Denominations & Ordination: A Crock of Baloney?

Priest Collars 1Tony 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:

Let’s Ordain Adam

Reconsider Ordination. Now.

Reconsider Ordination. Now. (Continued)

My (Anti-) Ordination Sermon

Ordination: Housekeeping

Is There Ordination in the Didache?

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.’ Priest Collars 2

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.”

Me neither.

“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!

17 Responses to “Denominations & Ordination: A Crock of Baloney?”


  1. 1 Dena Brehm May 16, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    Hey Mike!

    I like your both/and vision here …

    Like you, I see gold in everything, without the need to embrace the entire system it’s in.

    I already did my “discover the gold in liturgy/ritual/symbolism” thing … explored both catholicism and orthodoxy about 15 years ago, while were in a charismatic/evangelical/liturgical church.

    Unfortunately, at least in my own experience (& in what I’ve observed elsewhere), anything that’s derived of the system eventually brings out the inevitable overlording dynamic.

    I’m weary of that which tries to suck us back into the system … whether that’s seen as the IC, SC, HC, or EC (emergent church). I actually weary of the concept of “church” altogether … I’m seeing that the ekklesia, the called-out ones, were those called out of the old covenant into the new covenant … and we now live in a realm wherein we have no need for ANYone to teach us of God … instead we can tune in to Him who’s within, and share what we’re remembering, so that others can remember as well.

    I see the system, the institution, anything that calls itself “church” to actually get in the way of that happening. When someone deems themself able to say, “do it THIS way, not THAT way,” they are usurping the innate responsibility of each soul to discover, for themselves, who they are not, and thus who they really are. We learn this through experience, and the resulting consequences … when we merely consent to what others tell us, we’re robbed of that experience. Thus, we end up with a second-hand, by-proxy “relationship” with God, really just knowing *about* God, and not experiencing Him first-hand, for ourselves.

    It seems to me that we keep talking new covenant, while we keep behaving old covenant. We focus on the doing, rather than the being, and we perpetuate the very definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

    That said, I applaud YOU for exploring every nook and cranny of your journey into all truth…! I’m in the thick of it with you, loving the opportunity to share what we’re each seeing along the way.

    Shalom, Dena

  2. 2 Andrew May 16, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Mike,

    I just posted on this and Tony’s post. I love the idea that your friend in the Celtic Church had. However, I still think that the ministerial priesthood ought to remain essentially different from the ministry of all Christians because I see the importance of a hierarchy in safeguarding Church teaching and practice as well as overseeing the work of the ordained to be sure it is in conformity with both Scripture and Church Tradition (that which has been affirmed throughout history).

    Either way, that was a great, even-handed post. I hope you’ll enjoy mine and share your thoughts there as well!

    Grace & peace,
    Andrew

  3. 3 Matthew May 17, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Hey Mike: when your Celtic friend becomes a Bishop, could you send me his way? I’ve been ordained in two different Protestant denoms and on neo-monastic Orthodox order, I’m looking for a trifecta!😉

  4. 4 Blake Huggins May 17, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Hey Mike, glad you weighed in on this. Good thoughts here. I agree with you, especially when it comes to the claim that Tony needs to “unplug from the system” if he wants to critique it. It seems to me that that is just new form of Donatism, which is charge I think could be levied against just about everyone (that’s why it never worked back in the day!). We should be creating healthy space for prophetic critique, not stifling it.

  5. 5 Andrew Tatum May 17, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    “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.”

    Mike, in reading over your post again, I noticed these statements and I’m not sure I fully agree. I know you work in publishing but I’ve read a number of authors who’ve written far more than two mediocre books – each ending up being “best sellers” in their field(s).

    Moreover, while I would agree that it is possible for “so-so ministers” to build seemingly “successful careers” within denominational systems, there is one aspect that you leave out (that actually helps make your case): while mediocrity is not awarded, neither is excellence. Especially in the Methodist system, it is possible for pastors to be moved (often with a reduction of salary and benefits) based on a variety of factors. Wealthy and influential congregation members can make sure that both mediocre pastors as well as excellent pastors who “rub them the wrong way” or are “too liberal” (or too “conservative”) – the reasons can seem never-ending. And the more I think about it, the more I think that you and Tony might be right – although it’s a hard sell because my livelihood has always been based on church employment (whether its me or my family).

