Novelist Asks Familiar Question

If we think the matter of authority is an internal issue for church-going folks to keep to themselves, think again. The secular world is asking the same question: who speaks for the church?

This point was brought into clear focus recently while reading John Grisham’s The Confession: A Novel. While the plot revolves around the question of capital punishment, it does so through the experiences of a young Lutheran pastor and his encounters with a variety of “good, Christian folks.” Some of portrayals are noble, some are embarrassing; none of them are far-fetched or unfair to the realities of church life in America. The intertwining of cultural and biblical ideas Grisham notes are entirely true to what Christianity must look like when viewed from a distance, such as is provided in this engaging story. He’s not a best-selling author without reason.

Those who have read Grisham’s novel will recognize how far-reaching the question of authority is in Christian witness. It has to do with public image, with pastor-community and pastor-family relationships; it impacts such matters as the confidentiality of private communications, of access to medical and legal information, and private judgment. It has much to do with power within the local congregation and between the local church and the denomination, as well as the decision to move on in ministry from one place to another. Those who have not picked up this novel may want to do so. If I were to teach a course on pastoral ethics, it would be required reading.

What’s my point? Simply this: evangelicals are generally enamored with the notion of private judgment and personal leading of the Holy Spirit, quite often without reference to any authority which might temper the way in which they speak publicly about such leading. It happens with pastors as well as with lay Christians. Is there any responsibility to test the spirits, so to speak? Is there any higher authority to which to submit? The messes alluded to in the consideration of Christianity Today’s Top Ten stories of 2010 should give pause. Seeing the church displayed in a novel underscores the matter.

Any ideas about how our public words and actions should be both Spirit-led and appropriately expressed?