Spencer Burke, principal architect for The Ooze website www.theooze.com, often laments the condition of the church in North America. One of his main objections is how the modern church defines "legitimate" ministry. Similarly, Mike Yaconelli, author of Stories of Emergence, shares his experience of being told that even though he functioned as a pastor, he wasn't really viewed by the "church world" as a pastor, because he had no seminary degree, and his congregation was in decline.
Stories like these abound, especially in the United States, and they raise an all-important issue: How is the church called to define "legitimacy?" If you are a pastor reading this, I am almost certain that you have asked these questions of your own calling at one time or another. If you are not a pastor, please excuse my focus on them in this post, and let me enjoy some "comdradere" with them for the present. I'll get back to the rest of you next time! :)
Burke and Yaconelli rightly point out many of the fallacies present in the way the modern church growth movement would define legitimacy. While those in ministry should have a way of identifying themselves as the "genuine article" (We don't want surgeons operating on our bodies who received Ds in medical school. We want the guys who actually know what they are doing! Why should competency be any less important when questioning the qualifications of those who hold eternal souls in the balance?), there are certain assumptions about what gives a minister of the Gospel credibility that, in their view, must be challenged. They are largely correct.
Topping the list is formal education. Presbyterian theologian D.G. Hart contends that the importance of formal theological training can be seen in the "hermaneutical egalitarianism" that exists in the church today. Speaking specifically of seminary faculty, Hart asks "are church members likely to regard professors as doctors in the church whose judgement and insights, though by no means infallible, are worth hearing, if only because of their proficiency and expertise in a specific theological discipline?" His conclusion is that this is probably not the case, due again to an egalitarian hermaneutic that "makes the conclusion of the seminary professor no better than what the folks 'share' at the Wednesday Bible study."
While Hart's concerns are worthy of attention, his views on the essential distinction between clergy and laity transcend discussion of formal education alone, to include the solemnity of calling. He points out the notion that "Kingdom work," which bestows significance upon all vocations, leads people in all walks of life "to believe that their vocations have as much redemptive import as that of officers in Christ's church." In other words, part of what grants legitimacy to ministers in Hart's view is an understanding that vocational ministry is somehow of greater value to God's Kingdom than any other profession. Therefore, formal education is of absolute neccesity for the "legitimate" minister of the Gospel.
Another "modern credential" is, of course, the minister's "track record." This is no surprise, given how the American church has "syncretized" a worldly definition of "success" to be its own. Often, the "church growth" mentality even causes comparisons of ministries based solely on the "numbers game." Just a few weeks ago one well-known Louisville, KY pastor, when in disagreement with a more moderate pastor on the other side of town over a particular issue, answered his colleague, not by addressing the issue itself, but rather by suggesting that the other pastor pay closer attention to his own church, because "his numbers seem to indicate that he should." In other words, "my church is bigger than yours, therefore my ministry is more legitimate than yours." This sort of sinful pride has no place in the body of Christ, yet it is regrettably the driving force behind how many pastors and church leaders are recognized as "authorities."
The above faulty assumptions have been addressed with eloquence by Burke, Yaconelli, and others who share their views of "ministerial legitimacy." Formal education, while important, is not the end-all-be-all panacea to a succesful ministry (and as a terminal degree-holding, two-time product of my denomination's flagship seminary, I think I can speak here in an unbiased fashion) Certainly, a call to ministry is a call to prepare, but while a rich knowlege of the Scriptures should be the minimum prerequisite to the pastoral office, it is not a piece of "sheepskin" that guarantees such knowlege.
Similarly, one must ask if the rate of growth in a church corresponds to the level of legitimacy God places on a ministry. The fastest growing denominational body in the United States is presently the Mormon church. The fastest growing religion in Great Brittain is Islam. Burke and Yaconelli are correct: If we want to discover what is really important to God, we must learn how to judge the value of things we can't count!
Still, while many of the criticisms leveled at the modern church by Burke and company are worthy of attention, I fear that Burke unknowingly steps over the line in his search for legitimacy by criticizing Christ as well as His Church. Much of this criticism is well-intentioned. For example, Burke contends that Christians have been wrong about many subjects, such as slavery and women's rights. His conclusion: "Given a less-than-stellar track record, is it really so heretical to think that the evangelical church may be wrong about homosexuality as well? Isn't it wise to ask the 'what-if' question from time to time, if for no other reason than to test our contemporary application of Scripture?"
...Yes, it is heretical!
...and no, it is never wise to question issues on which the Bible speaks with crystal clarity!
In the end, legitimacy doesn't come from the "modern" trappings of education, or a worldly definition of success. In addition, legitimacy will not be found by questioning the truths given us in Scripture. Ultimately, our legitimacy as ministers of the Gospel comes from the Word of God, given by the God of the Word. The Apostle Paul believed this, and in his proposal to the Church at Rome for a mission to Spain, he grounds his authority and legitimacy there. Interesting, isn't it? Paul could have very easily appealed to his Rabbinical training, or to his "track record" as a church planter.
Instead, he simply finds his legitimacy in being "called as an Ap0stle, set apart for the Gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His ressurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord." [Romans 1:1b-4]
Authority and legitimacy don't come from denying or questioning that which Scripture teaches with clarity. Nor does it come from any artificially-imposed "credentials" the modern church may attempt to use. It comes from the ressurrectd Christ!
Have you, as a minister, ever questioned your calling? Seriously, have you ever thought to yourself, "you know, if only I had more education." Similarly, have you ever looked at what appeared to be anemic results from your service as a pastor and said "maybe I should find another line of work."? You are not alone! But Paul, the most articulate theologian and successful missionary/church planter in the history of Christianity, said that his legitimacy was not based on his track record. It was based on the bodily ressurection of Jesus!
Our pride in the modern church has caused our failure to see what God truly values. I don't have any authority because of my educational attainments, or because of a "successful" ministry. I have authority and legitimacy as a minister because a dead man rose from the grave, and commands that I tell His story! But He also commands that I accurately represent His story, which means that as I hold to the living Word as my base of authority, I must also simultaneously hold to the written Word which reveals Him for who He is. In short, prepare as God gives you opportunity, be faithful to the clear teaching of His Word, and live to His glory until Jesus comes! Has God called you to this task? Has God "sent you out" to do ministry among His people? Do your spiritual gifts and skills confirm this sense of calling? Have God's people, the church, recognized this in you? Are you seeking to prepare yourself in all ways accesible to you, including the "seminary of real world experience?" If so, then let there be no question of your "legitimacy."