    I remember a conversation you and I had a few weeks ago about the changing shape of denominations and the possibility for an ecclesiology for today’s world. While I’m not comfortable with letting the whole system die, I’m hopeful that something like what you mentioned in the post re: ordination based on spiritual gifts or a system more akin to the catechumen process will “emerge.” However, I am also afraid of the division that it will bring between “progressives” and “moderates” and “traditionalists” etc. I dunno…the more I think about the more stressed out I am! Then again, maybe I ought to just that, through the work of the Spirit, a more faithful model of ministry will emerge.

  6. 6 Keith Giles May 17, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    I think that if we study the New Testament with an open mind we can see that, in the Body of Christ, everyone who was baptized into the faith and joined the Body of Christ WAS in the Ministry.

    If anything we need to ordain EVERYONE in the Body of Christ to minister and to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit (within every Believer) to act as a functioning member of the priesthood of the Believer.

    “As you come to him, the living Stone…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.” – 1 Peter 2:4-5

    I say this a licesned and ordained minister of the Gospel of Christ who has served and followed his calling for over 19 years now.

    I’m ashamed of how I have behaved for most of this time–stepping in and performing priestly duties that every believer should have the authority and freedom to perform – like leading the Lord’s Supper, baptizing new believers, leading Bible studies, preaching the Word, exhorting the Body, praying for the sick, etc.

    From now on I will affirm the priesthood of every believer and allow any and all followers of Christ to fully move in their gifting and calling as ministers of the Gospel.

    Let the ministry of Christ spread to every one of His children, as He intended.

  7. 7 Chad May 18, 2009 at 12:48 am

    Keith,

    I think our priesthood comes with our baptism, not ordination. With that said, not everyone is called or should even be allowed to teach, preach, etc. The logical conclusion of such a “system” (or non-system) leads to just another Jones Town or Waco.

    If we affirm that theology is the queen of all the sciences (an old idea but I think a good one) than shouldn’t we expect much from those whom God calls to fill the roles that, according to St. Paul, the Holy Spirit gifts where the the Spirit will (i.e. not everyone is a pastor, prophet, evangelist, teacher).

    Sure, we can agree that we are all one in Christ and that we are all equal in that respect. But we are also unique. We each have gifts for the purpose of building up the church. This is something worth celebrating for it is God given.

    peace,
    Chad

  8. 8 Chris May 19, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Chad, how do you come to such outlandish conclusions? Jones Town and Waco are prime examples of just how far off course an extreme hierarchy (system) can take those who buy into it. Fear mongering at it’s best.

  9. 9 Chad May 20, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Chris,
    Not really. Jones Town and Waco are not hierarchies rooted in any tradition or history. They were self-enclosed “systems.” If I recall, Jim Jones was turned down for ordination by a denomination and went and began his own “church.”
    The point is that without accountability that is rooted in something bigger than a local congregation the local church can lose any means by which it can critique itself. The last couple blog posts on my blog talk about this more in depth.

    peace.

  10. 10 Kent Secor (kent1956) May 20, 2009 at 2:21 am

    Chad,

    Actually Jim Jones was ordained by the Disciples of Christ denomination.

    “This was a Christian destructive, doomsday cult founded and led by James Warren Jones (1931-1978). Jim Jones held degrees from Indiana University and Butler University. He was not a Fundamentalist pastor as many reports in the media and the anti-cult movement claim. He belonged to a mainline Christian denomination, having been ordained in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ.”

  11. 11 Kent Secor (kent1956) May 20, 2009 at 2:58 am

    Mike,

    Thanks for the discussion. I find Tony’s remarks interesting, and relevant to the present situation in Christian church society.

    I also agree with you.

    As one who has come out of the big box structure of church, I at first was very anti-anything that had to do with structure and organization. I find that many house church folk are in that very mode.

    After 10 years or so in this mind set, or paradigm. I have come to the understanding that this life in Christ is nothing at all to do with one’s chose method of gathering or meeting.

    One of the things I have thought and spoken since I started on this HC part of my journey in Christ, is that it is not about HC. Now I add it is not about any form of church! And yet, it is all about the community of believers.

