Victim-centric and Pastoral Authority

Jesus Creed - Christianity Today [Carol Stream IL]

September 14, 2021

By Scot McKnight

I have been asked by a number of church leaders if the approach we are advocating for an approach to allegations, which we call survivor-sensitive or survivor-centric or trauma-sensitive etc, diminishes the authority of the pastor. Does a survivor-sensitive approach go against the grain of what we in Anglican church call “episcopal authority”?

In some ways No, in some ways Yes. I need to explain.

First, I want to push against this term “authority.” This term is never used in the NT for pastors, bishops/overseers, or elders. Not once. They do not have authority, God does, Jesus does, the Spirit does. Which isn’t to say there isn’t some dimension of power and authority in the pastoral leader but I do want to register hesitation on framing the question with that term. By framing it with “pastoral authority” the discussion gets rigged in the wrong direction.

In fact, what authority a pastor or priest has is reshaped by the kind of authority Christ manifested, which was cruciformity or what I like to call Christoformity (see Pastor Paul). Read about this in the wonderful narrative in Mark 10:35-45. Jesus clearly was against power over and was for power for the sake of others. Which means self-denial and not self-protection or self-affirmation and especially self-aggrandizement. So if the pastor has concerns about loss of authority he or she may actually be facing a fresh alignment with Christ’s own practice.

Some may ask about Hebrews 13:17. (“Be persuaded by your leading ones and yield [to them]…”) The NIV unfortunately translates what I have translated “yield” (hupeikō) with “submit to their authority.” The term “leaders” (NIV) or “leading ones” (above; it’s a participle) suggests leading and other following, which is a biblical sense of authority if you want the term, and it is defined here as yielding to them. But the word “authority” is not present in the Greek text and it gives off an air that is not necessarily present in the verbal ideas of this verse.

So, what authority the pastor has needs to submit itself to the kind of authority Jesus teaches in Mark 10 and that we see in Philippians 2, and we need to make sure it does not smell like Rome’s political power.

Second, let’s give back their term “authority” and use it. I ask immediately, What authority, then, does a pastor, priest, or bishop have? In spite of my hesitations to use that term it is clear that the cleric has some kind of spiritual authority over what his or her job description gives him or her authority. I express this for a broad reach of church configurations: Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics. What the pastor is called to do is exercise gifts in nurturing Christoformity in his or her assigned church. Which means teaching and preaching and leading and discipling and mentoring and guiding etc.. Each of us has power to influence other people, whether we are parents or teachers or community leaders. The pastor has the same kind of power to influence within the space assigned to her or him. Let’s say then that a pastor has authority over what a pastor is called to do.

Third, we need a reminder. Pastors have expanded their authority beyond their calling. The reason for people advocating for survivors is because the system in churches, shaped as it has been by pastors with authority and power, has favored the pastor and the church so much the victim (usually women) or survivor has been put off, silenced, gaslit, shamed, and humiliated. The pinch pastors are now feeling when we advocate for survivors is the result of their largely uncontested abuse of power and authority (which is why the term needs to be used very very cautiously). Pastors have abused their powers when allegations have come forward.

Fourth, we need to guard against destroying a pastor’s ministry on the basis of an allegation, we should recognize that not all pastors abuse their authority (most don’t), and no pastor should be entangled in a public “guilty until proven innocent” situation. I believe the allegations need to be handled independently and privately and discreetly until or unless it becomes clear that the church or pastor are endangering others who could become victims or who are doing all they can to delay, delay, delay in order to wear down the persons making the allegations. The women worked behind the scenes at Willow Creek for four long years during which time they met one excuse after another. Someone independent needs to receive the allegation and act decisively and quickly and as privately as possible if there are indications of other victims.

Fifth, and this may be the death of the claim being made by some critics of the survivor sensitive approach, pastors and priests have no authority whatsoever to “investigate” anything when it comes to allegations of sexual abuse against anyone, and they should be restricted from investigating spiritual abuse in their own spheres of leadership. In which field is it that the Accused gets to investigate himself/herself? Do you not see the systemic failure in this? Do you not see that a system in which a pastor gets to investigate himself, or appoint investigators of himself, or to form the committee that finds the investigators is a corrupted system shaped by the ongoing expansion and abuse of pastoral authority?

So, Yes the survivor-centric approach diminishes the authority of a pastor if a pastor thinks his or her authority extends to self-investigations. And, Yes, it diminishes authority especially if it has become unmoored from Christoformity. But, No, the survivor-centric approach does not diminish the proper authority of the pastor.

If pastors would stay in their lane we’d find a greater justice.

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