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So Many Popes!

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A recent article today in Charisma News by Brooklyn minister, Joseph Mattera, raises some important questions with extraordinary ramifications.

The author is concerned with the proliferation of evangelical and Pentecostal megachurches that reflect a Roman Catholic model of church leadership, especially in Latin America.  Churches become empires with numerous departments and programs staffed by an army of “professional” Christians under the command of the CEO.

The fact that these questions are raised by an overseeing bishop of a church within a coalition that affirms the ongoing office of apostles, and in an article published in a charismatic magazine, is especially significant.  It’s a hopeful sign that leaders like Mattera argue for a more biblical view of the church and ministry, with officers mutually accountable instead of making unilateral decisions.

 

The Lure of Unaccountable Power

Joseph Mattera puts his finger on a very big problem in the global church today.  It’s not only in countries with a Roman Catholic history where “papal” models proliferate.  They are well known features of U.S. church life.   Perhaps “papal” isn’t the right analogy.  The pope today has little authority over renegade teachers and bishops. The communion that he leads at least in theory is as internally divided by countless factions, schools, and personalities as Protestantism is more visibly.  A better analogy might be the founder and CEO.  After all, popes at least are elected by the college of cardinals.

Even in our circles, there is a tendency to create stars whose models of “doing church” divide the ordered life of local and wider assemblies of mutual accountability.  Few actually set out with that purpose.

It begins as an experiment; then, if it’s successful, it becomes a model.  To preserve its success and the ongoing creativity and innovative potential of the leader/model, the church tends to isolate itself from the wider assemblies of the church (presbytery, general assemblies or synods, etc.).  A network emerges with ties to the leader/model that are stronger than the bonds between ministers and elders who have taken oaths to a common confession and church order.

Before you know it, factions arise in opposition to and in defense of a particular model and spokesmen and the court of public opinion (especially blogs) replaces the courts of the church for fraternal discussion, debate, encouragement, and correction.  Churches that needed the visionary insights are able to reinforce their prejudices unhindered by face-to-face engagement and the more experimental churches that needed wisdom and correction are able to pursue their agenda without interruption.  Instead of listening to the multiplicity of voices (“wisdom in many counselors”), churches actually become more narrow, insular, and independent.  We may belong formally to the same denomination, but our deeper affinity is the tribe—the church-within-a-church to which we belong.  Eventually, the church-within-a-church becomes its own denomination, and so on.

This is the legacy of pietism, reinforced by a few centuries of revivalism.  If Reformation churches were too closely tied to the state, the danger is that evangelicalism is too closely identified with the democratic egalitarianism at the heart of modernity.  It’s the danger of looking upon the world as a market instead of a mission-field and upon the church as a sales force rather than sheep to be looked after.

I’m not suggesting at all that the pietist-revivalist tradition of Protestantism encourages the lure of unaccountable power.  That is already in us, part of our sinful condition.  Much less am I saying that a biblical form of church government (presbyterian, I’m bound to say!) saves us from arrogant self-assertion.  What I do believe, however, is that the system of checks and balances that it sets up can at least make it more difficult for us to have our way in that regard.

 

Calvin: No Fiefdoms!

One of the striking take-aways from Scott Manetsch’s Calvin's Company of Pastors is the extent to which the Genevan reformer resisted the cult of personality.  Insisting on a plurality of ministers and elders, with decisions falling to the mutual consent of officers in local and broader assemblies, Calvin never saw St. Pierre’s as a personal fiefdom.  He never spoke the way we often do today about his church or his pulpit or his ministry.  In fact, ministers rotated to the various parish churches each week, so that the people would be attached to Christ rather than to men, to the ministry rather than the minister.  Pastors have to remember, Calvin said, that they are friends of the bridegroom, not the groom.  It’s their job to lead them to Christ, not to themselves.

Many in the orbit of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” today seem to be drawn to extremes: either the independent egalitarianism that ends up creating many popes or the older top-down hierarchy of Rome.  In case after case that I’ve witnessed, the moves have been made by leaping over biblical models of church government.   There are of course many in the past and today who have given careful consideration to the case for this covenantal ecclesiology.  Yet the greater tendency, I suspect, is rash (restless) hastiness.  Those looking for a visible pope on earth dismiss it as too democratic, while those who want to build their own fiefdoms dismiss it as too stifling and, ironically, “hierarchical.”

