I once joked about a fictitious church announcement: “The same rules for the church camping trip will apply to everyone in church: DON’T STAND UP IN THE CANOE!”
We all have a lot of acquaintances, friends and relatives in quite a variety of professions. Most of them work hard and have a boss over them. Often those at the top who do not have a boss are those who work the hardest. This has been my observation everywhere for a number of decades. Well . . . . . not quite everywhere. I have never seen it work that way in church.
Let me tell you about my last pastor. That church in Weatherford, Texas ran about 300-350 in attendance most Sundays. The church offerings were in the range of $25,000 a week. The pastor’s salary was in the $100,000 range, not counting a number of perks such as a yearly clothing allowance of several thousand dollars, a new luxury car (he went through three in the fourteen months I was there), paid vacations every 6-8 weeks, and extraordinarily generous offerings for any conceivable occasion: birthdays, Christmas, anniversary, anniversary of his arrival, and some other occasions I can’t think of. He had a staff whose salaries averaged $75,000 a year who did most of his actual work as he came and went as he pleased and had no official office hours. His sermons were devotional fluff—usually some variation of his weekly (or “weakly”) central theme: “Give Your heart to Jesus.”
It is hard for me to contemplate this man, my former pastor and a good number of others like him who have stood before me every Sunday in their pulpit and not think of the dire warnings against pastors sounded by the prophet Ezekiel: “ And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.”
“ Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord; As I live, saith the Lord God, surely because my flock became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, neither did my shepherds search for my flock, but the shepherds fed themselves, and fed not my flock; therefore, O ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord; Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them.”
Now all that being said, something should become rather apparent to the average person contemplating such a professional church man: anyone you and I know would go to extraordinary means to keep that gig going, would they not? The “Don’t-Stand-Up-In-The-Canoe” rule becomes the unofficial yet inviolable mantra of the church, as well as the principal foundation of church polity. Biblical rules and protocols for dealing with dissenters in churches like these went out the window so long ago that few remember them. But it is worse than even this . . . . much worse.
These pastors have developed a great skill. Their church “canoes” have a distinguishing feature that we never see in a canoe: SEAT BELTS! Yes, seat belts! And make no mistake about it, THEY ARE REQUIRED TO BE KEPT FASTENED AT ALL TIMES! Individualism, critical thinking, a Berean attitude toward the Scriptures, divergent and doctrinal views are NOT welcome. In other words, keep that seatbelt on and just enjoy the ride down the lazy river of devotional preaching, platitudes, and the expression of what I call “Bumper Sticker Theology.” But it is even worse than this.
These career church men whom I see far more as “Church C.E.O.’s” and not the kinds of shepherds Jesus spoke of, or Paul exhorted Timothy to be have honed yet another skill. They can spot an “unbuckled seat belt” a mile away. I remember my last pastor actually saying to me once, “The men in my pulpit have to reflect me.” I must have failed to suitably disguise my astonished and disturbed look at hearing that statement, for my reaction seemed to precipitate the decline of my status in that church. You see, I had always thought that a man in a Christian pulpit ought to reflect Jesus Christ. Silly me.
They make T-shirts with the image of a seatbelt imprinted upon them for those foolishly inclined to avoid wearing them while driving. Maybe I’ll try to remember where I saw them advertised. I think one may come in handy the next time I visit a Baptist church.
We have a pattern for the church found throughout the New testament. This prototypical institution does not include a number of things that we take for common in our assemblies today: church buildings, and pastoral salaries are two that come to mind. Tithes that were directed toward supporting the well-being of the LOCAL community are another. While not a pastor, the Apostle Paul made it clear: “I would not be chargeable to any of you.” He managed to write most of the New Testament, take numerous missionary journeys, and curiously to LISTEN to those in the Corinthian and other churches who “stood up in the canoe. The Corinthian Epistles, in fact, were written on the pure basis of many Baptists would today call “gossip:” “things reported commonly among you.”
Paul, John the Baptist, pretty much every one of the Old Testament prophets, and ah yes . . . Jesus Himself regularly did something that is entirely anathema in our churches today: THEY NAMED NAMES! Imagine the nerve. Do I hear the sizzle of sacred cows? I’ll get the barbeque sauce . . . .while others run for their fire extinguishers.