Friday, August 01, 2008

pastors, ordination, being "bought" and validation of ministry

I do believe that congregations are commanded in scripture to set aside their leaders and I see the wisdom in commending that ordination to other congregations as a reason to consider a man worthy of recommendation. Of course, I wish my tradition took some aspects of ordination more seriously, as we are famous for laying hands on teenagers and people who don’t understand the Gospel at all.

But there’s one aspect of ordination I really do appreciate on a very personal level. When a congregation ordains you, they are setting you aside to serve them, yes. But they are also saying, “He belongs to us. We bought him, and until he proves himself unworthy of our confidence, he’s ours. Even when he leaves, he can still come back and know we signed his papers.”

My uncle was a pastor for almost fifty years, and he built one of the largest churches in our community in his day. But I remember that he always talked about his first church- the church that ordained him- as special. He didn’t brag about the big church when he needed to remember who he was; he recalled the country people who “bought” him as a young pastor, and took on the task of being his first church.

But what we cannot do, at least in my view, is claim to be dispensing Jesus ourselves, or to be directing God’s promises as if Jesus were a substance. We can’t point at the front of the church and tell people to come to a place, or do a ritual or express worship in a certain way and speak as if the presence of Jesus appears as a result.

I will explain why I link these two quotes in a bit, even though their relationship seems self-evident and self-explanatory.

This intrigues me because depending on how the nature of church government the congregation doesn't ordain anyone at all. In an elder-ruled church the elders alone decide who is ordained and what constitutes being called. It is common in charismatic and Pentecostal churches to refer to seminaries as "cemetaries". The old saw is that the church isn't "alive", whatever that may mean. Not that there aren't dead and dying churches but sometimes I believe "alive" means nothing more than "I like this" in a church.

As a pure platform for pondering, when Paul wrote to Timothy not to lay hands on people too quickly and thus participate in their sin could Paul have been writing that no one should be too quickly ordained for ministry? It might be included in that admonition. Spenser's observation that his denomination has laid hands on teenagers and people who don't understand the Gospel. Perhaps we have too many pastors in the world, men and women who have been installed as shepherds who do not really have a heart for shepherding so much as for preaching and teaching? The three are not necessarily the same. A person may be a gifted church plant and a terrible shepherd. This doesn't mean that the person isn't called or gifted by God to plant churches and preach the Gospel, but it may mean the person shouldn't have a shepherding role or be an overseer/presbyter in the sense of having substantial administrative power (or responsibility).

It's that ordination is recognized by others and not just the self that interests me. When Paul first met Christ it validated him as an apostle but he recognized that if the other apostles found fault with the gospel he preached it would be a problem. Paul's ministry was not purely self-validating, it was validated by apostolic agreement as to his calling and the recognition of the body of Christ that the man who formerly killed and persecuted Christians was preaching about the way.

I hear about the folks who think seminaries are cemetaries but overall I'm not sure I buy it. As Dostoevsky put it in his great novel, young men are willing to die for causes they believe in but that's the easiest sacrifice for them to make. Ask them to spend five or six years of their burning hot youth in tedious study and isolation and that for a task that may be thankless and you'll see how quickly their ardor cools! One of the advantages of a long and tedious ordination or pastoral installment process is that it helps weed out people who are unfit or don't want the job. So how long should that process be? Probably long!

A pastor once said the problem with denominations and seminaries is they tend to call the trained and that churches need to train the called. That is something I agree with, though I note that even within this perspective the argument is that the called should be trained. But how do you actually recognize that someone is called? If it were that simple to determine who is really "called" to ministry then wouldn't we not be at the point where people joke that seminaries are cemetaries? And don't we still have the paradox that people whose calling is self-identified and self-validated end up in ministry?

At the point that pastors have to be fired or defrocked the denomination plays a crucial role. They have to decide that someone is unfit for ministry and they have jumped through enough hoops to reflect the doctrines and practices of the church. In non-denominational settings this is a more mercurial, dicey prospect. In a congregationally led church, obviously, the congregation can decide to fire a pastor. In an elder led church the congregation is essentially there to pay the leadership to make whatever decisions the leaders think fitting without respect to the will of the members. It could be construed, in cases where things may not be ideal, as a somewhat parasitic relationship in as much as that pastors can ask for money to make decisions the congregation may not understand or be made privy to.

Of course provided the decisions are brilliant this isn't a problem. I have of late come to appreciate that an advantage denominations have is that there is a multidirectional level of accountability. A church leadership team that goes astray will lose parishioners or members. Members who stray may be barred from community. In a healthy church this accountability will be omnidirectional. In an unhealthy church leadership is beholden to the congregation to the point that the Gospel gets compromised or the Gospel gets compromised by leadership who push for goals or agendas that are not central to the Gospel.

