Editor's Introduction:. Steve Schlissel is one of the most profound thinkers and powerful preachers in today's Reformed world, and below appears one of the most important ecclesiological statements written in modern times. It demonstrates how the government of the Western church assimilated the authority structure of pagan Rome, and how this pagan conception survives in all branches of Western Christianity. The only authentic alternative
is the Hebraic-Biblical model so quickly abandoned by the church of the patristic era. The article is a condensation of the author's chapter in Keeping Our Sacred Trust: Biblical Authority, Creedal Orthodoxy and Heresy, available from Chalcedon for $19.
It's a type of sentence Rushdoony has become famous for among those who read him carefully: a nearly nonchalant assertion in the middle of a paragraph, offhand but on target, huge in its implications: "The stronger man makes the state, the weaker he makes himself."1
Bingo! Power is a commodity, subject to the law of scarcity: there's just so much to go around. Find an undue concentration of power in one institution and you'll likely discover it was obtained at the expense of another. How important it is, then, to strive to keep institutions operating within their God-appointed limits! The untoward amassing of power in the state, for example, is not innocent. It's power taken from another to whom it had been assigned by God.
What is true for the state is every bit as true for the institutional church. When it takes-or when men yield to it-more power than God indicates is proper, that power has been poached from a source that is going to find itself weakened. Much of the power exercised by churches today has been siphoned from the covenant community, particularly the fathers of Israel. The tragic (and ironic) consequence of this is that the church, in arrogating to itself powers that rightly belong to covenant fathers, has actually, by this theft, been made weaker. Weak Christian men = weak Christian church. To correct this imbalance of power we need to reconsider the institutional church's relationship to the covenant community, and the powers God has granted to each.
Power From Above Grows From Below
The authority of the church, according to God's Word, is ministerial rather than magisterial. When the church honors the limits of her authority and uses her power to empower-build up-covenant fathers, everybody wins. Our Lord was not ambiguous about His will concerning the character of His church's authority.
When the ten heard about this [J & J's effort to secure the #2 & #3 power positions in the kingdom], they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:35-45).
St. Paul's life and ministry leave no doubt that Christ was not using mere hyperbole. Paul, possessor of miraculous power and apostolic authority, was reluctant to use that authority, preferring to reason and plead with the churches he founded and nurtured. He was slower than frozen molasses to say anything which might appear to be a raw exercise of authority. Consider how he approached the matter of Onesimus' manumission:
Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you-being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ-I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains ... (Phil. 8-10).
Equally instructive is St. Paul's dealings with those misbehaving and misbelieving Corinthians. Here was a church that was sinfully divisive, practicing sectarianism with aplomb, and turning schism into an art form. They were proud of gross sin among them, ill-informed about marriage, indifferent to any implications of eating food offered to idols, chaotic in public worship, and prone to forsaking a doctrine as cardinal as the resurrection. Yet, Paul is clear as daylight: his authority over them was ministerial, his power was given him for their edification.
Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm.... For even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than pulling you down, I will not be ashamed of it ... This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority-the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down (2 Cor. 1:24; 10:8, 10).
The Roman Road
A variety of factors, perhaps particularly the post-apostolic church's adoption of the hierarchy-model of the Roman Empire,2 led to a very different approach to power from that given to us by our Lord and seen in Paul. In fact, the institutional church purloined power not only from the people, but from Christ Jesus, too. The distortion of the Lord's Supper into a sacrificial rite, for example, required an anointed priesthood rather than an ordained ministry. This priesthood eventually inserted itself between God's people and God at every point.
By the 1500s, ecclesiastically speaking, the people had no power left. The church had become the clergy and "religious," and the laity was assigned only a supporting and servile role. The reversal was complete. Rather than the church being comprised of God's people for whose benefit servant-leaders were appointed, the people weren't even regarded as necessary for divine worship to take place. Religion had become, core and crux, something someone else did for you.
According to the The Catholic Catechism,3 while "liturgy is public worship, its dependence on the Church's hierarchy is so distinctively Catholic as almost to define its essence. This is more than a dependence on regulation or surveillance. It means that the liturgy is bound up with the apostolic hierarchy established by Christ in such a way that, except for the hierarchy, there would be no public worship as Catholicism understands the liturgy." The hierarchy-just so there is no misunderstanding-according to The Catholic Encyclopedia4 "includes all grades or ranks of the clergy." It is the clergy, then, who comprise the true and actual "worshiping" church.
