Thursday, March 05, 2009

Pagan Christianity 6: The Pastor

You're not going to believe it, but it's true. I recommended Viola to a pastor in town yesterday. I told him not to pay any attention to Viola's analysis of history, but that he would really resonate with the basic ideas.

This pastor was saying things like 1) "Most pastors think their crap doesn't stink" and 2) I'm afraid in 5 years our church plant will become a conventional church and 3) I hate the institutional church and 4) I don't want a church building. I want Hobby Lobby... So I recommended Viola to him. I said I thought his historical analysis was idiotic but that he's scratching your itch.

By the way, this pastor is hoping to take out a billboard later this year that says, "Satan, get the h*ll out of town." Anyone living in Marion, Indiana now knows who I'm talking about, given the infamous "sex" billboard last year. :-)

I suspect today is going to be filled with surprises. Although I believe in ordination and I believe in being called to be an ordained minister, I do agree that there is great freedom within the big tent of Christianity for various levels of empowerment of ministers. And the fact that I am OK with the way Viola does "minister" in and of itself means that I do not think the rules set down by other traditions, including the Methodist tradition of which I am a part, are absolute.

Although I follow my tradition and would enforce my tradition for those within our fellowship, I have significant self-doubt about the idea that only an ordained minister (on some level) can consecrate the elements in communion. I certainly prefer to be in the succession of ministers going back to the early church. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions would not recognize me as being in proper "apostolic succession," but I am glad to say I was ordained by a minister ordained by a minister... who was ordained by someone among the first apostles of believers.

But I cannot defend this preference of mine as a requirement or a necessity. I like the fact that my local church can't just up and ordain me. I like the fact that my denomination hasn't just up and ordained me. It makes me feel that I am a part of something much bigger than some group of 27 people in the mountains of Kentucky. I am connected as a minister across space and time back to the earliest apostles.

But it doesn't necessarily make me one bit better equipped to serve than that person genuinely anointed by the Spirit in Kentucky.

I am all for training of ministers too. I'm sick of the anti-education sentiment that is very much apart of the American anti-intellectual ethos, the only country where being good at math and science makes you someone to laugh at. We're the only country where, if the vast majority of experts on a topic think something, that makes that particular position highly dubious. Yes, I agree, seminaries and churches bear a lion's share of blame for this divide. They have made themselves irrelevant.

Yes, I have that tendency too, to be irrelevant. You'll be happy to know that I have consistently yielded to the practioners in the design of IWU's new MDIV and probably seminary. It will be, I think, the most practical and adult-education friendly MDIV on the market.

But the fact that seminaries are largely irrelevant, the fact that those who most like to teach usually are, by personality, most interested in the least immediately pressing matters, doesn't mean that they are wrong on what they think. Short term irrelevancy is not the same as being incorrect or even irrelevant in the long term. Make fun of them for their conflict management skills, yes. That doesn't mean they understand God less than you do.

It is a horrible and ironic situation. The most "successful" pastors often seem to be those who are the most ignorant of things biblical, theological, philosophical, etc... Meanwhile, those who are most knowledgeable about things biblical, theological, etc. seem least effective in getting the work of the ministry done. How do we get these two very important parts of the body of Christ into real dialog with each other?

Again, we have gone to great strides in IWU's MDIV to balance the importance of practice with the importance of depth of knowledge. I and others are currently going over every assignment in the first main course, Missional Christianity, with a team of practically minded bright minds, trying to find the balance between practice and underpinings.

Well, this post is supposed to be about Viola's sixth chapter, the pastor, so let me get to it.

The previous reviews were:
1. Viola's Preface
2. Barna's Introduction
3. The Church Building
4. The Order of Worship
5. The Sermon

Chapter 6: The Pastor: Obstacle to Every Member Functioning
I agree with Viola that there is sparse support in the New Testament for the idea of a single leader of a local assembly. I personally wonder if, somewhat like the "synagogue rulers," an elder in a local assemby rotated as a kind of director each year, but I can't prove it.

