Over the last 16 years I have known a few pastors who regularly invoked the assertion “God told me” or “God gave me a sense that . . . (you fill in the blank).” Before going any further, I need to make it clear that God does indeed communicate to his people. I’ve experienced divine communication myself, albeit mostly directed at my bad attitudes, sins, and assorted shortcomings that God wanted to change in my life. And I’ve no doubt more such fun dispatches from above will be forthcoming in the future. Fortunately God has also graciously affirmed his love for me on numerous occasions. Yet I worry about an unhealthy trend coming from some pulpits these days. It’s the God-told-me-what-we-are-supposed-to-do-so-the-discussion-is-over message coming from some pastors. This worries me because at worst it feels like an abuse of power bordering on the edge of cult-like behavior, or at best an effort to avoid the hard work of convincing hardheaded people (aka congregations that disagree, criticize, and debate everything down to the soul-sucking minutia of the mundane) about the correctness of the vision and direction of a church that is set by our pastor and church leaders. It could also indicate that something has gone awry in the mind and heart of the pastor who drops God’s name in an effort to gain concession without much protest. Who, after all, would dare to challenge God’s will?
But what happens when the pastor says God told him that the church needs to do X and the chairman of the board of elders says God told him that the church needs to do Y? It’s a sticky situation. When a spiritual leader, such as a pastor, claims that God told him that the church needs to do X, even if X seems outrageous, the mere invoking of God’s will creates doubt in the minds of those who might otherwise disagree with the plan to do X. The doubt goes like this: what if God really DID tell the pastor we need to do X and I just don’t have enough faith or spiritual savvy to comprehend God’s will? This seed of doubt in the congregant’s heart gives the pastor more power and authority. Is it too much power? Certainly knowing God’s will helps his people accomplish great things, but it is also an aspect of church life that can be abused.
So what can be done to make sure our clergy do not abuse this power? Having a strong and theologically astute board of elders or a governing board can help hold pastors accountable. In addition, we would be wise to follow, as much as possible, the format for making crucial decisions in the church found in Acts 1:12-26 where the disciples set about to select a replacement for Judas. The process used by the disciples involved much prayer, and probably some discussion about the qualifications of the candidates. They narrowed the field to two qualified candidates, but they left the final decision up to God by casting lots. Perhaps the church should reintroduce the practice of casting lots. In any case, I am struck by what is missing in this scene where the disciples chose a replacement: nobody stood up and said God told them who should replace Judas. It was a group effort with God making the final decision. Well, you say, we don’t do things that way anymore because we hire professional clergy and church administrators to make decisions. And that’s my point: we have given pastors and church leaders a lot of autonomy, and we expect them to hear from God when it comes to crucial church decisions. But should we?
Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ get very accustomed to hearing God’s voice in their lives. And who am I to say they are wrong? But the human heart is deceitful. I’ve watched fellow Christians face crisis and bewilderment when the voice they thought was God turned out to be something else, or God was silent and life took them in an unexpected and painful direction. Perhaps we are wise to proceed with more caution when we think we have heard from God, especially before we claim to know his will in much of our earthly matters. A little mystery about God and life isn’t a bad thing.