February 27th, 2020

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Towards a Methodist Theology of Ordination

When I was fresh out of seminary in my first full-time appointment, I was teaching an adult Sunday School class. I forget what the subject of the day was, but I was trying to make a point about the place of clergy in the church. I asked the question, “What can clergy do that no one else can do?” And I found that I didn’t know the answer. So many things we just associate with the clergy, but unordained people can – in one circumstance or another – do just about all of them. So why do we have clergy as a special class of people in the church at all?

If you ask this of a pastor or most theologians, you’ll get a fog of Scripture. But the problem with starting with Scripture is, we bring certain preconceived notions to the text – even as we say we’re deriving meaning from the text. One of the reasons that the Puritans were cold to the Authorized Version of the Bible (KJV) was because the king laid down certain strictures about translating “old, comfortable church words.” In other words, the translators were required to say “bishop” instead of “overseer,” “church” rather than “congregation,” etc. The Puritans wanted words that allowed for a Calvinist understanding of ecclesiology; King James insisted on words that supported a moderate Catholic one.

The implication is that our tradition preconditions our understanding of Scripture, at least at first. So let’s start by talking about the English Church Tradition, out of which our Methodist movement comes. Only after examining how this tradition has shaped our understanding of ordination can we profitably go back and look at the Scriptures and church history in order to critique that understanding.Collapse )
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More on Methodist theology of ordination

Part Two: American Methodism

The introduction of holy orders into the American Methodist movement grafted a new set of understandings onto an existing institution, with sometimes jarring effect. The Methodist Societies had been run by the laity. Traveling preachers had to be approved by the Conference, but anybody within the movement could preach. There were no sacraments. The only hierarch was Francis Asbury, acting as John Wesley’s deputy. His task was to appoint the preachers to their stations or circuits, and to travel and preach himself.

Once the Methodist Episcopal Church was set up, the first new feature was obviously, bishops. What was a Methodist bishop? Well, he wasn’t a C of E bishop. He didn’t have a diocese; rather, he was to travel the whole connection. Methodist bishops did not form a General Staff in the capital or command garrisons; they were field commanders who lived with their troops, and Methodism was an army on the march.Collapse )
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Still more on Methodist orders

Part Three: ad fontes

We have examined the tradition out of which Methodism came, and what happened to it in America. This should explain a lot about what we believe and practice. And this self-awareness is important when we come to read the Scriptures and examine what can be known about the history of early Christianity. For all of us read what we read while wearing the special glasses of our assumptions. Some of our assumptions will be validated in what we read, but if we read uncritically, all of them will be. For those who cannot see anything without their filters will see only what agrees with what they already think.

So, to begin with, let’s establish what a “church” was in primitive Christianity. In the NT, we usually see churches described as “the church AT Someplace” or “the church that meets in SOMEBODY’S house.” When we think of churches, we think of reasonably compact congregations operating in a defined locality, usually with a physical plant (also called a “church”). None of that is operative in the First Century, nor for many years thereafter. The earliest purpose-built churches are found in the second half of the Third Century (250-300). A few remodeled houses donated for church use might predate that, but not by much. The parochial or neighborhood model we think of didn’t exist yet. It took a thousand years to put a church in every village of Europe.Collapse )