In Acts 20 Paul calls the elders of the churches of Ephesus and then says in verse 28 that God has appointed them overseers of the flock (thus the pastoral image). This passage both seems to support and undermine some of Viola's claims. On the one hand, it supports his claim that there was no single overseer or "pastor" of these assemblies. Yes, they likely were literally old men. The evidence is not strong for them all being men but it is probably a safe assumption in most instances. Yes, "pastor" probably was not a senior leader of the assembly.

1 Peter also writes elders who oversee and shepherd, fairly obviously in imitation of Christ, I think. 1 Timothy does speak of individuals aspiring to be overseers and ministers (diakonoi), but it is not clear that this fact means there was only one of them in a locality. I personally imagine that multiple individuals in a given locality might have aspired to these roles.

But as usual, I think Viola pushes things too far. I had a conversation with a colleague who suggested to me that the house church movement was possibly in decline and that Viola's vigor is really an attempt to keep it going. The problem, my colleague suggested, is that these local church fellowships can't get their people to stop attending established churches. If this is at all true, then I understand Viola's work to be an attempt to get people out of the established churches and into their fellowship alone.

This is of course the place in every chapter where Viola pushes me over the edge. It is not enough for him to justify his house fellowships. I have little against that. I am all for small group accountability and charismatic fellowship.

My problem is that he then wants to burn all the established churches down and villainize them. The reason the later parts of the New Testament move toward institutionalization--indeed why revival movements become more conventional in the second and third generation--is not because of the myth of the dying of the light and the work of Satan in the institutional church. It's because institutions ensure survival of a movement.

If we go back to the chapter where Viola villainized Whitefield as the poster child for Methodism. Whitefield was apparently an amazing preacher. Benjamin Franklin was said to have left his wallet at home when he went to hear him so that he wouldn't be able to contribute money to him... and Franklin wasn't even a Christian!

But where are Whitefield's crowds today? I can tell you where the crowds of the organized, institutionalizing Wesley are. They are the various variety of churches in the Wesleyan tradition. Detach from an institutionalized church and your movement will die after you do, unless the second generation institutionalizes. You can blah, blah, blah about the Holy Spirit all you want. That's just the way it works, and any one who says differently is fighting the entirety of human history.

Mock the Roman Empire all you want. It lasted 1000 years. Mock the Roman Catholic Church... and lets see where the descendants of your house church are in 1500 years.

So back to the Bible. I think we have every reason to think that the role of elder in a local assembly was more or less for life. Clement of Rome was writing in the 90's. And he wrote to Corinth telling them that they did not have the authority to remove from the office of overseer individuals who had been appointed by the apostles.

And at the turn of the century, these overseers seem to have covered an entire city--Onesimus, bishop of Ephesus, for example. Could this be the same Onesimus we read about in Philemon? What a horrible man to depart so dramatically from the teaching of Paul! Or maybe the idea of designated leaders wasn't so out of keeping with Paul after all.

Viola also suggests that church planters like Paul left localities "so the church could function under the headship of Christ" (141). Nah, I think they wanted to spread the gospel throughout the world before Christ returned and needed to get to, oh say, Spain (Rom. 15).

The earliest church, including Paul, did not expect the wait for Christ's return to go quite so long as it did. Regardless of what you think about the Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy, it seems pretty obvious to me that this book represents a "battoning down the hatches" for the long haul in the absence of apostles like Paul around to keep the church as a whole on track. I know there are better scholars than me who disagree, but I smell cop-outs on their breath. So Paul passes on to Timothy a "deposit" of teaching to pass along.

It is probably in this area of sacramentalism and ordination that I feel most squeemish in terms of where the great catholic tradition went. I sit loosely to it believing that 1) it is important for there to be sacred things and 2) God meets us in certain basic ways that are fundamental to all human nature, which means we can see the light of God even if dimly in the "pagan" arena, 3) it is important for there to be local experts on Christian belief and practice and 4) so called Spirit-led, undirected expressions are more often than not, not, 5) denominations certainly have a ton of mess in them and solo pastors have their quirks and can be self-defeating, but they ensure the perpetuation of the faith in a way a house church does not (unless it's an underground house church movement where there are no established churches).

Like I said, I am very comfortable with my own denominational structure, especially if we don't take ourselves too seriously.


