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Dear Evangelical Pastor, Why Should I Listen to You?

authority

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

In this post I use authority and expert interchangeably.

If you have spent significant time in Evangelical churches, you know that the pastor is considered the pope of the church. He is the go-to guy about everything. The pastor takes seriously Paul’s statement, “I became all things to all men.” Not only is the pastor an expert on the Bible and theology, he is also an expert on current events, history, archeology, politics, science, sports, medicine, sex, construction, child-rearing, meal planning, and auto repair.

If the pastor doesn’t know it, it ain’t worth knowing.

Now here is the truth.

Most pastors are barely proficient when it comes to their chosen profession.  Many church members would be surprised to know how little actual Bible training their pastor received while attending an Evangelical college. It should never be assumed that any pastor is adequately trained in understanding and teaching the Bible.  Personally, I am of the opinion that it is almost impossible for pastors to get a proper education about the Bible in Evangelical institutions, due to their ideological bent.

Most pastors know enough Greek to make them dangerous. Few pastors know any Hebrew at all. A parishioner would be mistaken to accept the pastor as the authority on the Bible without inquiring as to WHY he should be accepted as such. Should he be accepted as an authority just because of the position he holds or because the Bible says he must be accepted as such? Perhaps church members need to start asking their pastor, WHY should I listen to you?

No pastor is an oracle who knows everything. His office does not make him an authority. Becoming an authority on a matter requires work, hard work. There are some things I am good at. I work very hard to know what I know and to be able to do what I do. Granted, many of us are good at some things because they come easy for us, but no one should be faulted for that. For example, I am very good at being a pain in the ass. It comes easy for me.

Early in the ministry, I was flattered that people would come to me for advice. I was glad to be the answer man. For many years, I even had an “Ask the Pastor” question time one Sunday night a month. Parishioners could ask me any question they wanted. I answered every question, no matter what the question was. I came off as a man with a vast knowledge of virtually everything. In reality I was like a fart in a forty mile per hour wind. I was five miles wide and one inch deep. In other words, I was a pompous, arrogant, know-little know-it-all.

In the latter years of my time in the ministry, I became less willing to answer questions that were not within the range of my expertise. I’ve had to learn that there is a difference between having an opinion about something and actually knowing about something.  Since leaving the ministry and leaving Christianity, I have worked very hard to fill in some of the glaring knowledge gaps I have. As a pastor, I would pontificate about Darwin, creation, and evolution, yet I didn’t know a damned thing about science. In high school I took earth science and biology. In college I took one science class, a biology class, that had no lab and had a teacher who had no actual science training beyond being able to read the textbook. So science is an area in which I am working very hard to fill in the gaps.

Years ago, a liberal Baptist pastor and I got into a discussion about psychology. At the time, I was an Evangelical. He brought up Maslow. I waxed eloquently about what I had read in a book opposing psychology. The liberal Baptist preacher could tell I didn’t really know anything, so he called my bluff, and then he told me I was full of shit. He was right.

Pastors should stick to what they know. If their calling is to teach and preach, then they owe it to their congregations to be educated about the Bible and to learn communication skills that will allow them to be the best preachers possible. Sadly, over the years, I’ve heard countless preachers preach who were illiterate concerning theology and who had little or no training in public discourse. Awful sermons, to say the least.

Want to talk about the Bible, church history, Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, tax issues in the ministry, photography, or Windows computers? I’m your man. If you want to talk about gardening, environmental issues, politics, or sports, I am “kinda” your man, depending on the specific subject. Most everything else, I am just a man with an opinion. An intellectual jack of all trades, master of none.

The next time someone speaks as an authority ask yourself, WHY should I accept this person’s word on this matter?” Each of us should think critically about the people to whom we grant authority. In the 1960s young people were challenged to question authority. The pastors of the churches I attended as a youth said, submit to authority. Their authority. I was raised in an environment that frowned upon, and sometimes punished, any challenge to authority. The college I attended used the same methodology. Imagine where we would be today if no one ever questioned or challenged authority.

The Internet has brought us a vast store of information. No longer do we have to take someone’s word for anything. We can investigate a matter and determine if a person is being factual with regard to that matter. Before granting anyone the vaunted position of an authority, it is always wise and prudent to fact-check their claims. Even then, a person we accept as an authority might not be equally authoritative on everything.

