Reconsider Ordination. Now. (Continued)


Here’s the continuation of my response to your blog post and my petition asking Adam to consider withdrawing from the ordination process in the PC(USA).

5) You write,

What historians know but Tony doesn’t seem to understand is that he is following precisely the path of the American Fundamentalists of the 1900s. In their zeal to create a purer, more faithful church, they ended up attacking fellow believers and crippling what should have been a golden age of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am calling on Tony and others to stop this destructive behavior now, before it’s too late.

Your statement here is particularly untrue. First of all, I don’t know that everyone would concur with your verdict that the Christian fundamentalism crippled the spreading of the gospel. Instead, A) I think many would say that mainline Protestantism’s embrace of historical critical methods in the late 19th century left biblical literalists with little choice but to propose an alternative. B) There’s little evidence that liberals would have ever developed much interest in “spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.” C) The chasm between liberalism and fundamentalism gave rise to the mid-20th century evangelicalism of which our alma mater, Fuller Seminary, is a product.

But second, and more importantly, there is a great difference between what I am doing and what the fundamentalists of the 1890s were doing. They were, as you say, zealous for a purer, more faithful church — a zeal driven by theology.  My dispute with denominationalists is surely not theological. No, my quest is more like that of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Simons, Wesley, and Wimber. I see a system that has outgrown its usefulness, and I am calling those who run that system to reform it, radically and immediately.

What is most strange to me in your response is the line, “Leave the ‘fixing’ of the denominations to those of us who care about them.” I imagine that the Catholic bishop in Geneva might have said that very thing to John Calvin as Calvin railed against the abuses of the papacy and the magisterium. Your desire to silence a provocative and dissenting voice from outside your system is on par with the Diet of Worms considering Luther’s writings to be destructive to what they’d built. Similarly, the Anglicans had no patience for Wesley, riding around on the frontier and ordaining whomever he considered called to preach and teach the gospel.

Don’t you see that you and your fellow denominationalists are on the opposite side of this argument than the progenitors of your movements? To me, the voices who say, “Shut up and leave us alone to reform our system from within,” sounds a lot like the voices who have stood against reformist movements in the past. You think my vituperations hinder my ability to be heard by others. I’d say the same of Calvin. You think I should be more genteel. You might have said the same of Calvin.

6) At one point in your post, you get quite personal. So let me respond. On global standards, my family of origin is, indeed, “very wealthy.” So is yours.

My parents paid for my college education, for which I will be forever grateful. For seminary, they gave me no money. I received a total of $6000 from my home church, with whose Deacon Board I was “in care;” I received an academic scholarship from Fuller during my second and third years there which, to the best of my recollection, was a couple thousand dollars. Otherwise, I put myself through seminary debt-free, working two to three jobs at a time — youth pastor, high school/college baseball umpire, campus tour guide, and anything else I could find to make a few bucks. While at Princeton, I received the standard fellowship of $12,000 per year for four years, money that came from Princeton’s $750 million endowment, not from the PC(USA). Needless to say, a family of five cannot live on that, and I took on significant debt to pursue that degree.

We are, indeed, friends, But you have absolutely no idea about my financial situation at the present moment. I consider it a deep breach of our friendship for you to write, presumptuously and publicly, that “your financial security has never been a hindrance or worry to you.” Let me unequivocally state that that is untrue. Honestly, I am shocked that you would write such a thing. [UPDATE: John has posted an apology.]

7) Finally, John, you write, “you should be proposing new agendas (as you do) and helping the rest of us reform existing structures from within.” That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. An online petition is, of course, a gimmick. My point, as I wrote yesterday, is to expose the ridiculousness of the systems by which people use denominations to exert their power over other people — like Adam. I’m calling all of us as Protestants to embrace the creed, “the priesthood of all believers.” I’m saying that there’s no ontological difference between “clergy” and “laity” that enables the former to perform sacerdotal functions, and prohibits the latter from said functions.

I’m saying that your systems have become overgrown and abusive. Reform them, or you will lose a generation of leaders.

