Saturday, January 7, 2017

When the Gates of Hell Prevail, or Why Clericalism is Evil

I believe that Christ commissioned the Apostles as a select, elect, group of Twelve. I believe that the Christ ordains officers of His Church, that they have been designated in names like Overseer [episkopos], Elder/Priest [presbyteros], and Deacon [diakonos]. I believe these officers help protect the life of Christ's Body and are necessary to any healthy church. However, I think Clericalism is straight from the pit of hell.

What do I mean by clericalism? This is the explicit, implicit, or functional idea that God's People, deeply and truly, is constituted by these ordained officers. In fact, these officers become the locus of ecclesiastical life, defining and delimiting the boundaries of what we call 'Church'. These officers cease to be officers or ranks, but separate, a class, distinct and different, at a, or almost at a, ontological level. They cease to be leading or structuring elements in the government of a church, they are the government of the church.

There are many problems with clericalism. It lacks firm biblical foundation. It collapses ecclesiastical realities into organizational structures, which, then, become coterminous with sociological measurements, analysis, and realities (in other words, they are kingdoms of this world). It creates absurd theological conclusions about ecclesiology. But I want to focus on what I think is the nexus of it all. This is the claim or distinction of professional Christians.

This is the idea that there are separable classes of Christians. I am not talking about mature/immature (which is a Biblical distinctive), but a kind of Christianity within Christianity. This has been formulated as 'ecclesiola in ecclesia' (a little church in the church). Ironically, this idea arose in resistance to a certain kind of clericalism, but I argue that the two have the same root and result in the same kind of boundary policing that is disgraceful among Christians.

I have been tempted over the years with both old and new types of clericalisms. The older is probably the most obvious and the most clearly disgusting to the one with biblical sensibilities. This is  the idea that the ordained embody and possess the church in their person. This is the Roman Catholic or the Anglo-Catholic who talks of an indelible mark of grace, an ontological shift from lay to priest. This perspective makes the priest into a kind of boat that carries his parish or his ministry into salvation. Yes the people might essentially be pagans (and are perhaps sneered at as such), but the priest's job is to carry them into God's kingdom. This results in preaching as moralizing and the Supper as magic. Both still exist in the modern West. Even though Vatican II has sought to change some of these tendencies, Roman Catholics tend to remain rather entrenched in this mode of being. The real Christians, the ones doing the basics of being and acting as Christians, are the professionals, the clergy. They do the praying, the loving, the serving, and lay people tack on as helpers, occasionally. But the intelligent and zealous ones are marked for joining the priesthood, it is the logical next step.

While the most grotesque forms of this are in the above traditions, many Protestants and others, do the same thing. This comes across with little to no expectation from the congregation to know or do anything. They are just the stupid sheep, or dream on until they need help or their time is at an end. I claim that whatever compassion that one tries to justify this under is really a form of extreme contempt. Of course, in prior days, this was represented in the high-handedness of clerical power, where the clergy many times were a literally different class, accessing certain political and economic privileges. Now a days, the price-tag of a seminary education and milieu of high education can mark a class distinction between the middle-class and bourgeois cleric and the working class congregants. All in all, it's a similar expectation and distinction that the minister does Christianity full-time where everyone else is a volunteer or part-time employee. This is a dour and utilitarian strip-down of clericalism. You keep praying, and I'll put a check in the basket. The grey hues of this economized way of life is pathetic.

But of course, there's the new kind of clericalism that one sees emerging with certain ideas about monasticism, but also among the Pietists and into the modern day Evangelical. This is rooted in the idea that there is a division between what Christ commands and what we can get by with. In Roman Catholic practice, this was that the monks lived under the Counsel of Divine Perfection, while others didn't, or didn't have to. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount was for the elite, not for the regular joe Christian. The monk was the escape valve for those who wanted to take Christianity seriously (which meant diverse things).

The Piestist shift represents a half-way between that and the Evangelical invert. The Pietists originally saw themselves as an inner church, serious Christians, within a broader state apparatus. Serious Christians would go to these conventicles during the week or night, in addition to regular Sunday worship. However, they sought to remain within, while crafting the judgmentalism that would invert the model. They considered themselves the real movers and shakers within a moribund ecclesiastical institute.

The Evangelical inversion was the Pietism of Spener and others taken to a new limit. They were schismatics that broke with the state-church to turn their conventicles into a new ecclesiastical domain. The problem, however, was that they were among a sea of state-church people that they considered unwashed masses. These were the dreaded 'nominal' Christians, baptized, catechized, but otherwise deprived of spiritual life and vitality. This continues to the present, with the occasional spirals into accusations, anxiety over one's own state, and burn-out. The emotional fervor of the New Lights and George Whitfiled turned New England and the Mid-Atlantic into the burned over districts. This inverts the monastic form, where now a ordained and/or lay cadre of elite bar people from the congregation and set a standard for what designates Christian from non-Christian, with varying levels of arbitrary and impossible performance.

