When Your Pastor is Your Pope

My friend and I sometimes joke about “Pope Piper.”

John Piper is well known for his insightful observations of verses, his passionate preaching, and his sometimes questionable–but many times helpful–metaphors for understanding spiritual truths.  Because of those qualities, and the role he’s played in both of our lives, my friend and I often remember something he’s said that was helpful in our understanding, which we proceed to sarcastically accept by saying: “well, Pope Piper has spoken!”

Obviously it’s a joke, but it doubles as a reminder that we need to be careful how we treat what Piper has said.  After all, we think him biblical, but he is not the Bible; we think him Christ-like, but he is not Christ; we think his words have credibility, but he is no Pope (non sequitur? perhaps).†  However much we might respect a “big-name” pastor, or our local minister, we should be reminded of this fact, and careful to be as the Bereans who, even after hearing the preaching of the greatest evangelist in the church’s history, examined the Scriptures daily to “see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).  Piper is fallible, my pastor is fallible, and so is yours; this does not mean we can’t respect him, nor does it mean we should be sitting through a sermon criticizing their every word, but it also doesn’t mean we sit in our pew, passively accepting his word as law, and never holding him accountable to the Word of God.

In thinking about this for myself, and seeing the lengths to which people will unquestionably accept the words of their pastors–either local or “celebrity”–I have tried to think of several ways to consider whether we may be thinking of our pastor in this way.  Is your pastor your Pope?  Or is he a vessel through whom God speaks His Word to the church.

Here’s a couple things that might make you want to stop and consider whether your pastor is pope:

When you think: “He’s so smart!”

There’s nothing wrong with your pastor being an educated man, and I certainly would never espouse anti-intellectualism.  But when “He’s so smart!” is followed by the thought: “He knows so much, and I know so little, what he’s saying must be true,” and that followed by a response of complacency, or laziness on our part to search out whether “these things [are] so,” it becomes dangerous.

Perhaps nothing bothers me so much as a preacher who makes an assertion, and then proceeds to defend it by human philosophies.  This is usually done by over-complicating the issue under consideration, that the audience hardly follows, but enough terms and jargon were employed, that they hardly blink an eye and accept the words without much consideration.  After all, who could debate or challenge this guy?

Admittedly, there are some things in Scripture that require more hours of study, a better grasp of the original languages, maturity, knowledge of the debates, and sometimes experience.  But this does not free us from our responsibility to study, pray, and meditate on these things for ourselves.  Questions of eschatology, church polity, or worship practices are sometimes more complex, but nothing in those–and especially in salvation–should be made to sound like one needs 4 degrees and a superior intellect to understand.  Grace, faith, repentance, love, holiness, the Trinity, even Calvinism, are not doctrines that only a few can understand, or defend; this understanding is very close to the Roman Catholic’s understanding of clergy and laity prior to the Reformation.

When you think: “He speaks so well!”

Again, nothing wrong with a preacher who can preach, and who can preach it persuasively and with conviction.  But the measure of a pastor is not his speaking ability, whether your flavor is motivational or fire and brimstone.  In the qualifications for elders, in Titus 1, the ability to speak eloquently is omitted.  And, much like the last one, the ability to speak and to sound smart are usually downplayed in favor of speaking the Word of God faithfully: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17).

There is a tendency (in several denominations) to be drawn to preachers with the ability to excite emotion and to preach with a certain cadence that almost lulls one into a trance where all you can say is “Amen!” over and over.‡  Like the first example, the ability to speak–and it helps to say it intelligently as well–can sometimes influence a crowd who will not take the time to actually seek out whether what he preaches is the truth.

When you think: “His church is so big.”

How can someone be wrong who has so much success?  I know many mega/seeker/emergent churches where this seems like it might be a good argument.  But like the Roman Catholic Church: numbers does not equal faithfulness to God.  Same could be said for the largeness of the Mormons, Muslims, or Joel-Osteenians.

In fact, it is more likely the case, especially in this country, that a smaller church may be an indication that your church, and your pastor, are doing something right (not always! i.e. Westboro).  Jeremiah was not overly successful in his day, neither was Ezekiel or Isaiah.  Jesus was rejected by his own (John 1:11), and eventually murdered.  And looking at church history does not always result in a large engrafting of followers; though sometimes it might, if God chooses to bless.

The point to take here is NOT that a big church equals a popish preacher, it is to warn against the thought that it ALWAYS indicates faithfulness.  As with all of these warnings, the true indication is faithfulness to the Word of God, and that can only be known by keeping even your pastor accountable.

When you don’t know who the elders are, or what their purpose is.

The plurality of elders is a wonderful thing.  Not only because they assist in the overwatch of your soul (Heb 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-5), but because they are often a helpful check to any type of rogue pastor.  If you don’t know who yours are, or whether your church even has them, you might want to be asking around; for your sake and your church’s.

I have been to more than one church where the pastor acts as the sole authority in the church, a veritable pope with a deacon or two whom he rules over as well.  Other churches have a lead pastor, a worship leader, a deacon, a youth pastor, a innovation guy, a marketing guy, and a secretary, and no elders.  This is not the New Testament church, and it is not a sign of a healthy church. These are often the churches that have divisions over petty matters, or matters of secondary importance, and rarely because of a scriptural issue.  They are also churches where sin runs rampant in the church, because the pastor cannot possibly pastor over every individual in his congregation; and typically churches that don’t seem intent upon accountability in the ministry, aren’t too concerned with it among the laity.

When he hardly speaks to anyone, meets with anyone, or rarely makes an effort to visit anyone.

One of my primary concerns with large churches, and especially ones with an insufficient amount of elders, deacons, etc. is the lack of pastoral oversight that should be taking place in the church.  When Peter gave instructions to his fellow elders, he had this to say:  “I exhort the elders among you…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight no under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3).  Peter understood, perhaps better than anyone, the charge to elders (and therefore, pastors) to shepherd the flock; Jesus commanded him thrice, to “tend my sheep” (John 21:15-17).

Pastor is from the latin for “shepherd,” if he is not shepherding his flock, he is no true pastor.  The pastor is not a Pope, a CEO, or a general.  He is not an innovator, motivational speaker, or inventor of new teachings.  He is the under-shepherd of the great Shepherd, and he will be held accountable for how he “tended” His “lambs.”  Did he visit them when they were sick?  Meet with them when they needed accountability?  Pray for them when they were tempted?  Weep with them when they suffered loss?  Correct them when they erred?  Preach the truth of God in all faithfulness and sincerity?

What I’m really asking is: does he love and protect his people?   Or is he simply a in it for the prestige, money, power, authority, ego-boost, or self-righteousness?

These are serious questions, and we must be willing to challenge ourselves to make sure we are not viewing our pastors as pope.  They are fallible, they are human, and they need accountability and Jesus as much as the rest of us.

In all of this, remember: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:17).





† Lest I be misunderstood, this is my way of saying: I realize the first two offices are legitimate, and the last is not.  The Bible and Christ are authoritative, the Pope is not (in fact, it’s not even a real office)…but that’s kind of the point of the blog post.

‡ Let me preempt any other misunderstanding here: there is nothing wrong with a hearty “Amen!”…if that’s your thing.  My contention is not with Amen! yellers, but merely the non-reflective, uncritical, passive “Amen-ers” out there.


~ by TSL on April 28, 2014.

%d bloggers like this: