“Little strokes fell great oaks” – Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac
Back during the Revolutionary War, American preachers used to promulgate, by their sermons, the ideas of liberty versus oppression. They were effective enough at convicting hearts and minds that they had a palpable effect on the war effort, and the British eventually dubbed them the “Black Robe Brigade.” Today, I’ll make an appeal to evangelical preachers as well, though far less emotive than the conflicts of the war era.
Building a Church …
I’m on the board at my church here in Columbia, MD. The church is growing rather rapidly and we’re looking for a new place to meet. Right now there are maybe three or so front-running candidates for the new location, each with relative strengths and weaknesses as you would imagine.
I try very hard during the process of working toward a new space to make sure my thinking, opinions, and influence are tempered by my position. I am a board member. We don’t really see church boards in the New Testament, they are largely a construct of the U.S. tax code and the necessary conditions to maintain 501 c(3) tax-exempt status. If you wanted to draw a New Testament parallel I think the closest you could find is the deacons, which is largely a service role, not an ecclesiastical one. As such (in my thinking) the board serves to carry out business and corporate functions of the church – like finding a new meeting space.
I note this because I will have opinions about the possible new locations that extend beyond simple corporate functionality. We’re all Christians on the board and it’s quite natural and expected that we would see things in broader perspectives than square footage, parking allocation, build out costs, and contract duration. But we all remember that the authority and responsibility for direction of the church is given to the pastor. He holds the responsibility for “vision” of the church.
It’s a key thing to remember that authority and responsibility go hand-in-hand. Everybody want’s authority, they want to be able to make or influence every decisionunder the sun that impacts them in even slightly tangential ways. That is to say, we all have opinions about the way things ought to be. In fact, we have opinions when the decisions don’t affect us at all. But none of us really wants to bear the responsibility for those decisions. (We’ll come back to this in a moment.)
In the church world, at least the evangelical church world, this notion of autonomous pastoral authority over church direction is not just “bottom-up” but also “top-down” in its application. We don’t disregard church hierarchy by any stretch, but its influence is typically limited to things like doctrine and discipline. The pastor doesn’t have the leeway to change church teaching on various issues, nor does he have leeway to live a life that openly flouts the teachings of Christ and maintain his post. But other than that, yes, he has leeway. If he wants to paint the church lime green and use bright yellow chairs in the sanctuary, then he has leeway to do so. The hierarchy may counsel him that it’s a bad idea, as will the board and the congregation – but ultimately that is just counsel. We’ll let him do it if he’s hard-over. (If my pastor is reading this, I hope he doesn’t get any ideas about new paint & chairs.)
Building a Life …
I note these things as an appeal to the preachers, the new Black Robe Brigade, on the issues of public policy and individual liberty. In the same way I argue that preachers should have broad latitude in their vision for the church, I argue that people should have broad latitude in vision for their own lives.
Just as a church has been entrusted to the pastor, so has the individual life been given and entrusted to the person. The decisions that are outside of the individual’s control, that are levied upon him by the hierarchy (the government – which is the neighbors in a democracy), should be very narrow in scope. The scope here is not doctrine as in the church, but the exercise of life itself. If a man’s life is a gift to him from God, then authority and responsibility for it’s exercise and use are left to him; and restriction of this authority and responsibility is linked directly to the authority and responsibility of his fellow men over their lives.
Let’s look at some simple applications of the authority/responsibility construct. Does a man have a moral obligation to care for the poor? Well, the Bible would say yes, and so presumably the Christians in the room would also stand up and say yes. But who bears the responsibility for this decision? Matthew 25 … when we stand before the Lord, He will address our care for the poor. That is, we each individually bear responsibility for our decisions – thus we must each individually bear authority for the exercise of that benevolence in our lives and with the use of our lives.
For that matter, does a man bear responsibility for his sexual promiscuity in this life? The Bible also suggests the answer is “yes” – but if his disregard for the Lord (and his fellow men) does not run afoul of the authority that each other man holds for his own life, then I find no room for government intervention.(Now, there are instances where his promiscuity does violate the authority of others. This would be the case with forcible rape, where the authority of the other has been violated, or sex with a minor, where the child does not hold responsibility for themselves.)
These examples all point to simple, human freedom. We can disagree with the decisions others make, whether their decision to not help the poor (or even the manner in which they choose to help the poor), or their decisions regarding sexual or substance morality – and we may well be right. But being right about an issue is not the same as holding authority and responsibility for the decision. In the same way that we would be absolutely right in declaring that lime green paint with bright yellow chairs is a dumb idea for a church sanctuary. We’d be both right, and out of our depth at demanding our way be recognized as the best. We can counsel (and we would do so quite fervently) but no more.
If we, the church, want to build a moral society in which people live with respect and regard for Biblical truths, then we must do it with our counsel – that is our preaching – and not the power of our vote. This is the way of the Golden Rule.