John Mark said...

Some random thoughts

This was lol funny.

I grew up in an anti-intellectual culture; where (some)preachers I had no education I knew of, but were able to pastor churches. They ministered to people like themselves, of course, and maybe that was their value. Sometimes I envy them in their self assured ignorance, my own bothers me greatly.

Viola's attitude seems like that of the early praise and worship movement "We are going to stamp out hymns in church." Some repented of this, but not all. And it brought great pain into a number of churches.

Pride goes before a fall, a reminder we all need from time to time.

You forgot to mention a third category of pastors, those who don't know theology, and still can't get the practical stuff done. I'm learning as I go, I hope, though I have my days when I wonder.....

circuitrider said...

Yes, there has to be a balance. Ive sat under educated fools and Spirit led pastors with barely a high school education.Look at the eloqeunce and clarity of Peter's writings, a fisherman. The message and the messenger must be anointed from above. Proper education allows them to be more effective as channels of the Holy Spirit. Part of the problem is that some educational institutions don't take the Bible literally anymore.They choose the parts they like in the same manner you would order a dell computer online.
We must return to preaching the Bible and not our opinions...keith 1 Cor 13

don bryant said...

Yes, I have some of the same questions. I remember what a joke my ordination exams were. Four years of seminary and all I needed was a high school Bible class!!! The flimsiness of the whole process shook me. It reminds me of what CH Spurgeon, who was not ordained and therefore not a Rev., said. "Ordination is laying idle hands on empty heads."

Bob MacDonald said...

...idle hands on empty heads! that's funny. But maybe they are laid in hope. I fought the ordained all my life perhaps because I was raised at a boarding school in the presence of a violent and abusive pastor. (Not to mention largely ignorant and rigid in teaching style.) Such is the luck of the draw. On the positive side, Hans Küng in his book The Church largely agrees with you on the issue of consecration of the elements, absolution etc - there is no reason that he can see that such are forbidden to the lay person - except for due order in public worship...

And BTW, I worship in a high Anglican church, I am not ordained, and I teach Sunday school - 5 minutes a week in Hebrew - the kids love it. (See here for the record of my classes over the past 10 months.)

I think the Spirit says - get on with it and don't fuss about some of these issues.

Mark Schnell said...

Ken, I unfortunately don't have time to read Viola's book right now. I have over 5000 pages of course reading barking at me. ;-( But I appreciate your chapter by chapter review very much. You don't pull any punches with your opinions of his book but I feel you are being even handed in giving him the benefit of the doubt when you can.

The part I especially liked is what you wrote before the actual review started. If this was a sermon I would have stood and shouted like camp meeting! This is why I follow your blog.

BTW, I hope you don't yield to the practitioners too quickly. They need your side of things badly to keep that program as deep as it needs to be. I say that as someone that is practically minded too.

This summer when I have a few weeks to read I'll get this book and then follow along with your blog chapter by chapter.

Mark Schnell said...

BTW, how is the MDIV coming along? Is the school taking student applications already, and what has the response been so far?

Ken Schenck said...

We're taking applications and look like we won't have any trouble at all filling the first cohorts. I haven't seen any of the applications, but we also have about 50 applications for the first two full time faculty posts.

Bill said...

Ken, there's so much in this post I'd like to thank you for, and so much I'd like to challenge you on. All of it would be better in personal conversation. A blog is too difficult a medium for a worthy response to this well written, multi-faceted post. But if we got to have that conversation, it would be rich (and challenging) and I daresay we would both enjoy it.

In general, I think christians tend to be more even handed about these issues the more they (a) are extremely well educated (b) come from a more traditional, higher-church experience OR (c) have no personal stake in the status quo. You certainly fit at least two of those three, if not more. ;)

I was raised Episcopalian but toured Evangelicalism through my college years. There are so many believers in bondage to 'we must do what the bible says' for whom according to their pastors that includes having a pastor "like Eph.4:11" and going to church "like Heb.10:25". Even when the spirit of God himself is leading one to follow primitive scriptural patterns "in the hills of Kentucky", that influcence can be very hard to break away from.

