Pastoral Authority in a Postmodern World

This is a post I made to the United Theological Seminary discussion forum for my class “Preparing to Preach.” I decided to share it with my readers because it is an issue which is so vitally important to the survival of the church.

If pastors do not find a way to remain authoritative in a world which increasingly questions authority, the church–as we know it–will perish.

The book mentioned is called Theology for Preaching by Ronald J. Allen, et. al. It is pretty “inside baseball” for the layperson, but the issue is no less important.


1. How does your faith tradition understand the authority of the preacher? (Does it come directly from God, from the gathered congregation, or from somewhere else?) And does your awareness of the source of your authority affect your preaching style?

In the United Methodist tradition, the authority of the preacher is derived from authority handed down from Bishop to Bishop going all the way back to Coke and Asbury—authority from hence coming from God. This authority is understood as permission and power within the church to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments. As a modern construct, authority of the preacher within the tradition is based upon a number of items—seemingly the least of which are things mentioned above. There is no hard and fast rule for determining from whence pastoral authority is derived today. It is a relative concept with factors ranging from the personality of the pastor to the characteristics of the congregation.

Currently, I serve a church where the pastor is trusted to be the arbiter of scripture and the authority on Christian life. I have experienced—and have colleagues who have experienced—pastoral authority being questioned based upon perceived heretical teachings or perceived disregard for the holiness of scripture. In a truly postmodern understanding of the reality of congregational leadership, the answer to this first question needs to be answered with a degree of uncertainty remaining.

My preaching style is affected by forcing me to be willing to submit to truth wherever it comes from, not just from my own deductions. I am forced to look outside of myself—not a bad practice for a Christian to undertake—in order to make sure I am preaching the gospel, and not my gospel. Ultimately, I believe the church and its people believe that pastoral authority comes from God, and that is a very powerful driver of my sermon preparation.

2. What statement impacted you as you read chapter 2 in Theology of Preaching? Did anything strike you as right on the mark (or, conversely, really off the mark)? Did something cause you to stop and ponder the whole question of pastoral authority?

I am going to follow the homogenous example of the authors of that particular chapter and say that there was nothing really off the mark when it came to the overall understanding that the listener to a sermon needs to be taken into account, and that authority ultimately comes from God. However, what really struck me as relevant and of an ever-increasing importance was Hannah Arendt’s comment about the world experiencing “a breakdown of all traditional authorities” (Allen, 49). I was just reading a post on the religion section of the Huffington Post which was stating facts from a recent survey which stated that pastors are no longer very trusted. Many factors were mentioned as the catalyst for this cultural shift, but it is only more evidence that the pastor isn’t just going to be trusted just because they are a pastor.

This whole question of pastoral authority needs to be dealt with, because the credibility of the institutional church is at risk if it isn’t. If pastors don’t learn other ways to exhibit their authority other than to “flash their collar,” than the last bit of credibility pastors have left will be extinguished. Preaching can no longer be a monologue, but rather a conversation. As Scott Black Johnston noted about Fred Craddock, Craddock says that listeners of the sermon will no longer passively ingest information fed to them by the preacher. The average congregant believes they may know just as much if not more than the pastor—which may be true in some cases. However, the pastor needs to be able to communicate the gospel—rather than spout a bunch of facts about the Bible. So, with the listeners actively listening and reasoning during the sermon, it is the pastor’s job to create a one-way dialogue with the congregation. This creates a conversation where agreement can happen, rather than monologue where one person can be discredited. If the pastor doesn’t figure that out, the pastor can look forward to preaching themselves into a very lonely corner. Not many people can hear the gospel from that corner, either.

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