Loyalty is not inherently bad, John. But it can be blinding.

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  • Albert the Abstainer

    The difficulty, or more precisely one of the difficulties, is that being a cleric is a profession, (no pun intended.) What needs to be established then is what are the professional standards which must be reached by a successful candidate, and what role does an external body such as the state have in insuring that human rights are fully respected? Now things become really thorny, and nobody really wants to walk into that space.
    So practically, who can reform such institutions, where they do not overstep into serious criminal infraction? (Think about something as large as the Roman Catholic church which is trans-national.)
    This does not take away from the need to criticize and to do so publicly when human rights abuses occur which would not be tolerated in any other part of civil society. One thing that religious institutions need to become more sensitive to is that the ground has shifted, and that limits to what occur behind the pulpit and within the church may become part of case law.

  • As usual, you articulated yourself well.
    Aside from taking some personal liberties, I also appreciated what John had to say and this brotherly conversation that resulted.
    Though I’m tempted to wonder aloud what reforming denominations would look like, what I really want to say is that I am in agreement that they must be reformed.
    I cannot agree more with this:
    “I’m saying that your systems have become overgrown and abusive. Reform them, or you will lose a generation of leaders”
    Show me the person that disagrees with that line and I’ll show you the guy whose attempting to blog from his typewriter.

  • Leon Bloder

    Let’s be extraordinarily clear about Adam’s situation. He made a choice to transfer from one presbytery to another, and in so doing came under the standards of the new presbytery. His choice was predicated by his former presbytery’s unwillingness to ordain him as is, and he made the decision to switch. I don’t blame him for this. What I do find a little disingenuous is that he seems to be like so many of my Session members who show up late to the meeting and then raise controversial issues to gum up the thing.
    Advocates for a more open ordination process for LGBT persons are eager to have a “local option” made available to presbyteries who overwhelmingly support such a move. What this means is that presbyteries would be able to determine their own standards of ordination to a point, catering them to their context. To a certain extent this already exists as we can see in Adam’s situation. He arrived at a presbytery that had different academic standards than the one he had previously been under care. If he’d been a part of that presbytery’s process all along, he would have known this.
    With respect, Tony probably should have disclosed this in his rant against “overgrown and abusive” systems.
    When you lob grenades into the Existing Church, you can’t expect that some of us who in most circumstances would be your ally won’t get hit by the shrapnel. And then you can’t expect us to remain silent about our injuries.
    And here’s a newsflash. There are a generation of leaders under 40 already toiling away in the institutional church, and we don’t blog from our typewriters.

  • Annie

    so you’re a congregationalist?
    What’s odd to me here is the jump from reforming existing systems to abolishing them altogether. I do think Luther’s problems with the systems he encountered were theological. The sale of indulgences, to use a standard example, was an abuse that was bankrupt on theological grounds. But the answer wasn’t to start up a new church that didn’t sell them. The answer was reformation of the existing system, so that the sale of indulgences was no longer tolerated. And guess what? The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t sell indulgences anymore. That was an abuse. We can all agree.
    This argument, though, isn’t that some specific aspect of the ordination process represents a theological abuse. It is more general–ordination is a sham because of the priesthood of all believers. And that sounds congregationalist in justification–the congregation, not the denomination has the ability to assess and call a leader, and it could be anyone since we share the priesthood of all believers.
    It’s a call for the demise of the whole ordination system that ends with “reform them.” I’m not seeing any concrete suggestions for reforming the system vs. jettisoning it.
    I have to admit, it’s also not the strongest argument given that it’s being argued based on one man’s experience trying to be ordained. I understand that the implication is that what has happened to Adam has happened to many. It’s just being argued with specific reference to his case.
    The thing about that, for me, is that I’ve known many people who sought ordination and were denied *with good reason.* Not everyone who seeks ordination should be given authority in the Christian community. Ontological differences aside, it simply isn’t safe.
    Kind of makes you long for those stories of saints who shunned ordination until it was forced on them by a community convinced of their holiness. It’s a far cry from demanding ordination now because I’m obviously qualified…

