Monday, September 07, 2009

4.2 Ordination and Training

In the last section, we looked at some of the forms leadership took in the earliest churches. We suggested that most assemblies probably had a group of elders or overseers, although it would be impossible to say all churches structured themselves the same way. It seems quite possible that certain individuals took more dominant roles in some congregations. And some assemblies were likely more charismatic like the Corinthians.

Traveling apostles like Paul or Peter did not have anything like absolute authority. Paul felt free to question those who "seemed to be something" in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:6): Peter, James, and John. The fact that they were known as "pillars" (Gal. 2:9) probably indicates a core of four central leaders even in Jerusalem, with the martyred James, son of Zebedee, possibly being the fourth pillar. And certainly individuals in Paul's own churches felt free to question him, let alone any key leaders in their own communities. Hebrews admonishes its audience to obey its leaders and indicates that such individuals would eventually give an account of their leadership (13:17). The implication is of course that some did not submit.

Clement, writing perhaps in the 90s of the first century, reminds the Corinthians of the way he thought leadership had come to existence among the churches (1 Clement 44). The apostles had appointed overseers in each assembly. Then when these individuals passed, other approved individuals would receive their ministry (44.2). Clement's purpose is to tell the Corinthians that they cannot simply remove an overseer because they do not like him. This person is in an approved "succession" going back to the apostles themselves. [1]

Clement's letter to the Corinthians is where those who believe in "apostolic succession" ultimately base their understanding. Apostolic succession is the idea that all legitimate ministers today should be ordained by someone who was ordained by someone whose ordination ultimately traces back to the apostles. Of course Clement does not quite embody this idea. Clement is simply saying that the Corinthians do not have the authority to remove a person who was appointed to replace someone appointed by Paul without any legitimate reason.

Nevertheless, apostolic succession remains an important concept in relation to ordination in many churches today. We understand that it is difficult for such groups to recognize the ministers in many other denominations as completely legitimate because they do not stand in such a succession. The Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and Episcopal Churches all value apostolic succession. Indeed, when the Anglican Church began to ordain women in the 1990s, special "flying bishops" were established to maintain a purely male apostolic succession for those in the church for whom it was important.

An interesting story in the history of Methodism is the fact that John Wesley ordained a number of individuals at the so called "Christmas Conference" of 1784. Wesley was an ordained minister but not a bishop in the Anglican Church and did not have the authority to ordain others so that they could serve communion, administer baptism, and so forth. But because he viewed it as an emergency, he ordained a handful of Methodist bishops so that communion and baptism could be administered in America. In that sense, Methodists do not strictly stand in official apostolic succession.

In many American churches, however, individuals are ordained by a local congregation. In Baptist, Congregational, and restorationist groups like the Disciples of Christ, an individual church will recognize the gifts and calling for ministry in an individual and will themselves give the person ordination. Certainly groups such as these completely reject the notion of an unbroken line of ordination going back to Christ and the original apostles.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Ordination is the idea that God calls certain individuals to play a special role of ministry, that He sets these individuals apart and "ordains" them to play a special role in the administration and propagation of His kingdom on earth. Many ordination services instruct candidates to take authority to preach the word and administer the sacraments. In some churches, like the Roman Catholic Church, the role of the ordained is so set apart that such individuals are called "priests," after the manner of the Old Testament. In other churches, ordination more signifies a "prophetic" role as special conduit for God's word to His people.

These are major differences between Christian groups on these sorts of issues, especially between Protestant and Catholic. One of the battle cries of the Reformation was the "priesthood of all believers," based in 1 Peter 2:5 and 9. The idea was that the Catholic Church was wrong to set priests in such a completely different category from "laypeople," because Christ himself was the only mediator between God and humanity (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:5). Hebrews 10:11-14 indicates that Christ offered the final sacrifice as the final priest.

