Rethinking Religion, Part 3: The Clergy/Laity Distinction

“The clergy-laity tradition has done more to undermine New Testament authority than most heresies.” – James D. G. Dunn

This is part 3 of a multi-part series I’m calling Rethinking Religion. If you haven’t read parts one and two, I encourage you to read them before reading this one because they build on one another. Here’s a glimpse of what I’ve written thus far:

Ignatius (ca. 110 AD) said this:

“Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes.”

I’ve previously noted that this directive by Ignatius was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). It was assumed to be a biblical directive, but it is not.

We’ve already shown that the top-down authority structure that is present in most modern institutional churches is a man-made product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as a biblical one, is actually something that has been  handed to us by religious history and tradition and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we’ve also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchical organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated the honorific the titles become. Our church authority structures more closely resemble corporate America than anything in the New Testament. We’ve taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn’t dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the church has, it’s time to ask why. Will Ignatius’ words, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the practice of the one anothers within the assembly and to the priesthood of all believers.

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Why Is There a Pulpit?

“Wherever the pulpit is going, that’s where the church is going.”

That’s a tweet that recently appeared in my twitter feed. I cringed when I saw it. But then I thought, it’s true. Sad, but oh so true. Needless to say, it got my mind going about pulpits and power, honorific titles and top-down authority, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. It doesn’t take much to get me going, does it? I hear endless debates about whether women should be allowed behind the pulpit but in each conversation I hear, the most obvious question is missing: Why is anyone scrambling to get behind the pulpit and why is there a pulpit in the first place?

In my opinion, nothing kills the original Continue reading

Rethinking Religion, Part 2: Pastors, Titles, Authority, Calling

This is part 2 of a multi-part series I’ve called Rethinking Religion. To see all the posts so far, click the Rethinking Religion category in the sidebar.

We talked last time about how in his zeal to detour divisions in the church, Ignatius set in place a false structure of authoritative leadership designed to dole out punishments for non-compliance and rewards for compliance. This hierarchy of authority that Ignatius implemented, centered around pastors and in particular, the one pastor model, was firmly in place by the mid-third century and is still with us in most institutional churches today, where there is a top-down authority structure in place and one person at the top, steering the ship. There are certain functions within the assembly that Ignatius arbitrarily decided can only be performed by the church’s sole lead pastor which is why he could say,

“Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church.” Letter to Smyrna (ca. AD 110)

But this idea is foreign to the New Testament, man-made, and comes to us via tradition alone. There is no biblical reason for such thinking. Note Jesus’ words that we alluded to at the end of Part One in this series:

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Preach the Word?

Paul instructed Timothy to “Preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). In the institutional church model, this is usually assumed to mean expository, verse-by-verse teaching through the Bible, or some variant of expository preaching. But is that what Paul meant? Let’s back up the cart for a minute and take a second look.

Was Timothy a Pastor?

This is an important question to ask as we begin to broach this subject for a couple of reasons. 1) Pastors have become central in most modern church settings. They have become the “preachers” in the institutional church and as such, they carry the burden of “preaching the word” meaning proclaim the Bible, usually from a pulpit. It continues to amaze me how we’ve taken a word (pastor) that appears once in the New Testament (with reference to the body of Christ) and institutionalized it. We’ve made pastors the central figure of our religious institutions without questioning why. We’re told the pastor preaches and our job is to hear and obey. It’s almost like we don’t need Jesus because the pastor is there to tell us what we need to hear. 2) Because it’s assumed Timothy was one of those pastors, we call the letters bearing his name, along with the letter to Titus “pastoral epistles.” We view them as pastoring handbooks and manuals for doing church.

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Rethinking Religion, Part 1: What is a Pastor?

To say people are becoming disillusioned with institutional religion is an understatement. People are becoming disillusioned and are leaving it in droves. From all the statistics I’ve read the reasons vary, but a large number who’ve left are leaving, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel organized religion has. As a result, many are walking away from that system and finding more authentic community outside of its walls, myself included. They are done. Josh Packard is correct in saying,

“The Dones are people who are disillusioned with church. Though they were committed to the church for years—often as lay leaders—they no longer attend. Whether because they’re dissatisfied with the structure, social message, or politics of the institutional church, they’ve decided they are better off without organized religion.” Source: Meet the Dones

One thing almost every religious institution has in common with other religious institutions is a person in charge called a pastor. The pastor is typically the power person in charge, directing people, events, and things related to the ongoing success of the institution. In this first post of an ongoing series I’m calling Rethinking Religion, we’re simply going to sort out what a pastor is. This will be the foundation for the posts that follow in this series. I’ll be writing this series from the point of view of a former pastor with 20+ years experience pastoring various institutional churches. We’ll start by looking more closely at what scripture says about pastors because I feel one way modern religious institutions have complicated things is by making the pastor the authoritative focal point in the church, not unlike the CEO of a corporation. This top-down authority approach to doing church is man-made and has been handed to us by 2,000 years of church tradition, not by any anything mandated in scripture.

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Church Tradition and the Marginalization of Women

Jesus didn’t do it. Paul didn’t do it. None of the Apostles did it. Organized religion did it. In the 2,000 years since the Apostolic era, institutional religion has been on a power grab. The thing about a power grab is that those without the power get marginalized and/or abused while those with the power gain more power and control. That’s been the case with women in the church. Jon Zens notes,

The retrogression that occurred with reference to women in the post-apostolic age can be compared to what happened in other doctrinal and practical areas. For example, the Lord’s Supper was transformed from a time of the brethren remembering the Lord in a meal together to an elaborate “Holy Sacrament” officiated over by a clergyman. The monumental difference, however, between such things as the Lord’s Supper and what happened to women was that half of the church was rendered inferior and marginalized for nearly two millennia. Jon Zens, What’s with Paul and Women: Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Timothy 2 Ekklesia Press, 2010, p. 53. Kindle Edition.

Jacques Ellul adds this to the conversation,

All that represented weakness or inferiority [physical, social, etc.] was put in second place. Women are the most spectacular instance of this. After a period of independence that came with the spread of Christianity, they were relegated to a lower order…[ T] he more feminine liberty was suppressed, the more women were accused (of being the temptress of Genesis, etc.), [and] the more they were reduced to Continue reading