The hierarchy is absolutely distinguished from the laity. And the people have no power in their selection or empowerment of the hierarchy. For the clergy, according to Rome, do not act as people-appointed representatives. "This touches on the heart of the Catholic faith, which does not hold that all Christians are equally possessed of priestly power, [as if] the priest at the altar acts only in virtue of an office committed to him by the community."5 It is the hierarchy which makes worship valid, says Rome. Indeed, it is the clergy alone who offer worship, liturgically speaking. The laity participate in worship only as they identify themselves with the priest. "[I]n what sense do all the faithful actively participate in the Eucharistic liturgy? They do so by uniting themselves in spirit with the priest. . . ."6
See You at the Office
And it's not just worship that is performed through the vicarious instrumentality of a human priesthood. Doctrine, too, is a matter Roman Catholics needn't concern themselves with, for in their system doctrine is something someone else can believe for you. Romanism distinguishes "between 'explicit' faith (belief which knows its object) and 'implicit' faith (uncomprehending assent to whatever it may be the church holds). Only the latter (which is evidently no more than a vote of confidence in the teaching church and may be held with a complete ignorance of Christianity) is thought to be required of laymen for salvation."7
The astute reader will have observed that the Roman church explicitly rejects the Christian view of office. For in the Biblical idea of Christian office it is precisely the case that the minister "acts . . . in virtue of an office committed to him by the community." He occupies a covenantal office and performs covenantal functions, serving God and the congregation of God and is accountable to both in his exercise of that office. The thought that the people participate in worship by "uniting themselves in spirit with the priest" is a robbery of the glory which belongs to Christ as sole Mediator, as well as a theft of the privileges of access given to the community in virtue of Christ's once for all sacrifice.
The Christian minister, then, is a servant who must be possessed of a certain character and display a covenant competency enabling him to lead. But he is not appointed to be, himself, the object of the community's attention. Rather, he is a pointer to Christ and an explainer of His Word. Rome dismisses the servant role of church leaders assigned to them by God in His Word. Collectively, the elders' distinctive role in public worship is exactly what Rome rejects: "regulation and surveillance," or, order and oversight. A much humbler role for man, to be sure, than that imagined by Rome, but one which results in at least the possibility that Christ will receive honor from His people for His accomplished work.
There can be little doubt that Romanism interposes itself between God and His people in a magisterial rather than a ministerial manner. Not only does Rome claim that her hierarchy has exclusive possession of the commodity of ecclesiastical power, but she consolidates and secures that power by treating God's grace as if it, too, were just another commodity. For Rome, grace is an item which can be leveraged or traded, like silver or rice or pork bellies. To its mind, she has been granted all the contracts and options on grace and has exclusive power to dispense, withhold or withdraw them through her hierarchy.
If it is the truth that makes one free-and Christ says it is-and this truth is confined to one class of people, only that class can be free. The laity of the Roman church are ecclesiastical vassals, bondslaves, whose role in the kingdom is to do and believe what they are told. If they do this, all will be well, they are assured. According to Vatican II, "They are fully incorporated into the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and through union with her visible structure are joined to Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops."8
You've got to say this much for them: they've got a system. Unfortunately, it's wrong. The arrogance of Rome is astonishing. It is not an exaggeration to summarize their view of power as: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to the hierarchy. Borrowing its scale-of-being ontology from the Greek philosophers and its hierarchical-pontifical organization from the Caesars, Roman Catholicism has morphed into an abominable entity whose only hope of redemption is found in her continued subscription to the Ecumenical Creeds. But what a lot of work must be (un)done before she is saved!
The Crisis of the Missing Men
Our point in surveying Rome's power grab is to offer it as a partial explanation of how Christianity can become feminized and lose the participation of men in the church's affairs. In his important book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity,9 Roman Catholic author Leon J. Podles surveys with sorrow the declining involvement of men in Christian churches (not just Romanist). "Men think religion, and especially the church, is for women," he says in his introduction, and echoes the thought in his concluding chapter: "Men do not go to church. They regard involvement in religion as unmasculine."
Mr. Podles' nearly 300-page analysis, though valuable, suffers from being mainly sociological and theological (he's better at sociology, though some of his theological insights are bracing). He would have enhanced the value of his study had he incorporated ecclesiastical considerations, that is, structures of church power.
For Podles is very aware that the situation he laments as having overtaken Christianity is simply not an issue in orthodox Judaism. Why? Here, by confining himself to a sociological/theological analysis of Old Testament models and themes, Podles misses the point (almost) entirely. Orthodox Judaism has no crisis of the missing male because it more closely follows the ecclesiastical structures of the Biblically-approved synagogue system, a system where the synagogue is a servant of the covenant community, not vice-versa.
For orthodox Jews, it is not a priest with mystical "powers" who is needed to constitute a legitimate or acceptable worship service, but a minyon (quorum) of at least ten Jewish men. Without covenant men, there simply is no public liturgy. There is no "missing male crisis" in Judaism because if males were missing, there'd be no Judaism! We might profitably incorporate a Podles-type analysis here: men respond to being needed in community affairs, they respond to the requirement of being responsible, especially for others. Why expect men to show up if they are regarded from the get-go as unnecessary?