    I too have come to a “and” view of church. To my present understanding, we are to be about building the body of Christ, building and advancing the kingdom of God and Christ. We are not to be about building our old and present denominational divisions and walls.

    In some ways I appreciate Watchman Nee’s idea of the local church, and not leaving one’s locality to “attend church” in a different locality. Though in the past I took Nee’s ideas to be too legalistic, I am starting to understand better what he was trying to communicate.

    I see a fault in people seeking the “right church” or trying to find a church they fit into to. Most often people are not seeking the Lord or following his leading in their choices, instead they use some base idea of what church “should be” and seek one that meets their ideal.

    Whether an ideal of liturgical practice, bulding structure, pastorial or teacher ability, doctrinal positions, denominational alignment, congregational services available, …etc. People use many different critiera in chosing the “right church”.

    I believe that all these ideals miss the whole point of a fellowship of believers. I see the goal of a fellowship of believers is to be able to be involved in each other’s lives, in real and practical ways. Daily as much as is possible in this busy world. (But then when has anyone’s world not been busy?)

    The goal should be to encourage one another, serve one another, bear up each other..and in all ways seek to fulfill the law of Christ, which is to love one another as he loved us.

    With this base goal in mind as our ideal, I can see this happening in any historic church or communion. What I see happening in reality is that some churches and pastors get this, and try to impliment it in their church. Others find that the “leaders” limit how far real community can take place, or church functions actually make it hard for the congregation to function fully as a community in some way. Hard to serve one another if all your time is devoted and consumed with keeping the machinery of the church orgainzation working.

    Many lose their lives in “church work” only to lose the soul of a believer’s community. Some lose their own families, while “serving” at and for the Church.

    I have found in house church, some of this reality of community. In our HC we still were driving across town to gather, and the distance between us did limit how often we could be with each other on a daily basis. Some weeks we only saw each other face to face at our meetings. Other weeks some of us might be involved together with other activities.

    When a need arose we met it for each other, like an extended family would.

    From my present view, I think we find the right ideal at work, in local neighborhood fellowships, whether in a historic type of church (IC) or one of the modern modes of HC or emerging church (EC).

    I know of small town churches (one with a town population of 2,000) of the historic or IC type, that have the community ideal at work. The congregation has history together, many of them growing up in that town, and in that church body. Most know each other and each other’s family. They see each other outside the walls of the church building during the week. Many work for each other or with each other. They take care of each other when they are sick, bring over food, clean the house, harvest the back 40, and such. When there is a need someone takes care of it, without fanfare, it just gets taken care of.

    This to me represents what can be good and right in a denominational IC setting.

    So Mike I too have come to an “and” view of church. I’m not ready to accept lots of liturgy in my gatherings. But I can accept those who do, as equal brothers in Christ.

    I think we need to spend our time encouraging what is right, more than criticising all that is wrong with the church. Positive encouragement does a lot more in getting people to do the right thing (can we say orthoproxy?), then criticising them for all their wrong ways. When we criticise too much, people just get defensive, then the walls go up. They stop listening to us, and start to plan their defenses.

    When we come to them with loving service, and speak gently words of encouragement, so as to spur them on to love and good deeds out of a pure heart. Just to do the next thing, the next step. At some point we find them walking besides us, less concerned with the historic church function and more concerned with expressing Christ with the other brethren in their locality, and after all isn’t that one of our true goals? Not just being right (orthodox) but living right (orthoprox).

    Your fellow servant in Him,
    Kent, IHMS
    in Cape Coral, FL

    Matt 25:40 “As you have done it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”
    My blog: http://bodyofchrist2.blogspot.com/

  12. 12 Dena Brehm May 20, 2009 at 4:05 am

    As usual Kent, a thoughtful and gracious response!

    I see much as you do … to me, it’s not about “church” … it’s about living LIFE. Life is in Him. He is in me. The doing flows out of the being …

    Shalom, Dena

  13. 13 Chad May 20, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Kent,
    Thank you for that. I too see the both/and at work here and think our task is to celebrate the many ways God works in our midst rather than name either way “sinful.” That helps no one.

    I am a UMC pastor and currently serve a rural church in NC that runs about 75-80 in weekly worship. What is interesting about my church is that it embodies the ethos of both dynamics you describe in your post (the HC and the IC). It is very communal, very family-like and the people just love each other in and out of church. In fact, I would say our church is more like a house church in make-up.

