Monday, May 11, 2009

Stand back, we’re professionals

I came across a very insightful and valuable series of articles by Bob Gonzales, the dean of the Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies in Escondido, California. His articles are titled “Giving Proper Due to the People in the Pew: A Biblical Defense of Lay-Ministry and Lay-Evangelism” and he deals with the tendency among those holding to the Reformed confessions to overemphasize the “professional”, ordained ministry and underemphasize the ministry of the laity. Specifically he looks at the question of whether or not the proclamation of the Gospel is the responsibility and the right of the whole Church or just the ordained ministry. From Bob's introduction in his first post...

I’m still learning new things about my Reformed heritage. Most of the time, these new discoveries are edifying and serve to confirm my conviction that the Reformed tradition usually has it right. Occasionally, however, I run across strands of Reformed teaching that doesn’t resonate well with my general knowledge of the Bible’s teaching. In some of these cases, I’m prompted to do further investigation that reveals a flaw or imbalance in my own thinking. In other cases, I can’t get a particular strand of Reformed thought to fit with the contours of Scripture. The doctrine and practice of infant baptism is a case in point.

I’ve recently stumbled across another strand of thought associated with my Reformed heritage (or at least certain branches of Reformed tradition) that appears out of balance with the data of Scripture. The strand of thought I have in view is a bit difficult to define or characterize. It’s more of a propensity than a clearly defined position. The best way I can think to describe it is a tendency to overemphasize the importance of the ministry of the ordained man and to underemphasize the importance of the ministry of the layman. It’s a penchant for defining the life and ministry of a local church more narrowly in terms of what happens in the pulpit on Sundays rather than more broadly in terms of what happens in the pulpit, pew, and outside the church all seven days of the week.

The entire series of posts is well worth reading (especially a section in the second post on what the term “ministry“ means), as I think that Bob Gonzales has done an excellent job of balancing the issue even as he approaches it from more of a traditionalist view than I perhaps would. It is refreshing to see this discussed so openly and reasonably, and the commentary that follows the posts (see below) is very edifying as well, which is also a welcome change from the “attack first, ask questions later” mentality that often pervades the blog world (and which I am often guilty of as well). Some of the linguistic nuances he raises are way beyond me, more like the sort of stuff Alan Knox would get a kick out of. Here are the three posts:

Giving Proper Due to the People in the Pew: A Biblical Defense of Lay-Ministry and Lay-Evangelism, Part 1

Giving Proper Due to the People in the Pew: A Biblical Defense of Lay-Ministry and Lay-Evangelism, Part 2

Giving Proper Due to the People in the Pew: A Biblical Defense of Lay-Ministry and Lay-Evangelism, Part 3

The idea that the Gospel proclamation is restricted to those who are properly ordained is a common one, but it really has a much deeper core to it. , Dean Gonzalez refers to some brothers who are obvious candidates for the clericalism mindset that restricts the Gospel presentation to “ordained ministers”. Not surprisingly one in particular, Dr. R. Scott Clark, makes the bold claim that: “There’s not a lot of evidence in the NT that unordained Christians did much “evangelism.” to defend a clergy-only proclamation of the Gospel (defined as: "the authoritative announcement of the gospel by Christ’s appointed minister”)

As I pointed out in the comments on Bob Gonzalez’s post, if you change the wording a little bit you could say: “There’s not a lot of evidence in the NT that infants were “baptized.”

See, you have to be careful making blanket statements like that! Fortunately Bob Gonzalez points out a number of places in the NT that speak of what we would call “lay-ministry” or “lay-evangelism” in his third post. I would bristle a bit at the very term “laity” because that term is used to divide the church into “laity” and “clergy” and that exposes the way we get around a practical working of the Biblical doctrine of a priesthood of every believer. We may affirm that in theory, but it is rarely seen in practice.

A couple of thoughts I had regarding this issue...

First, I would say that the process we go through to “ordain” someone in the modern church bears no resemblance to the process of calling out apostles and disciples in the New Testament. The institutional ordination selection process is foreign to the New Testament.

Second, the people who are specially called in some manner in the NT were called under apostolic authority, an authority that no longer exists on the earth given that we don’t have any apostles. So either no one is to proclaim the Gospel or we are to create an artificial substitute where denominations and seminaries replace the apostles or, just maybe, the point was never about being specially qualified and credentialed to preach the Gospel in the first place.

Third, Dr. Clark and others like him fall into a trap that is known in the investment world I work in as “recency bias”. The basic idea is that what we believe as we do because it is familiar. In other words we assume that the way things are now is the way things always have been. In the stock market, it is often a six month bias. In ecclesiology it is a several hundred year bias that imprints on the mind that the way we “do church” is how it was intended. The core idea is that this is how the Reformers did it, so this is how we should do it. Instead of WWJD, it becomes WWTWDD (What Would The Westminster Divines Do)?

Ultimately this comes back to control and pride. Some people see the unwashed masses out preaching the Gospel and cannot abide it. The Gospel is far too precious to be left to…amateurs! By restricting the proclamation of the Gospel, I think the concern is far more about controlling the message by controlling the messenger and less about concern over heresy. There are plenty of people who are "ordained" who can't preach their way out of a paper bag, who preach nonsense or outright heresy. Ordination is no protection against heresy (Eugene Robinson anyone?) In addition, there is a serious pride issue. I understand that all too well, the impulse to say that no one else can preach quite like I can. I have the experience, I have a seminary degree, I have a gift for preaching, I read the right commentaries and attend the right conferences. Therefore I should preach and you should sit and listen.

The artificial clergy-laity distinction has weakened the church for over 1000 years by telling 99% of the Body of Christ that they have no responsibility and in fact no right to be involved with a huge percentage of ministry because of a lack of education credentials, ecclesiastical authorization, “ordination” or any other of the myriad ways that the Body is divided into “active priests” and “silent priests”. I would go so far as to say that this false distinction is almost as damaging to the Body of Christ as many of the commonly disparaged heresies we like to kick around. Turning the mass of the Body of Christ into passive listeners and concentrating the ministry of the Word to a select few has created a prideful and overworked "clergy" and a lazy and ill-informed "laity". I can't agree with Dr. Clark when he says: "Not everyone in the congregation is a “minister” and frankly, that should be a relief. " . Just the opposite is true. We should not be relieved that so few of us see ourselves as ministers, we should be ashamed.

1 comment:

Alan Knox said...

The professionals are not going to be happy. By the way, the non-professionals are not going to be happy either.