In Romanism, and much of the rest of Christendom, covenant fathers are not required. In Romanism it's the clergy who make up the worshiping church. In most other communions, it is mostly women. In the synagogue-which follows the sense of Scripture at this point-worship is performed and led by covenant men. The covenant community as a whole is viewed (quite Biblically) by Jews as being comprised of men, along with their wives and children. From their earliest years, orthodox Jewish children are infused with a worldview which, at this point at least, better reflects the Bible than does any Christian communion experiencing the crisis of the missing men.
This sort of covenant thinking was nearly recaptured at the Reformation. The Reformation was marvelous in bringing about a redistribution of power in accordance with God's prescriptive will. Though the Reformers focused principally on regaining for our Savior what had been robbed from Him, a happy by-product was that the fathers of the New Israel (the church) found themselves reinvested with much of the power God had entrusted to them in His Word. The restoration of filial authority-particularly the authority which belonged to the head of the home-occurred as the sortilege of priests in performing "transubstantion" was exposed as a fraud. Power moved from the priesthood toward the people.
It wasn't enough that Scripture had been rediscovered, however. The truth had to be disseminated. It has been mentioned so many times yet it is no burden to say it again: the printing press made the Reformation possible. The prodigious production of sound Christian literature, placed into the hands of the people, especially the heads of homes, resulted in benefits which have drenched the West to this very day.
The Heidelberg Catechism-arguably the best of all Reformed symbols-was put to immediate and widespread use as a tool for instructing old and young, both in church and home. Continued reform, our Reformation forebears knew, was dependent upon the re-enfranchising of the Christian father. That they knew this is evident from a reading of the preface to the 1647 edition of the Westminster Standards (approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland) entitled, "To the Christian Reader, Especially Heads of Families," and signed by 44 Presbyterian luminaries including the Three Thomases: Watson, Manton, and Goodwin.
Family religion was clearly front and center. Thomas Manton's Epistle to the Reader10 stays on the theme:
Religion was first hatched in families, and there the devil seeks to crush it; the families of the Patriarchs were all the Churches God had in the world for the time ... Now the devil knoweth that this is a blow at the root, and a ready way to prevent the succession of churches: if he can subvert families, other societies and communities will not long flourish and subsist with any power and vigour; for there is the stock from whence they are supplied both for the present and future.... A family is the seminary of Church and State.
Representative government, modeled very much after the decentralized administration of Israel, became the norm throughout the Reformed and Presbyterian portions of Europe. The men were involved full tilt and the benefits were flowing. Once again, the church came to believe that if a man desired to be an episkopos, an overseer, he desired a good thing. Men were encouraged to assume responsibility and control of the churches, under the sole headship of Christ and according to His Word.
Activity as a measure of Christian virtue was superseded by receptivity. That's a playing field clearly tilted in favor of women.
The Scripture's requirement of a plurality of local elders was revived, Reformers providing that a watchful eye be kept on man, a sinner. Safeguards against abuse of power were put in place, including provisions for appeal of local decisions.
In the sixteenth century, William Tyndale, in a dispute with a clergyman, vowed, "If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost." God caused the Reformation to bring a fulfillment of that vision, a fulfillment beyond anything Tyndale might have dreamed. The farmer-theologian became a commonplace wherever the Reformation took hold, from Europe to North America.
Yes, farmers as elders listened attentively to ministers' sermons, sitting in judgment on their orthodoxy and profitability for the people. It was a custom in some communions to have the minister shake the hand of each elder as he descended from the pulpit: if any thought the message lacking in soundness or sense, they'd not extend their hand. This was done in front, in the sight of the entire congregation. What a far cry from the thralldom of the laity under Rome!
And as the covenant community, particularly its men, became stronger in grace and knowledge, the ministry of the churches very nearly burst. Never in history had so much good been done so widely, so normally, by so many. Missionary societies were established and expanded, orphanages were founded, immigrants were welcomed in Christ's Name: the Word of God was poured, like anointing oil, upon every area of life.
Now we find ourselves once again in need of Reformation. Podles is not the only one to notice that, when it comes to Christianity, men are missing from action.
What happened? For one thing, we have missed center, or rather, have swung passed center. From the extreme of encountering Christ through the conjuring of a priest, we've come to believe that He is encountered through the conjuring of emotions. First He was only "up there on the altar." Now He's only "in here, in my heart." The piety of Reformational Christianity devolved, in many circles, into sentimental pietism. The genuineness of Christianity came to be measured by experience, internal experience, and with that change of venue came a sign in the window: Real men need not apply. Activity as a measure of Christian virtue was superseded by receptivity. That's a playing field clearly tilted in favor of women.
The Scriptural imagery of the church as the Bride of Christ was twisted into an insistence that each individual Christian become a bride. Cotton Mather, in the late seventeenth century, "while recognizing that the mystical marriage" spoken of in Scripture "first referred to the Church, applied it also to each Christian: 'Our Savior does Marry Himself unto the Church in general, But He does also Marry Himself to every Individual Believer.'" No, he does not. It's the corporateness of our calling that stands at the head of our covenant peoplehood. Converts are "added to the church."
