Friday, May 22, 2009

The Authority of the Catholic Church - A friendly debate

Over at Nick's Catholic Blog, Nick and I have gotten on a rabbit trail from a post he did about imputation of righteousness. The particular trail started when he commented about the possibility of the re-unification of the church, and I responded with the idea that while I'm all for believers to work, play, and worship in unity of spirit and behavior, I'm not so sure that institutional unity is even desirable. We then segued into the question of apostolic succession and the authority of the church, which obviously Nick sees as important, and I(equally obviously?) see as dangerous.

I'm picking up the thread here so as not to run too far afield for Nick, and also because my last response turned out to be longer than his comment settings will allow. I hope you will read the discussion comments linked above, before trying to pick up here.

Anyway, this post is in response to the questions in these comments of Nick's:

Nick:...the danger of not having hierarchy (a thing very clearly indicated in the NT, and OT) is that of having the masses determine doctrine, whether individually or by majority. This makes truth a matter of popularity contest, or worse yet having the "teacher" be subject to the "students." Either he is a bishop with authority or he can be overturned by those he is guiding. It's a slippery slope because then "authority" loses it's meaning.

Nick, this is a great discussion. Thanks for engaging!

I see your concern with the masses determining doctrine. My counter would only be that the bishop is still a sinner before God under the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ, and no ordination changes that. So he's just as susceptible to error as any other believer--no less, but also no more--and therefore the risk of him going astray is equivalent to that of the flock under his oversight...and perhaps more so if he's not accountable to them. It's a balancing act, to be sure, but in the final analysis it comes to a definition issue: If I correctly understand you (and correct me if I am wrong), you are saying that by virtue of being ordained into the episcopate of the true church, the bishop is protected from making that error, unlike the laiety. I contend, to the contrary, that just like the laiety, he is susceptible to all the same temptations and error as the rest of us, perhaps compounded by the illusion of supremacy conveyed to him by his position. Those two definitions are fundamentally at odds, and we can only agree (if I am correct) that this is a point where we disagree. You fear authority "losing its meaning," I fear the exercise of authority that ought not to exist.

Nick: One of interesting passage in this regard is 2 Tim 4:3, where Paul warns against those with "itching ears" who will elect teachers who will say what they want to hear. Also, I'm not sure how your system would mesh with a clear example like Acts 15 and 16:4.

2 Tim. 4:3 is true by empirical observation as well as biblical authority...we don't have to look far to see people tailoring "truth" to their convenience or pleasure. I find it compelling that the defense Paul offers is in verse 2--which you might interpret as exhorting Timothy to exercise his authority (am I correct?), but I see as Paul warning Timothy to stay grounded in the truth of "the word." In other words, I see "sola scriptura" as the one thing that is offered to Timothy as an anchor against the tides of opinion. Bringing my own assumptions to the text? Perhaps, but I think it's consistent with Pauline teaching.

Acts 15 is important, and you are right to bring it up. Clearly when there was a dispute among different believers, they appealed to the apostles and elders. This is right and good and biblical. It is interesting that in verse 22, we see that it was not only the apostles and elders, but also "the whole church" that is related to have decided what to do, apparently in Spirit-led consensus. It is also possible that an authority-based answer was necessary due to the authority-based problem being addressed (the demand that Gentiles follow Jewish law). While a good model, it does not necessarily follow that this account justifies a complete ecclesiastical system. However, if I ever saw an ecclesiastical system that met in open session and (apparently) solicited the input of "the whole church" I might also be more positively inclined toward it. There's a vast chasm between consensus and fiat!

Nick: To me, if the Church is the Body of Christ, with Him as it's head, the Church is indefectible and guarded against a tainted Gospel by definition (1 Tim 3:15; Mat 16:19).

I confess I don't see what 1 Tim 3:15 brings to bear on the discussion, so I can't respond to that one. As to Matt. 16:19, you know well that Protestants and Catholics interpret that passage radically differently--you see it as establishing the apostolic succession of Peter, we see the "rock" as being the confession of Jesus as the Anointed of God..."for no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11).