So there is no question that the system of separation of priests from lay that evolved in the church went well beyond anything the New Testament pictured. The role of "ministers" in the early church had to do with authority, proclamation, and reconciliation. We know that Apollos baptized others, but was he "ordained" in any formal sense? We simply do not know. And communion at this time was a meal of remembrance, as in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. We will talk more about sacraments in a later chapter.

But even if the evidence for a special "clergy" who were authorized to baptize and "preside" at communion is scanty, we do have precedents for such leadership roles, with particular individuals set aside, in the early church. For example, the book of Acts regularly pictures a sort of event in which members of a church lay hands on other individuals who are commissioned to a particular task or role. The church at Antioch does this for Paul and Barnabas as they began their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2-3). Acts likely sees this action as in some way a catalyst for the conveyance of the Holy Spirit and thus empowerment for a special task.

We seem to find the same practice in 1 and 2 Timothy. In 2 Timothy, we hear of Paul laying hands on Timothy as a catalyst for the "gift of God" (2 Tim. 1:6). While it is theoretically possible that this event was the reception of the Holy Spirit in general, most take this exchange to be a kind of "ordination" of Timothy by Paul.

1 Timothy seems to picture a similar act of ordination, although here it is a group of elders rather than Paul alone laying hands on Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14). For our purposes, we do not need to worry about resolving the tension between the two accounts but take them both as an indication of early Christian practice as it was developing in the second half of the first century. [1] 1 Timothy presents a situation where a prophet in the community prophesied that Timothy should be set aside for ministry. Then the elders/overseers of the church agreed and laid hands on Timothy, leading to a special empowerment by the Holy Spirit. The result is that Timothy taught and proclaimed God's word to God's people.

1 Timothy and Titus also include qualifications for overseers and deacons, making a clear distinction between the two roles. An overseer must only have had one wife in his entire life (1 Tim. 3:1-7). [2] He must be a person of virtue who is not an alcoholic or violent. He should have a good reputation and manage his household well. Similar qualifications apply to deacons as well (3:8-14). Interestingly, 1 Timothy refers to Timothy as a "deacon" of Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 4:6).

So we do find some special roles to which particular individuals are called in the New Testament. We find a process of recognition of special "anointing," of special giftedness or special intent by the Holy Spirit. We find an event of recognition by church leaders whether local or on a larger scale. And we find particular individuals thus called to teach Scripture and proclaim.

We should not absolutize these instances we find in the Pastoral Epistles or in Acts. The Pastoral Epistles, regardless of how one dates them, are looking to pass on the torch of ministry to the next generation. They look at where the church is headed in the absence of apostles more than where it has been. Acts similarly almost certainly dates to the period after AD70 and is meant as much to say what the church should be like as to express the complexities of its earliest days. What we find here is thus an important and legitimate model for "ordination" but not an absolute or necessarily timeless one.

Ephesians also speaks of the foundation of the "apostles and prophets" in the past tense (Eph. 2:20), where prophets almost certainly refers to Christian prophets. [3] 4:11 then unfolds various roles of leadership in the early church, again, not necessarily giving an absolute or timeless list but giving us a sense of various roles that existed in the first century. Apostles of course refers to those who both witnessed the risen Christ and were commissioned by him to take the good news as ambassadors of reconciliation to God (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:18-20). Prophets were individuals like Agabus in Acts or those through whom people like Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy were commissioned.

Evangelists, teachers, pastors--we should not think of these as roles completely distinct from each other. For example, the roles of overseer and deacon are nowhere mentioned here and yet such individuals would certainly be some of the primary individuals who exercised the kinds of functions mentioned here. These roles rather indicate key tasks in the early church. Philip "the evangelist" no doubt did go around spreading the good news, just as Paul himself did (cf. Acts 21:8). 1 Timothy charges Timothy with maintaining the "deposit" of sound teaching that he had learned from Paul (2 Tim. 1:14).

