Follow-up on “The end of a system”

My post on “The End of a System” was probably on the edge of palatability for some. Sometimes I write things that I strongly believe, almost hoping no one will read what I write, because I know it will be difficult to swallow. Other times, I’m desperate for people to read. I’m not sure which this was . . . maybe both!

In response to a sincere comment from a devoted disciple, I want to expand. This is long—perhaps my longest essay on this blog. Rather than separate it into a series, though, I am opting for one, lengthy treatment, and then I intend to leave this topical area alone for a while. (Sabbatical here will be difficult for me, because there are so many regular inputs and stimuli!)

First, on biblical foundations: I want to reiterate that I do respect scholarship in the area of biblical studies. But not all seminaries seem overly interested in sound biblical scholarship . . . so, what we have, it seems to me, is a network of “ordained,” clergified teachers who may or may not be good students of the canonical documents. I have no first-hand experience in a seminary of any sort, but based on reports, I have come to suspect that it is quite possible to get a seminary degree that emphasizes ministry and/or church history and/or church “doctrine” (together, all these may constitute an emphasis in “religion”) without having any training (or interest!) in biblical exegesis. Moreover, various denominational prejudices can often lead to slanted views of this text or that.

For me, a teaching minister — whether paid or not — who doesn’t have a strong foundation in biblical studies is no servant of the church at all. A paid minister without foundation in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics should be ministering in some area other than public teaching and preaching. And again: public teaching and preaching must come precisely from solid training in how to interpret and teach scripture. I hope this helps to allay any fear about my commitment to avoidance of false teaching!

Next, on the clergy as a distinct layer or class of “extra-spiritual” people, perhaps perceived to have special, intercessionary powers between the “laity” and God. I had quoted the conservative scholar John Yoder, in reference to the 4th century A.D.: “A monarchical sacerdotal class was reintroduced in a community that had begun with the affirmation that Jesus had put an end to the priesthood.” So what can we say about the Middle Ages that followed? While I would not choose to assert that God’s church was dormant, exactly, I would surmise that most Protestant thinkers would agree that the years from Constantine through Luther were, in a sense (warning: non-P.C. term ensues), Dark Ages in terms of scriptural enlightenment. The abuses and corruptions of the papacy were perhaps not universal, but they were common. Just as with Israelite kings, there were a few good guys! My conclusion, though, is that while the 20th and 21st centuries can’t be compared, apples to apples, with the Roman-dominated Dark Ages, the existence of a “sacerdotal class” (Yoder) is certainly to be challenged in any epoch, including ours.

A parallel problem appears, as well: in addition to the elevation of a special class of clergy, an issue may be seen in the lack of attention to the priesthood of all New Covenant believers. One might well argue that if the saints would all accept their roles as priests of God Most High, there would be no hole for a special “clergy” class to fill! As has been pointed out to me, a sound, biblical model of church leadership is servant-involvement within the people’s lives, not separation from the group.

The two main issues outlined above — the possibility of religion without thoroughgoing biblical foundation, and the problems inherent in the clergified priesthood — lead me to observe/opine that the lack of an official clergy is not necessarily what leads to apostasy. It is a lack of biblical foundation … or, to put it as Paul did,

But as for you (Timothy), continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Now, it was a specially inspired person that Timothy learned from; I think it is patently dangerous today to assume that pedigrees obtained from seminaries are equivalent to directly transferred apostolic authority. In other words, academic rigors and traditionally guided ordination ceremonies do not sound Bible teachers make (necessarily). Moreover, I would take special caution when a church’s sign warns that one man is “pastor and founder.” Way too presumptuous and likely to be monarchical!

But to further Paul’s emphasis . . . he continues his exhortation to Timothy with the familiar “All scripture is God-breathed and is profitable. . . .” I take from this apostolic admonition that apparently

  • there would be apostasy (please see all of 2 Tim. 3, as well as becoming aware of the definition of the Greek word apostasis–”apart from standing”)
  • there was a need to remind Timothy what the foundation must be: 1) what he had heard from Paul the Apostle, and 2) what he had studied in the Old Covenant scriptures.

So, I would respond to the query about what happens when we don’t have a system of professional, specially delegated pastors with this, which admittedly will sound glib when taken by itself: Let’s try it, and see if the biblical, spiritual moorings are worse, or better. Let’s see whether there are more, or fewer, false teachings. We have centuries of history of what happens with this clergy system that often leads people astray. And the many denominational offshoots in the past two or three centuries bear witness to the fact that people tend to follow other people and not truth. It’s possible that the clergy system contributes more to the proliferation of errant offshoots than meets the eye. Again, it’s not the special Bible schooling that is the problem – far from it! – it’s the system that grants special privilege and deference to one class of Christians over another. Humans so readily stop “guiding center,” to use a marching band concept, and/or they are too prone to corruption. To have a human personality at the center of a system is not just asking for trouble; it’s guaranteeing it.