    However, I also see a flaw in this. In such a setting, church becomes just another extension of one’s family. In our church it is hard to distinguish between one’s church family and one’s nuclear family. They meld together. It becomes hard to differentiate between going to church or going to thanksgiving dinner.

    Now, some might think this a great thing. I’m not so sure. When we gather corporately for worship we are not having a family get together but are to be gathering so as to be addressed by the Lord of the Church, the one who stand over and against her. We come to church to be transformed and made into the image of our Lord, grace by grace. We gather to take part in the Lord’s Supper, which is (should be) very different from gathering together to take part in Grandma’s supper. It is the life of the church that should be giving form and function to the life of our individual families, not vice versa. I worry about losing the distinction between the two.

    As for the Jim Jones comment, I would say he is the exception that proves the rule.

    grace and peace,
    Chad

  14. 14 Daniel May 20, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    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.

    I’d have to say that “era” has been in full swing for some time now, we just call those coordinators “pastors”…

    The church I grew up in claimed to believe in the “Priesthood of all believers”, but in practice it was a very different story…

    Can you really “glean the gold” from the counter-scriptural practices of the Catholic Church? Jesus said to beware the yeast of the Pharisees, because it works through the whole dough, and yet it seems like today there are so many people who believe we can do just that, go through the dough, and be able to pick out the yeast…

    It may seem like a really great idea to “beat the system” by getting someone into the official priesthood, with the aim of becoming a bishop, so they could then “ordain” anyone they wanted, but the irony there is that by doing that, you’re only negating the very truth you’re supposedly trying to defend…

    I don’t have to wait for someone from the “inside” to ordain me, to make me a priest of God, because JESUS is already inside the very throne room of God. He is the one who grants anyone access to the Kingdom, He is the one who declares anyone to be one of His “priests” of the New Covenant… To desire the affirmation of anyone within any man-made system, is to say that Christ’s seal upon my spirit is not enough, that I need the recognition of man more than I need His…

  15. 15 Dena Brehm May 20, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Chad –

    Just wondering, what’s the problem with seeing church-family and nuclear-family as being melded…? Was that not how it was in the early Church? Further, did they not see the Agape feast (their joint meal) incorporating communion? Why do we see it as “better” to have it as a separated-from-life ritual, devoid of it’s original setting?

    As far as gathering for worship … what is worship but a life lived with an awareness of His continual Presence with us (within us)? Have we so focused on the rituals that we’ve missed the essence of Relationship?

    I don’t “go to church” to be transformed … I’m transformed by the renewal of my mind by the Spirit who is within me. If anything, much of what needed renewal were the concepets engrained into me through the enforced conformity of religion.

    I say this as a wife of a former-clergy member … who was seminary-ized and ordained and served in a liturgical/charismatic/evangelical denomination.

    Most of my mind-renewal has been in UNlearning what the traditions of man put into me … which, ironically enough, kept me from experiencing the intimate relationship with God that I now have.

    I read this yesterday, with which I fully concur:

    “There is no formal religion that does not insist, as its first requirement, on a confession of conformity. Nor is there, any longer, a religion that offers a path to Heaven other than the autobahn of submission. One and all, they have conspired, in the name of the Spirit, against the spirit of man; one and all, they have sold him into slavery. Under threat of damnation, hell-fire, they have ordered him to renounce protest, to forego revolt, to be passive, to surrender.”

    [Dr. Robert Lindner (1914-1956), Must You Conform?, written in 1956].

    I do not see that Jesus came to draw all humans into Christianity, but to draw all humans out of all religions (including Christianity) and unto Himself …

    At what point did the Abundant Life (of which Jesus spoke) get usurped with the “Christian Life” (which man invented)…?

    Shalom, Dena

  16. 16 Jay Ferris May 21, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    Dear Dena,

    Perhaps it was when Watchman Nee wrote “The Normal Christian Life.”:-/

    Earlier today, I sent: “… paraphrasing William B. Allen’s thought once again: ‘a law can never make spiritual what is in its nature unspiritual.’ Flesh is flesh even when it’s theological.”:-/

    Love!


  1. 1 Transparency in the Ordination Process — pomomusings Trackback on May 17, 2009 at 7:45 pm

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