Pastors and priesthood

Continuing revelations of child abuse by Catholic priests are the airing of a generations-long tragedy. We who sit on this side of the Protestant Reformation are in nowise justified to consider ourselves vindicated for not being Catholic or immune to the abuses that led to this sickening violation of trust. As with other cases where you and I have seen religious leaders fall, we are wise to walk more humbly as we hear the bad news. 

Certainly I know that we are organized differently than Catholics. And I use “organized” in a loose, Baptist kind of way. The hierarchy and political influence of the Roman Church allows for the internal “handling” of charges against church leadership. Roman Catholic hierarchy claims the authority of the apostles, inherited through the ages. How does someone who believes that accuse a priest? It takes a bold believer to cross a wicked man he believes has the authority to deny him grace. 

But Baptists are congregationalists, yes we are. A.H. Strong, in his Systematic Theology, says it well: “While Christ is sole king, therefore, the government of the church, so far as regards the interpretation and execution of his will by the body, is an absolute democracy, in which the whole body of members is intrusted with the duty and responsibility of carrying out the laws of Christ as expressed in his Word.” I might clarify that the pastor’s ministry of the Word is not a democratically derived decision, but Strong has it right—a believers’ church discerns the will of God without a human intermediary. Any of us can have a self-aggrandizing moment but a Baptist pastor should have no wall of mystery or apostolic authority to shield him from accountability to his brothers. This is very much to his benefit. 

Polity matters, and Baptist polity has the advantage of deriving from Scripture, but any scheme for organizing a church or body of churches can be stymied by sinful men. That’s the takeaway. A pastor friend in his 40s recently told me that he was more aware of his need for spiritual accountability now than he was after he graduated from seminary. The more times we sin and repent, or even see those who sin and do not repent, the more humbly we should walk before God and his people. Two things seem very important as we consider our own ministries during this slow-motion train wreck in the Roman Church.

The most basic truth is that we are mortal men who are not yet glorified. In other words, we still sin in word and deed. A man who believes this will not go it alone. He will find that friend who will rebuke him when he needs it. He will enlist those who will know his business and tell him when he’s being proud or lazy or greedy, or whatever thing is blinding him at the moment. Some prominent leaders of institutions and churches clearly lack this kind of vital advice. The greater a man’s influence, the greater his need of a Nathan or Barnabas to help him. A pastor who knows his own heart will not consider himself immune from profound failure. He puts safeguards in his life. He takes advice from older people who’ve made the mistakes still in his future. He will listen to the Word he preaches and the counsel he gives to his members.

A second important truth is our pastors are members of our churches. Your pastor and his wife are a brother and sister in Christ who need your spiritual edification as much as anyone else in the church. The generation that taught me sometimes told us that pastoral couples should not make friends in their churches to avoid favoritism or a betrayed trust. Few believe that anymore, and good riddance to that view. Another side of it is when pastoral families are considered “others” in front of whom you should only sing hymns. The effect of that attitude is the withholding of common fellowship. Should that guy in your Sunday School class be able to abandon his family and move into a van down by the river unnoticed? Should your pastor be able to neglect his health or his marriage without anyone knowing him well enough to notice? It’s not that our churches need to be passively willing to befriend the pastor and his family, if they call; we must actively befriend them, just as we should other church members. 

The goal of all this is not so much to settle the sexual abuse crisis as it is to help your brothers long before anything so tragic happens. Remember Paul’s metaphor of a human body in 1 Corinthians and Romans. Even if the pastor holds so significant a position as the eye or neck to the body of Christ, he is pretty bad off without the rest of the body. We fingers and elbows must not withhold our help. 

Our biblical polity should connect all church members, including the pastor, so that no one is insulated from his brothers and sisters. Neither should church members consider the pastor another sort of person than themselves. A biblical understanding of church leadership provides both protection and empowerment for a church’s ministry. No humanly derived scheme for the conduct of local church ministry has the power to do either.   

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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