Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dialogue with a Presbyterian Pastor Regarding Ordination, Priests, and Universal Vocations

By Dave Armstrong (10-23-08)

Dr. John Ortberg is the senor pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, in Menlo Park, California: a member of a new Presbyterian denomination called the ECO: a Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Dr. Ortberg's profile on his church's website states:
John Ortberg passionate about "spiritual formation," which is how people become more like Jesus. His teaching brings Scripture alive and invariably includes practical applications and warm humor. John's education includes a Master of Divinity degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Fuller Seminary. The former senior pastor of Horizons Community Church in Southern California, John also served as Teaching Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. John is the author of "If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat" and, most recently, "It All Goes Back in the Box." He has also contributed to other books and periodicals.
See also his personal website, Wikipedia entry, (which states that "He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary including a Master of Divinity degree and doctorate in clinical psychology"), and list of books on amazon (he is a prolific author).

The following is a critique of his sermon, "Every Life Comes With a Gift," from 12 October 2008 (you can listen to it or read it in pdf format on the church's Sermons Online page). Dr. Ortberg's words will be in blue:

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Here are some thoughts that occurred to me as I read the sermon:

What that means for you is you don't have to live in guilt anymore or shame or hiding or darkness, whatever you have done. We have a priest who sat down.That is the good news. The price has been paid. You have been forgiven. You are set free. We have a priest who sat down. 

No one is denying that Jesus' work on the cross was in any way insufficient. The only problem with the implication here (priests are no longer necessary) is the biblical data regarding absolution and a continuing priestly function, in order to grant that. It isn't just "believe in Jesus and every sin past and present is all taken care of." No; there is a formal procedure to repent and get rid of ongoing sins. 

We have a priest who sat down, and what this means for you is all the junk, all the darkness, all the guilt, all the mess-ups…I mean really, really bad stuff…it’s covered. It’s paid. That’s the good news. 

Yes, of course it is. But this has to be appropriated to us, and one way is through absolution. Other ways are the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism. But he would deny that those are sacraments, being a Presbyterian, and believe that they are only symbolic. Not according to the Bible and the fathers . . . .

They did not limit the priesthood to a few special people. They didn’t eliminate the priesthood. They released it. They unleashed it. They made it available to everybody in the body. They said things like, “You (plural) you all are now a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” They said things like,”But now, you (all, everybody) are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, holy nation, people who belong to God.” Now, after Jesus, no more two-tiered system. No more dual traps. No more dividing people up into the amateurs and the professionals. Now everybody’s a priest. 

I specifically answered this argument with a chapter of my book, The One-Minute Apologist, with plenty of biblical argumentation.

In the New Testament the term ‘minister’ is never ever used for a special group of leaders with special credentials. In the New Testament they are very careful about this language. The ministry belongs to everybody. Nobody is in the bleachers; everybody is on the field. Everybody’s in the game. 

What about the terms elders, presbyters (1 Tim 4:14: KJV), deacons, bishops, in the NT? I think the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. What, e.g., is the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15? That's just a bunch of Bible-believing "Joe Q. Christians" -- all on the same egalitarian plane? Hardly: it was "apostles and elders" (Acts 15:4,6,22-23). James functioned as a bishop at the Council, and indeed, we know that he was the bishop of Jerusalem. Peter functioned (arguably) as a papal figure. 

For this reason, the vast majority of Christians throughout history have at least believed in ordination, if not priesthood (Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans). Dr. Ortberg is arguing that a continuing priesthood (in the Catholic sense) is unbiblical. I am asserting in reply that it is this evangelical Protestant ecclesiology that is unbiblical, and I am giving tons of biblical support for my position.

He's even demonstrably wrong on his specific point regarding the word "ministers":

In the New Testament the term ‘minister’ is never ever used for a special group of leaders with special credentials.

This is easy to handily refute with just a Strong's Concordance and online Bible. Here we go:
Luke 1:2 (RSV) just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers [huperetes] of the word, [i.e., the disciples, who are regarded as proto-priests insofar as they are given the power to "bind and loose"]

Acts 12:25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission [diakonia; KJV: "ministry"], bringing with them John whose other name was Mark. [referring to apostles; bishops are the successors to the apostles; we see the succession in, e.g., the replacement of Judas, and Paul's apparent commissioning to Timothy, to carry on his work]

Acts 20:24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry [diakonia] which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. [Paul]

Acts 21:19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. [diakonia] [Paul]

1 Corinthians 3:5 What then is Apol'los? What is Paul? Servants [diakonos: KJV: "ministers"] through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. [Paul; apostles]

Paul even distinguishes between his ministry and its fruit, four verses later:
1 Corinthians 3:9 For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.