We will look in more depth at the trajectory of priesthood in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions in the next section. For now, we merely want to observe that the idea that God can set aside--even in the New Testament--certain individuals to minister in certain ways that other members of the body of Christ do not has a firm basis in the New Testament. It is true that the New Testament does not seem to have a well developed system for how the "ordination" of such individuals takes place. In the examples we have, the basis for such ordination seems somewhat charismatic. A prophet, apostle, or group of elders senses an individual being called to minister and they lay hands on them as a catalyst for the Holy Spirit's empowerment.

The New Testament seems to allow for the kind of ordination that takes place in free churches, where individuals are "ordained" in a local church. The New Testament gives less room for those who, in effect, ordain themselves without any recognition of calling by Christian leaders or a local body of believers. At the same time, it does not absolutely rule out the possibility. It also does not rule out the possibility that the process of recognition might involve more than just a local body. 1 Clement "remembers" certain leadership roles in Paul's churches being for life.

We come back to what we have said in previous chapters. We have hints of descriptions of how leadership functioned in the early church. But such descriptions are not the same as prescriptions for such leadership and they are in the end descriptions of leadership two thousand years ago. We would not expect effective leadership to look the same in every time, place, and culture. And the New Testament world is significantly different from the modern Western world.

It seems safe to say that the trajectory of the New Testament is toward the standardization of such roles. It would be no surprise if, during the church's earliest phase, leadership tended to be more charismatic and Spirit-led. But it is also no surprise that we find more distinct roles and safeguards for the perpetuation of orthodoxy developing as the apostles begin to pass from the scene. We thus find a legitimate basis for a spectrum of "God-ordained" leadership possibilities in the New Testament.

We also find in the Pastorals a clear basis for instruction in the early church. Paul leaves to Timothy a "deposit" of sound teaching to guard (2 Tim. 1:14). In such a context, it is no surprise that 2 Timothy 3:16 emphasizes the importance of the Scriptures in teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. But it is crucial to note that 2 Timothy means the Scriptures as Paul interpreted them. This understanding of the Scriptures is the deposit, for there were many other false teachers who were arising with their own, differing understandings.

When Ephesians speaks of the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20), indeed of Jesus as the cornerstone of the household of faith, it is referring to a particular understanding of things that others did not have. Paul's letter to the Galatians is filled with arguments from Scripture, arguments that are meant to counter the interpretations of his opponents who were arguing from the very same Scripture. It is thus not enough to say that all individuals need is a Bible to arrive at sound teaching, and it is not appropriate to invoke the notion of a priesthood of all believers in relation to teaching. The New Testament appropriately legitimizes a role for instruction in the church.

So we can allow for the possibility that God might anoint prophets out of the blue, without a church around, but this is not our default expectation. And we might allow for the possibility that some individuals might understand Scripture on their own, as Jeremiah 31:34 and Hebrews 8:11 somewhat hyperbolically anticipate. But most will need instruction and training, to make sure that they do not end up teaching false things, to make sure they adequately understand the deposit of sound teaching. Even Apollos needed a Priscilla and Aquila to take him aside and teach him more accurately. Such teaching can take place in the local church or in a home or it can take place in Christian colleges and seminaries.

[1] Scholars debate whether we are hearing Paul directly or indirectly in the Pastoral Epistles, with most concluding 1 and 2 Timothy were written to express Paul's voice to his churches after his death. Most evangelical scholars, on the other hand, believe that stylistic differences and such can be explained on the basis of alternate secretaries and the idea that the pastorals are a different kind of letter from Paul's earlier ones.

[2] By the time of 1 Timothy, the default expectation in Paul's churches seems to be that such overseers and deacons will be men. However, the earliest pictures we get from Paul's writings seem to suppose the involvement of women as well in the work of ministry, as we will see in the final section of this chapter. And of course we seem to find evidence of exceptional women in such roles even well beyond the first century in various places.

[3] We find the same divide among scholars in relation to Ephesians that we do the Pastorals, although perhaps more scholars seeing Ephesians as a letter Paul wrote within his lifetime than come to the same conclusion in relation to the Pastorals. In either case, Ephesians remains an important witness to leadership roles in the early church.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this thorough job.