In an indepedent, non-denominational church this can be problematic for the simple reason that if all the elders at said church hold each other accountable they may still be blind to their own flaws as a leadership team or, even if they have no flaws as a leadership team (and here I insert a respectful "as if") the congregation's flaws become issues. A godly king in Israel would still be noted as permitting the idolatry of the people. One or two kings started off great but went astray after losing key guides, becoming marks for the praise and acclaim of local nobles and getting buttered up to permit local idolatries to bloom again.

Which is to say that a church like this that has no external accountability will become unhealthy, supposing itself to be on the right path when it may not entirely be on the right path. A church without internal accountability will go off the rails but internal accountability is not enough, external accountability is needed. This can come in various ways but perhaps the best macro-level example of this is the denominational system, however it may work out. Rather than think in terms of how "dead" denominations are, think about how many centuries have elapsed for those churches to get to this "dead" state. That's a long time. Consider the life and death of a single non-denominational independently led church? If such a church dies in a city and no one is there to note it's passing did it happen? Yeah, but it is unmoored from the very history it may have been founded to preserve. Note, I'm not really arguing that all churches have to be denominationally linked, I'm just noting that for my church background it was easy to rip on denominations for reasons that now seem a bit loopy.

The least credible argument against denominations for me now is the idea that they install people who aren't called. Years ago iMonk posted an article by a pastor who wrote that if you don't wake up in the morning and think to yourself, "Woe is me if I don't preach the Gospel" then you shouldn't be a pastor. I'd say I agree with that and even that may not indicate what KIND of pastor you ought to be.

I'm thinking lately about one of these nondenominational pastor-run churches. If all the pastors are self-nominated and they as a group ordain each other isn't there some risk that they may mess something up as a group? Is there sufficient internal and external accountability in such a setting? I hope so, I really do, but I have doubts because some of the craziest stuff that's happened in American religion happened in these sorts of settings where the nobles, as it were, bowed low to the king of a spiritual empire and that led the king to go off the rails. Perhaps the first rule of spiritual submission to Christ is never believe your own hype. The first person to do that ... well, we Christians know who he is. It's a risk in even the best of settings, which calls for plenty of prayer.

If a pastor gets fired from one of these churches where everyone is self-nominated and is installed by people who are self-nominated are there sufficient external checks? Do there need to be any? If that pastor gets fired by a community who have the same sort of self-validated calling the fired pastor has then what becomes the basis for removal? Definite sin? I hope so. Disagreements about the nature of bureaucratic procedure? Not quite so sure about that one. For me the conundrum is that this group of leaders consists of self-appointed leaders who appoint each other. There's a feedback loop of affirmation and agreement. It may have a risk to it is what I'm saying.

Each system has its problems but the more time goes by the less I am persuaded that the alternative to denominations does a better job of keeping out people who decide they are pastors because it would be a cool thing to do. The reason for the "cool thing to do" might be for the acclaim, for being called "pastor" or for not having to work that much during the week and speak for forty minutes or something like that. The reason might even seem to be a great reason. Jesus said let no one call you "Father" or "rabbi" but there's a principle at work that goes beyond that. You can want the acclaim and respect whether or not you have the title. You don't have to actually BE a pastor to have that problem. If you think that just because you're you that you deserve respect and esteem you may have the same spiritual problem without having the formal title that, in worldly terms, would at least warrant the formal signs of respect.

Well, I'm running out of steam. PErhaps I'll ponder this via blog entry later, perhaps not.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

HT to iMonk, yet another screed on the feminization of American men

The quintessential problem of a review like this even existing is here, the money quote:

Men reading Glenville's book will only be encouraged in their sinful tendency to look out for themselves. If men are focused on such trivial things as dry skin and pampering themselves with long baths, it will be all the more difficult to expect them to lead, provide, and protect. There may be a day when Lowes and Home Depot have entire aisles dedicated to moisturizers and skin creams for that weathered carpenter. There may be rows of scented bubble bath for that overworked mason. ...

The money quote for me is not where Spenser puts it, it's earlier. So Stinson declares that men reading Glenville's book will only be encouraged in their sinful tendency to look out for themselves? Really? Would that include Stinson only being encouraged in his sinful tendency to look out for himself having just read the book and making this declaration of his about the book, too? All right, let's go with that. Let's suppose that it's not mere rhetoric that prompts Stinson to dread a day when Lowes and HOme Depot will have entire aisles dedicated to moisturizers and skin creams for carpenters, or scented bubble bath for overworked masons.