The new clericalism might deceptively not look like clericalism, since it does not or has no clerical class. But the clerical class is those who hit the standard. It's a church of the spiritual elite, which many times only masks and hides the spiritual immaturity of a great many members. Unlike the monasticism, which was a vent within a larger social organism, the Evangelical Inversion invites endless schism and arbitrary tyranny, where from a single pastor or a mob of Holy Rollers. But these people, with the exception of a few bodies, don't consign the whole world to damnation. They still have a place for the nominals, depending on how this is defined. They made a declaration of faith, in some way, shape or form, and thus they'll be saved. Perhaps it's why Evangelicalism functions, weirdly, as a state-church in America. It's also why Evangelicalism is so easily wed to the same vision of a Christian Society. The Evangelical Inversion re-presents the same division, where there are professional Christians.

All of this makes a faux-version of Christ's Church and invites pain, confusion, malice, arrogance, division, and love gone cold. Both forms of this clericalism are easy to be sucked into, especially for those who have strong interests, intellect, and ambition. Personally, I applied and was accepted into Princeton Theological Seminary and I considered it because (because!) I desired an intellectual challenge and the chance to study theological texts. But, I turned it down. The main reason was mundane (I was offered full tuition and stipend elsewhere to do something else), but the other reason, which has become stronger in my mind since, was that this was to make a mockery of theology. The great sin of clericalism when it comes to knowledge of God is how it turns theology into an academic discipline. Thus, a godless man could, easily and theoretically, gain the same mastery over Christian theology as a Christian. He can read the Bible, read Barth, think creatively, rework doctrines in new and interesting ways. This is a disturbing conclusion, but is the current trend and trajectory of a lot of American seminaries that give high academic value. These are the same MDivs that most denominations, which functional like little companies or corporations, look at and approve. This is part and parcel to a kind of clericalism.

There is an alternative to this. I will list three things that I think are key:

1) The Biblical offices that I affirm are not a separate class of Christians, and they are not to be ignored. Instead, we must see them within the integrated whole of a church. These is no church without Christians, out of and over which these offices exercise their function and authority. The whole church, of the diverse churches, a part of one Church, are a semblance of parts, lay, deacon, elder, bishop, are members of One Body whose Head is Christ.

2) The reality of maturity and immaturity in the life of a church. Everyone is working at different stages, and Christ is calling them into different forms of life. They must all obey Him, but what this means is different. The monastic life as the perfect life, particularly in Western Europe, is a bastardization of this concept. A church body will have different maturity levels. This means that lay people may be more spiritually mature and wise than a deacon or a bishop. Hopefully this is not always true or true a majority of the time, but it's quite possible. The idea is that the body is a place to grow and be integrated. This fights against Anabaptistic strains of a Church of the Perfect, while simultaneously fighting against supposed Nominalism. There is no Nominalism in the Bible, there is strength and weakness, belonging or apostasy. This is stricter and looser at the same time.

3) Theology is the knowledge of God. This is only possible through walking with and experiencing God. This is not a flight of the emotions or existential crisis. But it does mean that to know God is to walk after Him. This is a long process and difficult, not accomplished in a couple years of schooling, but in a life time of practice. This is what everyone is called to, in different levels and measures. Every Christian is to know God, no one is a professional here. This means everyone must practice disciplines of prayer, fasting, repentance, virtue, service and friend, and Bible-reading (among others). These are not optional and a church must call all members to this, not hold the plebs in contempt through a sick form of pity.

These three things are starter issues, but they only skim on solutions to the problem of clericalism and professionalization of Christianity that is rampant. Clericalism tries to make churches into something else, which the Devil easily gobbles up. It's a serious problem, and may God give us the help to defeat it.

1 comment:

  1. This has inspired me to mull over a few things as a fellow decided-not-to-be-a-seminarian.

    Decades ago I was considering seminary and going into biblical studies but I felt it wasn't appropriate in the end for several reasons. The first was I felt I barely got my BA in financial terms (not academic terms, I did decently there). The second was that I felt no "call" to ministry and was reluctant t pin myself to a formal denomination. The third was perhaps the ost personally compelling. The late William S Lane advised that if I did go to seminary to steer far clear of the Ivy League. Lane's concern about the Ivy League was that they were completely immersed in what he called the Guild Mentality where few of the scholars were doing what they did to love and serve Christians in the local church, instead they were writing papers to pad their resumes and impress each other. The more I thought about that the more it seemed that whatever it was I could do as a Christian I wanted to avoid getting sucked into the Guild Mentality and the easiest way to avoid that was "probably" by not going to seminary.

    Now ... arguably I got sucked into a guild mentality of another kind being immersed in Mars Hill. ;) Not all guild mentalities are the same. The creepy Pentecostal variant I rejected was Latter Rain stuff but the temptation to seeing yourself as part of some special guild can happen in every tradition, it seems. Driscoll was skeptical of the value of formal seminary education right up to the point that he could name-drop his credentials to win arguments via clout. It began to dawn on me over the years that when you claim in advance you've won the case based on credentials before you even attempt to make a case from the biblical texts you've succumbed to a guild mentality even if you think you explicitly reject that stuff. There's the "obvious" academic/intellectual guild mentality but being a former Pentecostal there's the anti-intellectual/mystical guild mentality, too, which I trust you're probably also familiar with to some degree.