I can only say that I really don't want to start listing examples because I DON'T want to get into Catholic-bashing, but surely you acknowledge that your church (along, I insist, with all the others) has in fact committed serious errors in the 2000 years since Jesus? Isn't that a historical, empirical fact? How do you reconcile that with an indefectible church with Christ as its head? It's easy for me, holding that the church whose head is Christ is not the human institution, but rather all everywhere who call on his name and seek to follow him in all their brokenness. But if you are looking for the standard of an unsullied theology and an authoritative institution that holds it, how do you reconcile this with the bloody, sinful history of the institution?

And to your last question, I don't trust someone who waffles on the basic truth of Jesus Christ. But I, somewhat opposite of you I guess, run screaming from any group that DOES claim to have the whole truth without error. I consider that claim to be proof positive of corruption...whether the authority is the papacy or the fiat of the individual, self-righteous independent Baptist minister doesn't matter to me, either one is wrong when they refuse accountability to honest confrontation from scripture. This, again, is probably a point on which we'll agree we disagree.

But I will reiterate in closing, that this does not in any way cause me to write off those who've chosen to put themselves in that church. As I've said before, I've found Jesus' followers in all kinds of places I expected far less, than just in a church with which I don't agree. And I know the Lord seeks such to follow him!


Monday, May 18, 2009

Enough with salvation already!

OK, time to stir the pot a little. Our particular corner of the blogosphere has been buzzing fow a while now on the subject of atonement. I've enjoyed it, I don't think we've nearly closed the topic, and I certainly intend to return there myself at some point. Nevertheless, I think we need to step back and pause for a reality check.

First of all, whatever the mechanism by which sin has been atoned, the clear message of the gospels and the epistles is that Jesus has done it. It's not conditional on us understanding or believing any point of detail as to how he did it. It's not even conditional upon us knowing or understanding that there WAS a problem! It should suffice us to recognize that Jesus had--and has--both the means and the authority to deal with the problem, whatever problem it was.

More importantly, though, the whole question of atonement for sin, at least as it's discussed in most definitions of "the gospel," presupposes that sin and its remedy are the central focus (or at the very least one principal focus) of the mission Jesus came to do. While I do not dispute that Jesus' death and resurrection had a beneficial effect with regard to human sin, it was never the point of the process. Salvation was always a means to an end, it was never intended to be the end in itself.

The story of Jesus' time on earth is replete with redemption and healing. This is indisputable. But the point my Mom just made in her word study on repentance is also true for the rest of Jesus' redemptive acts: the healing, the repentance, the salvation of people from whatever mess they were in, was always and only a beginning. What really mattered wasn't the key that got them in the door, it was the life they were called to live on the other side of that door.

For this reason, while we may continue to debate the mechanism by which Jesus dealt with sin, the vista we must regain shows us that the process actually doesn't matter. Jesus' message was, and is:

If you're sick or hurting or wounded, I can take care of that. Follow me!

If you're feeling guilty or worried about the sin propitiation you've been taught you need, I have taken care of that. Follow me!

If you've learned "every man for himself" all too well from your society, I can take care of that and lift you out of yourself. Follow me!

If you are afraid of the others--human or supernatural--who are exercising the power of fear and death over you, I've defeated them; I took care of that. Follow me!

If you're worried about your life beyond the grave, I'm already beyond the grave. I took care of that. Follow me!

If you're oppressed by any of the ills that have afflicted my Father's creation, whether poverty or injustice or disease, I've now sent my followers to take care of that in my name. Join them in following me!

If you're one of the oppressors that are helping to perpetuate the abuse of my kingdom and my followers, I can free you from the tyranny of power. I can take care of that. Work with me to lift up what has been trampled down, and follow me!

And perhaps most compellingly to us amateur theologians (and the pros too, if they'll listen): If you're wrapped up in endless controversies over how I took care of all that, let go, accept that I DID take care of that, and follow me!

Repentance - an article you've gotta read!