Let's suppose that Stinson is actually afraid this is going to happen and ask him why? Is this stuff to be feared because it is to be feared or because it is to be feared if applied to men? IF to men should women have these products for themselves? Why? None of it is promoting of godliness is it? If in the Song of Songs the woman praises the smell of her man is it the stink of body odor she's praising? Not really. Does America have the kind of blue collar or sweat-shirted economy Stinson assumes? In some places, but not all. How do we know that Stinson's vision of masculinity has anything to do with Scripture? If a man follows all the hygiene advice it may not be a sign of being selfish.

This is where the concept of worship as encompassing all of life comes back to bite Stinson in the butt. Skin care as a stewardship issue could mean you use moisturizers. Stinson treats as a purely vanity or humility issue what can legitimately be a health issue. If you have dry skin it can crack and be susceptible to infection. Not that I've personally had to worry about it but I have family who had to deal with the issue. A moisturizer isn't proof that someone isn't a man. That's about as dubious as saying real men don't wear earplugs because they can handle noise, if we're going to deal with this sort of polemic about masculinity and stereotypes at the level it deserves.

The reason this sort of screed seems so stupid and paranoid is that it presumes a monolithic culture on the topic of masculinity. If the poles happen to be Hugh Grant and Sylvester Stallone neither alternative seems that awe-inspiring to me. Stinson frets that if Christians keep following the culture this or that will happen but that whole rhetorical dread is based on an assumption about culture that is simply absurd. Which culture? The world in its pejorative definition in Scripture is frequently identified as "the nations" in the Psalms. The corrupting influence is not monolithic but manifold. Stinson's polemic doesn't account for this and distorts the biblical record. Surprise.

Clearly we're not looking at an actual book review but an editorial screed that uses the existence of a book as a pretext. If moisturizer for men is a sign of destroying masculinity maybe Stinson could explain why. Nah, why do that when he can write about how the book is a sign of an assault on masculinity in America. What if masculinity in America has been broken for generations? The whole line of thinking that this or that line of spirituality appeals to real men, or that real men are defined by this or that is moot. A man could display all the godly traits Stinson wants a man to have AND STILL FOLLOW THE HYGIENE ADVICE in Glenville's book. Yep, really. I don't even have to have read the book to observe this possibility. Stinson's polemic is based on a false dichotomy.

Sure, masculinity is distorted in American and Western culture and the Hugh Grant/Sylvester Stallone polarity pretty well sums it up. If Stinson buy sinto one extreme in response to the other then the balance is missing.

What can happen regularly in these sorts of polemics about what constitutes "real men" is that it becomes a digression on WHICH law defines you rather than the Gospel. Stinson's screed frets about the outward trappings of what is or isn't masculine that the actual character traits he wants to see become insignificant. He doesn't even write an actual review of the book to let us know what its overall contents are. What exactly is promoted in the book that is unhealthy? Skin care? That's unhealthy? Really? Would the skin care advice in Glenville's book be considered unhealthy and terrible if given to women? If so then should skin care just not be an issue? If not then doesn't that say a lot about suppositions about masculinity and feminity that suppose that women should be concerned about having soft skin but men shouldn't? Why would it be godless for men to want soft, healthy skin but not for women?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Reflection on InternetMonk's essay on the church as insitution, blind loyalty, and naive criticism

One of the things I have come to appreciate now that I'm 34 and tried doing the fellowship thing apart from any church is that it doesn't work, not really, and not for very long. I could see valid criticisms of the church right and left from friends and family and I often heard the argument, "I can get fellowship by spending time with Christians outside of any formal setting." I bought that whole way of thinking for a while and maybe it really works in some settings, but ...

I heard someone once say she wasn't into organized religion for a few years. This could often be a valid criticism ... but it could equally often be a sign that the organized religious institution she was attending wasn't getting her what she wanted. If she wasn't acknowledged as having a more or less prophetic right to tell the pastor whether he was annointed or doing something important she tended to lose her ardor for that pastor's leadership. It's not that the critiques were groundless in themselves exactly (but sometimes they probably were), it's that she had something to get out of being listened to that may have compromised what she could have said. In other words, it's tougher to think of the pastor or other believers as better than yourself if you're constantly desiring to be the person who is respected and listened to because you're you then you're guilty of having the same problem many a pastor has.

