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?

2 thoughts on “Novelist Asks Familiar Question

  1. This is tough stuff, especially for an iconoclast!

    Foolishly the senior pastor has brought me into the staff planning for our upcoming “Christian Education” week, where we have 15-20 classes around a theme. One of the historical classes is on “finance”, and it is historically “technical” and it should continue to have a “technical” dimension.

    It would appear that I am responsible for the overall theme due to my constant harping on “The Gospel Dream vs the empty American dream”, so that will certainly change or add to the philosophy of the teaching.

    But what is the right answer here? Can we teach finance without a community solution (or any of the subjects?). That stinking book by Fitch continues to haunt my little neo-anabaptist mine, what did they do for that woman? [Fitch actually told me it was a man, he changed the gender for confidentiality].

    In the staff discussion the question was put on the table what to do? My response was it is time for the church to pray to determine the direction here.

    Who speaks for the church? the Holy Spirit speaks for the church through the assembled praying congregation. A church vote no longer interests me if there is no prayer, and I simply do not see the church praying, not like I remember in my youth.

  2. I see the deeper problem of a great void in Biblical knowledge. This was brought up in earlier posts.
    Too many verse readers, not enough book readers.
    Without solid understanding(teaching?) it is too easy to attribute impulses, emotions, and even personal satisfaction to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
    As you know and pointed out, church leadership can easily mislead followers who do not take the personal responsibility of knowing God’s Word. There is a connection of the two thoughts, proper knowledge will hopefully cause us to live with a mind and heart focused on those things that bring honor to the name of Christ.
    My point is that not having a solid understanding of God’s Word may be at the root of these issues.

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