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The Waning Authority of Spiritual Leaders

One thing we have lost sight of amidst America’s changing religious spurgeondemographics has been the role of spiritual leaders. The statistics tell a tale of exodus, with nearly 1/3 of American adults ditching the religion of their youth. But what does it say about our spiritual leaders that the religions they represent can’t seem to hold people?

Of course, the “fluidity” of Americans’ religious affiliations (that was the term used in the Pew report — fluid) has as much to do with cultural trends as anything. In abandoning absolutes, dogma becomes negotiable. So we can’t blame our religious leaders for our BE074639indecision. Or can we?

The democratization of culture has had a serious impact on the authority of spiritual leaders. At one time, pastors, rabbis, and priests possessed significant cultural cachet. Forget the academics; America respected clergymen — studied, resolved, men of comfort and conviction. However, recent polls reveal only half of Americans rate the honesty and ethics of clergy as high. Another shows that scientists, doctors, and law enforcement officers are, among others, more respected than clergy. Nowadays, when spiritual leaders aren’t being mocked, they’re being patronized, considered little more than pop psychologists, motivational speakers, or personal advisers whose counsel we can take or leave. It only stands to reason, if the individual is the arbiter of Truth, then ultimately, who’s to tell us what Truth to follow? Even if they are a man of the cloth.

Maybe that’s why Bible verses like the one below seems like such an anomaly:

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work john-wesley-preachingwill be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. — Hebrews 13:17

Obey your spiritual leaders. Huh?! And submit to their authority. Is it just me, or does this seem so… antiquated? Maybe if I lived in 16th century England this would apply. But in 21st century America I’ve got to worry about my boss. My creditors. My wife! Frankly, obeying my pastor is pretty far down the list of priorities. But why is this?

Perhaps our spiritual leaders have relinquished their God-given authority. In other words, we cannot “submit to their authority” because they’ve abdicated it. And maybe they’ve abdicated it to us.

I sometimes wonder if pastors and priests do not demand enough of their followers. I mean, how can we “obey [our] leaders” if they never put us in a position to do so? I realize that can sound cult-like — and I’m definitely not inferring blind allegiance to any person or office — but either the concept set forth in Hebrews 13:17 (and elsewhere) is applicable or it is not. And if not, why not? Yes, no spiritual leader is perfect. In fact, some abuse the authority vested in them. But does that nullify our need to submit to spiritual authority? And more to the point, do our spiritual leaders exert enough authority to even bother with, or are they constantly tip-toeing around congregations that will bolt at the drop of a hat?

Our spiritual transience correlates to the clergy’s waning authority. And the clergy’s waning authority is the result of a fundamental re-imagining of “authority” in general.

The fact that I need spiritual guidance, spiritual covering and mentoring (according to Scripture), reminds me that I am not the center of the universe. But that’s the problem, because our relativistic, post-modern culture tells us just the opposite. Why submit to anyone’s authority when I am the center of the universe? Sadly, I fear that our spiritual leaders have bought into this lie, orbiting helplessly around congregations that are nothing but black holes.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Nicole January 4, 2010, 9:38 PM

    When the comfort of the visitors and congregation outweigh the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the erosion of respect and authority slide away. When personal conviction for the holiness of God fails to outweigh the pastor's ability to provide a "pleasing" personality approach to preaching, the authority of what he delivers from the pulpit dissipates, providing pablum for the people and a false sense of leadership.

  • Jay January 5, 2010, 12:22 AM

    Televised media has had a good half century or more of setting expectations for people who religiously watch TV (i.e., too many Americans), and the majority of the portrayals of clergy and religious people in general have been cartoonish. You can't have much respect for people when you think they're cartoons.

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