On Sources of Spiritual Authority

Our church had a guest speaker this week who shared on 1 Cor. 4:14-21, an interesting passage for Christians to consider. What is particularly relevant today is the idea that we live in a culture in which there are so many voices speaking to us each day, we can get the message we want to receive. We can listen to “what works” for us. Although there is obviously more to the context, the guest speaker was developing some of what this can mean in the life of the believer.

Paul offers a warning – not to shame or scold the church in Corinth – but to speak to them as their spiritual father. What he is saying essentially is that these other, competing voices were not their spiritual fathers; they were not legitimate, not apostolic. Paul urges the church in Corinth to imitate him, to replicate how he lives. (Which is a rather remarkable thing to be able to say to a group of people if you think about it.) Paul’s lifestyle, the lifestyle of the Christian, is both taught and modeled, and he is saying they should essentially replicate the ways he followed Jesus. A Christian leader, then, draws people not to him/herself but to Christ.

In the area I study – the intersection of sexual identity and religious identity – this idea of listening to spiritual fathers and mothers is increasingly important as we as a church are going to have more people teaching more diverse things about topics where there has been greater consensus. It is in this context that I have been thinking about Jennifer Knapp’s recent interview on Larry King in which she told a pastor that he was not her pastor and that she had spiritual authorities who spoke into her life and apparently essentially blessed her decision to be in a same-sex relationship. Knapp said that the pastor could share his opinions about what Scripture teaches to his congregation but not to her.

There is a lot that can be said about this exchange, and I am unable to unpack all of it or even most of it. (For a thoughtful discussion of this, see Karen K’s blog here and here.) Certainly it is a very difficult thing to navigate sexual and religious identity, particularly for Christians who take their faith to be a central, guiding, and organizing aspect of who they are. We’ve had the chance to document some of those challenges in a series of studies over the years. I have no idea what that process has been like for Knapp or really anybody who is navigating that terrain, except for the people I have known personally or professionally (through research or clinical practice).

Is direction about how to live something that will be different for different people? Well…yes and no. Certainly people may be guided to different paths when they face similar circumstances. I think of the options facing couples struggling with infertility. Some may choose to go far along in their efforts to have biological children, and there are many medical interventions that can be taken to increase the possibilities there. Others will pursue adoption. Still others will decide not to pursue either of those directions. Each couple prayerfully considers what it best in light of a number of factors.

In the area of sexual identity, people also face a range of options. Some integrate their experiences of same-sex attraction into a gay identity and pursue same-sex relationships, while others neither integrate their attractions into a gay identity nor do they pursue same-sex relationships. Still others transform the meaning of the word gay; they may choose to live in keeping with the traditional Christian sexual ethic but the do not reject the word gay as a way of acknowledging their experiences of same-sex attraction. There are many, many ways in which Christians sort this out actually. (A student I’ve worked with just defended her dissertation and identified some nine different identity outcomes among Christians who experience same-sex attraction.) As people prayerfully consider the options that are before them, is it like decisions about family life, adoption, infertility treatment, and so on?

As difficult as it may be, it seems that Christians are given greater clarity about God’s revealed will for sexual behavior and expression, which is one reason why it is so important that Christians reflect on the sources of authority they listen to (this also points to the idea that sexual identity/behavior is a topic in which theological reflection rather than scientific evidence is going to be particularly crucial). I think this also points to a need for careful reflection on pastoral responses to enduring struggles in the life of the believer.

At the same time, it is going to be hard to speak into the life of someone who is sorting these issues out if a person doesn’t have a relationship with them. Simply relying on disputation or quoting Scripture will rarely (if ever) work; it tends to polarize and create a defensiveness in the other in an area in which the Christian wants to foster a climate for deeper and more careful reflection and consideration. It is in this context that it is important to note that Paul appeals to his prior relationship with the people in the church in Corinth.

It reminds me of when my kids are playing soccer: they hear a lot of parents yelling from the sidelines, but they can almost always hear their coach yell instructions and words of encouragement to them. They can pick out their coach’s voice because of the relationship the coach has established with them. And I think a good coach works hard  to have a relationship with each of player on the team so that they can trust what they have to say to them, so that they will be attuned to them.

This issue of listening to sources of spiritual authority is not new, and it is not limited solely to the topic of sexual identity/behavior. We are dealing with the issue of authority in all areas of our lives, and the church will continue to deal with this issue of authority in the future. (Protestant or Reformed churches face challenges here in terms of the vast number of denominations that exist, and Catholic churches face their own unique challenges.) In any case, thankfully, Paul was dealing with the issue of spiritual authority in his day, and he offered suggestions for how to respond when facing a cacophony of voices.

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