28 February 2012

Ecclesia Part 5: Clericalism on Display

The 'pastor' who is really a 'licentiate' is to be ordained shortly. They made it clear the 'service' is under the auspices of the 'presbytery'....viz., the regional body (of ordained men) is coming in to conduct the worship service. Consequently there will be people from the entire regional presbytery present, Teaching and Ruling elders as well as many regular folks from the other regional congregations. But in this case it's not the local congregation's service...it's the presbytery.

The climax will be at the end of the meeting when the newly ordained 'Teaching Elder' will raise his hands and give the benediction. And of course at this point he will cease to be a member of the mother-congregation and instead will be joined to the regional body. Just like that he will be elevated not just to an office, but to the upper tier in the hierarchy.


This is rank clericalism. This is further proved by the fact that in Presbyterianism the ordained Pastor has to be 'installed' somewhere. This means more than what you might think. Let me work toward that issue...

A presbyter forever?

I would say the Biblical model is...you become an elder and if you move to a new congregation somewhere else, you're not an elder there. If you're visiting, sure you're still an elder from your congregation, but if you've left that congregation, you don't have a continuing claim of authority. The new congregation may make you an elder, they may take into account the fact that you were once before an elder, but you're not always an elder per se.

Once an elder always an elder is not an argument that can be made unless once again you're trying to argue for some type of Apostolic Succession or attach in intrinsic quality to the office. Certainly the Apostolate was a lifetime office, but is that true for the elder? I suppose someone might appeal to Peter's statement that he too was an elder...but he was also an Apostle. The Apostles were to teach faithful men...but were they transferring the concept, the foundation of their office on to the eldership? It doesn't seem possible, the tasks being quite different. If they are equals or meant to be, then we would have Apostles today.

Local or universal?

Does an elder hold some kind of universal authority, over all the Church? Obviously a visiting elder would be held in some regard but does he have authority over or within another congregation? I see no basis for this, and Acts 15 certainly doesn't teach it either. I would see that as an Apostolic level of authority and part of the Apostolic mission, which ended about 1900 years ago.

Synagogue parallels

Even going back to the Synagogue model which closely parallels the structure of the New Testament congregation... elders did not have authority over other synagogues. But I will grant synagogues did eventually have presiding leaders...akin to what we would call a pastor.

So arguing from that vantage point my strict two-office (Elder and Deacon) argument would lose and the three-office (Pastor/Teaching Elder, Ruling Elder, and Deacon) would win. But with the synagogue there was definitely no formal organization or hierarchy between the various congregations. They fellowshipped based on a mutual understanding of recognition and respect. There was the Temple and the local synagogue and nothing more.

The synagogue model is instructive and an interesting study, but in the end we have to rely on the New Testament itself. For those interested in pursuing the synagogue issue, Lightfoot's 'Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica' is helpful. It's been many years since I dove into the synagogue question and I'm by no means exclusively relying on Lightfoot for what I'm saying. I just recall that he's a very interesting read on some of these issues.

Returning to the charge of clericalism....

Intrinsic qualities, efficacy, legitimacy and Donatism

Roman Catholics teach a priest has intrinsic qualities. He has a certain ecclesial power present in him regardless of his own personal faith or conduct. This all goes back to the Donatist schisms in the 4th century when you had groups of Christians claiming they were the True Church and Baptism and the Supper were not valid when performed by men attached to the apostate Catholic body. Or from a different angle, when Baptism was performed by someone they believed to be unregenerate, they argued it wasn't valid.

Of course I would say I can't tell the state of the heart of the man who baptized me. He may or may not have been actually regenerate. In hindsight, I'm actually inclined to think not. That's not the issue. The issue is do I recognize his authority? Do I believe his profession and doctrine to be sufficiently Scriptural? If he denied the deity of Christ for example that would be a red flag that he's not a real believer. But if he does, then despite our differences, and despite the fact that whether or not he's really and truly regenerate...my Baptism is valid. It's not about him. It symbolizes what God is saying about me and my status in relation to Christ.

Church Federation

The Church struggled with these divisions and this was the beginning of what is called Church Federation...the prototype of what later would become Church Membership. (*Bingham's 'Antiquities' is helpful on this topic)

As the divisions grew over time and exploded during the Reformation it got more complicated as the number of sects continued to multiply.

This way of looking at the Church in terms of Federation I think is not only a doctrinal mistake but it's affected how people read Church history. I argue the Bible only knows of the Universal Church and the local congregation...and of course the individual. But Church History and much of theology is usually understood by focusing on this realm that's inserted between the congregation and the Universal....this realm that's tied to Denomination, Faction, or sometimes Culture, Nation, or Civilization. It's this inserted or fabricated mid-tier, that causes so many problems in so many areas, both in the reading of history, the construction of theology, as well as the understanding of the Church.

Catholics in time taught the priest has intrinsic qualities. These qualities are part of the priest’s essence as it were. He can be a whoring drunkard as many priests have been and yet his sacramental administration, his ability to institutionally officiate is still valid.