  • Annie

    I wanted to add that I claim no knowledge of the validity of Adam’s denial. None at all. But I will say that I’ve known folks in my own denomination who transferred dioceses and were required to do another year of school or another degree. I think it’s both a question of training and a question of getting to know the person. that’s not to mention allowing the individual to demonstrate deference to the bishop, which requires a certain humility. it isn’t always a bad thing to do and it seems pretty standard for a transfer situation.
    the more general point being I’m not saying he was denied for good reasons. I’m just saying there are good reasons to deny people, which is why I can’t agree that the system is propogating a faulty ontology.

  • Shawn Coons

    “To me, the voices who say, “Shut up and leave us alone to reform our system from within,” sounds a lot like the voices who have stood against reformist movements in the past.”
    “Finally, John, you write, “you should be proposing new agendas (as you do) and helping the rest of us reform existing structures from within.” That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”
    Tony, I’m late to this conversation, but I don’t here a desire on your part for reformation of denominations. I’m simply hearing your call for an end to them.
    Please correct me if I am wrong.

  • Shawn Coons

    I hate it when I write “here” instead of “hear.” 🙂

  • Bryan Bliss

    I’ve been following this since I saw Tony’s post on Facebook. I graduated from seminary (Vanderbilt Divinity School) with close to $50,000 worth of debt. Taking on that significant debt was a decision my wife and I made.
    I am not ordained. I have chosen this for a number of reasons. First, as a United Methodist, I am subject to the itinerant system. As somebody who feels called to youth ministry, the chance of being moved into a preaching role is not what I feel called to. Another reason is the unspoken ‘upward mobility’ that comes with ordination. I have seen many youth pastors get ordained so they can make more money, work at a larger church, etc. That’s a far cry from Wesley’s original intent of having a preacher in every congregation…
    The final reason has to do with a theological integrity. The Methodist Church takes on a position that I will not endorse. And as a part of the ordination process, I would be asked a very pointed question. The expectation is that the candidate will say the right things and not ‘force’ the Board of Ordained Ministry into a corner.
    So, I choose not to be ordained. I also choose to stay in the denomination, because I don’t believe that anything will ever change unless people stick with the institutional church and help be a prophetic voice within their ranks. Another reason I stay is that most non-denominational/Emergent/Post-Modern/Whatever congregations tend to be Evangelical…just more hip….and with coffee. Unfortunately, I have seen very few gatherings or churches that stray very far (theologically) from the churches that planted them (or from where the leaders used to worship.
    To say that there isn’t problems with the ordination process – to me – is a myopic view. To say we must leave the denomination is also difficult for me to swallow…

  • I dig what you are doing Tony. Love the idea of getting back to the priesthood of all believers.
    But I also dig any post that uses the word “vituperations”. Well done.

  • #7 is really important. It is, I think, the crux of the issue here. I’m sure most mainlines would say the agree, but that there is a deep and rigid bifurcation between privileged clergy on the one hand and the laity on the other is undeniable.

  • Regarding the difference over reformation from within vs. from without…
    In the Reformation era there was effectively no “without.” Luther, Calvin, et al. had no place to stand other than within. With today’s fruit of their work, i.e., our fragmented denominational systems, your location, Tony, vis-a-vis the systems you are speaking to, is very different than that of the first generation of Reformers. I’m a UM, so most of my urgings toward reform are directed to the UMC. They know me. I am a part of that system and network of accountability. While I might have opinions (mostly uninformed) about Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics and other ecclesial bodies, I’m NOT part of those systems or networks of accountability. My location in relation to the UMC is more akin to Luther & Calvin’s location in relation to the church of their day, than it is to other groups of which I am not a part. (Sure, I admit that most of the UM hierarchy ignores as assiduously as every other hierarchy out there.)

  • Wendy

    Well stated, Tony! Good for you for sticking to your guns!

