Tag Archives: pastoral authority

RE: Can Atheists Be Pastors?

Free Will, Soul Freedom, and Freedom to Be Creedal

There were a couple of blog posts I came across today that had my eyes glued to them as I was asking myself questions. First was from Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed, When Pastors Shift Theology that linked to a survey by Baptist Press, linked here: Cultural Digest: Unbelieving Pastors? about a number of anonymous pastors admitting that they are now atheists performing as ministers of the Gospel on Sunday Mornings. My initial reaction was a little frustration, since I have some suspicions given my experience in seminary and in church circles. There’s a number of unemployed ministers right now looking for a church to work for.

It’s so funny because last night I watched the series 1 finale of the BBC Two t.v. programme, Rev., a hilarious take on the life of a Vicar, almost a mockumentary style much like The Office U.K. and U.S.A. (I highly recommend Rev., btw, it’s entire Series 1 is on Hulu.com for USA readers here: Rev. on Hulu

In the episode, “Ever Been to Nando’s?,” our Reverend Adam Smallbone, the vicar of Saint Saviour’s is having a crisis of faith after some anonymous commenter leaves a poor grade for his sermon online, a post that his archdeacon reads and mocks Adam for. Adam throughout the episode, denies God’s existence, questions his own vocational calling, and even hosts a “Vicars and Whores” party in the sanctuary of Saint Saviours. As a back story, the police are looking for a man posing as a vicar who has gone around town harassing women. It turns out that the culprit, by the end of the episode, is none other than Adam’s homeless friend, Colin, a British version of BrothaMan (from the 1990’s Fox series Martin).

It’s interesting that both of these hilarious but serious stories are being told by the producers of Rev. Adam is posing as a Vicar throughout his questioning of his faith, while Colin, whose among Smallbone’s most faithful congregants, pretends to be a minister for his own reasons. In the end however, Smallbone realizes that it was silly to look for approval from human beings, a random online criticism by the way, and Adam goes about his duty as Vicar at the conclusion.

The other blog post was by Steve Ramey from Religion Bulletin: “Can An Atheist Believe In God?” linked here. Honestly, I cannot understand from my limited context where Christians who become atheists (or vice versa) come from. I have always believed in a higher power from a very young age and the debates over doubt versus faith (i.e., beliefs in propositional truth statements) have always remained too abstract for me. I’m a Christian, but I have the same response to fundamentalist Christian apologetics as skeptics do, they just utterly fail, especially in regards to proving an invisible personal God (whom I fully trust but need no empirical evidence for).

The problem I think lies in many good Christians’ belief that our beliefs take priority over practice. Doubt versus faith, as I have written before, is not the problem, at least not according to Scripture. Rather, it is a struggle of faithfulness versus faithlessness. Now, in the study, there were pastors from both creedal and non-creedal traditions. With creedal traditions, ministers are bound by their words, their very promises to their superiors and congregations. For example, Presbyterians are bound by a number of Reformed Confessions, and sometimes in many places, these confessions take priority over Scripture itself. I would say an atheist in creedal tradition as such has a duty to come clean because it is part of their vocational contract with their denomination. The broken covenant between bishops and the pastor-turned-atheist probably should lead to a resignation.

As for non-creedal traditions, free churches such as Baptists and Congregationalists, it is a little bit more complex. I personally affirm the truth of most creedal statements in formulas prior to the Protestant Reformation, but that is my free choice. Orthodoxy should be a free choice that women and men make each day as a habit of practice, thus, orthopraxis comes before and yet remains equal to orthodoxy. The doctrine of Soul Freedom is denied by creedal denominations (Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox) because this freedom is about the ability of every human being to have a relationship with God unmediated, with the capacity to decide for themselves. Orthodoxy thus redefined is the freedom and space to do orthopraxis. Pastors who become atheists in their churches should come clean in front of their congregations, for lies can be damaging once they accumulate up to a certain point. The individual congregations in non-creedal, free churches should alone decide the pastors’ fates.

So I ask you, should churches be lead by seekers? Should communities of faith who are filled with seekers be called “churches” in the first place? Should churches hire non-believers, for musicians or sound technicians or even nursery positions?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Especially Optimistic Chad’s.