Perhaps a lot of what bothers you about this book is merely being aimed at such people. I don't think the house church is shrinking, but I do think there are many believers who'd like to go that way who feel they need permission. To which, again and again, thank you for your comments in that regard.

Notice, however, I am witholding my own comments about "the pastor"... for the moment. ;)

Thanks again, Ken.

David Anderson said...

Hiya Ken, others,

Good topics for the mind.

Now, why could not the "leading of the spirit" convince a group to have a single pastor? After all, it takes one leader before you could have a plurality of leaders. Or do all overseers have to become qualified and appointed on the same day? That's a stretch.

Further, if the leading of the spirit without human agency is the ultimate paradigm for church life, why, tell me, do books have to be written about it? Surely, the Scriptures alone could suffice if the Spirit alone couldn't get accomplish these ends.

In Acts 20, the elders of the Church of Ephesus could easily have been single overseers of single house churches (or even multiple churches or converted synagogues.) The apostles regularly refer to all the churches in a city as a SINGLE church.

I do believe that a plurality of overseers is best and is certainly scriptural but where is the proof that this is or was the only valid arrangement?

Pat Hannon said...

Glad to see you working us through Viola.

I think he has some good things to say--things that could be helpful to forming faithful church communities. But then his rhetoric goes over the top and I wonder if he's crazy. Things like: "Nothing so hinders the fulfillment of God's eternal purpose as does the present-day pastoral role."


Bill said...

Pat said: "Really?"

Maybe. IF the eternal purpose of God is for a corporate man to bear the image of Jesus Christ, and IF that entails the equipping of a church to function as a grown 'new man', and IF a pastor presides over so much church activity that the body cannot function without him (or his subordinates)... then yes, a pastor does, de facto, to whatever degree, actually inhibit the active-spiritual maturing process of a church. What else does God want on the Earth but to see Christ standing 'unto full stature'?

In contrast to much current praxis, Paul wanted the fivefold ministers to basically work themselves out of their jobs. They were trainers and coaches. The rest of us normal christians were the 'players'. As for elders - elders watch. Sometimes elders referee. Elders can certainly do more, but elders do not constantly direct.

I would genuinely love to see a paid Pastor who develops every member of the body "unto full stature". Many pastors do this to some degree, but not past a point. A healthy church should be able to function corporately in many and various ways without having to wait on the designated leader to start & run everything. Unfortunately, a lot of pastors know that to "work themselves out of a job" in this way could also mean unemployment. That's not fair to anyone, especially pastors.

Personally, if there was such a man in my town, who could train a group (or a group of groups) of people to function without him, I'd gladly tithe to keep on supporting him afterwards. A good coach should become less vocal during the games, as the players improve. But he would still be needed in so many ways.

I hope it is clear that what I just described is not what we usually see. I spent ten years in something approaching that ideal, but I have to admit we were really just experimenting. For now, I continue to hold out all kinds of hope...

Sorry to run on so long, Ken. I hope this was worthwhile input.

Ken Schenck said...

I hope we can all agree that a healthy church, as Viola argues, will have everyone functioning like a body, different people exerting different gifts to the glory of God. And I think you (Bill), Pat, and I can agree that one sign of a good pastor is that the church doesn't fall apart--indeed that it goes on as healthily as ever--after he or she moves on.

David Anderson said...

Another favorite text supposedly available to substantiate a plurality of elders is found at the end of Acts, chapter 14. Luke records that elders were "ordained in every church." The immediate context however is 3 cities (verse 21). The word 'church' can describe all the Christians or even all churches in a single city.

JA Alexander, a Princeton scholar highly acclaimed for his linguistic skills and highly committed to a plural eldership (as am I) candidly admits in his book on Acts that this text "does not necessarily imply that several elders were ordained in each church". According to him, the phrase "in every church" just literally means "church by church."

But doesn't James recommend calling the elders of the church to pray for the sick? Elders could have been city-wide just as churches were city-wide. Not much help there.

Episcopalians and Presbyterians (and others) have disputed these things for centuries. The issue is not a new one. The dogmatism found in PC and its sequel is quite unwarranted and needlessly offensive, imo.

Where then is the absolute requirement for more than a single overseer in every church?