A couple of days ago, word got out that a woman in Singapore took ivermectin as a preventive against covid 19 based on the advice of church friends. The result of taking this drug was devasting to say the least. The woman ended up in A&E and displayed symptoms such as ‘vomiting, severe joint pain, and the inability to walk and stand.’
As I scrolled through social media, I saw that some of my Christian friends who were trained doctors seemed deeply upset. Why would anyone take seriously the opinion of a medically untrained person in their fight against covid? Surely, the intense and rigorous medical training over the past 5 to 6 years cannot be compared to the mere opinion of someone who has not even spent a single day in medical school right? What more the opinion of a specialist who has dedicated even more time in this area?
Seeing the comments by my friends in the medical profession, I couldn’t agree more. Reading about symptoms on google or even buying books on my own to read cannot be compared to the kind of formal education that one goes through in medical school. For this reason, it makes sense to place a significantly higher weightage on the advice of medical experts (they’re called experts for a reason) than on a person who has never received any formal training in this area.
Yet as a pastor, I cannot help but wonder whether this issue of authority goes beyond the field of medicine and extends even to church life itself. It seems to me that modern protestant evangelicals in particular, face this problem on a regular basis especially in relation to their pastor. Having been in ministry for a couple of years, it has been all too common to hear people disagree with what their pastor teaches on the basis that they too have read the bible and arrived at a different conclusion.
The irony is that while we are quick to recognise how silly it is for someone to dismiss the advice of a trained doctor on the basis that he has read some books on medicine at home, modern protestant evangelicals are much slower when it comes to recognising how silly it is for someone to simply dismiss the teaching of a pastor who has gone through years of formal theological education just because he has read the bible at home. The common appeal of course is to point back to the reformers such as Martin Luther. Yet this ignores the fact that Luther’s battle against the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t that of someone untrained vs someone trained. Luther was a professor of theology. For that matter, most of the reformers went through intense and rigorous theological education either at universities or monasteries.
Still, some say that surely the perspicuity of scripture as held to by the reformers means that everyone can read scripture on their own without having the need to go for training. Well, yes…and no. The perspicuity of scripture does indeed mean that there are parts of scripture that are clear and simple enough for us to grasp regardless of education. It does not however mean that every thing in scripture is clear and simple. Consider Article 1.7 of the WCF concerning Holy Scripture:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (Emphasis mine)
The WCF affirms that what is clear and simple to grasp, regardless of whether one is learned or not, are those things which pertain to salvation. But not all things in scripture are plain and clear to everyone regardless. That is also why the office of teaching the word is established by God. As John Calvin notes:
…he [God] did not entrust the ancient folk to angels but raised up teachers from the earth truly to perform the angelic office.
Those who think the authority of the Word is dragged down by the baseness of the men called to teach it disclose their own ungratefulness. For, among the many excellent gifts with which God has adorned the human race, it is a singular privilege that he deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them…Many are led either by pride, dislike, or rivalry to the conviction that they can profit enough from private reading and meditation; hence they despise public assemblies and deem preaching superfluous. But, since they do their utmost to sever or break the sacred bond of unity, no one escapes the just penalty of this unholy separation without bewitching himself with pestilent errors and foulest delusions.
Does this mean that the authority of a pastor is absolute or that a pastor can never err? Of course not. As a good protestant, I’ll be more than willing to concede that pastors can get things wrong just as doctors can make a wrong diagnosis. But this is simply not the same as saying that the opinion of the untrained and trained should be placed on the same level. If anything, it only means that there is room for seeking clarification and even a second opinion. Even then, the second opinion you seek should still be from someone trained.
So where does this leave us? Well, on a congregational level, I hope to see greater trust in the rigour of theological education that churches put their pastors through. This rigorous aspect of education must of course include both the development of the intellect as well as the art of spiritual discernment and soul care. If not, why bother sending at all? But on a pastoral level, pastors should really avoid the easy way out of getting easy degrees just so they can lay claim to possessing a theological degree.
Finally, for those who wonder whether it is even appropriate to liken the role of doctors with that of pastors, the answer church history gives us would probably be yes. In fact, while pastors today are more often equated with the role of teachers, they have, taking after Christ, traditionally been known as physicians — physicians of the soul. So if you’re a doctor feeling frustrated with how people often ignore your advice as though they know this subject better than you, try confiding in your pastor. I have a feeling they might be able to empathize.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.5.