Now don't get me wrong, I do think fellowship can happen apart from church settings but there are things that don't tend to happen. More to the point, there are things that people who pull out of churches say DOES happen that don't. Corporate worship and prayer, for one. I know, people can tell me that these things happen but if you factor out families (more on this later) and factor out spin-offs associated with churches it's not that common to have home church/alterna-church gatherings that last long. One reason is simply that if they last long and are effective witnesses to the Gospel they are likely to become churches. Another reason is that if they don't they are not about the Gospel but about the pet theological, cultural, and political goals of the people involved.

But at a more basic level I came to realize over ten years that these home-churches or alternatives to institutional church don't work because they abdicate or ignore the very things that they supposedly get apart from church. Basic stuff like corporate praise and worship of the Lord, corporate and individual confession of sin, prayer for the sick, helping widows and orphans.

Maybe one man or woman can do all these things and not attend a church but a perso nwho does that is being part of the church and paradoxically is likely to draw people to themselves. If not, then a person who sings and studies and discusses Scripture; a person who sets aside time to help the poor and powerless; a person who confesses sin and hears confession of sin; a person who prays for the sick and a person who annoints with oil if functioning like a bishop/overseer/pastor or has someone in his/her life that fulfills that role. We are made both for submission and for leadership and the trouble with the alterna-church role is that either it fails utterly to do or be what the church ought to be herself, but often in succeeding as an alternative simply proves itself what Jesus originally designed it to be, which takes all the force out of the criticism.

If the Church is the bride of Christ doesn't saying that the institutional church isn't where church happens effectively saying that no one who has put on the wedding dress is the bride? It's not like the bride is all that awesome now, I know, but the Church is not just about me and Jesus. Even long-time married people go on dates. It feels almost as though the problem with finding "church" apart from a church is that it's like being married but refusing to have date night because you can get the conversation, friendship, sex, parenting, and all those other things in other contexts apart from going on an official date. Sure, but husbands and wives go on date nights anyway, right? I just find it strange that what people understand in the natural realm of things seems so invisible in the realm of fellowship with God's people.

If you want to sing praises to the Lord, confess and repent of sin, share with the people whom you are able to share with, gather in the name of Christ with two or three believers, you CAN do all these things without officially being linked into a local church, but I have to ask if by doing all those things you aren't already doing church so to speak. And I have to ask if you can't do these things in the context of a church, or rather if you haven't made a church in the context of doing these things. Churches as institutions didn't come about because someone decided to make an institution one day in Jesus' name.

It seems like either churches become graveyards of spiritual movements or they aren't movements at all, but God has a history of working with wayward and lost people. If Jesus let His people divide before His coming I can see Him easily letting them divide after His ascension before His return.

So, sure, churches as institutions mess things up but to say they are dead is to forget that where two or three gather in His name, He will be there. The problem with saying that churches aren't what Jesus came to establish is that if you go that far you're calling Jesus a liar at some level. Jesus didn't say that the Church He established, and the apostles never said that the individual churches were all that awesome. Christ's message through the apostle to churches in Revelation are full of stinging rebukes but also of encouragement, and the recognition from Christ Himself that those pathetic bands of Christians who tolerated Jezebel or who were lukewarm were churches, churches that belonged to Him, churches dealing with persecution and confusion. This doesn't mean any of them were without flaws, and it doesn't mean that people can't have fellowship and confess sin and publicly proclaim the kingship of Christ in some alternative they imagine to what they consider the unfixable local church.

But that hardly means that such a criticism of the local church or denominations is really solving anything. Scripture is replete with men like King Saul who clearly saw what his own problem was and was not saved by that knowledged. Knowledge in itself is not power, at all. Knowledge can bind you, too. I'm not even going to bother getting so geeky as to explain the conundrum at the end of Watchmen, besides after two decades the comic book is going to be a movie anyway. The thing I mention in it is that you get these people at the end where knowing what is really going on makes them guilty of either not stopping it or accepting it. At best the one person who doesn't compromise is destroyed. Perhaps, for the sake of silliness, I could proffer that as an allegory about people who are confronted with problems in the church. Some go along to get along, some attempt to stop it and are destroyed, and others attempt to stake out a position where they don't compromise but they only destroy themselves because they don't have an alternative that actually works, they simply refuse to accept what is.

My musings here are not abstract. I got dragged to home fellowships and alternatives to organized religion by my parents. I recall one group met in Portland and I recall being prayed for and some fellow was praying the Spirit would take control of me. I felt like I was being suggested to get "slain in the Spirit" and the guy assured me no. I think this was the place where some self-announced prophet from South Korea came and visited and talked about how (this was around 1992) God revealed to him that California would sink into the sea by 1997 because of its wickedness. Hmm ... last I checked California is mysteriously still on the map! So much for that prophet.