Here’s the bottom line. Be careful about those whom you allow to be authorities in your life. WHY should they be granted this noble position of authority? No person can be an authority on everything. Be wary of any man, especially a “holy man,” who passes himself off as a know-it-all. Such a person cannot be trusted.

At the same time, we should not be guilty of showing no respect for authority at all. When people give themselves to learning a particular discipline, they should not be dismissed without reason or cause. I am always amused when people dismiss NT scholar Bart Ehrman out of hand without ever engaging or understanding what he writes. He’s an agnostic, an unbeliever, why should I listen to him? they say.  Regardless of his spiritual state, he IS an expert in the fields he writes about.  Since I am NOT an expert, I must determine if I can trust his expertise. I do. Others don’t. Such is the nature of choosing which experts we will believe.

The same could be said of the science surrounding climate change. Few of us are experts. We must choose which experts we will believe. Personally, my money is on 95% of climate scientists who say global climate change is real. I am aware of the other 5%, but I don’t think they are right. Granted, I am not a science expert, and I am willing to even admit I am poorly trained in science, but I can read. I do have a rational mind that still has a modicum of sharpness that allows me to make an educated choice about which expert I will believe.

How do you decide whom to grant authority to in your life? How do you determine which expert to believe?  Have you ever been deceived by an “expert”? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar
    przxqgl

    i find it much easier and more fun to be a fool than an expert… as a fool, i get to watch the so-called “experts” fall all over themselves trying to explain stuff they don’t understand… and i like that old aphorism: an expert is someone who studies more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. 8)

  2. Avatar
    Appalachian Agnostic

    Great question. I have a difficult time deciding who is worthy of trust. Sometimes I have the opportunity to listen to a given authority figure expound upon a subject that I know about first hand. If what they say matches up with what I have experienced, then I am more likely to trust them in other areas. Of course, the opposite is also true. I also look at their education and experience. It is kind of like hiring someone.

  3. Avatar
    DarrenB

    Just a few thoughts.

    When we’re talking about experts, a fair question is, “What is there expertise.”

    One of my pet peeves with most pastors is that they while they claim to have some expertise in the Bible and understanding God, they usually have a pretty limited life experience. “okay you claim you were ‘called’ into ministry. have you ever had a real job?” it’s hard to speak about life, when you have so little experience living it. It seems like a lot of these professional pastor types like writing books and like talking about things they have not actually experienced.”

    Granted there are a fair number of pastors who need to work part time jobs and whose churches are struggling, but I wonder whether this is part of their narrative, because a pastor who is leading a church that is barely keeping its head above water, is likely not going to be sharing those struggles, because they’re not spiritual or godly

  4. Avatar
    Brian

    My dad pastored his whole adult life in small Baptist churches, the type that tend to attract the farmers, not the city-slickers. He never got enough money to make life comfortable because the idea of prosperity was defined as suffering in joy rather than God giving you a better allowance. My mom (the daughter of a Baptist preacher) sustained our family by working part-time as a registered nurse as well as serving the church as a pianist when need be and being a wife and a mom. Both my parents were sexpert enough to have lots of kids and both had little experience in the world beyond Baptist. It truly shocks me how lost we learned to become and how we wander like lost cows to knock on the doors of experts instead of learning to endure and accept ourselves first…
    When one is suffering some somatic ailment, then by all means seek medical perspectives but then take the antibiotic for your own sake… It ain’t God’s job to fix you. God’s gone to help the Muslims resist Christian warmongers. (meaning snark…)

  5. Avatar
    gimpi1

    I’ve had to learn that there is a difference between having an opinion about something and actually knowing about something.

    That’s one of the most important things we can learn. I actually will attempt (attempt, not always succeed) not to form an opinion about something that I know very little about. It’s OK to not have an opinion about something until you’ve had a chance to do your homework. One of the worst things about uninformed opinions is that, once we have formed an opinion, we feel obligated to defend it – even though we formed it with no real knowledge.

    There truly is a vast difference between knowing about something and simply having an opinion. Good on you for grasping that.