1 Corinthians 4:1 This is how one should regard us, as servants [huperetes;: KJV: "ministers"] of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. [Paul and apostles]

1 Corinthians 16:15-16 Now, brethren, you know that the household of Steph'anas were the first converts in Acha'ia, and they have devoted themselves to the service [diakonia; KJV: "ministry"] of the saints; I urge you to be subject to such men and to every fellow worker and laborer. [clearly a set-aside, called ministry, and note that others are "subject" to them]

2 Corinthians 3:5-6 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers [diakonos] of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. [Paul, in context: see previous chapter -- and fellow apostles]

2 Corinthians 5:18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry [diakonia] of reconciliation; [Paul; by implication, other such workers, too]

2 Corinthians 6:3-5 We put no obstacle in any one's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants [diakonos; KJV: "ministers"] of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger; [about Paul, in context]

2 Corinthians 11:23 Are they servants [diakonos; KJV: "ministers"] of Christ? I am a better one -- I am talking like a madman -- with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. [Paul]

1 Timothy 1:11-12 in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service [diakonia; KJV: "ministry"], [Paul]
2 Timothy 4:5 As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry [diakonia]. [Timothy]

[see also: Acts 26:16: "appoint you to serve" (Paul: huperetes); Rom 15:16-17 (Paul: leitourgos); Ephesians 3:7 (Paul: diakonos); Col 1:23,25 (Paul: diakonos); 1 Tim 4:6 (Timothy: diakonos); all "minister" in RSV]
Twenty passages?! How could all this be missed?

The church should be led by people who have been given the spiritual gift of leadership. The church ought to be shepherded by people who have been given the spiritual gift of shepherding. The church is to be taught by people who have been given the spiritual gift of teaching. The church is to be administrated by people who have been given the spiritual gift of administration. Starting to catch on to how this deal works? There’s never been anything like this before. 

Yes; God gives gifts. But this doesn't wipe out any sense of hierarchy or subjection to elders, deacons, priests, bishops, etc. I'm a teacher, myself, in the Church, in the capacity of the lay apostolate of apologetics. The Church encourages this, and I obviously believe in lay ministry. But Catholics don't feel any need to eliminate the priesthood because other people have gifts and can be useful in the Church, too. Both/and, not either/or. We can't do such a thing because it is too biblical, and too established in the early Church and all Church history till the 16th century. 

When I was growing up, the common idea was this: A bunch of people might get together to form a church and the first thing they would say was, “We will hire a minister.” They would use that language. New Testament never does, but they would. We will hire a minister. What would the minister do? He would do the ministry. We would even talk about somebody entering the ministry. 

I submit that it is because those things are explicitly biblical, as I believe I have just shown. The NT may not use the terminology "hire a minister" but the same exact thing is taught, since there is such a thing as an ordained minister or priest, and Paul wrote about how the laborer (Christian workers or ministers or pastors or priests or evangelists) were worthy of their hire (1 Cor 9:4-14; 1 Tim 5:18; cf. Jesus' identical teaching: Lk 10:2,7). Therefore, since there is such a thing as a distinct ministry of pastor or shepherd, and one which is worthy of being remunerated, I find it to be perfectly, exactly biblical to talk in terms of "we will hire a minister."

Dr. Ortberg is senior pastor at his own church! Are we to believe that he is no different from anyone else at his church; he doesn't get paid; it's all volunteer work, just like any of the other members of the Church serving God during weekdays as bakers or accountants or construction workers or office managers or waitresses, or fulfilling their vocation as mothers of young children or home-schoolers, etc.? Stay-at-home moms who have a profoundly important vocation don't get paid, so he doesn't, either, right (because we're all equal in Christ and all have our own gift)? Oh, he does get paid as a pastor (maybe not)?