Thomas Shepherd insisted that "'all church members are . . . virgins espoused to Christ.'"11 No, we are not. We are men of God who belong to Him through Christ, the Captain of our salvation. Scripture's figures and images are helpful when kept in context and perspective, but when they are removed therefrom, all kinds of mischief can ensue.
And something beside emotionalism happened. That is, something happened again. Man does himself no good by failing to confront his natural indolence. Look how content Americans are to have the state take care of their responsibilities. The federal government didn't grow to its mammoth proportions through a violent warfare against its citizens. Rather, we gave away our power because we didn't want to take care of our responsibilities. This tendency to allow others to do the work operates in the ecclesiastical sphere as well.
Gradually, until it became the default instinct in most denominations, the people allowed professional clergy to perform the religious obligations which belonged to them as fathers, or families, or local churches. The kids get dropped off at catechism class. They get dropped off at school, usually humanistic-but even when it's Christian, the oversight which would keep it sound is left to others who "have the time." Missions is something done someplace else, and those who profess to do it are to be accountable, not to the church that pays, but to a professional board. The training of ministers is left entirely to the seminary, with rigorous ordination exams now a thing of the past. After all, the seminary "must know what they're doing."
Implicit faith dies hard.
Power to the People
In the Bible, the church is the congregation of the Lord, the community of faith, the assembly of the righteous. Yes, they have leaders, but leaders have been given for the very purposes sneered at by Rome: regulation and surveillance. They have not been given as intermediaries or interlopers, but as helpers. They have not been given as if there could be no church without them. Paul and Barnabas had elders ordained in churches that were already extant (Ac. 14:23). They were elderless, but they were churches! And Titus was left in Crete to appoint elders in existing churches. Elders serve the church, bringing order and guarding orthodoxy. They are servants, not lords.
Thus, churches, like synagogues, must be understood as being composed of fathers, along with their wives and children, for whose sake elders and deacons have been appointed. “To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi,” writes Paul, “together with the overseers and deacons.” Indeed, to whom are all of Paul’s congregation-bound letters written? To ministers? To elders? No. To the people of God.
Now if the Word of God is written directly to the people of God, then the task of leaders can only be ministerial. That is, i f it was God’s design that a clergy class be interposed between Himself and His Word, we would expect His inspired Word to be addressed to those mediators. Instead, it is addressed to the people. And reformation occurs only when the Word of God is delivered to the people of God. The glory of the teaching office is ministerial; it exists to help the people to understand and apply the Word.
But this Biblical view has again been displaced by another, one which views the ministry as a sort of Protestant priesthood. Whenever such views are espoused and adopted, there is a draining of authority from the fathers to the new priests. Witness the following.
In an e-mail discussion, a seminarian wrote to a child of the covenant, 20 years of age: “The church . . . has more authority over you than your father.” Really? But it got worse when this pompous claim was challenged, for he then explained himself: “The Father’s authority is derived from the church, seeing as he is under the authority of the elders.”
It was hard to believe I was reading this from a senior at a “conservative” Midwest Presbyterian seminary. When challenged again, he answered, “If I have a preference for my sons that is not a scriptural mandate, my eiders have every right to gently persuade me from it or [to] even go so far as to usurp my fatherly prerogatives.”
According to this young man, power flows from Christ to the church elders, who then allot it to fathers. “If the church is Christ’s body and ail institutions derive their authority from Christ, then . . . well, you see where I am going.”
Lord, protect us from where he is going! This is a frightening echo of Rome’s view: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to the hierarchy. The only difference is that in this new Protestant version, the hierarchy may graciously allocate certain powers to others, if they please. The young seminarian believes that whatever powers are not explicitly cited in Scripture as belonging to the fathers are reserved to the eiders. This is a doctrine of enumeration of powers which flows in exactly the wrong direction!
According to this aberration, if something is not commanded or forbidden in Scripture, church officers can authoritatively dictate to my children that their preferences be followed. To use a trite example, if I tell my son he must wear a green tie to church, the eiders can overrule me and command him to wear a red tie because there is no Scriptural mandate to wear green ties. A more serious example: I f my daughter wants to attend a coed college which I do not approve of, the officers can void my veto. In effect, this view teaches that the eiders are the true fathers of the children in the church, and that individual fathers are permitted to do the daily dirty work on behalf of those true fathers, who may overrule individual fathers in ail non-mandated matters.
“I’m with you,” a PGA eider wrote to the seminarian. “I don’t read much in the New Testament emphasizing the authority of the parents or the centrality of the family but I do read about the authority and centrality of the church.” And whatever authority anyone else may have, in his view, is subordinate to, not coordinate with, the church’s authority. “Parents and state may derive their authority directly from God, but they exist for the church” (emphasis his).
