Do we need ordained clergy?

In reflecting on the lectionary's Gospel text for this coming Sunday (Matt. 16), which speak of the authority of the apostles (Peter in particular as their leader) to "bind and loose," I have been reflecting a bit on the "authority" of the church leaders.

Having spent plenty of time around Christians who are young, individualistic, evangelical/"low-church", or emergent/ing/ence, I've certainly run across plenty of complaints against the "clericalism" of the historic churches. Sometimes this issue of clericalism has come up in conversations surrounding our current attempts to streamline some parts of The United Methodist Church's organization as well. It can seem quite silly at times how dependent the gatherings of Christian believers are upon the ordained clergy in our tradition (and it is even more the case in some other traditions).

Some United Methodist bishops, rather than calling for less clericalism have instead been calling for better clergy: they are constantly emphasizing how 'excellent' (perfect?) our clergy must learn to become and perform in every aspect of their work from vision-casting and leadership and pastoral work and preaching and teaching and evangelical outreach to community-forming and so on...if we are to lead the church into renewal. It seems a great deal of pressure upon our humble and imperfect shoulders (though if some of the stories I hear are true, it seems we do have plenty of room to improve our ranks of clergy).
Others (even other clergy!) have simply wondered why we should have an ordained clergy at all, appealing to a vague broad stroke image of an early church with no ordained clergy, but only a very loosely organized gathering that exudes some vague sense of "community" that is difficult to nail down - difficult because the mental picture is, after all, an imaginary one. Such appeals often don't have detailed Biblical exegesis or appeals to the Christian tradition - the reasoning and experience of the whole Spirit-led Church - ready at hand to support their picture of a clergy-less church. Mostly likely they have in mind the notion that "we are all priests after all" based upon 1 Peter 2. And some Christian groups (such as the Amish) have no clergy at all.

Sometimes I sympathize just a bit with these anti-clerical clergy, but the more I think on it, the more it seems that many of our problems I see arise not from having an ordained clergy per se, but from trying to maintain an professionalized clergy - with the expense of top-notch (read: expensive) graduate schooling (seminary), health insurance, benefits, pension and retirement plans, and so on. These sorts of things were certainly unheard of in the Biblical church and should perhaps be seen as optional. What we certainly do have set forth in the Bible is a well-educated clergy (but, perhaps informally so, as with the training the disciples received by travelling with the Master); a clergy who were ordained and comissioned through the laying on of hands of established church leaders (see Acts 6 & 13; 1 Tim. 3 & 4; Titus 1 etc.), who also made some or all of their living as clergy (see 1 Cor. 9:14). Indeed such ordained leaders are a gift from God (see Eph. 4).

As an aside, if all your impressions of the clergy came from watching recent films, you might think it absurd to call them a "gift" from God - or so I reflected while recently re-watched "The Kingdom of Heaven" (starring Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, and Orlando Bloom) in which the clergy are universally wicked and disgusting characters. Anyways...

We could have some debate as to whether there is any sense in which the authority to bind and loose given by Jesus to the Apostles (Matt. 16 & 18) or the authority to forgive or withold forgiveness of sins (John 20) was also passed along by the apostles to subsequent church leaders: the elders and bishops and deacons, from the early church down to the present day. I believe the answer is 'yes' - again, as a gift from God.

All of this came together as I was reading a John Keble sermon today (one of the great theologians of the Oxford Movement seeking to recover the ancient and catholic roots of the Church of England) in which he addresses the "all believers are priests, so can't we just do church without them" objection to maintaining an ordained clergy (nevermind that such an objection needs to do business with the passages already cited). Here is what Keble says:

"Yes, brethren, we are all kings and priests because we are all members of Him who is the true King and Priest. We are kings to rule over our own wild passions and fancies; we are priests to offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, a living sacrifice to God, and to join in offering the Church's perpetual sacrifice which is her Lord's Body and Blood. But this hinders not but that there should also be among us an especial order of men whose business it is to govern the Church in His name and to offer up to His Father His appointed memorials: to bless us and to intercede for us. The Jewish people were called by the Lord on Mount Sinai, "a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6) yet they had special kings, as David, and priests, as Aaron, on whose office no one might intrude. As St. Paul, speaking of the priests' office, says to the Hebrews, "No man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron" (Heb. 5:4). And we know what fearful things happened to Korah and his company, who set themselves up as if they might be priests as well as Aaron...The whole Church, both Jewish and Christian, were to be priests, yet the outward work of priests was always to be done by persons especially ordained for it."
(from Keble's "The Church Apostolic" - Volume 6, Sermon 18).

