It’s the age of the expert, the age of the specialist. And sure enough, there’s a growing theme in the Christian world that experience is a necessary prerequisite to authority. If you want to know about parenting, you need to talk to a parent. If you want to know about marriage, you need to talk to someone who has been married. If you want to know how to suffer well, you speak to someone who has suffered.
This theme is prevalent and attractive. And while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it, I think it carries a subtle danger. It tells us that authority comes through experience. Yet as Christians, we must insist that authority is not derived first from experience, but from Scripture. Greater than our need for people who have experienced it in their lives, is our need for people who will teach it from the Word.
Now, let’s be careful. Let’s not over-react. I believe in the value of people committing themselves to studying and understanding a particular area of life or theology. I believe in the value of books and conferences and other contexts for specialized teaching. There is tremendous benefit in learning from someone who has been there and done that. But we don’t need such people. And it’s not like they are not qualified to teach or lead or counsel because of the experiences they’ve gone through. Their experience is valuable to us only to the degree that it is consistent with what God makes clear in his Word.
You may need to know how to resolve conflict. How can you pursue peace with someone who has harmed you? How can you repent and bring about reconciliation with people you’ve harmed? You could turn to advice columnists or experts in human relationships. You could even turn to a distinctly Christian reconciliation ministry. But your first instinct should be to find a man with an open Bible! Have him lead you verse-by-verse through Matthew 18 and teach you divine wisdom for healing broken relationships. He may not have much experience, but he can teach with authority because he is going to the best and highest source.
You may need to know how to raise your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. You could go to the bookstore and get some reading on the subject. You could sign up for a conference. Well and good. But first and better, turn to a woman in your church who will open her Bible with you, who will take you to the relevant passages, and who will help you understand what God says.
It’s a joy to attend a marriage seminar led by a man who speaks with wisdom earned by long experience. But it’s even better to speak to a man who has great confidence in his Bible. It’s far better to hear a sermon on marriage by an unmarried man with an open Bible than an experienced husband who brings nothing more than his own wisdom.
The fact is, an orphan can teach how to care for aging parents. An unmarried man can teach on marriage. A childless woman can teach on parenting. A poor man can teach about the temptations that come with being rich. God’s Word speaks to every one of these issues and authority in these matters does not flow from experience but from Scripture. Any Christian can teach these things confidently and powerfully because the confidence and power come not through experience or accolades, but from the source. The job of the teacher is not first to speak of or out of his experiences, but to speak of and out of the Word.