Weil, there we have it. All authority goes from Christ directly to the church, or to others who have been given it only for the sake of the church! And there is a further danger: the tacit assumption that “the church” means ordained officers. But why can’t the church mean the church, the people of God, the covenant community? Does not Scripture use the term in just this way? Review the destination of those epistles once more.
If we miss the context of Christ’s establishing and commissioning of His church, we miss a lot. He was not establishing a new priesthood to lord it over covenant fathers! He was establishing a new synagogue, henceforth to be called the church.
Christ, the true Temple, was going to found His church according to the structure of the synagogue.12 The Jewish leaders “had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (Jn. 9:22). That is, confessors would be placed under the ban: herem, excommunication. Jesus, however, made that very confession the key which would open the door to His synagogue. Thus, when Peter made that acknowledgment—”You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16)—our Lord declares this to be the foundation upon which His community will be built.
The church, then, from the beginning, is built upon her creeds, not her officers. It is the professing Peter, as a type, who is called the foundation stone. This is just another way of saying that souls are joined to Christ and His church by faith in Him. Notice how Jesus sought out the excommunicated blind man to elicit from him the good confession: “Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he. Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him. Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him” (Jn. 9).
The Key to “The Keys”
The “keys” entrusted to Peter (as per Matthew 16) are not mysterious powers; what they are is made clear as Peter employs them in the Book of Acts. It is Peter who is present at the “grand opening” of the universal kingdom at each of its major junctures: Peter preaches to and baptizes Jews in Acts 2; he is the agent (along with his closest friend, John) through whom the Spirit is conferred upon half-Jews, the Samaritans, in Acts 8; and he is the vessel chosen to representatively open the gates of God’s household to non-Jews, i.e., Gentiles, when he preaches to and supervises the baptism of the family of Cornelius.
The key in each case is the key of knowledge, the knowledge of Christ, made known through declarative preaching, the proclamation of the truth as it is in Jesus. This is as Jesus said in His rebuke of the lawyers: “Woe unto you, lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge: ye enter not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered” (Lk. 11:52). This is not magic power but truth that has been entrusted to the church. The church uses its keys by teaching that is in and from Christ.13 That is why it is called, by the Spirit through Paul, “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The church’s officers are appointed to watch out that the creeds are kept pure for the sake of the sheep and the glory of the Lord.
The “binding and loosing” which Jesus in Matthew 16 said belonged to Peter, was broadened in Matthew 18 to include the other apostles. It is a most important concept but is regularly severed from its background by ecclesiocrats. This was no new idea Jesus spoke of. It is one constantly referred to by the rabbis, used abundantly, e.g., in the controversies between Shammai and Hiilel, The phrase was used most often in reference to what was prohibited and what was permitted according to the traditions of the lawyers and scribes and Pharisees. In Matthew 16, Jesus conferred this binding/loosing power upon His apostles.14 The apostles, then, were appointed by Christ to replace the unbelieving teachers of the Jewish synagogue; they were appointed to teach the truth in His synagogue. They were given authority to reveal and dictate to the church just what is permitted and what is prohibited.15
Had Christ not entrusted the apostles with this very authority they could not have given us the norms of behavior which we find in the New Testament. It was by this power that we are told that Gentiles need not take upon themselves the various ceremonial obligations which had bound Israel, whether obligations of diet, dress, calendar, or pilgrimage. Peter had a hard time adjusting to these truths.16 It was given to Paul, as the apostle to the Gentiles, to leave no doubt concerning them.17 And these teachings were given, always and in every case, that we might walk in the fullness of the freedom that is found in Christ. Leaders were appointed in each church for the same reason.
As the message of Christ went from place to place, churches, i.e., synagogues of Christ, were founded. “Right at the outset,” says Eric Werner, “it should be remembered that it was not the Temple but the Synagogue which set the pattern for the divine service of the primitive Christian community.”18 And while “the temple was controlled by the priests, the synagogue was a lay institution. . . . Actual leadership was in the hands of eiders.”19
Who were these eiders? People who had special mystical experiences? People upon whom special powers had been conferred? No. They were “respected heads of the families in the community.” It is clear as day that this was what St. Paul also had in mind when he gave the list of qualifications to be used in determining whether those who sought to be servant-leaders in Christ’s synagogues should be admitted to that office. It was their objective character and competence that was of primary concern, not their subjective sense of calling. “Someone wants to be an overseer? Fine. He must be above reproach, not overbearing, must be a one-woman man, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, sober, peaceful, not a quarreler, not greedy.”
But today, with our sacerdotal view of ministry, so long as a boy is graduated from a seminary and passes what is called an examination, he’s made to preside over a church of Christ! And people argue that such a practice is perfectly Reformed. It is not, because it is not Biblical.
If we keep in mind the competency and authority that belonged to the congregation, i.e., to the men of Israel assembled as a worshiping community, you can see that anyone who would be appointed or elected to lead them would be permitted to do so only because of his greater competence, because of his exemplary life and proven skills, skills proven especially in his home (“If anyone does not know how to manage his own family,” Paul asks, “how can he take care of God’s church?”).
