I believe in respecting the leadership of pastoral staff, but because I attend a fundamentalist church, there are times when I have had to pause, bite my tongue, and let my thoughts be just that – thoughts. There are also other times when my thoughts can no longer be contained and I let pastoral staff or a leader know, “Oh noooo, that is not alright”. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does…
I recently had some theological differences with a group of pastors at my home church. I was told that I “consistently challenge pastor’s authority”. I was both sad and happy to have this accusation made against me. I was sad because this group of fundamentalist pastors interpreted and experienced what I knew to be a theological discussion as “challenging authority”. On the other hand I was simultaneously happy because I make no apologies for my theological stance and I speak up when necessary.
My life experiences differ greatly from the life experiences of the pastors who lead at my church. I’ve attended this church for around 18 years and the staff demographics haven’t changed at all. I could leave and find a new church to attend, but I don’t live in a city with a lot of diversity and this is very much reflected in the eerily homogenous pastoral leadership staffed across varying denominations in my city.
There was a time when I struggled with deciding if my theological beliefs were worth standing up for. Was it worth it to be branded a heretic by certain pastors and other believers who couldn’t wrap their minds around things I would say during bible studies and conversations about faith? Was it worth it to be gossiped about by staff as they warned others about what they referred to as my “questionable theology”.
The writer of Titus wrote an entire letter about being faithful in submitting to authority, being obedient to subordinates, and maintaining sound teaching. The second half of the letter displays the author’s dislike for theological debates when he warns believers to, “…avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9).
Is this why these pastors at my church tried to silence me? Were my concerns “unprofitable and worthless”?
I realized the theological discussions I tried to engage in with my pastors proved to be unprofitable, but certainly not worthless. My concerns were not worthless because I believe in the things that God has taught us to care about; justice which is carried out by caring for the poor, the marginalized, those emotionally hurt and damaged by the church, women and other issues highlighted in the bible. My theology is not worthless, it is rooted in recognizing the things which both God and Jesus despised: discrimination, sexism, taking advantage of the disadvantaged, using the name of Christ to bring harm to others, and many other atrocities which are listed in the bible from the Hebrew Scriptures straight through to the gospels where Jesus showed us what it looks like to live a justice focused life infused by the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.
Disagreements as Growth:
Sometimes you need to take a stand and speak out against faulty biblical teachings. Check the scriptures, pay attention to the context of the passages, use academic tools to learn more, and most importantly pray about the topic before you speak up about your concerns regarding faulty teachings. It’s also important to know when to remain silent. Choose your battles wisely. We are not always going to read and understand scripture in the same way; human variables have a strong influence on how we understand scripture. Know which things need to be addressed and which ones can be left alone.
When we engage in uncomfortable theological discussions or debates we strengthen our faith and expand our knowledge. If you only listen to yourself and others who think exactly as you do, how will you ever know if you are correct or in error. Hot tempered, ego filled arguments, are the types of interactions that never lead to any good and are not rooted in the fruits of the spirit. Learning to engage and listen helps us develop respect for others, patience, grace, and awareness of others’ experiences and beliefs.
If you are a pastor or hold a lay leadership position, engaging with those who differ from you can teach you humbleness. Some of my pastors and other men of higher positions in community ministry have boldly used the word ‘authority’ to silence and control me. When that word is used, it usually occurs when they become visibly uncomfortable with having to dialogue with me after they realize that I am making points that are valid, factual, biblical, academic, include lived experiences, and other things that make for a proper argument. Great leaders are those who never stop learning. As Christians one never stops learning. The Holy Spirit doesn’t stop giving us wisdom, correction, and guidance; it is only us as humans who choose to quiet the work of the Spirit.
As a graduate student I was required to build a solid theological base. As students we developed our beliefs from academic rigour and spiritual experiences rooted in our relationship with God. I wasn’t able to bring myself to settle exclusively for one type of theological system or methodology, but I am heavily influenced by a group of intersecting theologies: Feminist Theology (I’m not what people would consider a feminist, but I like certain types of feminist theological methodologies), Postcolonial theology, and Practical theology.
It’s not my theological studies that have lead me to take a stand against the misleading and sometimes harmful teachings of my pastoral staff, it is my belief in God and the powerful words found clearly in scripture that let me know that I cannot remain silent about my concerns.
You don’t need a graduate level education to know when something doesn’t sit right within you. When the small quiet voice of your conscience grows louder and louder and moves from your gut to your head and then back again until it ignites a passion in you; don’t ignore it. Be brave, be confident in the Lord, and do something. Speak, pray, help, walk away, whatever it is that you feel prompted to do. You are guaranteed to be hurt by others, betrayed, ignored, challenged, and segregated, but remember who is with you as always; he experienced the same thing too while speaking the truth of our Father.
Peace be to you as you walk in faith and justice.