  • Colin

    Tangentially @ Annie – The RCC does in fact still sell indulgences, but their use has been tempered and refined since Luther.

  • My understanding of scripture is that ordination in the early church was that it was a setting aside or calling of someone (or a group of “someones”) to a special purpose; and this setting aside was a local church matter. If that is in fact the case, then aren’t we putting a little too much stock in the ability of an ecclesiastical body to deem those who are/are not worthy? Are we not guilty of putting the ordained on some elevated level that was never intended for ordained persons?
    It disturbs me that, in the churches where I have served, only the ordained were invited to lay hands on the “candidate.” The ordained don’t ordain, the Body of Christ ordains those who have been called to be set aside for a special purpose. At my ordination, I requested that anyone who felt led be invited to be a part of the laying on of hands. The 92-year old lady who taught me Sunday School in the sixth grade and hadn’t missed a Sunday in over 20 years had more to do with my calling and Christian growth than Joe Preacher from Whatever Baptist Church down the road. Why should she be denied input into my ordination just because most baptist churches will not ordain women?
    All this discussion boils down to one thing on which I totally agree with Tony: Our religious institutions have created a system that has dramatically overblown the importance and the purpose of ordination.

  • Robert Nesbitt

    Amen Tony….it is time for the protestant church to reform its self now….

  • Ted Seeber

    I agree with that verdict. In fact, I blame American Biblical Fundamentalism as being the #1 cause of Atheism in the United States. Their insistence that the Bible is the Word of God (it isn’t), inerrant, written by God instead of inspired by God’s work with man, and total ignorance of Church history regarding scripture like the Synod of Hippo or the Council of Carthage, has led to quite a number of what I call “Biblical Atheists”- Atheists whose entire proof of the non-existence of God rests on “errors” and “contradictions” in scripture, most of which can be explained with the Tradition that American Fundamentalists rejected.
    So yes, I do blame Sola Scriptura and American Fundamentalism for *directly* hindering many people from understanding the gospel.

  • Ted, I don’t disagree with that. I have also known a number of friends who were “spiritually abused” in Fundamentalist systems of belief who struggled for years to get back to some type of normalcy in their faith journey. I know a couple who have never been able to overcome their guilt and shame when they began to realize that they didn’t fully agree with their church, parents, pastors, etc. on matters of scripture and faith.
    However, I don’t think the answer is to de-emphasize the Bible. I think the answer is a more honest, open, and intense study of scripture. Understanding church history is important, but that history has also caused many people to run away from the church as quickly as possible. In fact, I believe that the history of Christianity outside of scripture has done far more damage than adherence to scripture. Fundamentalism is merely one part of that history, because it doesn’t honestly seek answers in the Bible. It creates the answers, searches for Biblical minutia as support, and then proceeds to condemn anyone who does not adhere to what has been created.

  • Rev. Chris Johnson

    Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
    – Romans 12:12
    To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.
    – Nelson Mandela

  • Dave

    Colin said: “Tangentially @ Annie – The RCC does in fact still sell indulgences, but their use has been tempered and refined since Luther.
    First, whenever you cite wikipedia as a source, a piece of my soul dies :-).
    Second, the RCC has actually never authorized the pure selling of indulgences. Johann Tetzel (among others) sold indulgences, but their practice was against the RCC’s teaching on indulgences. An indulgence is only considered valid if the recipient fulfills the act with the correct intentions and spiritual focus. The donation or offering of money can be a part of the indulgence, but it is never the act that makes the indulgence valid… and when money is put as an option, there is supposed to be an opportunity for those who cannot give financially to still obtain the indulgence. (the Catholic Encyclopedia) is a great source on this.
    FYI, I am PC(USA) and do not agree with the theology behind indulgences, but I think it is unfair to use wikipedia (basically, your neighbor down the street) to support a claim that is patently false.

