Wendy Anne Clark © 2009
If you’ve been attending church very long, you’ve probably seen them—critical believers, dissatisfied believers, maybe even angry believers. They’re unhappy with the church leaders and particularly with the pastor, who just doesn’t do things quite right. He doesn’t preach the “right” way. He’s not leading the church the “right” way. So many things about the church could be better if he’d just get it together. Maybe you are one of those believers (or maybe you’ve been one somewhere along the way). Is it wrong to be dissatisfied, to express criticism of how things are being done? What if all of your concerns are completely true and justified? Are you supposed to sit back and say nothing?
I’ll be the first to admit that I have an opinion about just about everything, and I really do believe that I often have insight into how things are put together and how they could be improved, so I struggle with this question: When should I express these opinions and when should I keep them to myself?
While there is perhaps no quick and easy answer to this question, it might help to look at what the Bible has to say about what we, as the people of the church, are called to do and who we are called to be. We seem to know a lot about what the pastor should be doing and how he should do it, but what about us? What is our part?
Consider this passage in Hebrews (13:17) where Paul writes: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They must keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (NIV).
Does anyone else read this passage and see it as completely counter to our culture and the way we view our church leaders? If the pastor started barking out commands that we were all expected to “obey,” wouldn’t the people yell, “Cult!” and head right out the door? So then, what do we do with this passage?
One thing we can be sure of from this passage is that our church leaders have authority over us. This is not the same as a hierarchy of importance or worth, but it is a question of who gets the final say in leadership decisions. Second, our church leaders bear responsibility for those decisions and for us. They must watch over us (the people) and give an account to God for their decisions. Third, because they are the ones with authority and they will be held responsible, we must obey. We must choose to willingly submit to their leadership. Even if . . .
Even if . . . I think I’m smarter and have better ideas.
Even if . . . our church would be much better if the leaders would just listen to me.
Even . . . if I am more skilled, better educated, and more experienced.
(I’m not saying that any of these things are true, only that it doesn’t matter whether they are or not). I especially like the second part of the verse: “Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (NIV).
One of the things that is true about human beings is that we really want to know what’s in it for us. If I do this, what’s the benefit to me? Paul is a practical man. I hear him saying something like this: Your pastor is in charge and must answer to God for his decisions. You must obey him and submit to his authority. That’s God’s plan. If you get with the plan and willingly submit to your pastor’s authority, your pastor’s work will be a joy for him, which will benefit you too. If you resist and rebel, he will still be in charge, but his work will become a burden to him, which will affect you as well. Since you can’t escape his God-given authority—go ahead and surrender. It’s in your own best self-interest.
I hear the objections and questions jumping through the computer at this point: What if my pastor gets off track? We can’t leave him unchecked, can we? Of course not. Consider the example of the Bereans in Acts 17:11: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (NIV).
Go back and read Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and it seems apparent that he received a lot of criticism from them. Paul spends a lot of time answering these criticisms, but the Bereans had a different approach. First of all, they received the message with great eagerness. What about you? Do you still receive your pastor’s teaching with eagerness, hoping to learn and grow? Spend some time with a new believer and feel the enthusiasm, passion, excitement, and joy in learning about the Bible and God’s ways. Why is it that we tend to lose that eagerness? Why do we drift from focusing on the sermons as an opportunity to learn, into critiquing and evaluating the presentation? Ever hear comments like these?
*”The sermons just aren’t deep enough.”
*”I’ve heard all of these things before—I need something new.”
*”I heard another pastor who was so funny and entertaining. Why isn’t my pastor like that?”
*”I wish our pastor would teach a series about the book of Revelation. I need to be really challenged in my faith.”
*”Did you notice how wrinkled the pastor’s pants were?”
*”I don’t like the pastor’s new hair style; it’s just not appropriate for a pastor.”
I live in a city with many churches, many different choices. If my pastor is not up to snuff, I can go somewhere else and look for a “better” pastor. But what if I lived in a town where there was only one church and one pastor for miles, could I “get something” out of any pastor who is surrendered to God? Can God use even a mediocre pastor to teach and challenge us?
I believe the answer is yes. The Bible is a record of many imperfect and broken people being chosen and used by God to impact the lives of other people. Who am I to argue against God’s approach? My job is to approach each sermon with an eagerness to learn something—to learn it from God himself through his chosen mean of communication—in this case, the pastor. The second part of my job is to examine the Scriptures to see if what is being preached is true to the Word of God.
Eager, active, searching believers. Not mindless sponges, sitting in the pews, grading the pastor’s sermons. How often, after you hear your pastor preach a sermon, do you go home and examine the Scriptures to be sure that what he teaches is truth? Even if you’ve heard it before, have you applied all that you have heard? Are you approaching his sermons with eagerness, asking God to teach you in spite of your pastor’s teaching style?
The truth is that we really want control. Living in a wonderful, free society where we have a lot of control over our lives, perhaps we find it more difficult to accept that God has put the pastor in charge. It’s not my job to tell him what to preach about—just to be sure that he’s teaching the truth. It is the pastor’s responsibility to be obedient to God and to look out for our spiritual welfare.
Yes, there are standards of morality that our pastors are supposed to adhere to, and yes, they are to be rebuked if they fall (I Timothy 5:20). But it is not my job to shape and mold my pastor into the kind of preacher/teacher/speaker that I think he should be.
Consider Paul’s words in I Thessalonians 5:12-13: “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (NIV).
“In the highest regard in love”—do I do that? I fear that so often I do not. What about you?
“Be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (vs 16).
What is my job—my part when it comes to my pastor and how he leads the church?
*Pray for him—a lot.
*Approach his teaching with an eagerness to learn what God has for me.
*Search the Scriptures to make sure that he is teaching the truth.
*Be aware of his moral qualifications, and deal with morality issues as laid out in Scripture.
We all need to stop sniping and griping about what we think our leaders need to do and instead, submit to the authority that God has given them, even as they submit to God. What if you can’t submit? Should you stay? Should you leave? As one who has done both at different times in my life, I say that staying or leaving is strictly between you and God. Maybe God wants you to stay and will bring your heart around. Maybe God wants you to go and will spur you into growth in another body of believers.
My thoughts—never jump up and leave quickly unless your pastor is living an immoral life or teaching contrary to Biblical truth and you have exhausted all efforts to confront, but if these are not your issues, stop, pray, think, and pray some more. Take time to really make the choice to leave. Don’t leave in anger or with unresolved conflict if it is at all possible to find some kind of resolution. When someone approaches me with concerns about what a leader in my church is planning or doing, here’s my response:
Is it contrary to Scripture?
Is it immoral?
Is it illegal?
Is it dangerous?
If the answer to all of these questions is NO, then the issue is most likely one of opinion or taste, and not really a question of who’s “right” and who’s “wrong.” If you can let it go and live with it, great. If you feel compelled to share your perspective, remember that saying something once is expressing an opinion; saying something repeatedly is nagging, and nagging is seldom effective at changing anyone. If it bugs you so much that you can’t be supportive unless it changes, and it isn’t changing, then maybe it’s time to move on and give everyone a fresh start.
The most important question to ask is this:
Do I believe that my pastor really loves the Lord and is seeking to do his will?
Our pastors and leaders are all broken just like us, and all lead imperfectly, as we would do in their place. We need to keep that in mind when they don’t do things exactly as we would like.
*I feel the need to note here that my pastor is an excellent speaker, he’s not boring, and he doesn’t wear wrinkled pants! I was writing here about my collective life experience–I’ve visited many churches and talked to many believers about their own church experiences.