On the other end of the spectrum from those Christians who, seeking a 'holy egalitarianism,' would prefer no clergy or officers in the church at all are those who are always relishing in the heirarchical ordering of things (in my personal experience, these folks are Roman Catholics by-and-large). While I may not subscribe to all the particulars that these other folks may embrace, the Bible clearly does envision a God who brings order to chaos, and has a plan for the right ordering of all of his Creation. It seems reasonable then to expect that the Church, as the community under the headship of Christ the King - being the community that holds forth the promise of the New Creation to the world, would also be a community with a particular kind of order to its common life and its leadership that somehow points to God's larger plan.

Since the earliest days this took the form of a community gathered around a bishop who alone had the authority either to lead the people to the Table of Communion with Christ and with his Body, or to ordain others (presbyters) to do so (and deacons to assist as well). So there is one more reason to believe that this sort of ordering of the church reflects the will of Christ and his Father.

No doubt this conviction that God brings a particular sort of order to his people on earth is why the issue of church polity - how a church is organized, what kind of leadership structure it conforms to - has been of such critical importance to so many Christians throughout history. No doubt many of my fellow American Protestants may feel somewhat bewildered by the passion attached to some of these historic debates on Church polity: we Methodists have been particularly apt to judge and swiftly alter any aspect of the Church's life - including our ordained ministry - more on pragmatic grounds (does it work?) than theological grounds (is this consistent with our understanding of God and his purposes?). But that is not to our credit, I think.

So do we need ordained clergy? If we believe that we truly need the ordering of our lives and the lives of our churches to conform to the good and beautiful order that has been established by God and revealed through Holy Scripture, and written into the fabric of his ancient covenants and the New Creation that he is bringing into the world, then our answer is Yes; the ordained offices are a beautiful gift from God.

Now if we could just figure out how he wants them to function...

(pictured above, my own bishop, William Hutchinson, preparing to ordain a couple of elders/presbyters a while back).

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Anonymous Stephen said...

maybe if ordained clergy functioned more like clerical types in monasteries where some of the brothers are ordained "in order to facilitate" the sacraments and provide "order" for the community...You know I have long since argued for our churches to be more ordered like monasteries. Novitiates to the Abbot.

I do however agree that our seminaries are training for the wrong thing. However some are trying to shift that...see Elaine Heath's work with New Day Dallas.

9:40 PM, August 19, 2011  
Blogger John Meunier said...

Excellent thoughts.

The distinction between "ordained" clergy and "professional" clergy strikes me as the crucial one. Even among non-clerical groups, I suspect, there are individuals who end up taking on clerical roles in many cases.

7:35 AM, August 20, 2011  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Good comments, guys.

I think, Stephen, that our current system is structrued so as to function like a monastic novitiate in a way: We have a 3 year provisional period during which the provisional pastor is supposed to meet with a mentor pastor for prayer, holy conferencing, and godly wisdom.

Unfortunately my experience was that much of that process of ministerial formation was "just one more thing" on the to-do list, and we met too seldom for the process to be as formative as it might have been. This is one reason I am excited to be going to the mentor pastor training this week.

9:50 AM, August 22, 2011  
Blogger rob said...

I have no problem at all with an appropriately paid, insured, housed, and educated professional clergy: a worker is worth his wages. Paul had support teams in (most?) of his churches, to meet his needs. Paul was a professional itinerant preacher/church planter. A bit ad hoc, and not for everybody I'm sure, but there's one valid model. There are other models just as valid.

I also have no problem with churches being accountable to one another. Somehow. But how? I don't know.

This is where the denominations I have attended -- congregational all -- have fallen down on the job: strong on soteriology, church discipline, and missions, but weak on ecclesiology and social responsibility. But presbyterian and episcopal organization just grate against my Baptist roots. Top-down authority seems to gain a momentum that can't be stopped -- even something as (relatively) benign as the Southern Baptist Convention takes on a life of its own, the antichrist to some, and the savior to others. What a mess!

It seems that the first churches were run by a plurality of leaders; and frankly, a lot of churches implicitly organize like this (a pastor for preaching; an associate pastor for preaching on off days; a minister of music; a pile of deacons as a kind of 'board of directors', etc etc). Fine. But the first churches were also accountable to each other. Can you get that without a structure that resembles a taxonomy? Is authority the word to use to describe churches accountable to, or submitting to, one another? Or in fact did Christ dispatch Peter to Rome to be the first Pope?

"We could have some debate as to whether there is any sense in which the authority to bind and loose given by Jesus to the Apostles (Matt. 16 & 18) or the authority to forgive or withold forgiveness of sins (John 20) was also passed along by the apostles to subsequent church leaders"

There seems to be a lot of better-attested ground to worry over, long before these concepts are ready to be debated. Maybe.

12:41 PM, September 06, 2011  

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