In my more cautious, timid moments, I might admit that the aggregate potential for off-the-wall, erroneous teaching could be greater if there were less organizational structure to reign in rogue preachers. Let me try that again. The sum total of false teaching could be even worse if there were no accountability system. I’m just not sure whether that is potentially worse than the false practice that transpires within the current structure.

As I think briefly about the formation of new Christian movements, sects, and, ultimately, denominations, a correlation appears: more often than not, perhaps, a new guy was followed for relatively good reasons that related to reforming things and/or rooting out corruptions. But the fact that there are so many guys to follow should give us all pause before we follow any guy now. If one man, or one system, leads people down a wrong path, and if it’s just another man who seeks to correct that path by saying, “Hey! No! Come this way instead!” then it stands to reason that there’s not necessarily a better reason to follow one than the other. They’re both merely human.  The new one may be more right than the old, or he may not. Following one, or following the other . . . clergyman or non . . . people will likely be led astray. But having no clergy class would in my estimation eliminate other problems.

The historically well-attested notion of reformation warrants mention, but I am not equal to the task. Wycliffe, Tischendorf, Luther, Calvin, Menno, Wesley, Campbell, Stone, and more . . . these are men who, to some extent, were saying things that were necessary to effect reform, in one specific spirito-historical milieu or another. It is clearly sometimes well advised to follow a new strand of Christianity. Had I lived in those centuries, I hope I would have been courageous enough to have been counted on the right side. These men all said valuable things, but not one, as far as I know, was 100% right.

I should probably also mention “ordination” specifically. Not knowing much about it first-hand, and not finding any official ordaining ceremony or the equivalent in the NC scriptures (OK, Acts 13 seems to mention an ordination ceremony for “apostling” a missionary, as it were, but no official tradition seems to have been laid out), though, I don’t think I will say much! Suffice it to say that ordination is largely a human, abiblical development in church polity, and ordination itself would appear to have an unsubstantiated relationship to one’s ability to preach true things from scripture. Formal ordination (as I understand it) is certainly not necessary, scripturally speaking, and there is therefore no scripturally based requirement to be ordained in order to “administer the sacraments.” I hasten to add that having been ordained is different, in my mind, from having had training in biblical studies. The former is an official protocol (think “Roberts Rules of Order” and parliamentary procedure) and is neither here nor there; the latter is essential, if one is to teach.

With all this said (I should really promise not to write about this topic for a month or more — I get too wrapped up in it!), I would now attempt to delineate as follows, separating the problems I see:

  1. Paying ministers can be a big problem, but this is not always so. There are loads of good staff ministers out there who are doing great things and who are not abusing power or teaching obviously false things.
  2. Having a separate class of clergy is a problem. No two ways about it. The clergy-laity distinction should be abolished. Religious titles that separate one class from another is an abomination. God, help us.
  3. Training teachers, preachers, and pastors (remember that, biblically speaking, pastors appear to be a plural phenomenon in most, if not all congregations, which is quite different from the model we see almost everywhere in Christendom today … please see the section on the term pastor in this post) in biblical studies is quite a good thing. The more a public teacher knows about hermeneutics, and the more he is trained in how to exegete and communicate scripture’s truths, the better. It is not necessary to be trained, and one doesn’t have to know Greek or Hebrew to get God’s point, but it can help immeasurably to be taught by one who is somehow trained.

In sum, distinguishing among the above items . . . is it possible to have a pastor who is (3) sound, biblically well trained, and not viewed as (2) “clergy”? Well, there’s the rub. Whether he’s (1) paid isn’t really the issue. It’s biblical to support good work financially. The issues are (2), which constitutes my main protestation, and (3), scriptural soundness — which, if not in place, can lead to all sorts of apostasy, regardless of (1) and (2).

I’m almost embarrassed to look back and find how much I’ve written in the past year about this kind of thing, but I do believe it is important to root out wispy doctrines and unfounded practices in favor of a biblical model of church. Whether you’re mad by now, or just curious . . . for more, please see this post (in which I moved point-by-point through an appeal letter from a Roman Catholic abbot, picking apart assumptions and doctrines) or this one, in which I asserted things about a few titles in use today.

Dear Father – You Who love every one, desiring all to come ultimately to You, if I have been erroneous in any of the above, please remove the offending lines from the eyes and understanding of anyone who reads. May my words be used to further Your truth and Your reign. May we all know Your will increasingly, and may that be the only thing that matters.

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