Christian Life 

A Church in Ruins

In our day there are strong reasons to suspect that God is not-so-much dismantling the parody that man has created as He is merely standing by and letting the inevitable collapse occur.


Ed preface (30/05/13)
The 'lead in' to the following 'Watchman' article, in the first instance, applies to the sexuality issue as it impacted and continues to impact on the Church of England. However the problems and principles relate to most forms of contemporary denominations.

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by Watchman
first published 14/07/2008

Church ruinThe principal apparent issues currently facing the Anglican Church over the past ten years and up to the present time relate to gender and sex, and in particular these refer to the ordination of women and to non-celibate homosexual relationships amongst senior clergy respectively.

The former question has been much debated at the Church’s General Synod at the beginning of July and the vote has been to allow women to be ordained as bishops.
The latter was very much to the fore at the GAFCON conference in Jerusalem a week earlier at the end of June which was attended by over 200 evangelical bishops intent on maintaining biblical standards on, amongst other things, sexuality. And this issue has been exacerbated by the recent 'marriage' of two gay priests.  Both of these disputes (on women and gay bishops) are at the forefront of the Lambeth Conference this July (2008) – the latest decennial (once-a-decade) assembly of bishops of the Anglican Communion convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Double standards in the midst

But there is a substantial element of hypocrisy underlying the current objections to women and gay bishops as there is, and has been for a considerable number of years, a general – if in some quarters very reluctant – acceptance of both women priests and gay priests.
So it seems that church leaders have been prepared to oblige congregations to sit under these ministries and, only when clergy themselves have to fall under the jurisdiction of either female or gay bishops, do these things become big problems which require to be robustly addressed – even to the extent of putting the unity of the Anglican communion in jeopardy. It seems that what has been good – or at least tolerated – for the laity goose, is now deemed unacceptable to the clergy gander.

The core issues

Having said all of that, the fundamental problems in these matters which the Church – and it is not just the Anglican Communion – seems unwilling to acknowledge or address are not, as it seems, to do with gender and sex. Rather the core issues are related to (the form of) church government, and to the clergy/laity divide.

On the matter of the oversight of God’s people there are basically three systems which have been adopted since the second or third century.
In no particular order these are Episcopacy (1), Congregationalism (2) and Presbyterianism (3). And of these, Episcopacy is essentially hierarchical, with the higher echelons exercising authority over those in the lower orders.

So even if the Church of England manages a ‘work-around’ for its current difficulties it will, because of the tiered structures, remain susceptible to the next occasion where one bishop/archbishop or another deviates from biblical orthodoxy and subjects those lower down the ecclesiastical food chain to his or (soon) her views. And all this takes us to the second fundamental problem – that of clericalism; a major problem for all denominations.

Leadership in the early church

In the early church and in the apostles’ teaching there is no hint of the priest/minister ‘professional’ that we see today (4); and the practice which denies the ministry of all believers, effectively disables disciples of Jesus from exercising their respective gifts and callings within the body of Christ.

If, alternatively, the Anglican Church was structured in a biblical pattern of having neither a hierarchy nor a clergy/laity divide it would not have the problems with which it is now beset.
Any individual who, irrespective of their position or function within the church, strayed from biblical patterns would be disciplined as (mere) individuals within a biblical framework and the church would not be thrown into trauma. And with no clergy/laity divide there would not be the problems – indeed the questions would not arise – relating to ‘women priests’.

Women in 'ministry'

Women would be free to exercise their respective ministries (forms of service) in terms of their individual giftings and callings as part of the priesthood of all believers – playing their roles and making their contributions to the extension of God’s kingdom. [Those who hold fast to a male clergy model from a traditional rather than theological perspective are very likely to defect to the Roman Catholic Church; and by doing so create, in effect, a 3-way split in the Anglican Church.]

But as things currently stand, the worldwide Anglican Communion is in turmoil and may not, in its present form, survive the crisis. So thousands upon thousands of believers are in serious upset. And not because of ‘women’ and ‘homosexuals’ – these things are merely symptomatic – but fundamentally because the Church has failed and continues to fail to adopt biblical standards of government, structure and ministry.

God giving the decrease?

In our day there are strong reasons to suspect that God is not-so-much dismantling the parody that man has created as He is merely standing by and letting the inevitable collapse occur.

Jesus said: “I will build my church.” We have had two thousand years to allow him do that, but instead we have persisted with our own misguided methods. Perhaps, in the light of failing ecclesiastical structures – and Episcopalian Anglicanism is not alone – we are now being forced to let Him get on with the task.

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(1) Episcopacy is essentially hierarchical (the term literally means “priestly rule”) whereby the pecking order, from bottom up, is church members, deacons, priests, archdeacons, bishops and archbishops. This is the model that developed under what is now the Roman Catholic Church, which of course also has cardinals and the Pope at the head. The Episcopal system essentially continued in England in spite of the Reformation, into the present day Anglican Church and the Anglican community worldwide. (In Scotland the Scottish Episcopal Church operates much the same structures.)

(2) Congregationalism is basically ‘one member, one vote’ and this is the system of church government employed within, for instance, Methodist and Baptist churches – essentially a form of ecclesiastical democracy.

Neither of these systems has a biblical foundation, and both are seriously flawed. Episcopacy is vulnerable to the beliefs and weaknesses of those further up the tree, whereas congregationalism can create a situation whereby the least spiritual (unconverted) person in a local congregation could have a casting vote on the most major of issues.

(3) Presbyterianism (government by elders) is the nearest to biblical forms.
However in most Presbyterian churches there remains an essentially hierarchical system of local church, presbytery and general assembly (albeit with some checks and balances). But the other main weakness lies in the fact that in most local Presbyterian churches the minister is the de facto leader. His word goes; and any dissenter can find himself/herself labelled as a 'trouble-maker'. The closest any group of true believers gets to a true plurality of leadership with collective and collegiate prayer and decision-making is to be found in Brethren Assemblies.

(4) Clericalism: If the clergy model had pertained in the early years of Christ’s church, Paul and his fellow apostles would surely have addressed their letters to those ‘heads’ of the churches in their day. But neither he nor the others did: nor could they have. With all the problems in the church in Corinth, Paul would most certainly have written in the first instance to a leading figure there, had there been one.
In fact Paul’s letters to the churches are all addressed to the whole company of believers in each of the various regions/congregations/assemblies – with only the letter to the Philippians mentioning “overseers and deacons”, and even then they are mentioned in second place to the “saints”. The clergy/building facets of our present day 'churches' are basically the Old Testament priest/temple forms carried forward into New Testament times.

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Postscript:
An article from Christianity Today is an excellent summary (14 October, 2008) of the present position and also the four main sectors within the Anglican communion.

Watchman, 30/05/2013

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