(This is going to be one of those rant/retort posts that I am semi-internet famous for)
A week ago Ben Witherington penned an essay at Patheos blasting the “emerging church” for being “anti-ecclesial” . His essay, The Anti-Ecclesial Rhetoric of Emerging Church Movements, is well written as always and at the same time way off the mark. Throughout the essay Ben makes the flawed assumption that the church is really a series of vaguely related, independent, autonomous and competing local assemblies that function primarily in a weekly gathering and that the church cannot function without a class of professionally trained clergy. That is the traditional Protestant understanding and while it is marginally preferable to the top down authoritarian hierarchy that Protestants were protesting against, it misses the Biblical mark by a wide margin.
Right out of the gate we have a problem, namely the clunky use of the term “anti-ecclesial” to describe anyone that doesn’t toe the religious line (as well as lumping organic church proponents with the “emerging church” something that doesn’t follow at all). Accusations of being “anti” something are a clever but lazy rhetorical device to shut down discussion. Mormon apologists have made a living by labeling anyone who points out the glaring inconsistencies and errors in mormonism as “anti-mormon”, thus making those so labeled easier to dismiss. People who are advocates of abortion label those who are not “anti-choice”. So “anti-ecclesial” is a cheap way to draw a line, on one side are people who are pro-church and on the other are people who are anti-church, as if the only way to be “pro-church” is to swallow the traditions that surround our religious gatherings without question.
For someone with as much education as Ben has, this essay boils down to two things:
Lots of assertions. Little evidence.
The word ekklesia, often translated ‘church’ actual means ‘assembly’. One person is not the church. A group of unassembled Christian friends is not the church. No, there is an element of assembling for worship, fellowship, service that makes a group of people a church. You need to be having church to be a church.
So you have to go to church to be the church? Absent from that statement is any sort of support from Scripture, something that marks the entire essay. Absolutely there is a corporate element to the church but the church is not just the church when it gets together on Sunday morning. In many ways it seems that the church is being the church the least at those times! Is the church not “the church” when Christians are volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center or working at a food bank or caring for orphans outside of the boundaries of a "local church"? Reducing the church down to a regularly scheduled and choreographed weekly meeting makes the church largely indistinguishable from the rest of the world’s religions. Make no mistake that the church is more, infinitely more, than a weekly religious ceremony and the church worships at least as much outside of Sunday morning.
Are there instances of being overly zealous in opposition to the abuses, real and exaggerated, inherent in the ecclesiastical world? Sure and I have been guilty of that. The response is not to further hunker down into our traditions and defend them to the death but to have the intellectual curiosity to consider that just because we are comfortable and perhaps personally invested in these traditions it doesn’t follow that they must be right. The entire genre of traditional church apologetics is based on pointing out what is perceived to be wrong about those who don't fall in line and often lumping them all together under some arbitrary and often false umbrella (like "emerging church")
Another example, full of assertions and quite a bit of unintended irony (emphasis mine)
Nor do we need the arrogance and foolishness that says ‘I can learn all that on my own, thank you very much. I don’t need formal training by experts.’ Really? Would you go to a dentist who said— ‘I’ve got no degrees and no formal training and I’ve never extracted a tooth, but lets start with you.’? I think you get my drift. Ministers (clergy and lay), need as much training by experts as possible in the core Christian curricula. They just do. Because if the leaders are not the resident experts for their people, then we are dealing with leaders who simply pool their ignorance with that of their people. And that only furthers the darkness of the Dark Age into which we have been descending.
They just do. Well that is a persuasive argument! Especially persuasive because it is arguing against something I don’t think anyone is seriously arguing for although I am not sure what the “core Christian curricula” means since that is somewhat different from “church” to “church”. Especially especially since we have never had any gross error coming from "ministers" trained by experts. We certainly need plenty of study and training in the Scriptures but we also need, at least as much and probably more, living examples to follow: men who care for their families, who love their wives, you make a living by the work of their own hands and preach Jesus Christ to the lost. That doesn’t require a seminary education to create self-described “experts”, it requires community among believers where we spend time with one another outside of the confines of a sacred building doing sacred stuff led by a sacred cleric. I have learned far more in ministering alongside other men and getting to know how they live their lives than I have ever learned by listening to a prepared lecture by a so-called “expert” on Sunday morning. As someone who is something of an expert in being arrogant I find it amusing to read someone accuse others of being arrogant right before putting together a string of arrogant statements.
Somehow the early church managed to get along just fine without a professional, seminary trained clerical caste but in this day and age with unprecedented access to the best writers and thinkers of the last two thousand years, Bibles in virtually unlimited formats and no persecution to speak of in the Western world we are somehow to believe that we need “experts”? Absolutely the church needs trained linguists who can translate the Bible. Does that mean that every local gathering needs to have men professionally trained in the rudiments of translating from the original languages along with extensive training in being a vocational minister? Not hardly.
The comparison, one often thrown out for laughs, of clergy to dentists (or heart surgeons or some other elite professional class) inadvertently exposes a bias that sees the clerical class as a profession for scholars and the elite who are above the rest of the church and in turn dispense bits of wisdom via 45 minute monologues weekly to the ignorant masses. Oddly the masses largely stay ignorant in perpetuity in this system, never coming to a mature faith and rarely being equipped for the work of ministry, leaving them dependent on the same people who are in turn dependent on them for financial backing. It is absolutely necessary for a person to go to dental school to learn dentistry but Jesus called His disciples to be fishers of men, not professionals or experts. You don’t need to go to “fishing school” to learn how to fish and you don’t learn how to fish by listening to a fishing expert talk about fishing. Most of us learned to fish by going fishing with our fathers. Jesus chose for His disciples fisherman and tax collectors and throughout the New Testament the church was led by common people, not professional or elites. We need fewer “experts” in the church and more simple fishermen.
I understand the fear and often the anger that comes from those who make a profession out of ministry and why they are so fearful of anyone who questions the house of cards that is the institutional church. If my livelihood were threatened I would be upset as well. Fortunately, dare I say providentially, many Christians have walked away from the traditions of man and are pursuing community and fellowship outside of the four walls of church buildings and the confining rituals that have both marked the visible church and crippled our ministry. Essays like this and books like Kevin DeYoung’s “Why We Love The Church” are little more than desperate attempts to prop up a system that is dying away and becoming irrelevant to the church but the future of Christianity is not found in “experts” or religion or institutions but in the community of believers ministering side by side in love amidst a world that hates them. For that I am eternally grateful.
As a side note, I think many of the 100 comments that follow are excellent, some for their content and others for the angry way that some people respond. There are a lot of them but worth the read.