If so (which is exceedingly likely), then I guess we're right back where we started and he himself is indeed different in some sense and a troublesome counter-example to his own argument. He has a seminary degree and the requisite training. So he's a pastor. But he's no different from anyone else, and there is no such thing as a "minister" with special abilities, or a call to same in the NT (so he has argued). I think at some point his argument reduces to, at best, a distinction without an actual difference, or logical circularity. Or he would have to resign his job as a remunerated pastor, in order to consistently make his argument, no? Perhaps he can make a living from his books alone, which I have almost done myself, but not quite (which is one reason I work at CHNI: to make up the difference between book royalties and the required income to pay the bills).

The other thing that isn't so biblical is the congregationalism inherent in Dr. Ortberg's "egalitarian" ecclesiological vision. In the Bible, one was appointed or ordained. This was true even of Paul (Acts 26:16; Gal 1:18, 2:9). The biblical model is for higher authorities (e.g., bishops) to ordain call a person to ministry, not the democratic, congregational system of Baptists, Presbyterians (at least to some extent), and other independent or non-denominational Protestants, where everyone who is a member has a vote.

I agree wholeheartedly, though, that every person has a gift and a calling and a special place to do something in the Body of Christ. That part of his message is wonderful and much-needed in all Christian groups. I just don't pit things against each other that the Bible doesn't dichotomize:
Everyone exercising their gift necessarily reduces to no priesthood [or, in Protestantism, no ordained ministry of pastor].
I don't buy it, because it's not biblical and not at all logically required.

He writes: "You were created for ministry, and if you miss your ministry, you miss the reason for which you were created." 

Amen! I reiterate this all the time, myself: everyone has a calling. This is Catholic teaching, too. 

The idea in that tradition was, to be a minister you needed a special calling, and that was kind of a code for a mystical, emotional encounter with God where God tells you that you are special and you cannot go into the marketplace like ordinary Christians, but you must go into church work. 

Calling (biblically and in the Catholic tradition and others in the same way) doesn't make someone better than anyone else; it simply means that he or she has been called to a particular ministry that calls for more than the ordinary commitment, and the specialized abilities, from God, to fruitfully fulfill the calling. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 7, and recognizes that an unmarried person can give "undistracted devotion" to the Lord. Priests and nuns who give up marriage and sexuality for the sake of service to others are special persons, for that reason, but not intrinsically "superior" to other people. 

There’ll be sometimes, not always by any means, but sometimes when I’m working on a message, and all of a sudden, words and images and stories and thoughts and ideas will begin to flow. Sometimes so fast or with such an intensity that I can hardly write them down, and sometimes I’ll just put he pen down for a moment and say, “God, nobody will ever know what just happened right here at this desk, nobody will ever know but You.” I’m so glad, I’m so grateful. See, there are times when, in my gifts as best I understand it, I experience God and His presence and His calling in a way that if I didn't have that, I can't imagine how much poorer my faith and life with God would be. 

This happens to me a lot, too, being a writer. I can relate quite a bit to it. It's such a joy being able to study the Bible and to learn Catholic teaching and the fullness of the apostolic Christian faith, for the purpose of sharing it with others. I am blessed to be able to do this full-time. It's an apostolate and a ministry. I'm simply exercising the call to apologetics and evangelism that I received from God in 1981. I knew what I was to do with my life at that time, as an evangelical. Before then, I didn't have a clue.

My last thought is this: I've been in both the evangelical and Catholic worlds. And one thing that is exactly the same in both (because people are people) is the fact that only a small number of any given group will be active in ministry or their felt calling. It's fine to talk about the ideal, and we must do so, but the reality is that in fact most of the work will fall to the pastor or priest and a small group that surrounds him (the "inner circle" of a congregation or parish). And I think it is partially because of that concrete reality that perhaps God knew it was best for every local church to have a leader. It's human nature. There will always be leaders in just about any social group, religious or otherwise.

But this is how God set it up. That's not only true for the local church, but also the universal Church, which is why I believe God desired for there to be one leader: a pope (without denying in the least all the other roles discussed above). And, of course, I present all kinds of biblical arguments for that, too, but that is another topic!

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Johnblog said...

So did you send this to him?

Dave Armstrong said...

A friend of mine was in his church. Generally these kinds of dialogues don't continue after one round anyway.