  • My husband David was licensed about a year and a half ago by a small faith community which is filled with family and friends who had watched him grow in the Lord and who believed in his calling into ministry. His first sermon was about the Kingdom of God, and contained within it a strong emphasis on the Kingdom being something that is here, now, today, and yet will stretch on into eternity (rather than being something that only begins in the afterlife). After the sermon he received some kind words from the pastor, a close family friend, about his theology needing some tuning (not to mention the organization of his thoughts, but hey it was his first one). His license was given on a one-year trial period to await an assumed future ordination.
    Unfortunately this same community very shortly afterward took David to a conference warning about the “evil of EC”, which I might add was full of false information I later exposed to many …. However I could not convey this to the 1,000 attenders who left the meeting buying the corrupted data hook, line and sinker. Nor could I convey this to the faith community in question (it did not matter what truths I offered about the inside workings of EC, since I had become
    “one of them” so I could not be trusted). After a year had gone by the lead pastor of this community had “the talk” with my husband, and informed him he would not be getting ordained after all because of his heretical theology. And all this from people who knew the calling of Jesus on David’s life, knew the sincerity and gifting of this amazing man I married, knew he has a heart like that of his Biblical namesake, knew us so intimately…. Knew us well enough to offer licensing and ordination even though we were not attending their Sunday morning meetings. It breaks my heart when I think of it. David has always had the heart of a pastor in the Biblical sense. What is this other sense, this sense that can be robbed from a man? Why must we be so stuck in our own presuppositions about Jesus, as if we can know him fully in this life, that others can be cast aside so easily for seeing things differently? It just doesn’t seem right.

  • Theresa Seeber

    This is a link to Frank Viola’s blog, in which he is discussing a series he is writing. I don’t share it here to promote his books (although I do recommend them), I share it because of the way he spells out each one in the series and the pertinence of them to this conversation about ordination.

  • Your Name

    I was licensed to the ministry in 1992 by a fundamentalist organisation. When my ordination came up 3 years later, I declined to continue down that path for two reasons: I didn’t believe it to be necessary to my functioning in my church and I was starting to move away from the theological leanings of this particular group. Looking back, it was the right choice. I see from the mixed comments to this post that you have many suggestions on offer, and some judgements. I think the number one question should be: What is on Adam’s heart? Seeing the many responses here and on other blogs I can’t see much said about his thoughts. And if he genuinely wants to seek ordination in the PC(USA), then perhaps immediate compromises need to be made so the larger dream is fulfilled.

  • John D’Elia

    I have been (mostly) enjoying this exchange with Tony over ordination, which has really become for me a discussion of how Christians treat each other as they push for change. I’ve posted a longer response to Tony on my own site, which you can read here:
    In many ways I’m an odd choice to defend traditional ordination in a denomination. While I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA, most of my career has been spent in non-profit management, mostly in the fringes of denominational life. The church I serve now is a multi-denominational congregation in Central London. But I do have enormous respect for my brothers and sisters who have served Christ faithfully and effectively within the institutional structures of the Presbyterian Church, and so I am offering an opposing viewpoint to Tony’s ‘all babies out with the bathwater’ argument.
    Wherever else this discussion goes, the crux of my argument is this: The choice of denominational ordination is precisely that. It’s a choice, made prayerfully and with integrity, to serve Christ and the world in partnership with, and in submission to, agreed upon organizing principles.
    That’s it. That’s the point I’m trying to make for Tony and his readers. I make no claim of superiority for my Presbyterian tradition, and I would never, ever, argue that only large denominations have the authority to define and practice the ordination of ministers.
    I simply want my choice of denominational participation, and the similar choices of others, to be respected in partnership with the groundbreaking work of Tony and other Emergent leaders and thinkers. The attacks really do have to stop. The missiles Tony is sending at those of us in denominations misrepresent the experiences of thousands of ministers, hurt the body of Christ, and they distract us from our true calling: To worship and serve in Christ’s name, and to model the transforming love of Jesus to a hurting world. The attacks really do have to stop.

