Stop Idolizing Your Pastor

"Our pastor is so good -- he just preaches the Word of God," I still hear from some of my conservative evangelical friends. No, your pastor does not "just preach the Word of God," but preaches what he (and, in such conservative evangelical circles, that pastor is always male) thinks an author from the Bible is communicating. I still have difficulty convincing conservative evangelical Protestants that pastors and preachers and Sunday School teachers do not merely open their Bibles and preach pure truth to the masses. Your pastor, your favorite preacher, and your Sunday School teacher are not purely objective. Only God is purely objective. They are biased, prejudiced, and flawed just like everyone else.

If you will: your pastor holds many opinions, many contrary opinions to other pastors even within your own tradition, and holds to errors. Yes, you read that right, in that your pastor holds to theological and philosophical and logical errors of which he is (and apparently you are) entirely unaware. How do I know that? I know that because your pastor is a flawed human being. Your pastor does not possess the mind of God -- a higher knowledge than all other mortals. Your pastor, love his heart, is trying to glean from the Bible messages that are (or should be) relevant to your life, for your benefit, to help you grow. But your pastor, in no sense whatsoever, merely picks up his Bible and preaches to you exactly what God thinks, how God feels, or what God wants you to do in every situation. Stop idolizing your pastor.

Does this mean, then, that we can know nothing about what authors of Scripture are communicating to us? Of course not -- even common sense can dictate the accuracy of Jesus' statement: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matt. 7:12). There is a single plain sense that all can understand here and this statement cannot mean or be used to mean any other meaning than that we should all treat others in the same manner as we wish to be treated. This statement cannot be used to mean that Christians should vote Republican, or that believers should be vegetarians, or that followers of Jesus should avoid serving in the military. There is an economy of language used in this statement that restricts a conclusion as to its meaning. We must embrace the boundaries of the words themselves.

There are other statements in Scripture that require a bit more context, more cultural insight, in order to understand not only its meaning but any potential application. For example, St. Paul writes, "Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?" (1 Cor. 15:29) The apostle is arguing with the philosopher who insists that there is no such reality as a resurrection. One question he raises is, If the dead are not raised at all, then why are people baptized on their behalf? He is teaching people that, for Christians, the resurrection of Christ is also our future resurrection. Hence a believer must hold to the truth of the physical, bodily resurrection, for it also concerns us practically -- evidently there was a practice of living believers being baptized on behalf of the deceased (presumably deceased believers in Christ). Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers states (all emphases added and all spellings original):
There have been numerous and ingenious conjectures as to the meaning of this passage. The only tenable interpretation is that there existed amongst some of the Christians at Corinth a practice of baptising a living person in the stead of some convert who had died before that sacrament had been administered to him. Such a practice existed amongst the Marcionites in the second century, and still earlier amongst a sect called the Corinthians. The idea evidently was that whatever benefit flowed from baptism might be thus vicariously secured for the deceased Christian. (link)
Tell me you caught the conundrum in the above quote: our author states that there have been "numerous and ingenious conjectures as to the meaning of this passage," but what he offers is the "only tenable [rational, defensible] interpretation" of this subject. Now consider the audience. Each person or each group of people who are followers of all the contrary "numerous and ingenious conjectures" interpreting this passage may assume that their leader/pastor/preacher is merely "preaching the Word of God" on this matter. But doing so is not merely naïve but downright ignorant and lazy. Our author concludes: "Does St. Paul then, by what he here says, sanction the superstitious practice? Certainly not. He carefully separates himself and the Corinthians, to whom he immediately addresses himself, from those who adopted this custom." (link) Are we expected to merely "take his word for it"?

Here is the problem: certain preachers -- and especially among conservative evangelicals -- use rhetorical skills in order to manipulate people into believing that the words proceeding from their mouth are the very words of God and come directly from the Word of God. The matter is only compounded when we consider the preacher who insists that God showed him the interpretation of said passage. An inner warning signal should automatically sound when you hear someone suggest that God gave a preacher, pastor, or a Sunday School teacher a private interpretation of any passage of Scripture. At that moment you can be certain that what you are hearing are the meanderings of a vivid imagination. This is how pulpit charlatans are formed. This is how cult leaders are bred.

I, obviously, do not know your pastor and so I have no idea as to the greatness or not-so-greatness of your pastor. There are many good pastors in the world. Some are better than others. Some preach better than others -- though that is highly subjective in nature. Some pastors and some preachers are downright frightening. Some need to be regenerated still. Others just want to be liked and so they will say whatever pleases the most amount of people. Some are overly-demanding, legalistic, and rob believers of their joy in Christ. Others just want to tell stories and have little to do with Jesus. My main concern is that people, particularly conservative Protestants, stop viewing their pastor like the Pope. These same evangelicals, who criticize Roman Catholics for following a Pope, are equally as guilty for following their idol-pastor as though every word he speaks is a word from God. Stop doing that.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.