Another home fellowship I was impelled to attend was out in the middle of nowhere in Oregon (for those of you who have been reading from the beginning you know I originally hail from Oregon). After about six or seven CCM choruses there was a brief discussion of some part of an epistle and the conversation quickly ranged toward theories that black, unmarked United Nations helicopters were practicing secret operations inside the Oregon borders. Some middle aged guys swore that this was what they saw and that the U.N. and the Clinton administration were planning on suspending the COnstitution and the Bill of Rights and getting ready to declare martial law. Women were talking about how they liked Rush Limbaugh but that he often gave them a critical spirit. .... uh, yeah.

So I don't recall us visiting that group more than once or twice. The strange irony to all this was that a few years ago when I talked with my mother about how she and my stepdad had compulsory church attendence I went along with because I didn't feel like being disagreeable (I was referring to college years when so long as I was under their roof they insisted I had to go to the church they went to, where ever they decided "the annointing" was) my mother said that they always picked churches on what I and my siblings liked. Really? I never in a billion years would have chosen to go to "the church that rocks", and I wasn't the one who was leaping to befriend some skeezy teenagers who were scoping out my sister. My parents insisted I should make friends at the church. It didn't matter that I had nothing in common with them and had no interest in getting to know them--that just meant that I needed to acknowledge that all Christians need to have in common is being Christians (true) and that I should work at being friends with them (still wouldn't do it). Eventually my stepdad proferred the rather pragmatic advice that if I didn't like the way some teenager leered at my sister I should hang out with the guy just to make sure he didn't misbehave. Okay, that was finally the argument that worked on me so I hung out with the loser.

For someone who grew up in churches that were "dead" or not "alive" I get the desire to abandon all churches or "organized religion". I have heard people say they don't even like the word "church". But guess what? Jesus used it and if you claim to love Jesus at some point you will come to love His people, even if they treat you like shit. You don't redefine who God's people and who the "real" church is around how you have been hurt because the moment you do that you are like the legal expert talking to Jesus and asking, "And who is my neighbor?" wanting to justify yourself. It is a matter I am contemplating regularly, obviously. There are many bad churches, institutions that have severe problems, but beyond a point that is tough to pin down it looks like Judah and Samaria and when Jesus came to visit them both He had both blessing and rebuke for them.

I have seen why it's tempting to bail on churches or the idea of formal church but unless you are a brilliant social networking who is actively seeking to confess your sins to others and also need little help to have your own sinful patterns pointed out to you having friendships within a group that formally meets to praise the Lord isn't all that bad. Of course it won't really do you any good if you run that group because if accountability isn't mutual and loving it's not accountability by any stretch of the imagination. I don't mean accountability in that you sign some waiver that lets people kick your ass as though that's what it meant and nothing more.

James 5 says we should confess our sins to one another. That means if I sin against you and I don't know about it, talk to me. If I don't repent, find some other people who can make the case more saliently. IF you sin against me I should be able to talk to you. If we don't talk to each other than brothers or sisters in Christ can help out. If I won't listen to you but insist that you should listen to me, or if you insist that I should listen to you but you won't listen to me, that's the sort of relational rupture that is hard to fix precisely because it is (if we're both Christians) in the church. Alternatives to church often fail, utterly, at this sort of mutually confessional relationship. In fact it was in home fellowships that were crazy (and I grant many aren't) that I heard from a woman that she translated "Abba" into "Daddy". So this became occasion for her to very proudly and confidently said, "Daddy said my husband and I should move to town X and start a business there." This woman eventually made off with a bunch of money from aforementioned home church and left her husband and hasn't been seen or heard from in a while. Another fellow who led the home church that met in Portland got divorced a few years later.

One of the objections to institutional churches is the abuse and misuse of authority but it is actually PRECISELY this thing that is most likely to be abused by people who are critics of "organized religion" or the "institutional church". They also frequently feel as though they are the victims of such pastoral or institutional abuse, not realizing that they may carry within them the seeds of the same penchant for abuse of spiritual authority or wanting to refashion the nature and definition of who God's people on earth "really" look like in more or less a similar way to how their abuser did.

Paradoxically I am starting to feel that the "dead" churches have the advantage here. You have to jump through so many hoops to get ordained as a minister in a denomination you better be fairly sure it's what you're called to do and you have to give up years of your life to get certified and approved. If you just nominate yourself to be a spiritual leader because you think it's a good idea you have pre-empted a whole litany of tasks that denominations would make you do. Even if you think a year is a long time or a year and a half, it's not long compared to four years of divinity school, apprenticing, getting reviewed by a denominational network, and finally getting installed with the understanding that you'll get moved if they don't think you're up to it.