  • Tony,
    I echo the comments of others above to the effect that the notion that emergent or the emerging missional way is the one right way to be church and the denominations, whatever else they may be, are just plain the wrong way to be church, is a non-starter.
    The reality is both are limited.
    And that means we both need each other.
    You can say what you like as an individual demanding denominations change. Your own voice, because you are not part of the life of any of the denominations, may have some resonance here and there but will not have authority. What it will do, since you are also identified as a significant spokesperson for the larger emerging missional movement, is build up unnecessary tension between those of us pursuing that way as part of denominational life and those of us who are not. And the reality is, those of us who are doing so within denominations are not, generally, in positions of power– at least not yet.
    We on the inside continue to try to make the case that emerging missional is not our enemy. Your recent and continuing broadside rants against denominations– all of them– are making that argument harder for us to sustain.
    I’m not telling you to sit down and shut up, Tony. I’ve been told to do that before. I hate it when people tell me that. And I don’t want to do that to anyone. I am asking you to stop your broadside attacks. And I am asking you to keep raising important questions we need to hear. But that’s the point– ask pointed questions– don’t try to tell us what to do. Especially don’t try to demand we meet your vision of things. That just hurts us all.
    One last thing– the “ontological shibboleth.” I know of no Christian denomination, anywhere, that embraces the notion that ordination creates an ontological change in the ordained. That idea has been bandied about by Protestants against Roman Catholics and Orthodox for far too long, and it is a gross misrepresentation that actually harms us all. What nearly all of us who believe the Holy Spirit acts decisively in ordination DO say is that here the Holy Spirit, through the church, bestows and seals gifts for the particular work those who are ordained are expected to perform within the church. Like all gifts of these Spirit, these gifts are irrevocable. This is pneumatological action, not ontological change. And these gifts do not make a person better than another– instead they empower and define the particular role the ordained are to play in the community.
    Ordination is thus a further specification, a tighter binding, if you will, for how those ordained will live out the baptismal covenant among the baptized. Ordination is thus defining– limiting– as much as it is empowering. It is true too many of the ordained have forgotten that. But not all of us have. And I think those of us in the emerging missional way– in denominations or otherwise– may understand this dual reality– empowering AND binding– quite deeply.
    Peace in Christ…

  • I appreciate what Taylor Burton-Edwards said (and the tone in which it was said), Tony. I think he’s someone worth listening to.

  • Brian Merritt

    I think that it is interesting that you have so easily been offended by a friend talking about coming from a higher socio-economic background (which you do not deny). You would have had a much more difficult path to Fuller and Princeton if you had parents that worked for a meat packing plant in the Midwest or worked the fields in California. Many in the emergent community have finally had the revelation that there are poor and that the Bible actually has a lot to say about them. Welcome to the dance. Yet many of them do not want to admit the backgrounds that they come from and the relative homogeneous nature of their own emergent communities.
    Some of us think that this is at the crux of the denominational ordination issue. For every Adam there are 10 to 20 Poor, Latino, African-American or LGBT people that could never undertake such a process in a denominational structure or most emerging ones for that matter. Let’s add women in there for the emergents because they are coming quite late to that one. Some women feel quite silenced by their equal “priesthood of all believers” emergent male gurus.
    Again I think that it must be hard to hear that you come from an advantaged background. I grew up poor, but in comparison to many that I have worked with in the delta, inner city Chicago and internationally I have experienced abundance that they could never dream of. Hopefully, both experiences will make us more humble, not in judgement. I would like to think about how painful it is to hear such a comment about origins that you have just experienced when you tell people who have a deep love for their church that they are sinners for caring about it and Adam.
    I am sorry to hear about the current financial difficulties that you seem to allude to in this post. I hope that maybe this controversy helps you sell more books and get more speaking engagements. I do think that this painful discussion is something that the institutional church must be forced to talk about. I do not have a problem it coming from the outside, I just wish that emergents were more willing to see that they are not immune from the hubris of abusiveness by powerful men.

  • Joe Carson

    what about Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Near East Christianity? We are we stuck in evangelical/mainline rut? How relevant is that to the “holy catholic” – universal – church?

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