Christ is still fulfilling his pledge to build his Church regardless.  As we look at the actual state of the particular churches and denominations to which we belong, we may feel compelled to make that choice between a “wild west” evangelicalism and an ahistorical idea of “Camelot” that the longing for Rome and Constantinople represent.  No form of government will guarantee the existence of the true Church; that is lodged in the true preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.  Yet the form of discipline is not thereby made unimportant, when after all our only Head and King mandates not only the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, but “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  And whether it always looks like it or not, we have his promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mat 28:19-21).
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  • Mark,
    My comments are based on the observations made by more than one person. Note that I did not say that all who have converted from the Roman Church tradition to the Reformed tradition have traded in one pope for many, but many have and even some who came to the Reformed faith from other starting points have also embraced many popes.

    The telltale sign of embracing many popes is not believing that the Reformed faith is a good, or even the best, systematic summary of the Scriptures. Rather, the telltale sign can be seen in our reaction to those people who disagree with revered Reformers, Reformed confessions, and Reformed catechisms. How do we react when people disagree with Calvin, Luther, or Edwards for example?

    See, the structure of the Presbyterian Church might impede personality cults, but the dynamics that come with a significant emphasis on authority, such as exists in the Reformed faith, can fan the flame of personality cults. It comes down to whether we can distinguish between a proper regard for authority from authoritarianism (for authoritarianism, see http://www.psychologistworld.com/influence_personality/authoritarian_personality.php).

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  • Guest - Mark B

    Mr. Day
    I was in my comment specifically responding to your continuous linking of "revered Reformers" with "Reformed confessions, and Reformed catechisms" and treating them in the same manner. Publically stating what we believe Scripture says (by affirming the Standards) is not the same thing as saying "I follow Paul, or I follow Apollos". If I state that I affirm the Apostle's Creed, for example, would you accuse me of "pope addiction"? Wouldn't it be clear that what I meant in doing so is that I see that statement as faithfully teaching Scripture?
    And for those who say any creed or confession is a "Pope", read 'Charisma News' mentioned above. They may not have a creed or confession directly analogous to the Standards, but they certainly have some fairly nonnegotiable beliefs about what the think Scripture teaches, right?

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  • Mark,
    Certainly there are nonnegotiable beliefs. But it still stands that how we respond to criticism of revered Reformers, confessions, and catechisms can indicate what popes we have. For there is a difference between defending the faith and attacking those who dissent. When we see ourselves in constant attack mode or being overly sensitive so that we see criticism where there is none, we show insecurity rather than faithfulness. That insecurity is the result of trusting in that which has feet of clay. But what need is there to attack those who question the Gospel? The truths of the Gospel are not threatened by the skepticism or rejection of people. However, the authority of popes are.

    Now don't most find exceptions with the Westminster standards? And if there are no exceptions to be found, wouldn't we be in danger of elevating the Standards to the level of the Scriptures? In addition, aren't the confessions and catechisms the interpretations of men like Calvin, Luther, and Edwards?

    Certainly the confessions and catechisms are important guides and there are some nonnegotiable statements made in them. And for us to deny the need for such guides could indicate problems such as narcissism. But they are not inerrant and they mix the cultural views of the times with the fallible and limited understanding of people with the Scriptures. And they are in need of correction or being reformed. Thus, when we attack those who question or criticize our confessions and catechisms or some other source of authority, we give evidence of serving popes.

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  • Guest - Mark B

    Curt
    It would seem that we are still on different pages, so a response to a few points:

    "Now don’t most find exceptions with the Westminster standards?" --- Yes, and most of fallen humanity has exceptions to Scripture, does that imply it's false?.

    "And if there are no exceptions to be found, wouldn’t we be in danger of elevating the Standards to the level of the Scriptures?" ---- No. While something that is inerrant (Scripture) is free from error, it doesn't follow that because something is not inerrant that it must contain error.

    "In addition, aren’t the confessions and catechisms the interpretations of men like Calvin, Luther, and Edwards?" --- Yes, the confessions are the words of Men. But, because it is possible for men to error (fallibility) does not mean that men did error when writing the confessions.

