Q: What is spiritual authority in a community of believers supposed to look like? The Navigators placed a lot of emphasis on discipleship. A core principles was that the “sheep” should put utmost trust in the “shepherds.” The “shepherds” gave opinions about who we should date, what careers we should choose, and what kinds of extracurricular activities we should get involved with. Their opinion was thought of as wisdom from God that He gave them in order to guide us. To support this idea, they quote Proverbs, “For lack of council, a nation falls. But many counselors make victory sure. (15:22)”
Also, they said God wants every younger believer to be made a better disciple by an older believer who is gifted with wisdom. They pointed out that Biblical Christians lived lives that were radically intertwined with one another, sharing even their property. It’s so confusing. To be honest, I loathe the idea of other people dictating our decisions as a married couple. Even giving their opinion on a decision or influencing it in the way they think would be in accordance with the secret will of God is burdensome. Shouldn’t married grown-ups make their own decisions without interference from a mentor? It seems so ridiculous, and yet it seems to be what the Bible teaches.
A: While I’m only somewhat familiar with The Navigators, what you’ve described parallels practices I’ve also seen in a number of Holiness Anabaptist bodies, especially those that maintain closed communities. Of itself, the organization says, “The Navigators is dedicated to helping people navigate spiritually, to know Christ and to make Him known as they look to Him and His Word to chart their lives.” This quote alone leads me to think that they expect to have a fair amount of influence in their adherents’ lives.
I have little disagreement with portions of what you claim is their message. For example, the “sheep” of Christ’s Church should listen to their “shepherds” as they proclaim the message of the Good Shepherd. However, Scripture, particularly the New Testament, usually has a narrow understanding of who these shepherds are. Normally, those entrusted with spiritual oversight and leadership occupied the offices of presbyteros (elder) or episcopos (overseer). Reading of them in the New Testament, we discover that while they may have had some specialized differences, both refer in general to the broader category of “pastor.”
Hebrews 13:17 is among the passages that support this teaching: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Also, Saint Paul wrote, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy 5:17)”
Both the Old and New Testaments also strongly encourage those younger in years or less mature in the Faith to defer to the judgment of their chronological and churchly elders — this time meaning not only pastors but all who merit respect because of age or experience. At the same time, even a younger pastor — “elder” or “overseer” — was expected to lead with confidence, not worrying that many in his flock were “older and wiser” in terms of years or experience.
Even though many may have thought Timothy too young, Paul taught him the tenets and practices of Christianity and then wrote, “Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4:11-12)”
At the same time, believers — even church leaders — can go too far. Butting in on the private lives of others and micro managing their affairs is a serious offense. Being a “meddler” is named in the same sentence as being “a murderer or a thief or an evildoer. (1 Peter 4:15)” Saint Paul twice condemned Christians who were overly interested in others’ lives, calling them “busybodies (2 Thessalonians 3:11 and 1 Timothy 5:13)” who should instead focus on their own affairs.
Regarding multiple voices, Proverbs 15:22 indeed says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” However, Biblical wisdom literature always needs to be applied in context. When taken at surface value, some of the sayings of the wise flatly contradict other sayings, and this verse has its own rebuttal: “When a land transgresses, it has many rulers, but with a man of understanding and knowledge, its stability will long continue. (28:2)” This second passage has an equivalent in an American folk saying attributed to Captain L. H. McNelly of the Texas Rangers: “There’s no stopping a man who knows he’s right, and keeps on coming.”
As you may be sensing, I’m inclined to judge your views vis-à-vis The Navigators with a “both ... and” rather than an “either ... or” attitude. Christians should listen to, even “obey” their spiritual leaders. However, Christians should also judge what they are told in the light of revealed Scripture, comparing their leaders’ words with those of the Lord. Also — and here I’ll speak personally — there are limits to pastoral imperatives. When I preach to my flock, I tell them as plainly as I can what constitutes right and wrong. However, I wouldn’t presume to detail the specific regulations they should follow in their own vocations. For example, while I commend stewardship of the entire Creation as good in God’s eyes, I wouldn’t dream of telling dirt or dairy farmers the “best way” they can practice such stewardship in their own lives.
In my final analysis, if The Navigators is as intrusive as you indicate, I think that they go beyond what is best in spiritual (particularly pastoral) leadership. Yet I also detect a possible resistance in you to some of God’s unbending Law. Yes, “married grown-ups” such as you have a certain amount of independence from parental authority (cf. Genesis 2:24, et al.). But independence isn’t a big part of Scripture. God’s absolute rule excludes individualistic (selfish) attitudes and behavior and most references to Godly living are in the context of community and interdependence.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #556