My (Anti-) Ordination Sermon

In light of the recent ordination discussion here, I’m reposting an ordination sermon that I preached for a friend in 2005. Looking forward to your comments.

Last weekend, I preached at the ordination service of a friend. I thought it was strange of her to ask me, being that I don’t really find ordination helpful anymore (I did once, and I am ordained). It’s not so much the institution itself (though I do have problems with it), but the way it’s used that I find so troubling. It’s too often used as some kind of worldly power grab, an excuse to make someone call you “Pastor,” or a reason to get a really lucrative tax break, or the chance for an otherwise relatively culturally powerless person to be in charge — of a pulpit and microphone on Sunday, a staff meeting on Monday, a board of elders on Tuesday, etc.

Thankfully, I was involved in the ordination of a friend who is tempted toward none of these abuses. Here is an edited version my sermon.

Rev. Antoinette Brown

“We are here assembled on a very interesting and solemn occasion, and it is proper to advert to the real object for which we have come together. There are in the world, and there may be among us, false views of the nature and object of ordination. I do not believe that any special or specific form of ordination is necessary to constitute a gospel minister. We are not here to make a minister.

It is not to confer on this our sister a right to preach the gospel. If she has not that right already, we have no power to communicate it to her. Nor have we met to qualify her for the work of the ministry. If God, and mental and moral culture, have not already qualified her, we can not by any thing we may do by way of ordaining or setting her apart. Nor can we, by imposition of our hands, confer on her any special grace for the work of the ministry; nor will our hands, if imposed upon her head, serve as any special medium for the communication of the Holy Ghost, as conductors serve to convey electricity. Such ideas belong not to our theory, but are related to other systems and darker ages.

All we are here to do, and all we expect to do, is in due form, and by a solemn and impressive service, to subscribe our testimony to the fact, that, in our belief, our sister in Christ, Antoinette Brown, is one of the ministers of the new covenant, authorized, qualified, and called of God, to preach the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. This is all; but even this renders the occasion interesting and solemn. As she is recognized as a pastor of this flock it is solemn and interesting to both pastor and flock to have the relation formally recognized.”

These words were preached by the Rev. Luther Lee on September 15, 1853 in South Butler, New York. The occasion was the ordination of Miss Antoinette Brown, the first woman ever ordained in modern times. Appropriately enough, Rev. Brown was ordained as a Congregationalist….

However, I come today with some troubling news. Ordination, my friends, is in trouble. Deep trouble.

The verb, “to ordain,” comes from the same Latin root as, “to order,” and it means basically the same thing. Ordination is, presumably, about putting things in the right order, about getting the hierarchy right. Now, as Congregationalists, we don’t have much hierarchy; there’s a little more for Presbyterians and a lot more for Episcopalians and Catholics. But all of us Baptists (small “b” and large “B”) and Congregationalists, the order is really just two levels, ordained and non-ordained (also known as “laypersons”).

Ultimately, no matter the denominational flavor, ordination is about the conferring of some kind of authority upon the ordinand. Danielle will have hands laid upon her in a few moments in a sign of demarcation that has its origins in the Bible, and she will join the millions of men and women who have followed St. Peter, the one who was initially set apart by Jesus himself, given the “keys to the church.” And suddenly, magically, after we lay hands on her, Danielle will have the authority to baptize, marry, bury, and preside over the Lord’s Supper. She’ll have the authority to shepherd young people, to assist God in ushering them into his kingdom. She’ll have the authority to speak the gospel to the powers of our age! Or will she?

Here’s the rub. We live in possibly the most anti-authoritarian era of all time. You may already be convinced of this, but humor me by allowing me some examples. Just 60 years ago the press wouldn’t show the President of the United States in a wheelchair; today the President is skewered nightly by Leno, Letterman, and Saturday Night Live. The Pope is mocked in editorial cartoons, and the Supreme Court is depicted sans robes – or anything else – in this Christmas’s bestselling book.

People are deeply, deeply suspicious of authority. But before we start to bemoan how much times have changed, and how much we wish it was the way to used to be, let me say in the interest of full disclosure, I think that this suspicion of authority is a good thing

You see, coming out of the Enlightenment of the 18th century, things were pretty rosy. It was commonly assumed that the human race had finally begun to figure things out. As Europe emerged out of two centuries of war, a generation of philosophers and scientists promised a new age, based on “enlightened rationality.” Philosopher Immanuel Kant declared that humankind had left its immaturity and that the motto of the Enlightenment was, “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!”

The universe is orderly, rational, and ultimately knowable, the Enlightenment thinkers declared. And human beings will figure it all out, if we just “put our minds to it.”

And then the 20th century happened. The human race achieved great heights, unparalleled progress. But every height was matched by a depth, a deep darkness that makes it possibly the most ambivalent century of all time.

We cured diseases at an astounding rate, but an influenza epidemic in 1918 and 1919 killed 25 million. AIDS is currently devastating the continent of Africa.

The global infant mortality rate has dropped from 198 to 83 deaths per thousand births in the last forty years, but overpopulation is paralyzing the growth of underdeveloped countries.

The Internet has delivered incredible resources of news, information, and pornography to young and old alike.

This list, of course, could go on. But what really brought the Enlightenment dream to an end was war. Rather than bringing a century of peace, the 20th century was the bloodiest that humankind has ever seen. 150 million people died in warfare, and the 20th century ended with armed conflict taking place in fully one-third of the nations on Earth.

And at whose feet do we lay the blame for this? At the feet of authority, because for every Einstein, Kennedy, King, and Churchill, there’s a Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot. Authority, my friends, took a beating in the 20th century.

And so we emerge into the 21st century with a vast horizon of possibility before us, and an ambivalent legacy behind us. People don’t trust authority, and with good reason. Postmodern philosophers have for thirty years now been attempting to do “philosophy after the Holocaust,” for how does one speak authoritatively about “truth” when such talk sounds vaguely like the claims made by the Nazis and Africaans?

How does a pastor, for instance, stand in a pulpit and authoritatively preach about what is good and true and right when the backdrop of her profession is headlines of pedophilic priests, T.V. preachers, and pastors with moral failings? At one time we wore these robes to convey a certain amount of authority, to show how well educated we were, back when Oxford and Yale professors wore them to lectures every day. Now few know what they signify….

For only now, after the institution of ordained ministry has been laid low, can it be reborn into what it can and should be.

There is no better time to restate Paul’s dictum: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, ordained nor lay, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Now we can truly embrace St. Peter and Martin Luther’s ideal of “the priesthood of all believers.” The unspoken contract between pastor and congregation can be rewritten, for we are all called to ministry, all called to serve God daily and wholeheartedly. The pastor does not deliver us the truth – that’s the job of the Holy Spirit. The pastor gathers us, makes sure the bills get paid, and helps us to develop theological language to describe and redescribe our lives. The pastor reminds us that we are a “royal priesthood,” that we are the “body of Christ.” This is not authoritarianism but cooperation.

And there is no better place for ordination to be reborn than in a congregational church where the minister has always been in some sense, just “one of the folks” (to use a Rounerian phrase). We do “set apart” our pastors insofar as we pay them to do the business of the church.

But when it comes time to vote on something, there’s one vote a piece, whether you’re “Reverend” or ir-reverend.

There’s a verse that makes any Congregationalist’s heart sing, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” Danielle is ordained today not by a distant bishop or a denominational bureaucracy, but by the local body of Christ, by the same folks who led her in youth group, discipled her through high school, prayed her through college, gave her a job in ministry, and kept her in care in seminary. We encouraged her to preach, serve communion, teach Bible studies, run summer camp, lead mission trips, hang out with kids, and mentor an amazing group of young women.

And there is no better person in whom ordination’s rebirth can take place than Danielle Hample. I have been honored to watch God forge Danielle these past years, and, more than anyone I know, myself included, Danielle’s motivation for having this celebration on this day is pure. She holds no illusions of grandeur, takes no egocentric pleasure from standing in a pulpit, doesn’t long for credibility in the eyes of men and women. She desires no worldly authority, no office of power. No, hers is as pure a heart to serve as a sinful human being can have. And she has been serving, lo these many years.

And so I reiterate the sentiments of Rev. Luther Lee at that ordination service so many years ago. We’re not doing anything here today - at least, we’re not doing anything that God didn’t already do years ago. In some ways, we’re just catching up with God’s work in Danielle’s life enough to say that she is, indeed, “one of the ministers of the new covenant, authorized, qualified, and called of God, to preach the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.” We will all do well to watch the grace with which she carries the title, “Reverend,” for my guess is that she will embody the humility that we read about in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, considering others better than herself, and looking to the interests of others before her own. It’s to this standard that we’re all called and set apart. And no one will proclaim that with more zeal than Reverend Hample.

  • http://mattcleaver.com Matt Cleaver

    Excellent. I didn’t even catch the fact you were quoting someone at the very beginning, just thought you were using fancy Princeton language. I hope this conversation spreads out from here and continues.

  • Ann

    Beautiful sermon Tony. You push the envelope without being disrespectful or antagonistic.
    I can’t say I know that much about what ordination means… I probably never really thought that hard about it before. This is what I do know. I want to go to a church and be let by a minister that has been through seminary. I’m just not comfortable being led by someone who hasn’t been through that rigorous education process. Much like I want my doctor to have been through Med school and pass the board exams. I realized in college when I was trying out different churches that some of the “ministers” that were leading non-denominational churches had no more education that I did. That might work for some people, but not for me. Is ordination a safe-guard for the denominations that makes sure that ministers are properly trained before leading a congregation? Was that the original intent, but we have strayed from there? What exactly are the tax-benefits to being ordained? Don’t ministers have to pay income taxes on their salary just like the rest of us?
    Tony- You say you don’t believe in ordination, but yet you say the denominations should reform it. So what type of ordination process would you support? And what exactly are the problems with the process we have now?

  • Shawn Coons

    Tony, your sermon makes a lot of sense. But I still feel a great lack of compassion and understanding from you for people in mainline denominations.
    As I hear your message to Adam it sounds like this:
    “The ordination systems is broken/sinful/abusive. So you should leave your denomination. Leave where you feel called to be. Leave the community of faith that has nurtured and supported you. Leave the people you know and love. If they are mainliners then they are too entrenched in the denomination to be redeemable there. God is not doing anything there that makes it worth staying. God is done there and has moved on to better things.”
    If I’m wrong please correct me. But it seems that you believe that the ordination process is the bad apple that spoils the whole denomination.

  • http://robbiecape.blogspot.com Robbie Cape

    Very good sermon.
    Thoughts: Brian, unfortantely there is no “pastor” in the New Testament. There is “pastors,” plural but not singular. Our ministry model more reflects the Roman Catholic church’s model of a priest than the New Testament model of many priests and ministers. It’s hard to picture, but give it a try. There are many pastors who aren’t recognized or called Pastor, we need to let them know we see it. In the New Testatment, teachers, evangelists and the like are just as important as the pastor. They have different roles to play in the church, not a different “office” (also not in the Bible). Authority is given to God alone. We need leadership, that is true. We need tons of leadership. But that does not allow us to neglect the gifts of those in the church. This we have done and do in every congregation of believers. If we encourage each person’s gifts, and thus each have a meaning and the “pastor” all of a sudden doesn’t have to have every tool in the toolbelt, the church will start to look a little more like you read in the Bible. Ok, enough sermon of my own…good article.

  • Chad

    I’m confused.
    In light of everything that has been said by Tony on this topic, I wonder how he can say this:
    There’s a verse that makes any Congregationalist’s heart sing, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” Danielle is ordained today not by a distant bishop or a denominational bureaucracy, but by the local body of Christ, by the same folks who led her in youth group, discipled her through high school, prayed her through college, gave her a job in ministry, and kept her in care in seminary. We encouraged her to preach, serve communion, teach Bible studies, run summer camp, lead mission trips, hang out with kids, and mentor an amazing group of young women.
    …and then call for an online petition to be signed to ordain Adam, knowing full well that a “virtual” community is not a substitute for what he describes above. Such is the reason I refuse to sign such a petition and find it to be, quite frankly, anti-emergent.

  • Chad

    Another thought:
    God is still calling pastors, teachers, prophets, etc. When you blur the lines of ordination (and I agree that the “process” can always use tweaking) you are essentially saying that God is not in the business of raising up pastors, or teachers, or servants any longer. If we are “all” ordained than no one is. You quote Paul but you ignore Paul’s extreme desire to maintain order in worship (1 Corinthians). Why the hub-bub over who can qualify to be a pastor or bishop if there is no need to set them apart?
    I am grateful for the long process that the UMC (where I am currently on track to be ordained) has for mentoring and discerning with candidates for ordination. Done rightly, it allows for the community of faith to affirm and confirm the inward call that I and my brothers and sisters sense from God to step out in this specific type of ministry. There is nothing inherently sinful about this, Tony. No more than *your* system that you seem to think Adam or others like myself must convert to.

  • http://dbcoleman.blogspot.com Don

    Tony – I have to agree with Brian here. I don’t want to come off patronizing, but it seems like there’s something there, personally, that’s misconstruing the entire reason for ordination. Yes, it has been, continues to be, and will be in the future, abused. But that happens in a denominational setting or in a non-denominational setting/congregationalist church. Ordination is not about vesting someone with power & the black robes ushered in by Calvin weren’t about power either – they were about simplicity, in response to the hierarchical ministry of Rome – you know that already.
    Ordination is about setting aside a person to lead the CHURCH, not simply about being a minister of the gospel. We all are, indeed, ministers of the gospel. I’m sure you’ve read it before, but in case you haven’t, I’m going to quote at length (apologies), the best thing I’ve ever heard or read regarding ordination – from Eugene Peterson in “Working the Angles”
    “WE need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves – our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life. Minister with word and sacrament to us in all the different parts and stages of our lives – in our work and play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. THIS is yours: word and sacrament.
    “One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ORDAIN you and why we are going to exact a VOW from you. We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something nelse than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing – God, kingdom, gospel – we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking biblical words of command and promise and invitation.
    “That, or something very much like that, is what I understand the church to say to the people whom it ordains to be its pastors.”
    Yes, Tony, I get that leadership & authority is misused. And for that reason, we all submit not to an earthly power, but to God. But you can’t tell me, that there isn’t a place for setting aside people who’ll remind us of that very fact.

  • Anastasia

    what about the Holy Spirit?

  • Alan K

    Tony,
    You’ve proven yourself to be a demolition expert and have rightly pointed out the problematic and, frankly, unbiblical split between clergy and laity. But the fact remains that there is this body called God’s people and it needs leadership. What alternative vision can you offer that the church could lay hold of? The Plymouth Brethren did away with clergy in the 19th century and the result was that worship became the world’s greatest amateur hour. Eventually some Brethren in Vancouver realized they had a leadership vacuum and so they started Regent College, but they invited the whole church, the laity, to come partake. Eventually, the Brethren started hiring pastors.

  • http://www.benlemery.com Ben Lemery

    I have to give Tony credit, he is living in ideology and refuses to compromise that line for anything. Unfortunately, his rants and strong opinions become blanket statements regarding an entire topic.
    Why can I say that? I do it all the time! It’s my greatest fault to date and what annoys me is probably what annoys so many others that read my blogs. I take a stance on an issue, judge it and my word is law.
    Tony, I believe your opinions resonate from woundedness and hurt from situations in the past but that doesn’t mean the entire process should be thrown out. Yes, there are issues with every church but ordination does have a place in some sense.
    In a society where you can go online and become ordained simply because you pay $25 shows a lack of accountability in the system. On the flipside though, I have seen very smart, Fuller, Princeton, Moody Seminarians that should never, ever be ordained because it isn’t what they are called to do.
    Really the bigger question should be: why are we ordaining those who were never called to pastor in the first place. Just because you give a good sermon doesn’t mean you should be a pastor. It might make you a good speaker but not a good shepherd.
    It is easy to look at the system but sometimes we have to look at ourselves and ask, “what is God trying to teach and say to us here?” We might be surprised.

  • http://www.chadholtz.wordpress.com Chad

    http://chadholtz.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/an-emerging-mess/
    Above is my working it out in my head on my blog.

  • Ted Seeber

    And so you add the main error of Sola Scriptura to the Sacrament of Holy Orders. With a priesthood of believers and congregationalism comes the paradoxical idea of no believers and no congregation. For without hierarchical order, there truly is no congregation. The congregation needs the priest as much as the priest needs the congregation.
    I can truly say you’re continuing Calvin’s and Luther’s errors here. For how can it be that there are no more prophets (the canon of scripture is closed and we can have no teaching outside of it) yet everybody be a prophet (interpreting scripture on their own?) This is just the logical extension of the error of sola scriptura into ordination, to the further destruction of the Bride of Christ.
    Without Order, there is only Chaos and Heresy.

  • Ann

    Ted- Do you really think Christianity would be served better if we all just came back to the Catholic Church? I think the RCC has proved to us throughout history (and still today) that that it can’t handle the power of being the only option in Christianity. Thank goodness for diversity b/c absolute power corrupts absolutely. At least people like Adam can escape corruption in one bureaucracy and maybe find justice in another. The heirarchical model is dying and praise God for that.

  • Tim Fitch

    Maybe the greater questions should be how do we discern who should be spiritual leaders and guides or for Emergents who are trying to flat line leadership how do we discern who has what gifts to help the body of Christ? Seems to me this ordination debate has overshadowing the greater issue.

  • Chad

    Ann-
    On what grounds are you calling Adam’s denomination “corrupt”? That is pretty strong language. Why should he leave one system for another? Are you suggesting that a) your (or Tony’s) way is the only right way or b) Adam’s denomination is irredeemable?
    Adam switched conferences in the middle of the ordination process. It is hardly “corrupt” of an ordaining body to ask for additional course work.

  • Ann

    Chad- It wasn’t my intention to call the Presbyterian Church corrupt. I’m sorry if that is how it came off. My point was that the diversity of denominations in Christianity is a blessing because when you have fallen human beings running a bureaucracy, you are bound to end up with situations where justice isn’t served. It seems to me, and outsider (I’m a LAY person, who has NEVER been to seminary and who doesn’t understand the politics apparently involved with ordination) that Adam is not being treated fairly. I can not understand why the PC(USA) has seminaries that issue degrees if those degrees aren’t good enough. The issue with Adam according to this committee wasn’t that they didn’t think he was called, it was that his education wasn’t adequite. So he’s suppose to shell out $ for another year of seminary in hopes that this committee won’t just put up another hurdle for him to jump over? Shame on all of us if we knowingly allow this to continue.

  • Scott

    @Ted
    Calvin and Luther were both very big on church order. The logical outcome of sola scriptura isn’t a flat leadership structure with no ordination. You’ll notice that all the churches of the magesterial Reformation still have clergy, and most hierarchical structures. If you actually read Calvin and Luther you would see that the priesthood of all believers has nothing to do with everyone being his or her own interpreter of the Bible and everything to do with the fact that there is no mediating priest to dispense grace to the faithful. Within the Reformed tradition the pastor doesn’t dispense sacramental grace but herald the Word of grace: Jesus Christ. Thankfully, I think these distinctions are decreasing as many Protestants have come to a higher view of the sacraments (though Calvin and Luther certainly had a high sacramentology) and Catholics are now placing more emphasis on the proclamation of the Word.
    @Ann
    Hierarchical structures are dying? Evidence please.

  • Chad

    Ann-
    Thank you for clarifying. You talk about justice not being served, which I agree is never a good thing. However, we must ask: whose justice? I can understand being outraged over something or someone when things don’t quite go as planned (most likely, the way *I* plan). However, that is not to say justice is not being served. If an ordaining body relaxes or dismisses altogether its ordination requirements than what is just in that? Certainly the pastor up for ordination might breath a little easier knowing that he or she is a shoe-in, but is this justice for the congregations that pastor will serve? Would you want a pastor that is unqualified, under-trained, un-skilled, morally and socially inept? Probably not. We have ordaining boards in place to ensure that the call the pastor senses God has placed on his or her life is nurtured to the best of our human abilities and put to use in the best possible way within (and this is very important) the particular context of said ordaining communities.
    I am a United Methodist getting my MDiv at Duke Divinity, a Methodist university. Presently my conference is Holston in TN but I am discerning a move to the NC conference. Every conference in the UMC has different requirements for their pastors. Some require a certain amount of hours in preaching classes. Others require certain amounts of hours in Methodism polity and doctrine. Others require more hours in social and justice issues. Some require more NT or OT related studies. The point is, while I am at Duke I can take all the courses that the conference who will be ordaining me requires me to have. From what I understand, Adam switched conferences late in the game. He was told up front that there may be some additional course work required (if I am wrong on this, please correct me, but this is what I have read). It is hardly corrupt nor is it “just another hoop” to jump through.
    Rather than berating the “system” (since no system is perfect) why not pray that God give Adam patience and peace as he discerns what path God desires him to pursue? Why not pray for the ordaining committee that they continue to seek God’s will and have nothing less than a burning passion to place pastors in their conferences who can serve their very real, dynamic and unique contexts?
    peace,
    Chad

  • Ted Seeber

    @Ann- I believe Christ wanted his *bride* to be ONE. That means ONE denomination, ONE hierarchy. I don’t find any of the historical causes for schism to be valid, because the RCC is a metaculture- it can handle different forms of worship under one roof, and in fact, historically has.
    @Scott- no, I don’t believe the *purpose* of Sola Gracias, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura was to create the schisms it has- I’m pretty sure Calvin and Luther believed in the hierarchy as strongly as any other Catholic does. But I do believe the flaw in these teachings is if you cut yourself out from the hierarchy, you open yourself up to heresy. 30,000 incompatible interpretations of scripture can’t all be right- yet that is the fruit of the Reformation, 30,000 squabbling little sects, each generation smaller than the last until you get cults like David Koresh or the Seventh Day Pentecostals which basically consist of only one family.

  • Ted Seeber

    @Ann- 2nd response. Christ Promised that the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against his Church. But the purpose of the Church, and Scripture, is to be infallible in matters of Salvation, not to be infallible in everything. Looking back- most of the more corrupt priests and Bishops were too taken by their own corruption and too busy with stealing out of the collection plate to do much teaching.
    I do believe in the infallibility of the Magisterium and the Seat of Peter- and it’s because of their teachings that I believe in the infallibility of the Bible, and under the same rules. I can’t have a Bible without a Bishop (and in fact, always check the Imprimatur before I buy a Bible). It’s just not logical to me, because it was a synod of Bishops at Hippo that gave us the Bible to begin with.

  • http://erikullestad.blogspot.com Erik Ullestad

    Tony,
    Great history lesson. Inspiring affirmation of your friend’s gifts. But why the anti-denomination jabs? Why can’t you just affirm your friend’s call to ordained ministry without spewing hurtful words about other Christians? What purpose does it serve to be so angry…especially at a time in a worship service when a preacher is called upon to proclaim the gospel?
    It’s clear that you have endured painful experiences at the hands of a denomination. Do you only see obstacles, roadblocks and sinful processes when you look at how denominational churches function? The fact that denominations have been a blessing to many people doesn’t seem to matter to you. I cannot comprehend why a person with such a breadth of wisdom and experience can’t understand that there might be another side to the issue. Isn’t is possible that some people who have endured bad experiences with their denominations later realized that there was a reason for the setback? Is it out of the question to consider that the people who walk with a person through their candidacy are working with the best interest of the whole church in mind…and not just the best interest of the would-be-pastor?
    I think there are MANY aspects of denominations that are stupid, screwed up, and backwards. There are examples of abuses of “power” in every sinful, human institution…even congregations. There are also many things (as I mentioned in a comment on your original ordination / petition post) that are beautiful and life-giving that come out of denominations. I echo Nadia’s comment about babies and bathwater.
    Bishops and other church leaders are set apart in the same way ordained ministers are. Not set above. Not set beyond. Set apart. If they don’t take the time to get to know their seminary students and pre-ordained candidates, then they’re doing a disservice to the whole church. I know that it is neither the policy or the practice of protestant denominations to take a hands-off, unfeeling, uncaring approach to the ordained. There are good, faithful, children of God who work within denominational structures to prepare leaders for lives of ministry. It’s not just a bunch of religious bureaucrats with six-figure salaries who exist to make life miserable for the people who feel a call to ordained ministry.
    For what it’s worth, Tim Wengert recently wrote a book (“Priesthood, Pastors, and Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation and Today”) that offered some interesting insight about Luther’s understanding of a “priesthood of all believers”…namely that Luther never uttered the phrase. I personally believe the notion that we are all priests, in the sense that we are “simultaneously sinners and saints” (a Luther phrase)…but there appears to be evidence that indicates Luther thought the presence of denominational structure was a blessing to the church; when the people in those positions didn’t abuse their role.
    I realize the Luther stuff is merely a tangent and isn’t at the heart of the matter…but I thought that, since Luther made a cameo in your sermon, that I would address it.
    You’re an inspired leader, Tony. I wish you’d soften your stance on this issue, not because I disagree with it, but because it’s clouding your excellent work in other avenues…and because it’s an opinion based largely on half-truths and misinformation about how the church really functions.

  • Ann

    @ Scott
    I would be happy to give you evidence. I will speak of what I know….. specifically, the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, of which I belong. In response to the fact that the Episcopal church is experiencing significant decline (in membership for one), a group called “The Bishop’s Commission on Mission Strategy” (BCMS) evolved in 2006. They spent time gathering information and input from congregations in the diocese and came up with a report aimed at providing solutions to the problem. The report “Rethinking, Reframing and Reclaiming Our Identity, Purpose and Mission,” has 4 main recommendations….. please take note of #3:
    Goal 1: Spiritual Transformation and Fuller Participation in God’s Mission
    Goal 2: Renew Congregations in Context
    Goal 3: Recreate the Diocese as a Network
    Goal 4: Develop Effective Stewardship of Financial Resources
    If you can read between the lines on #4, if basically means less $ going to support the Diocese structure, which means a significant restructure of our diocese. But I think #3 speaks for itself. The old ways of doing things don’t work anymore. When the bureaucracy itself admits that it doesn’t work, that is something that really must speak to you b/c it is pretty much unheard of for bureaucracies to give up power without force.
    Another interesting point is that we are in the process of (calling?) a new Bishop as ours is retiring. Apparently we are being flooded with applicants… more than dioceses much larger than ours because people are so excited about the changes going on in our diocese.
    One last thing. For the last year, we’ve been talking a LOT about the BCMS and their report and alongside that talk comes talk about “Missional Church”. It’s taken me a year to understand what Missional Church means, but I think I finally understand it. It’s the opposite of program church (hiring a bunch of professionals to run a bunch of church programs for you). It’s empowering the laity to help DO church. Yes, we NEED to have clergy for leadership, but the laity can’t just sit there and watch church be performed for them by the clergy. It’s participatory… not just the service, but also the programs in the church.
    I hope that was helpful… sorry my thoughts are so random, but I’ve been living in the middle of watching our heirarchy in our diocese start to crumble and it has been wonderful and exciting to be a part of it.

  • Paul Lanier

    I’m really only asking Tony some questions:
    I’m curious why you allowed yourself to be ordained in the first place.
    What use did you see in ordination then and why have you changed? Do you consider ordination to be irrelevant or unnecessary, and if so is there any particular reason why you give tacit although not rhetorical assent to the practice with the sermon for your friend’s ordination.
    I myself come from a Southern Baptist church, which is a congregational-ly organized church. I understand the motivation towards the desacralizatin of ordination (if that’s the right term for it). But I find ambivalence towards ordination a little confusing, because it is still practiced while yet looked down upon.
    I personally do not think ordination is a bad thing. Nor do I think the ordained clergy are any more saintly or gracious than other humans by the virtue of their ordination.
    I am merely asking questions about the tacit practice of ordination alongside the rhetoric against it. I suppose I like to see things consistent and I’m sensing a discordant note as a rupture here that troubles me.
    Paul

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/churchbasementroadshow/ Tony Jones

    Yes, Paul, my views on ordination have changed over the years.
    Yes, I have some ambivalence toward it.
    Yes, I realize that all systems of organization and leadership have problems.

  • Brian Merritt

    I like this the most of all that you have said on this topic. It is also a good sermon. It made my old holiness, congregational heart swell. The one thing that those extremely personality driven hierarchical systems lacked was self regulating discipline which is so important to the early church and biblical witness. That is not to say that they couldn’t produce them, but often it was assumed that if we had the Spirit that was enough, and of course you don’t question the Spirit.

  • Seth Jones

    Hi Tony,
    I was at Danielle’s ordination when you preached this. At the time, I thought it was a good sermon and it still is. I have been following your back and forth with Rev. D’Elia (sp?} over in London and some of the comments on both blogs. In many ways, the conversation seems entrenched, most particularly on the denominational side, but also from the emergent side, of which you are a very present and vocal representative. As with you, I am all for undermining authority and, as a good Congregationalist ordained in the same church you were, applaud the efforts to reframe and reconstruct the conversation at all levels of faith, church and institution. My question is far more academic and perhaps abstract than much of this conversation. At what point does the emergent conversation and movement, which echoes many other anti-authoritarian movements of the past, itself entrench and simply become another denomination, sort of like the various associations of “non-denominational” churches that have been around for ages? How do you see the emergent movement avoiding this? And isn’t this cyclical as well, as the pendulum swings from strident and stringent ordering to the overthrow of order only to reestablish a new order? I ask out of curiosity and interest, not as a critique necessarily of the emergent movement, much of which I identify with.
    Peace,
    Seth Jones

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/churchbasementroadshow/ Tony Jones

    Seth, that’s a fine question and one that, interestingly, is being asked less and less — I suppose because we aren’t doing anything that a denomination does. We don’t offer credentials, health insurance, pension, etc. Basically, we offer nothing! :-)

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