In other words, all the fathers of Israel were expected to be competent leaders. The one who would lead them, therefore, must be able to demonstrate greater competence, particularly in the art and science of real life—blood-real—day to day Christian living. The higher the level of Christian grace and knowledge among the people, the higher the level to which any would-be leader must attain.
As far as congregational worship was concerned, “Although there were some designated officers, there was no one specifically charged to conduct worship in the synagogue—to read, preach, and pray. All males, even young boys,20were qualified to participate in the service.”21 The purpose of covenantal education, typically a service provided by the synagogue, was to familiarize the sons of Israel with the law as a basis for life and to prepare them to be, among other things, knowledgeable worshipers.
Ordination is not the bestowal of special powers inaccessible to the normal father in the church. Ministers lead as a helpful convention, not as the product of a command. The difference is in his occupation of an office, not in his person. And others might fill that office, if need be. The churches existed as churches without officers, remember! To use an old phrase, they are necessary not for the being, but for the well-being of the churches.
Any pious father is qualified, if liturgically competent, to lead in service as needed. We install ministers in office because we have examined them and found them to have met the requirements of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, because we recognize in them a living orthodoxy in which we have confidence. They are there by merit—not the merit attained by persevering through required seminary courses, but the merit of competence to lead their own families and other men, men who, by God’s appointment and grace, are also prophets, priests and kings. There is nothing improper about involving several men, ordained or not ordained, in leading worship, so long as things are done decently, in order, and according to the sound doctrine we have received from God in His Word. Ordained men have been entrusted with, not exclusivity in leading worship, but responsibility for “regulation and surveillance.”
Obey Your Leaders
We love, honor and respect those who have rule over us in the church, not because they’ve been given magic power, not because they stand in a supposed line of apostolic succession, not because they’ve been authorized by God to bypass our authority in the rearing of our children, but we “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thes. 5:13). If they want to stay ministers, they have to prove their worth in the trenches, have their mettle tested daily by questions and challenges concerning real life, invest themselves in the edification of the lives of the people under their charge, especially the men.
When Rome wanted ail power in the church, at least she took it in a manly fashion. In the Reformed churches, the power that God has granted to the worshiping community has simply been given away; the churches have passively “niced” themselves into impotence. What we commonly see today is entry into Christian ministry as if it were entry into a club: candidates endure the nuisance of initiatory rites and they’re in.
We’ve distorted the Biblical model for church, church government, and church officers. We have reached this nadir because we neglected to complete the work of reformation as it bears on church structure and polity. We have not cleansed our churches of the gobs of lingering sacerdotalism. The way to this cleansing lies in the fathers of Israel reclaiming and being reinvested with the authority which Christ has given to them.
How About This?
When churches are structured in such a way that the clergy are lords over the faith and practices of the men, the men will simply stay away. That is what has happened in Romanism, and where Romanism is strongest it has given rise to reactionary machismo, a desperate and misguided attempt by men to be the “real men” they weren’t allowed to be in church. What the church needs to do is to acknowledge the authority God has given to fathers, to nurture and guard that authority, not usurp it.
Toward that end, the following items are offered, offered not as “laws,” but as suggestions, or at least things to be considered.
First, as a rule, a mission work should not be denoted as a particular church unless there are ten male covenant heads. Remember, the church is made up of covenant men, along with their wives and children. Typically, the concern today focuses on the “legitimacy” of the officers when it should be at least equally concerned about the presence of men whom the officers are serving.
Yes, ten men is the traditional number required to establish a Jewish synagogue. But it is also the smallest governed civil unit above the family level in the Mosaic administration (Ex. 18:21, 25; Dt. 1:15), and the stopping point in Abraham’s prayer for the deliverance of a community of righteous men (Gen. 18:32, 33).
Second, preaching should be self-consciously directed to the men of the covenant. Preaching is very powerful. In many contexts it reproduces its character in the congregation. If preaching is soft, round, pretty, and introspective, you’ll have a congregation of women, though they be of both sexes. If it is clear, well-defined, direct, and objective, you’ll find men drawn to it, and women and children, too! It’s a case of “Where the Boys Are,” my friends. Preach to women, have women; preach to men, have men, women, and children.
Third, and this may seem a little radical, but ask yourself: If officers are appointed for “regulation and surveillance,” why shouldn’t the fathers be permitted to baptize their own children while the officers “regulate and survey”? Is there something lacking in a father’s authority to do this?
The knee-jerk reaction views this as a theft of the lawful authority belonging to the church. Well, once again, we are faced with a definition of the church that is bound up in the clergy rather than the fathers of Israel. But beside that, we can see that this objection is without merit by considering a (hypothetical) parallel case in the civil sphere.
