Tony Jones has been shocking the ministerial and denominational blogosphere this week by suggesting that our contemporary denominational ordination systems are sinful and obstruct the flow of the Spirit’s activity in our time.
His entire series on this is worth reading:
I have some thoughts on this as you might imagine. Here’s a lightly-edited version of what I commented on Tony’s blog during the series…
Thanks for having the guts to have this conversation, Tony. As I think you know, for the past decade I’ve been part of a stream of house churches where we emphatically believe (and on our better days practice) ‘the priesthood of every believer.’ This means that we all have the dignity, worth, responsibility and empowerment to be ministers of reconciliation, demonstrating God’s shalom here on terra firma. It also means, practically speaking, that we’re all expected to share in our gatherings, at least occasionally and hopefully more. Not like a bacchanalian Pentecostal service gone awry (though that can be fun too), but like preparing something or being open to share – you know, a psalm, hymn, a spiritual song; or perhaps a teaching, prophecy, or exhortation. : )
That said, for the past two or three years, I’ve been increasingly influenced by mainline and Catholic spirituality – liturgy, mystical theology, and commitments to justice in particular. And, like these churches would be quick to tell you, you can’t just cherry-pick the ‘spirituality’ and theology you like from them while discounting the ecclesiology it’s been shaped by and comes wrapped in. So, I haven’t. Though I remain opposed to an ordained caste of Christians that stands over and above the mere ‘laity’ (yep, I’m also an egalitarian when it comes to gender issues and I think the mutual-subordination model of the Trinity articulated by the Cappadocian mothers & fathers, and by the author of The Shack, makes good sense), I respect the coherence & elegance of the liturgy and the priesthood that’s evolved to support it.
Here’s where an ’emergence’ orientation has personally helped me, Tony: A decade ago, I would have had to keep on embracing house churching and slam mainline & Catholic spirituality; alternately, I could have ‘converted’ to (say) the Episcopal Church and recanted my house church ‘heresy.’ Now, I can transcend & include. I can embrace a both/and perspective on this.
My both/and happens to be what you all practice at Solomon’s Porch. I first encountered the idea from a friend of mine (I’ll protect his identity) who’s a progressive catholic type who’s flirted with the idea of being ordained as a priest in the Celtic Catholic Church, an independent Catholic church in the ‘ol apostolic succession. If he pursued this path, he told me, he’d pursue becoming a bishop. Once a bishop, he’d have the official authority to ordain anyone he wished – thus, he’d ordain any baptized Christian who understood the glory and duty of being a priest on earth.
I like this approach. I think that one way mainline churches can infuse new life into them would be take this subversive and experimental approach – perhaps with a few test dioceses at first, since I’m sure it would be scary. But take the Episcopalians for instance, who wish to be the best of Catholics meet Protestants. Why not take the pomp & circumstance (what Bono called the ‘glam rock of the church’) of formal priesthood and make it available even to the plebs? I know institutions rarely undertake prophetic acts, but it seems like a Jesus thing to do. And way sexier than what we dour-faced house churchers do, poo-poohing the whole ordination ‘thang.’
This need not be overly disruptive to the highest ideals of ordination. It could draw from the best of the 2nd-5th century cathecumen process, where becoming baptized happened after much study, prayer, and service, carrying with it great weight and dignity. Make the ordinations gift-specific if need be, and certainly be clear that ordination doesn’t mean you’ll be making a full-time living or drawing a full-time paycheck from this vocation. For an era, I imagine there will still be full-time priests in this setting, but perhaps their role could evolve to being coordinators of church full of priests. After awhile, inspiration or necessity might give birth to an all-volunteer driven church, volunteers who nonetheless are completely serious about their great & glorious vocation.
[After sharing this, there were some other comments. Here’s my response…]
Thank you for your thoughts & experience sharing, Rev. Joey.
“If everyone is “set apart,” for ministry then no one is set apart.”
Well, isn’t church ‘eclessia,’ that is called-out ones? It seems that everyone is set apart for something.
“I don’t think that Tony’s comments point us to “no ordinations.”
“But I also have a hard time reconciling ordaining everyone to be the leader.”
Hmm. I suppose if everyone tried to be the leader at the same time, in the same space, and in the same way, one might have confusion like there was in Corinth circa century one. But if we see a diversity of ways leadership can function and is manifested, I think it makes sense to refer to a church of leaders (which isn’t the same thing as saying a church of pastors or church of elders – though I would also assume that both of these can and perhaps should be plural in a healthy gathering; ie, more than one).
Wow. Let me just say it feels weird discussing church polity like this in an ’emerging’ context. It brings me back to house church vs. conservative Calvinist debates I was having on email listservs 11 years ago! In that spirit, I’ll close with a quotation from Holy Writ:
“You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 2:15-16, echoing Exodus 19:6, “You will be my kingdom of priests and my holy nation.’ These are the words you must speak to the Israelites.”)
These texts in their context might not mean everything I want ’em to mean, but they’ve gotta mean something.
[Someone then told Tony that if he’s decrying a corrupt denominational system paying minister, then he needs to stop writing books for a corrupt publishing industry. Naturally, I took great umbrage. 🙂 Here’s my reply…]
The difference between regularly-paid ministry/denominational apparati and Christian publishing is significant: If Tony’s a compelling writer, people will buy his books and in effect choose to be ministered unto by him on a per-book basis. Any monetary compensation he receives from this is per book sold, unless he & the publisher negotiate an advance royalty – which still isn’t the same as a salary with benefits. A paid denominational minister, on the other hand, can and often does coast for years on mediocre material at best, continuing to draw salary and benefits. Even when local congregations oust the so-so minister, they can go from church to church and build a career out of it. I’m not suggesting that most have this outlook; I am suggesting, though, that publishing is way more merit-based than most bureaucratic ministry. Two mediocre books and you’re finished in publishing – if that. Bureaucratic ministry procedures hurt the ‘clergy’ as well as the ‘laity;’ the whoredom of Christian publishing produces Christian best-sellers, which are their own form of calumny. But that’s another conversation…
And I’ll admit, people had some great pushback to my publishing-as-meritocracy comment. The posts are well-worth reading.
Thanks again, Tony, for these provocations!