Spreading power around, and pushing it out, is very different than giving into grabs. Power, like money, can be acquired justly or unjustly. It can be earned or seized. It can be given or taken, whether outright or through manipulation. Mature pastors, and congregants, know this. Healthy churches give their pastors space to take proactive steps in spreading power around and pushing it out, rather than clamoring for it. Foolish pastors acquiesce to such lobbying, and in doing so, they set destructive precedents and expectations. They feed an insatiable beast. The effects of rewarding those dynamics will prove devasting for the church (and for those individuals) in the long haul.
How do your pastors handle their power? That’s right, their power. Does that make you cringe to think about pastors having power?
If so, it’s understandable. When we talk about power today, we do so in a particular social climate. Even ordinary folks, unfamiliar with foreign names like Nietzsche and Foucault, have caught the drift, and the negative connotations of power. Which is why it might sound jarring in many ears to hear about pastoral power.
Power, however, rightly defined, is first a gift and blessing from God, not an evil to be avoided. Power, writes, Andy Crouch, is “our ability to make something of the world” in fulfillment of the charge God gave our race to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion (Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, 17). To be human is to have power. With brains and hands, minds and muscles — and a voice — God enables us to fulfill his call, and increases our power as we exercise it effectively, especially as we consolidate our human powers by working together.
So, make no mistake, pastors have power — some more, some less — as it relates to their particular context in the local church. The question is not whether they have power, but what kind, how much, and how they use it.
Power of Office
Both in the church and beyond, we might talk of two kinds of power. The first is official power, power that is tied to office.
In the New Testament, the office of apostle drew on the very power of Christ himself, as his official spokesmen. The apostles were a single, irreplaceable generation, the men who Christ himself discipled, plus Paul, to whom Christ appeared on the Damascus Road. In their words and writings, the apostles spoke for the risen Christ. Their living words and office died with them, but their writings remain as our living word of inspired Scripture, for the church to receive, with the Old Testament, as the very word of Christ, our head. The first and greatest authority in the church, which should be unrivaled, is the authority of Christ, through the writings of his apostles.
In addition to apostles, Scripture establishes two ongoing offices in the life of the church: a lead office, called variously pastor (or shepherd, Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:2), elder (Acts 20:17; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1), and overseer (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:7); along with an assisting office, called deacon (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8–13). To be a pastor-elder or deacon today in the church — to hold church office — is to have, in some sense, power as a formal representative of a particular local church.
Depending on the church’s polity, to be a member is to have some real, not-to-be-overlooked power as well. And whatever our polity, we always vote with our dollars and feet. Still, as we all intuit and expect, the officers in the church are entrusted with additional power, at least formally. As officers, they are official.
Power of Influence
But power in the church is not only official, drawing on the power of the institution and office, but also unofficial or informal — what we might call influence. And in healthy churches, teaching is especially influential. Pastors are teachers (Ephesians 4:11), indeed leaders in the church are teachers (Hebrews 13:7), and given the centrality of teaching in the Christian faith, it is fitting that it be so. We’re setting ourselves up for trouble if “the pastors” and “the teachers” are two different groups, and not essentially the same.
Jesus himself, even before his disciples recognized him in his office as Messiah, amassed great influence through his teaching. So too, throughout church history, those who have been most influential in the church, though typically officers, have been so not because they had an office but because they won trust and expanded their influence by proving themselves to be faithful and effective teachers of God’s word.
After all, the gospel itself is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16), coupled in fruitful preaching with the power of the Holy Spirit. Those who preach the gospel, and preach it well, with the Spirit’s help, may gain a significant amount of “power” on Christian terms. To have that power is not evil. The question is what pastors do with such power.
Power of Team
Still, one more dynamic to consider is the pooling (or consolidating) of power — what happens especially when men become friends and work together. This is particularly relevant to a plurality of pastor-elders, working as a team in a local church, which is the focus of Dave Harvey’s new book, The Plurality Principle. Harvey returns again and again to a central thesis: “The quality of your elder plurality determines the health of your church.”
Pastor-elder teams who know and teach the Scriptures well, and genuinely enjoy each other and get along, unavoidably become a formidable center of power in a local church. Not only do they have their office, and in theory are the church’s most able teachers, but their influence is compounded by their unity and industry as a team. That consolidation can be scary for those who feel weak and insecure and carry suspicion of the team’s motives.
The question, though, is not whether such pluralities have power, but what they will do with it. Will they use it to serve the good of the whole church, or use it to serve themselves? Will they give themselves to enrich the flock, or take selfishly for their own private gain? Will they be a force for good, or reinforce their own good?