I think the problem here lies with the whole idea of clericalism, attaching this intrinsic quality to the man. Again, contra Donatism, my Baptism's validity or the Supper's validity isn't dependent on the man's conduct, and contra Clericalism it's not dependent on some kind of inherent quality the administrator possesses. Either way the forms God has instituted for the Church aren’t dependent upon some kind of ‘holy’ man or cleric. I won’t go so far as to say the Presbyterians treat their officials this way…but they come close. And some among them are definitely moving in that direction.

The quality of Presbyterian clericalism

When Presbyterians remove their 'pastors' into this next level of the hierarchy they are straying into clericalism. When the climax of the ordination service is the new 'pastor' giving the benediction...that's clericalism. Some of them grasp this I think and don't really have a problem with the charge or the concept. Others chafe at this label, but I would say the practice and the structure itself gives the charge some weight. I'm in no way suggesting they view their ministers in exactly the same way as the Roman Catholic system does, but I am saying they've crossed a line and embraced a doctrinal construct that is related to and perhaps closer to the Roman system.

Office implies officiating. Permanent or intrinsic office implies permanent and continuous officiating.

This is a little harder to grasp and hence not easy to explain.
Since the 'pastor' belongs to this special hierarchical tier, he has to be functioning or officiating as a 'pastor'. He has to be assigned, installed somewhere, a congregation, a university, an administrative position. Since none of this is actually in the Bible, creating new categories isn't a problem.

However, the idea that a person possessing these intrinsic qualities would be floating about without an assignment is problematic. That an ordained man would just be sitting in a congregation somewhere would mean he's not exercising the office...perhaps you can see this concept is something beyond a congregational shepherd or leader?....this is a real 'office', a change in a person's status. This is why I'm calling it clericalism.

As I suggested earlier if he left a congregation and moved elsewhere and was just assembling with a new group...that's a problem. Because then he would need to become a 'member' of the local congregation. But he can't, because that would mean he's no longer part of the hierarchical group, the 'presbytery'. And to be un-ordained or defrocked would mean you did something wrong, something that made you lose your status. If you just abandon it...well, that's abandoning a ‘calling’ and it's a problem for someone to take up 'the office' and to lay it down willingly. They don't like that. Once you’re in, you’re supposed to stay in.

So for a 'pastor' to leave one congregation to go to another, he has to be 'called' and 'installed'. If he leaves without a 'call' then he's floating loose. Like I said there are exceptions, university or seminary professors, administrators, military and nursing home chaplains...I seemed to have missed these offices in my reading of the Bible.

What's the problem? Well, I frequently hear Protestants critique High Church groups for having Archbishops, acolytes, Archdeacons, lay ministers, crucifers and more. The critique is rooted in Scriptural Sufficiency. But in their case they don't have a leg to stand on. Clerk of the Session, Moderator, Chaplain, and Professor...these are all offices they've made up. Once you get away from the Scripture it becomes difficult to draw lines. Where does it stop? It doesn't. It can't.

I won't even get into the whole area of professionalism, and the clerical and institutional issues with seminaries right now. That's something I'm dealing with elsewhere.

In fact if a 'pastor' leaves without a 'call' he's in trouble. He'll have a very hard time getting another congregation within the faction to 'call' him. He'll probably end up having to 'resign' and it's something of a disgrace, a form of discipline.

They treat the 'pastors' in a way very similar to how the Roman Catholics treat their priests. We don't need to go to the other extreme and reject all authority, all Church government, and all offices. The Bible outlines these things and we can adhere to it and avoid both extremes.

There’s also a great irony in that Protestants retain the Reformational understanding of Vocation. Luther repudiates Medievalism by suggesting the shoemaker and carpenter can be faithful Christians and pleasing to God. You don’t have to become a monk or nun to please God. You don’t have to become an ascetic to be a good Christian. Of course we all would agree with that.

But in the post-Reformation era this was taken further and as Dominionism developed particularly in Reformed circles the task of the politician, artist, lawyer and so forth became not only valid vocations but were also viewed as ‘holy’ callings. This I don’t agree with. Our holy calling is to be Christians. That’s our vocation. And actually I would say the only special ‘holy’ vocation is to serve as a leader in the Church…and yet when I’ve said that I’ve been charged with promoting clericalism! I believe the vocation of Elder or Bishop is indeed a special calling with eternally oriented tasks that are of a different nature than that of the sculptor, jurist, senator, carpenter or factory worker. There’s nothing wrong with making a living at those common tasks. Nothing at all. Nor am I suggesting ecclesiastical office holders are somehow more holy or more superior Christians. No, but in their case their work, their actual task is of a different Kingdom-nature than someone who is soldering pipes or filling out forms.

I truly believe we can derive a simple but fully sufficient Biblical polity. But for those committed to Denomination and Institution, it's far too simple and lacks vision. And then we're forced to ask a question. Before I asked, what is 'a' Church, meaning what comprises a Biblically valid congregation? Now, we have to ask what is 'the' Church? That's a bigger question that helps shape how we approach these issues. And I would add what is the Kingdom? The questions go together and both are beyond the scope of what I'm trying to do here in this series.

We shouldn't let circumstance drive us. Reactionary solutions are just as bad as innovations. This has been a major force throughout church history and the history of theology.


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