Let’s say a child is murdered. The suspect is apprehended, properly tried, and found guilty. If the lawfully appointed magistrate calls for the nearest of kin to have the honor of pulling the switch (or casting the first stone), does that constitute a relinquishing of the magistrate’s power? Not at all! It was for that very reason he was appointed by God and the community—to guard the righteous and see to it that the wicked are punished. When he “re-confers” the authority to execute the sentence to the one most interested (under God) in the matter, there has been no diminishing of authority whatsoever.
Neither is there when eiders “oversee” the propriety of baptisms. There is no necessity to have the act executed by their hand (though it is permissible so to do). We are suggesting that such infant baptisms could easily be done in an assembly of the covenant people, with the officers present.
After all: Why not? This really cuts to the heart of the matter. Whose children are they? God’s, yes. But under Him they belong to the parents, not the minister. The church officers may legitimately see to it that things are done properly and in order, but they have no special power or authority which makes baptism by them more efficacious. It is a covenant event and the father is certainly a proper covenant figure to welcome the child—in Christ’s Name and in the presence of His people—into the covenant.
The simple fact that such a practice would serve to reinforce is this: the children of the church are not directly under the authority of the eiders. So long as the children reside under their father’s authority, the church’s approach to those children must, until their majority, be mediated by the father. When the church encroaches upon the father’s prerogatives and privileges, it weakens the father and therefore weakens itself.
A very pregnant fact relevant to this question is found in Acts 10:48. There we read that Peter, though an apostle—nay, the only apostle present—rather than performing the baptism of Cornelius’s household himself, simply instructed ordinary believers to do it. He “commanded that they [the first whole-hog Gentiles to be joined to the church—sms] be baptized in the name of the Lord.” The significance of the phrasing has not escaped gleg commentators. Barnes notes, “it seems not to have been the practice of the apostles themselves to baptize very extensively.” And Kistemaker is equally unafraid to accept the obvious: “Peter, as the Greek text implies, orders the six Jewish Christians to baptize the Gentile converts. . . . The apostles, then, place the emphasis not on themselves but on the name of Jesus.” The male Jewish believers were covenantally competent to perform the rite. The text says that Peter was accompanied to Caesarea by “some of the brothers,” the common term; not, “some other eiders.” The baptism was done under the apostle’s supervision, which was fine.
Think of the implications of this! J. A. Alexander is forceful and to the point: “It can scarcely be a mere fortuitous coincidence, that Peter, Paul, and Christ himself, should ail have left this rite to be administered by others. ‘Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples’ (Jn. 4:2). ‘I thank God that I baptized none of you, save Crispus, etc’ (1 Cor. 1:14). ‘Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel’ (ib. v. 17). As none of these expressions can be intended to detract from the value and importance of the rite in question, they can only be explained as warning us against the error of exalting this part of the Christian system to a disproportionate importance, which may be just as superstitious as the eucharistical corruptions of popery, or the hierarchical excesses of prelacy. One idolatrous extravagance cannot be corrected by another.”
Further, if baptism replaces circumcision, may we not learn lessons from the administration of the older rite? Zipporah’s circumcision of her and Moses’ son was valid. God was wrathful toward Moses because the boy was uncircumcised. When Zipporah performed the rite, God relented. It was done. So also, Abraham circumcised his entire household. It is very unlikely that he performed at least 31822 circumcisions by himself in one day (Gen. 17:23). The important thing is that they were circumcised in virtue of the covenant; it was not a question of who performed it. Yet the mere suggestion that it may be perfectly fine for fathers to baptize their own children induces apoplexy in modern Protestant sacerdotalists. Why should it? If it is done under the regulation and oversight of orthodox officers, it satisfies all Biblical requirements and is in keeping with Biblical examples.
Seder and Supper
The same question naturally arises when dealing with the “other” sacrament. Let us ask it plainly: May not fathers directly administer the Lord’s Supper to their own families in the congregation? Cannot regulation and oversight be accomplished by the eiders as they distribute the elements directly to the fathers, who in turn distribute them directly to their families. Does not this method of administration fulfill all covenant righteousness?
Have we, in the area of the sacraments, retained just enough sacerdotalism to make the inquiring mind ask if there really is as much difference between ourselves and Rome as we fancy? Is there something that happens to the baptismal water, or to the bread, or to the wine? Are the sacraments given some special character by the hands of a minister that would be marred by the hands of a “common” Israelite?
Surely we recognize that the Passover antecedent had fathers acting as priests of their families especially during the seder. Why not on into the new administration? For it is especially at the Supper that the glorious character of the New Covenant can be revealed, especially as fathers lead their respective families in celebration of the Supper23 under the “regulation and surveillance” of the eiders.
