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, 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.
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