I have a bunch of things I need to get written and no time to write, but you guys have got to check out my Mom's latest article on repentance. It's related to all the sin and atonement and kingdom stuff we've been talking about. . .

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Evangelism - what does it mean to share the gospel?

I'm going to write about this in more detail some day, but I just came across a post that addresses my concerns very well. In fact, Dave has highlighted one of my biggest issues with the usual methods of "presenting the gospel," by going back to Acts and looking at what the apostles actually talked about when THEY presented the gospel. Not too surprisingly (to me at least), it doesn't look at all like the four laws. . .

Dave has put together a nice matrix of things that are or aren't said by the Apostles in the various Acts passages where they're encouraging someone to follow Jesus. A pattern emerges, and guess what, it's not about heaven and hell. . .

Sunday, May 3, 2009

An apology and explanation

Due to an unfortunate trolling incident I have--at least for now--enabled moderation on this blog. I hope at some point to be able to relax the controls again; I wish Blogspot allowed for the kind of control Wordpress has, that users can be approved to bypass moderation settings, but if they have that setting I haven't found it yet. However, I want to stress that I welcome comments from all of you who want to engage the issues, whether you agree with me or not.

Unfortunately, I managed to get the attention of someone whose sole purpose seems to be to hijack a thread and scream about how anybody who isn't Roman Catholic is going to hell. I have deleted the offending comments, but I feel it incumbent upon me to offer a bit more of an explanation.

I am categorically not anti-Catholic. Most of the Catholics I know well, I consider to be unquestionably followers of the same Lord Jesus Christ I follow. We have plenty to disagree about, but we agree on the commonality of our commitment to Jesus. (On this point, by the way, I point you to my friend Mason's recent post, which I wholeheartedly endorse. I also would refer you to Nick's Catholic Blog, where I have recently found myself supporting the "Catholic" contra the "Protestant" in a debate on atonement. Nick and I haven't teased out all our areas of agreement/disagreement by any means--and I'm sure we could find them--but I hope this at least clarifies that I don't reject Catholic believers).

I do have an issue, as I have made clear on this blog and in comments elsewhere, with the notion of extrabiblical authorities--including ecclesiastical hierarchies--being taken as doctrinal authority on a par with the scripture (and in particular, the words of God within scripture as I have elsewhere proposed). Apparently, this particularly riled at least one poster, as he spent entirely too much emotional energy on the idea that anybody who doesn't accept the apostolic succession of the Roman popes is going straight to hell. Of course, I'm sorry to say that the current Pope Benedict has poured fuel on that fire, as he has suggested that churches without priests and sacraments can't possibly be true churches. Obviously I repudiate that statement. That doesn't mean that I am suggesting that Pope Benedict isn't a follower of Jesus (I really don't have the information to pass judgment one way or the other, but I presume that he is). I think he's misinformed on this point, but that doesn't mean he's going to hell. It does mean that I don't give his pronouncements any more weight than I do any other believer's. . .which means they have to be backed up by scripture just like mine or yours.

Of course, coming as I do from the Anabaptist tradition, I would argue that the New Testament teaches that there should be no such thing as a priesthood at all in a post-resurrection Church, as "there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5), and beyond that all believers are a "holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5) and a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). But that doesn't mean that I write all Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans (their priests included) out of the kingdom of God. I know better. The Spirit of God has worked and is working through a wide variety of human institutions that are trying their level best to be faithful churches. They don't get it all right, and they get different parts wrong, but they're trying to be faithful witnesses to Jesus.

I have argued before that even defining people according to who is going to heaven or hell is asking the wrong question. This, combined with the fact that I'm tired of Christian shouting matches, is why I banned the posts in question. I welcome--and will continue to welcome--robust debate. I will not tolerate accusations and pronouncements of damnation against others. I have no interest in why your church is better or worse than mine. I have a great deal of interest in what you and I can do to become better followers of Jesus Christ than we now are.

As I said in my opening post, if you want to shout and scream and hurl abuse at people, there are plenty of places to do it on the internet. This isn't one of them.