    "But they are not inerrant and they mix the cultural views of the times with the fallible and limited understanding of people with the Scriptures. And they are in need of correction or being reformed." --- See above on inerrancy, and it is your opinion that they are in error and need corrected or reformed, not something that has been demonstrated (that many agree with you demonstrates little).

    "Thus, when we attack those who question or criticize our confessions and catechisms...we give evidence of serving popes." --- There is a proper way to respond to questions and criticisms, but disagreement is not necessarily an attack, nor is the source of such disagreement necessarily being "overly sensitive", or "show[ing] insecurity" . Another reason we may respond to those who question and criticize our confessions is because we care for them as brothers in Christ, and want them to grow in right understanding of God, similarly to the way we might respond to a pagan who questions and criticizes Scripture.

    To reiterate my point throughout this discussion, the fact that we have confessions does not necessarily imply we have Popes.

    *At this point some tend to assume that I believe that the standards have no error (even though that does not logically follow from the points raised above), so, to be clear, I do not.

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  • Mark,
    Let me respond to some of your points. First, something that is not inerrant, by definition, has error. That is because the definition of inerrancy is to be without error. Thus the negation of that is to have error. I believe that a better distinction is to focus on whether something comes from special revelation or from interpretation of special revelation which consists of insights and other derivative thoughts. The standards consist of interpretations, the Scriptures consist of special revelation.

    Now I brought up the question of whether there is a danger in elevating the standards to the levels of the Scriptures and you responded with no. And yet, you responded to my saying that people, and it was implied Christians here, find exceptions with the Standards by saying that sinners find exceptions to the Scriptures. By such a comparison, there is a possible elevation of the standards to Scriptures in your answer.

    You disagreed with my view that the Standards are not inerrant and have a mix cultural views of the times with the fallible understanding of the Scriptures. And yet at the end of your comment, you acknowledged that the standards have errors. In addition, if God used the cultural understandings of the writers of the Scriptures, why should we not believe that the cultural understand of the writers of the standards played a role in writing the standards?

    Finally, we agree in the point that having the confessions does not imply that we have many popes. Again, what indicates whether we have many popes is how we defend the Standards, that is how we express disagreement with those who disagree with the standards. So your last response is a bit confusing.

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  • Guest - Mark B

    Curt,
    While we disagree, that's fine, I think we've covered it. One clarification, if I may. You say:

    "First, something that is not inerrant, by definition, has error. That is because the definition of inerrancy is to be without error. Thus the negation of that is to have error. I believe that a better distinction is to focus on whether something comes from special revelation or from interpretation of special revelation which consists of insights and other derivative thoughts. The standards consist of interpretations, the Scriptures consist of special revelation."

    When we define scripture as inerrant, part of the reason they must be inerrant is because they are 'God Breathed', since God is perfect and is the author, therefore they must be free of error. The standards are not 'God Breathed' so they are not inerrant. However, that does not imply that they must contain error. For example, I am errant, but if I say 2+2=4, that does not mean that 2+2=4 is an error.

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  • Mark,
    Just because If something is God breathed, it is inerrant, it does not follow that if it is not God-breathed, it is not inerrant unless the two are equivalent, that is that the implication and the converse are both true. I don't see that equivalency in the Bible. This is why I said the distinction should be whether something is God-breathed rather than something is inerrant.

    BTW, the writers of the scriptures were errant. But because of the Spirit, it is the Scriptures that are inerrant because though the writers of the Scriptures were subject to making human mistakes, it is the Spirit who made those writings inerrant. So inerrancy is an attribute we apply to the product rather the instrument used.

    This is a difference between those who are Reformed and those who are in the Roman Church. While the Roman Church on the instrument being inerrant, such the Pope when he speak ex-cathedra, those who are Reformed focus on the product being inerrant. An example of why we can't say that the Apostles were in inerrant is because we know Peter was wrong when Paul had to correct him (See Galatians 2).

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  • Mark,
    BTW, my last paragraph left out a couple of words. So here are the rewrites

    1. While the Roman Church focuses on the instrument being inerrant, such as the Pope when he speaks ex-cathedra

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