  6. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    One thing that evangelicalism didn’t teach and didn’t encourage was admitting “I don’t know). Their belief system revolves around one set of writings (they consider it one book, inerrant, infallible, given by a deity). They think that with the right interpretation/guidance from a deity, that all answers can be found in it. This doesn’t encourage observations of the outside world. Indeed, anything contradictory to “the book” is discarded as wrong. It’s no wonder so many evangelicals are against science.

  7. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Bruce asked: How do you decide whom to grant authority to in your life?
    It’s clear that children have not developed the ability to choose regarding authority and that the position defaults to their caregivers, parents. The problem, if there is one, occurs when the caregivers demonstrate that they are not worthy of the authority they are given by human nature. In this case, the child will turn this completely untenable position into a ‘liveable’ one by taking responsibility themselves and unfortunately, most often blaming themselves for the trouble they are experiencing. Because evangelical Christianity is codified child abuse, virtually all children in this cultic environment grown up suffering perverse guilt and shame. After all, that is what they are given to live and it is called ‘God’s Love’.
    As we grow older and garner some distance in these and other matters, we Christian kids seem to either harvest our cyclical doubts and fall/run away from the faith, or, we harden ourselves in denial and become the shame and doubt merry-go-round, fixed believer. Denial is a wonderful friend for the evangelical in that it can ‘let go and let God’ with just about anything that troubles, even to the extent that convicted abuser pastors are still desired and loved by members of the church and seen as misunderstood and victims of the fallen world. Ah, sweet sweet denial…
    Those of us who ran for our lives (or crawled out of the church, injured and bloodied with Jesus’ blood) go through years of ‘decompression’ and if we are fortunate, get good, sustained therapy to rediscover and reclaim the lives we lost. The proverbial stages of grief must be weathered and owned, the knowledge of the harm done not only to ourselves but to others too, the loss of family and friends who remain firmly entrenched in belief and feel they must reject us for Jesus’ sake. The aloneness that could be assuaged with verses and hymns, with prayer while we churched, is replaced with ‘alone’, real and true. There is no garbage can for our stuff anymore, just the empty room of ourselves. Friends and loved ones gesture to us from the church and tell us we are loved and should come back into the fold where we belong. Authorities point at us as a warning to others thinking of making a break for it.
    It was in my room, alone, that I decided to be okay and to move forward without belief as best I could. It was time for therapy, for honestly addressing my history, the history of my family, the ‘stuff’ I carried with me all along the way. When you are released from the prison of belief, they don’t let you take anything with you, not even a suitcase. The church doors close as if you are actively hanging Jesus on the cross again, as if you are proving how evil you are because the devil has your hands and feet and is directing your way.
    Sometime later, you realize you are breathing better, deeper, fuller. Sometime later you look at yourself in the mirror with compassion and can feel inside that heart recognition that knows you are not as bad as they wanted you to be, not as broken and evil, not by default fallen from the grace of being human. You start to reclaim bits and redefine words lost to the black book long ago. Salvation,
    faith, blessing, holiness, worship; lots of words take on natural, more fully human meanings. And it feels good to be, again. It feels like you knew this being before once, long ago and it feels good to be home in yourself again.
    When somebody in authority speaks now, you listen carefully to every word as you always did but now you have a choice, a free human choice. You have thought about the words being used. You have read about many ways of seeing and being. You understand your trigger phrases and expressions so they no longer have a power to freeze you in-step. You know that this and any crowd is one expression away from being a mob.
    Each day of life, this is your church, your faith, your blessing. To live each day is a church you will never have to go home from again, a church that cannot be stolen from you ever again. This church is life without any God(s).
    We, us, all are the offering plate filled by the sun, by being lucky enough to love, by having books and music and being able to garden, by living through pandemics and Trumpdom.
    They advised you not to lean not unto your own understanding. Cover yourself, they said. They admonished you to follow… Learn to be free by following, they said.
    If we had been older, we would’ve seen through it all much sooner perhaps. It’s so silly really, ridiculous really and yet as hard as I try, I say it, write it out and do not feel I have expressed the full depth of the harm, the impact that lives on.

Want to Respond to Bruce? Fire Away!

Bruce Gerencser