Some time ago I heard someone speaking that I had never heard of before. I watched with a growing sense of dismay. What bothered me so much? I have pondered this speaker as well as others I have heard in the past, and have concluded that the unifying thread in my concerns was this: the strange authority with which this person spoke.
I am thinking out loud in this post, trying to help myself figure it out. Here are some concerning features of that strange authority that may be helpful to ponder. If any of these are true of your ministry, I would urge you to honestly talk through this post with a church leader or two. If several of these are true of someone you listen to, maybe you shouldn’t be listening to them?
1. Having to declare their authority generally means they are not an authority. If you speak your subject well, then people will recognize your authority. But speak of your authority on a subject and people may feel that you are trying to make it so.
2. Factual errors do not belong in the pulpit. I scratched my head as one speaker declared something about my country that is simply not true. A factual error may be just a single sentence in passing, but it undermines credibility for every other statement that is made.
3. Poor handling of Scripture is an indication of immaturity at best. You may not know the technical hermeneutical or exegetical label for the error, but when statements about the Bible seem curiously unusual, unique, or novel, you do well to be suspicious. “Let me show you something you have never seen before…” or “God showed me a deeper meaning in this verse…” or “this doesn’t mean what it has always been understood to mean…” – all red flag statements that I have heard from “strange authority” speakers. A slight interpretation misfire here and there is probably true of us all (especially in our early days). Blatant lack of exegetical accuracy, however, should always fire a warning flare!
4. The Bible is stunningly relevant, but don’t make it sensationally so. When the Bible is used, out of context, to point to something so current and contemporary that people are supposed to gasp in appreciation, the discerning will raise an eyebrow of concern. When the Bible is carefully handled and presented appropriately, the relevance to the lives of even the most mature and discerning of listeners will be deeply felt and lastingly appreciated. Sadly, the undiscerning will praise sensational speakers enough to fan the flames of their ministry.
5. A speaker can’t assume knowledge, but please don’t assume ignorance. “If you study this subject like I have…” or “If you study the whole Bible you will see…” or “If you read John’s Gospel through 200 times you will start to notice…” (Again, three statements I have heard from “strange authority” speakers over the years.) We cannot assume knowledge in our listeners, or we will speak over their heads. But if we assume ignorance, we may sound patronizing or condescending.
6. Being condescending in tone does not mean the speaker is above their listeners. Tone is subjective and so someone who is confident may seem arrogant to someone else, or condescending to someone else. But if the listeners (plural) are feeling talked down to as a collective group, then something is not right. It indicates that a strange feeling of authority may be present in the mind of the speaker.
7. Ignorance is invisible in the mirror, but we all need to find out how much we don’t know. In one particular case I joined the message several minutes in, but within a minute it was evident that the speaker was not biblically educated. Another time I bought a book at a retreat, before returning it because it was filled with errors and typos. A seminary education is not a requirement for all. I have known some “self-taught” people that I respect very highly. But I have also heard some stunning ignorance and errors from speakers. Strangely, these people often have the greatest confidence in what they are saying. It isn’t easy, but it is helpful to try to find out what we don’t know.
8. Differentiate helpful and unhelpful credibility indicators. There is a credibility that comes from a position in a church or in a respected ministry, as well as degrees from respected institutions, or publications from respected publishers. But beware of echo chamber credibility. Years ago I heard a speaker who had a couple of travelling “fans” who came to our church retreat just to hear him speak. They were convinced he was the greatest Bible teacher around. After hearing him, many of us, including the church leadership, were not convinced. His ministry had a following. His ministry self-published his books. He was well known. But, something wasn’t right. Having a group of followers at conferences, or on social media, is not the same as having credibility and a genuine platform.
9. A strange authority speaker may try to sell their subject, instead of actually saying something. The best way to sell your bakery is to give people a taste of a perfect croissant, not a presentation on why baked goods are the most important food of all. In the same way, even if you are asked to motivate listeners for a specific subject, that doesn’t mean you have to just enthuse about the subject. Give them a taste of something good. Biblical teaching on family relations? On origins? On end-times? On spiritual gifts? On church growth? Whatever the subject, don’t just enthuse about the subject. Actually show what the Bible says on a particular aspect of the subject and how that makes a difference. Once people enjoy a croissant, they are likely to try the baguette or the custard slice.
10. Whatever the subject, evaluate the direction of gaze. At the end of the presentation, are listeners thinking about the speaker, about their ministry, about signing up for their mailing list? Are they thinking about themselves and how they need to learn more or try harder? Or do listeners have the gaze of their hearts fixed on Christ in a genuinely helpful and transformative way?
11. Where is the accountability? Strange authority speakers will tend to make much of God’s influence on their ministry. However, their human accountability will tend to be difficult to pin down. A handful of less informed fans forming a token board is not sufficient. Are there church leaders and people of real standing caring pastorally for this speaker? If someone had a concern, who would they go to? Would they be confident of being heard?
12. Does their ministry stir concerned prayer? God really uses some specialist speakers, and even some quite quirky speakers. Pray for people who have a speaking ministry. And when something doesn’t feel right, pray then too. Pray before you raise concerns with them, or their ministry. Pray before you talk about them to a church leader or responsible person. Pray for God to help them grow, or to help them go. In some cases God’s people would be better served without that person doing their ministry. God is more than able to answer that prayer. It may not be clear what you can do, or if you should do anything at all, but you can pray.
What would you add to this list?