The Africana Bible: Judges and Dethroning Bishop Long

Confronting the Royal Ideology of Pastoral Authority, Sharing the Gospel Message According to Judges

On Wednesday, Professor Anthea Butler responded to Bishop Eddie Long’s enthronement. Please read her article, for she gives great insight into the cult of the pastor in the black church. First, as a disclaimer, I don’t want to make this just about New Birth or Eddie Long. It’s significant that a religious community is attempting to reach an unreached people group in the U.S.; Black males, no matter, and that a church sees itself as political. However, what I want to deal with today is something no one really likes to talk about, and that is the royal ideology behind the Black Pulpit (well, really, the American Protestant pulpit). Part of the reason why I am afraid of working for a church is the cult of the pastor, the sectarian veneration of preaching leader of a congregation.

Part of this comes from U.S. American theology’s obsession and too optimistic reception of the Monarchy period in Ancient Israel. We like to talk about David who had a heart for God; David, had a heart for worship. Sure, we acknowledge he was wrong for murdering one of his great soldiers and taking his wife, but David’s greatness as king, his reputation as a worshiper over turns that little blemish. What ends up happening is that churches use this ideological gaze in which we look at David, and turn it on the person at the center of U.S. American Protestant worship services: the pastor.

Challenges to the royal ideology of pastoral authority are rare, even from progressive circles. It is seen as a reality to be dealt with and managed. I have grown to not accept this “reality” as such, for I feel that an adequate challenge to this brand of authoritarianism can be built from one of the strangest and most violent texts in the canon: Judges. From a very young age, for some strange reason, I have always been fascinated with the book of Judges. The stories of Gideon, Ehud (he was left handed, and you know, lefties are the smartest), Deborah, the moron Jepthah, and Samson have a special place in my heart. When I took a Judges class in undergrad, where the mode of interpretation of reader-response was prevalent, I felt a greater appreciation for Judges, especially its politics and history. How do I JUDGE a bible translation? Some scan through Romans, and others the Gospel of John, but for me, it is Judges. It is the reason why I do not like the New Living Translation in part because of its take on Judges 6:12, that YHWH calls Gideon a mighty hero– that places a value on the label of Gideon as a soldier which was not there before. Gideon, my favorite character in the Bible, is the anti-hero who struggles with embracing the royal ideology himself (as we discover by Chapter 9).

Many interpreters choose to read and promotes Judges 1-18, and skip over chapters 19-21 because of the gruesome imagery of male on concubine rape, as well as the degradation of cutting the women’s bodies to shreds as a call to war. I find this trend disturbing. I wait each Sunday to hear a sermon on Judges 19 to no avail. Alas! One example of this type of sugarcoating Judges is from The Global Bible Commentary, by Fidele Ugira Kwasi. Certainly, a liberationist reading of Judges from his Congolese context would help him to battle economic justice. The idea of God displaying divine wrath against social inequality is a fair reading of Judges, but this is the problem with contextual reading that are static. We are not allowed to move to hear other voices.

Walter Brueggemann, in his essay in Struggling With Scripture, entitled “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection,” argues that the Bible as the inherent Word of God, “is not a fixed, frozen, readily exhausted read; it is rather a ‘script,’ always reread, through which the Spirit makes new” (page 12). Making interpretations the settled and closed words of humanity demands colonizing churches with the familiar, and making them, in Walter’s words, playgrounds for idolatry. This is exactly the case we have with Black and White U.S. American Christian readings of 1st & 2nd Samuel, as well as 1st & 2nd Kings. Alternative voices appear in the text, they are just silenced. I oppose the idea what others call “the preaching moment” as sacrament for this very reason, that idolatry takes place too often in ecclesial bully pulpits.

In The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures From Africa and the African Diaspora, Randall Bailey chose not to avoid those hard texts, the ones in Judges where the bodies of nameless women are violated. Instead, he has provided a reading that makes these nameless marginalized women the center of the text. The focal point of the book of Judges is not therefore, that of Pastor Bishop So And So charismatic leaders who lead Israel into battle, but the victims, those who suffer the most from Israel’s infidelity to YHWH. Bailey concludes his piece, “Somehow, although the men get the titles and books named for them, it is often the sisters who get the job done. Could this be why you are bitter, Peaches? [from Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women’] Or are you angry because the book does not show God intervening to help any of these women in dealing with the oppression they face or in saving their lives from the excesses and foolishness of the men in their lives? (122)”

Are you laughing at the congregation at New Birth for their enthroning of their Bishop? Are you angry with yourself having once dreamed of being treated like king in front of the whole congregation? Do you taste the bitterness of Jepthah’s daughter or the Levite’s concubine?

English: Gideon is a judge appearing in the Bo...
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Epistle to the G̶a̶l̶a̶t̶i̶a̶n̶s̶ Megachurches: Ch. 2

After 5 years of work, I am now cleared to find work in a church setting.  This was in response to 3 things. First, their commitment to social justice, caring beyond themselves not just about individual people, but about the whys and hows that these individuals end up needing help. Second, they value education. They aren’t afraid to learn truth, no matter what it might be. They recognize that if something is true, then it is from God and don’t let their theology dictate what God should be like. Third, the church I have been a part of really cared about me. They poured time, money, food, help, and training into me to make me what I am.

I have gone before committee after committee, telling them what I believe. I have done the same with professors, pastors, and even those who don’t profess any belief, just to make sure what I was saying was coherent.  And all agree that the theology I have now is more true to the scriptures and less manipulative than the one I had before.  And because of my former life, manipulating the scriptures, manipulating people, telling stories that I knew would make young people cry at camp, just so they would be mold-able when I gave the alter call—  I refuse to be silent when I see it happening with others.  Especially from those who are the leaders of huge megachurches (it should be noted that just because a church is big, does not mean that God is blessing them)— those guys should know better.  No, I won’t stand down when they use the name of Christ to do ridiculous things, giving all churches a bad name in the process. On the contrary, I will yell from the rooftops when the church does something inappropriate, because if the church doesn’t judge themselves, then the outside world will do it, and we have already seen the disastrous results of this very thing in our world today. The church has become the butt of jokes at best and at worst, implicated in the harm of little children and the cause of wars.

When the great church planter Paul of Tarsus, upon learning the truth about his faith, went before the committee of his day, he told them what he believed  They validated his message, but, in Paul’s own words, “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”

But now many of your megachurches, who venerate Paul above all else, are leaving behind the teaching that clearly motivated Paul in the first place. Just as Paul stood up to  Peter himself when he felt Peter had stepped off-mission, I will do the same. I confront you in the name of the poor who both Jesus and Paul fought for. You talk so much about how the church should take care of the poor, and yet so very few of you actually do it. Sure, the volume that you give might be great, but consider the amount you give next to your available resources. Truth be told, your budgets average $5 million per year. You employ an average of 50 staff, and half of your budget goes to pay them salaries that are far greater than those of the average person in your community. So it is easy to see why you would hesitate to speak up against a system that is working so well for you, but not for those at the bottom. Your feeble attempts to “outreach” to the poor by planning day trips to the soup kitchen (how well attended are these vs. your rockin’ services) and your claims that by bringing more people in, there are more resources to serve the poor are pathetic.

Don’t you remember what James, the brother of Jesus said? “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”

If you won’t listen to me, listen to James. It is not enough to do things FOR the poor. With all of your resources, where is the church OF the poor? You shouldn’t care so much about how your bottom line will be affected. Care instead about the poor and the suffering.

Most of us have never been so poor that we have to get food from the charity of others;  yet we know that our spiritual wealth is tied with out material wealth. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, and so we know that by following a homeless, jobless man can lead to great riches in God’s community. But what if, in our desire to do greater and greater things for Christ, we ourselves have been found guilty of not seeing the forest for the trees? Do you really expect the world to believe that the homeless, jobless, revolutionary, politically active Jesus is the poster-boy for your well-to-do, clean shaven, safe, top 2% of the wealthiest, sanitized, don’t rock the boat, non-controversial status-quo? Hell no!  If we stand for the very things that Christ taught against, then we are the bad guys here.  You were supposed to have died to all of those previous things, so that you might live for God. We have been crucified with Christ;  and it is no longer we who live, but it is Christ who lives in us. The life we now live in our body, we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.

God won’t stop caring and fighting for those less fortunate. However, if you continue to ally yourself with those who are only looking out for the bottom line, then your faith is suspect from point A to Z.