But this goes to what is perhaps a profounder problem: We have nearly lost the sense that the Supper was designed to be a covenantal, not a personal, event. In many churches, the Supper has become a modified mass, a mass minus the magic. It has morphed into a “me and Jesus” celebration. This is a travesty. The whole point of the meal is the strengthening of the covenanted body which derives its corporate life from Christ. That is why Paul rebuked the Corinthians: they failed to discern the corporate character of the meal. Listen to him identify the problem:
Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall 1 say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you. (1 Cor. 11:17-22)
Their divisions and factions made a mockery of this, the highest point of covenant communion. The whole design of the meal is lost if we do not eat it together! The Corinthians were treating it as a private matter, just between the worshiper and God. This elicits one of the sternest warnings found in Paul’s letters: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself.” Why? Because he eats by himself, thus “not discerning the Lord’s body,” i.e., the church (v. 29).
In order to guard the covenantal-ness of the meal, then, Paul commands that every man, every head of household “check himself out” to make sure that he and those under his charge are participating not as individuals but as part of the body. “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.”
That Paul is addressing the covenant men as “liturgically competent” is very clear when we consider that his admonishment is that each man “examine himself,” not that each man be examined by the elders! The elders bring and maintain order by doing as Paul did: reminding the men that this is a celebration of the church, corporately, not a celebration of individuals who happen to be in the same room.
What is written here should not be taken as opposition to the duty of taking personal inventory before the Lord. Such inventory-taking is necessary for fallen creatures! Nor should this be read as a suggestion that such self-examination never be conducted prior to the Supper. The point is only that Paul’s point was: examine yourself to make sure you are not thinking only of yourself in this, but of others who, with you, are His. We discover the reason that this self-examination was necessary in Corinth by examining the context, and the context shows that the problem there was failure to grasp the covenantal, not the mystical, character of the Supper. Paul’s conclusion to the matter puts this conclusion beyond controversy: “Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another.” You can see his argument in his summary. All interpretations which fail to account for this, fail.
The Lord’s Supper crisis at Corinth has been used as alleged evidence in arguing that clergy are necessary for Christian worship to be legitimate. But properly understood the passage adds zero support to that contention. The Supper does not need to be in the hands of the clergy to be valid. Paul doesn’t even directly address ministers or eiders in the chapter! Rather, he speaks to every man.
Consider, too, that more than 5,000 men (in addition to women and children) in Jerusalem were frequently celebrating the Lord’s Supper in their respective homes before any officers—beside the apostles—had been appointed (Ac. 4:4; 5:14; 2:42, 47; 6:1-6).
By distributing the elements to covenant heads who in turn administer them to their households, the church can avoid the Scylla of sacerdotalism while steering clear of the Charybdis of chaotic individualism.
The church is made up of men, along with their wives and children. Elders are appointed as leaders, not lords. No men, no church. It is not: no ministers, no church. Ministers and eiders (we hope!) make a church better, they don’t make it real. The men in covenant with Christ do.
Exiles On Main Street
A Protestant priesthood has usurped paternal prerogatives. Orthodoxy has declined, along with family religion. Why? Because baptized men have been led to believe that women and a professional clergy can “do their religion” for them. They cannot. The answers to the crises confronting the church today will elude us as long as fathers remain the governors-in-exile of the covenant. Fathers must be reinstated. This is their due; it is not a favor. The power accorded to them by God in His making them the very church of God has for too long been unduly concentrated in the hands of a few. Power to the people. It is high time to make room for daddies.
Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, 1991), 822.
See Michael Kelley, The Impulse of Power (Minneapolis, 1998).
John A. Hardon, S.J., The Catholic Catechism (New York, 1981), 449-450.
Robert C. Broderick, Editor, The Catholic Encyclopedia (Nashville, 1987).
J. I. Packer, Faith, in Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, 1984).
The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Hierarchy” Emphasis added.
The bulk of it was actually written by Richard Baxter and edited by Manton, but these quotes are from Manton.
Cited by Podles, 116. See the whole of chapter 7.
See W. F. Skene’s introduction to Bickell’s The Lord’s Supper and the Passover Ritual (Edinburgh, 1891).
For a balanced and edifying view of “the keys,” see Heidelberg, Q&A83-85.
Those whom Matthew calls “wise men and scribes” in 23:34, Luke calls “apostles” in 11:49.
People (Mt. 18:18) could be “bound” (placed under the ban) for flagrant, willful, and persistent rejection of apostolic doctrine and precepts, or “loosed” (remitted) upon repentance. They could not be “bound” for beliefs or behavior not addressed by Scripture.
Acts 10; Galatians 2:llff.
See especially Ephesians 2; also 1 Timothy 4:1-7; Colossians 2:11; Philippians 3:3, etc.
The Sacred Bridge: The Interdependence of Liturgy and Music in Synagogue and Church during the First Millennium (New York, 1959), 2.
J. Julius Scott, Jr., Customs and Controversies: Intertestamental Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, 1995), 142-143.
13 and older.
Scott, 143. Italics added.
Cf. Genesis 14:14
Do you suppose more baptized men would attend church if their families depended upon them to be there? “Daddy, you have to come. Who is going to give us the Lord’s Supper?”
- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.