Ministry in an anti-authoritarian society

I had a little epiphany last night. I don’t usually have epiphanies – they’re pretty rare for me to be honest – but last night I genuinely saw something which I hadn’t before. It’s probably because I am slow and dense, but still – an epiphany is an epiphany.

It happened in my home group. The home group I lead is comprised of a mix of people, but a good number of them are relatively new to the church and to the faith in general – some of them have no Christian background whatsoever. Over the last few years I have seen a lot of spiritual growth in many ways, but there are also challenges. (And, if you’re from my home group and reading this… hello. I hope you don’t mind me using the group as an example!)

Anyway, last night we were chatting and got onto the subject of women bishops. One of the people in the group said they respected my position but didn’t always agree because “different people have got different perspectives.” As I was thinking about that, all of a sudden a light came on and I realised: so much of what I’d been thinking about with the group could be explained by anti-authoritarianism, that is, a rejection of authority and the idea that you can only really trust yourself (individualism).

Although I’ve heard about our culture being anti-authoritarian (many times), I think seeing it worked out in a group scenario just helped the lightbulb come on for me. It explains so much of what I’ve noticed:

  • Qualifications don’t count for much. In the group, people do listen to me respectfully, but I’m not sure my opinion – as someone who has spent three years at theological college – counts for that much compared with anyone else. It’s hard to gauge, of course, but certainly there is no culture of ‘Phill says it, therefore it must be true’. (It’s not just clergy – in wider society there’s been a collapse of trust in leadership across the board.)
  • Saying ‘The Bible says’ isn’t enough. We’ve discussed a couple of ‘hot potato’ issues over the past couple of years – e.g. same-sex marriage and women bishops – and, in both instances, we have looked at the relevant Bible passages and books, but I’m not sure it’s changed people’s opinions very much. People do want to learn from the Bible – don’t get me wrong – but seem reluctant to accept what it says when it comes to some of the tougher issues. It’s partly because, as I said, there’s always another interpretation.

(And, I should say at this point, I’m not being in any way down on my group – I think this kind of thing is going on in churches all across the country. It’s just the air we breathe, culturally speaking. It’s certainly not the fault of any individual).

Now, I don’t think these things are necessarily bad – for example, sometimes a culture of deference to an authority figure can be a bad thing – if that figure isn’t doing what is right. It’s led to people not being brought to justice, for example, because no-one was afraid to question them. That said, in the Bible it is right to show a healthy respect to those who God has called to lead – e.g. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” The idea of submitting to the authority of a vicar or pastor is very counter-cultural these days – and yet, it’s right there in the Bible.

Similarly with “The Bible says” – it’s not wrong to ask questions. The Berean Jews in Acts 17:11: “… were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” The Berean Jews received the message, but they searched the Scriptures to see for themselves whether it was true. They didn’t take Paul on authority but turned to the Bible – I think that’s a great pattern! At the same time, it is possible to question in a way which is unhelpful – I explored this a little in “that’s just your interpretation”.

What lessons can we learn?

This anti-authoritarian, individualistic attitude will of course have an effect on ministry in all sorts of contexts. It’s made me open my eyes in particular to what may or may not be going on in sermons – just because something is said from the pulpit doesn’t mean that it will be believed by the congregation. I’m sure this has always been the case but it must be doubly so at the moment.

It seems to me there are a few things the church can do:

  • Give people the ability to be confident in the Scriptures. I would say this includes being more explicit about teaching about the Bible, perhaps including secondary matters such as textual criticism. Books such as ‘Taking God at His Word’ by Kevin DeYoung, or ‘Unbreakable’ by Andrew Wilson – that kind of thing. The Scriptures are our starting point – if people can’t be confident in what the Bible says, they can’t be confident about anything in the Christian faith.
  • Teach the Christian faith comprehensively. I’ve argued before that we need more than simply expository Bible teaching – we need Biblical and Systematic theology as well. Biblical Theology means understanding the Bible as one big story, understanding how it all fits together. Systematic theology means looking at what the whole Bible says about a particular topic. In particular I think it would be good to revive the discipline of catechism.
  • Help people to understand authority. There’s a good post over on Crossway about spiritual authority in an anti-authoritarian age with some helpful suggestions.
  • Be patient. Rome was not built in a day – people who have lived and breathed the air of the world for all their lives will not instantly come to a full and mature understanding of the faith.
  • Trust the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can work in any heart, and ultimately it is his work – something which gives me confidence!

At the end of the day we know that the Word of God is still living, active, and powerful, and it is that which will change people’s hearts. When I finished college, the principal gave us these words from Isaiah to go out with, and they are still true today:

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
it will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

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