Chapter 11 – Uncomfortable Authority

From the book: “Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community” by Brett McCracken

In our last chapter, Uncomfortable Worship, we discussed how our personal preferences and individualism impact our worship practices. This same attitude can also impact our theology.

“. . . when one’s own personal narrative, experience of God, feelings, and desires provide the only authoritative framework for faith, faith is unsustainable.” (p. 155)

  • There are different levels of authority that we constantly encounter. The greatest authority resides in the Scriptures. All other authorities must submit to the Word of God.

“But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29, ESV)

Today, we pursue God’s guidance as written in the Old and New Testaments.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV)

The risk is when we read into scripture what we want it to say (eisegesis), rather than discerning the truth the scriptures are trying to tell us (exegesis). This leads to interpreting the Bible through our personal preferences rather than molding ourselves to the authority of scripture. This is not a new challenge. The Psalms puts God’s Word this way:

“But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their counsels.” (Psalms 81:11-12, ESV)

The prophet Jeremiah wrote about Judah:

“But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.” (Jeremiah 7:24, ESV)

“The point of scripture is to organize the chaos of our reality. It is not for us to organize the alleged chaos of Scripture to fit our preferred reality.” (p. 157)

How do you ensure you are properly understanding God’s Word? The first step is to ask for understanding and wisdom.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5, ESV)

God sends His Holy Spirit to provide this guidance.

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26, ESV)

But God cannot guide and teach you until you accept His guidance. You must be open to revelations about yourself. You must wholly turn yourself over to the Holy Spirit’s influence. It is then, and only then, that the Holy Spirit can impact on your life.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27, ESV)

  • A second level of authority is that of the Christian community. This is not just the present community in which we live, but the Christian community around the world and across all of time.

“One safeguard against the to-each-their-own interpretations of Scripture is community.” (p. 158)

There are three critical factors that the Christian community provides. One is historical and traditional knowledge and perspective. Christian thinkers and leaders over the centuries have studied the Scriptures. They have also lived lives that have tested and revealed the validity of the Scripture’s guidance. It is important to study the words and works of those who came before us. We should be hesitant to disregard the understanding and lessons of the past.

Derived from this, a second factor is the boundaries and accountability provided by the Christian community. This community identifies limits to be observed and preferences to be practiced. These limits guide us and keep us out of self-induced trouble, while these practices enable us to grow in spiritual maturity. While the Pharisees of the New Testament are example of how the community can become excessively restrictive, the absence of any rules or accountability leads to chaos.

This does not mean that we must be in full agreement with all the rules, regulations, and practices of the community. However, if we choose to be part of that community, we are obligated to adhere to its authority. If you became a member of the United Methodist Church, you took a vow to “faithfully participate in the life and ministries of your local congregation through your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.” Here is a link that discusses the following five topics toward that vow:

  1. A Promise to Pray.
  2. The Blessing of Presence.
  3. Sharing Your Gifts.
  4. Serving God and Others.
  5. What It Means to Witness.

Everyone practices each of these differently. While you can learn from and admire the way others implement these practices into their lives, you should not hold yourself to a standard that others hold for themselves. Your practices are between you and God. The Holy Spirit tailors your spiritual growth for you and your gifts. Keep yourself in God’s presence and your spiritual growth will be what it needs to be for both you and your contribution to the community.

The third factor is that of humility and teachability. After you understand the importance of the history and tradition of the Christian community, Methodist theology, and your congregation, you can then begin to realize the importance of the community for your spiritual development. By realizing that it is not just about you but about the community at large, you can then begin to grow in knowledge and spiritual maturity. This does not mean that there will not be challenges. There will be times of discomfort. But seeing this discomfort as an opportunity for growth will make all the difference.

  • “To submit oneself to specific leaders, and to be subject to their correction, if necessary, is a challenging prospect for all the reasons already mentioned.” (p. 160)

Virtually every one of the Apostle Paul’s letters to the churches are admonition for correction. Jesus rebuked the disciples several times when they were thinking or acting incorrectly. King Solomon says this about rebuke:

“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:11-12, ESV)

The same applies to those who lead us in the Christian community, If someone within the congregation is acting in a way that brings disrepute to the church, we should not ignore it for fear that we may hurt their feelings. If you are doing something that is harming the church, someone else, or yourself, should they ignore that for fear of hurting your feelings?

A true act of love (agape) is challenging someone who is causing harm. A true act of love (agape) is someone challenging you when you are doing something that is causing harm. This goes back to the previous topic of humility and teachability. Regardless of whether your actions are done unknowingly, done hoping nobody else notices, or blatantly and knowingly doing wrong, the loving action is for someone to confront you about it. This is what the Christian community is about loving one another through accountability, even when it is uncomfortable.

As our author points out, this accountability has become unpopular. It is uncomfortable to be challenged about your actions. It may be even more uncomfortable to confront someone else about their actions. However, failure to do so is not a loving action.

“Our consumerist culture has conditioned us to believe that no one and nothing should ever get between us and what we want. The result is that personal preferences become sacrosanct.” (p. 162)

The examples provided by Jesus and the Apostle Paul should guide us in how we respond to actions that negatively impact the Christian community and individuals within it. These individuals or communities were not intentionally doing wrong. It was in the absence of accountability that they drifted away from the perfect goal. We are subject to the same risk of drift if the Holy Spirit, our church community, or our leaders do not hold us accountable.

“We must submit our ideas and preferences about faith and church to God, evaluating them through the grid of Scripture and subjecting them to the evaluation of our larger Christian community.” (p. 163)

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