I’ve finished reading Pagan Christianity. I’ve also read Frank Viola’s latest book, Reimagining Church, which gave me a lot to think about. Presently I’m re-reading Pagan Christianity with my daughter.
Chapters 4 & 5 are about, respectively, the sermon and the preacher. Viola traces the history of the sermon back to Greek orators. Sermons aren’t mentioned as a regular component of early church assemblies, but as an occasional device used by itinerant church planters such as Paul and the other apostles. These sporadic orations were extemporaneous and open to questions and interruptions, in the tradition of the teaching given in Jewish synagogues. Most of the time, meetings were more on the line of 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 where every member of the body participated and contributed. Our modern day polished orations are in fact a relic of the Greek Sophists presenting flowery and dramatic monologues.
I and my family are indebted to numerous pastors, preachers and teachers and we are grateful to God for them. Could it be, though, that there is a more excellent way? I don’t mean an additional way, but a way that is necessarily crowded out by the weekly monologue. The pastor/teacher’s exercising of his ministry gift should not come at the expense of other members of the body exercising their own gifts for the building up of the body of Christ.
We are told to exercise our gifts outside of the weekly meeting, but where would that be? Do people prophesy in your Sunday school class? Do they introduce a song or share a poem the Lord has given them? In most cases, the answer will be, “No.” Most of us have followed Jesus for many years, yet we have to take a quiz to see what our spiritual gifts might be. How would you know you were a great pitcher if you never threw a ball? And does one star player make a baseball team? Do we stick our top player out there all by himself to do everything, even though he’s really only good at one thing?
Viola impressed me with his evaluation of the sermon, but Clement of Alexandria’s comment during the late second century, lamenting that the sermon did so little to change Christians (page 89 in Pagan Christianity) says it all. Do you remember the sermon you heard last week? The week before? How did it affect your life? Sometimes they do, but you’ve got to admit it’s unusual. After 50 years in church, many of us know as much bible as the pastor (if not more). You have heard all the sermons and seldom hear anything new or challenging. What if members of the congregation were allowed to speak the things God had given them, not in a 45 minute oration, but in a five minute exhortation, followed by another encouragement given by another brother or sister and so on? Might we find our spiritual gifts without taking some goofy quiz?
While appreciative and sympathetic toward people who have given their lives to the ministry, Viola points out that the gift we call “pastor” is mentioned only in Ephesians 4:11-13. It is not defined, and it is plural, intimating that several or more members of a local body might bear the ministry of “shepherd.” This ministry of caring for the sheep is so demanding that it’s easy to see the need for sharing the burden among several brothers and sisters. The office (not the gift) of the pastor is of pagan origin. Viola takes a lot of time to substantiate this point, and I can’t do it in a sentence or two–you’ll have to read it.
At one time it was considered wrong for the laity to partake of Communion, sing the sacred songs, or even (after Latin was no longer spoken commonly) to hear the sacred service in their own language. Times have changed. Many pastors are okay with an unordained volunteer presiding at a small group communion. Parents are invited to baptize their own children. The priesthood of all believers is coming back a little at a time, but the office of pastor is still a strong tower. I can’t see any pastors I know opening up each and every church meeting (or even one meeting) for the free-flowing ministry of the Spirit through the congregation to take place. Can you blame them? It wouldn’t work. Congregants would be puzzled–wouldn’t know what to do–and they would therefore do nothing but sit. How awkward.
But the job of the pastors (usually referred to as elders, which means “wise old men”) in the early church was to care for and nurture the brothers and sisters. They weren’t required to preach–evangelists did this, for the benefit of interested unbelievers. Visiting apostles or teachers might give an interactive sermon. Pastors to the assemblies in the same ways other believers did, by exercising their own spiritual giftings, whether these were in the area of prophecy, teaching, music, ecstatic utterances/interpretation, exhortation, or any of the gifts of the Spirit. They also provided individual care and nuturing to God’s people as needed. This is Viola’s argument, and he does back it up with scripture rather convincingly.
Today, the pastor is a trained professional, a servant of the body and the figurehead of the individual church. You see signs saying things like, “Pastor Thomas Edwards Preaching.” Why would we advertise the pastor’s name unless we saw him (or her) as the main drawing card of the church? People come to church to hear a sermon preached by a preacher. The identity of the preacher is important because people care whether the sermon is going to be entertaining or enlightening or electrifying, etc. And they know that you can usually count on Pastor So&So for a stirring oration, so we advertise him on the marquee like some kind of performer.
Do we expect our doctor or our attorney to train us to practice medicine or law? No. They went to school for years to learn what they know and that was only the beginning of their education. We’re paying them to use their expertise on our behalf. So do we expect our pastor to train us up to perform the work of the Lord? We may say so, but what most of us expect is a stirring message from the professional preacher. We might then go out into the world and invite people to come in to the church to hear him preach. Do we make disciples ourselves? We might, if we’re unusual, lead someone in the sinner’s prayer and encourage them to attend church with us, but making disciples generally falls outside of the average layman’s training and ability. That’s the job of the clergy, isn’t it? We don’t know how. We’re not professionals.
Viola argues that the pastor takes the place of Jesus as the head of the church. I’m certain most pastors would shudder at the thought of doing such a thing, but Christ is supposed to be the head of the church, and who is really the head in actual practice? The pastor of a church I once attended in another city used to correct anyone who referred to the church as “your church,” but as my mother observed, “I wonder how he’d feel if someone else came in and took it over?” I wonder if Jesus is okay with being the indirect head of His church? What if He wants to be the head and everyone else gets to be arms and legs and fingertips and stuff?
The pastor, by trying to carry a load that was never intended to be carried by one man, hurts himself and to his family. He is pressured, by the fact that his livlihood depends on his job as pastor, to avoid angering key people in the congregation. He must operate in giftings he hasn’t received simply because it’s “his job.” He can’t have any family struggles or personal battles, and he can’t confide his problems (other than physical illness, and in some denominations even that is a touchy area) to members of the congregation. So he’s battling with doubt . . . dare he share that with anyone? Or Heaven forbid he should admit he’s struggling with homosexual temptation. With which member of the body would he be at liberty to share such things safely? This person is too important to the church to have struggles–that’s why only Jesus can fill the position of head of the church.
So; Viola’s main points? 1. The sermon was not known to the early church in its present form, but only as an occasional, extemporaneous and sporadic event. Regular meetings of the church were characterized by every member contributing through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The meetings were designed for members of the body to minister to one another and build one another up.
And 2. The office of pastor as practiced in the modern day church not only prevents non-professional believers from functioning as priests, as God ordained, but also harms the pastor himself by loading him with a burden never intended to be born by anyone but Christ.
I think Viola makes a good point. I think . . . he may be right. Being old enough to know that things can sound wonderful on paper and yet not work at all in real life, and not having anything similar to the “organic” church Viola advocates near enough to explore for myself, I still hold some reservations, but academically, I am persuaded. This does seem to be the direction the church is inching toward, even here in the back woods of South Dakota. The church we’re attending now has not one, but three preachers, none of whom are ordained. Fathers baptizing their own kids. The head pastor isn’t a ministry graduate, but was chosen from among the brethren.
Jesus will return for a bride who is pure, without spot or wrinkle, but the western church is a long way from fitting that description. Could this be the stirrings of the last great “reformation?” The one that will ready the church for His coming? We see the signs of the times. The world is winding down. Maybe this is the last great move of the Spirit in these last days? What do you think?