goetz sharply concludes that aside from the rationalizations by denominational supervisors, "it's always easier to move the pastor than to discipline the church." In essence, the hard work of asserting and re-establishing spiritual authority is totally neglected.

More powerful testimonies of the loss of spiritual authority are found in the interview data I have gathered, the synthesized results will be available sometime in the future.



A misplaced theological corrective

Theological texts are rarely written to simply state theological truths. The great majority are polemical works aimed at correcting misunderstandings and promote a renewed vision of the faith. Recent works seek to correct a misunderstanding of the church and promote a vision of corporate spirituality (cf. Mulholland, 1993). Yet, none address the crisis of spiritual authority. They may indeed be exacerbating the issue.

These works counter "the heresy of individualism" (Patterson, 1996:46). Giles (1996) contends that an individualistic or congregational understanding of the church is a product of Western culture. He argues against the misunderstanding that the Bible is about individual salvation, and that the local church is an assembly of people in a voluntary association. He correctly concludes that this understanding leads to a type of utilitarianism in which the church merely serves to faciliate believers living out their faith. Church leaders become bureaucratic functionaries ensuring the smooth functioning of organizational functions and serving member's stated needs. Similarly, Clowney (1996) abhors the individualistic notion among Christians who see the church as a voluntary club. All of these authors see a neglect of the corporate dimension of Christianity. Smith (1996) echos the same theme. All of them call Christians to recognize the all-inclusiveness of the church to all Christians since all Christians are part of a supernatural entity which is called out by God, loved by God and that carries out the will of God.

It is interesting that each of these writers understand the social consequences of the loss of spiritual authority. Yet, while they address important issues such as individualism and utilitarianism, none of them deal with the issue of spiritual authority directly. In fact, they call Christians to rethink the distinction between clergy and laity! Since all Christians--not just clergy-- are to be involved in spiritual ministry through exercise of their spiritual gifts (cf. Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 Peter 4), they emphaze every-member ministry. Yet they fail to address the distinctive offices of church leaders to which they are to be obedient (cf. Hebrews 13:17). All three address the "office" of elder, yet the emphasis is on the question of women holding office, not in the authority inherent in the office itself. Thus, a true vision of what the church should look like is missing.

In short, the call to corporate spirituality in a new understanding of the church, and the call to every-member ministry is a misplaced corrective. While it may serve to bring Christians together, it fails to address the question of who will direct and guide their spiritual work. Indeed, what guarantee that any of these authors have a voice with believers today? What is the source of their own spiritual authority to address these issues? There is yet to be addressed the "undermining of the sanctity of the pastor-congregation relation" in any current theological work (Patterson, 1996:48).



Summary

Evangelicals today acknowledge the loss of spiritual authority 1) in the exercise of the pastoral position, 2) in the repeated rejection of pastors who are forced out of churches and 3) in the neglect of the corporate dimension of the faith. Yet, they either fail to propose solutions, or work further against re-establishment of spiritual authority by further diminishing the distinction between clergy and laity.


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Books cited on this page are:

For more information on this subject, see Robert W. Patterson's "Getting Individuals into the Church: The Heresy of Individualsm." Christianity Today, June 15, 1996, Vol. 40, No. 8., pp. 44-48.


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This page created on July 12, 1996.
Most recent revision was August 27, 1996.
Copyright © 1996 Gerardo Marti
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