Ordination and the Crisis of Leadership in American Protestantism
by D. G. Hart
It is hard for some in mainline Protestant churches to understand, but a few denominations like my own, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), are still debating whether women should be allowed to serve as ruling or teaching elders (elders and pastors). For many on both sides it is strictly a question of being faithful to Scripture. Subordinationists (those who oppose women in office) rely heavily upon 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, those passages that reflect the patriarchal patterns of first-century Greco-Roman culture. Ordinationists, in contrast, give much weight to the Apostle Paul’s egalitarian sentiments in Galations 3. Yet both sides also reflect the assumptions rooted in their socioeconomic status. Subordinationists tend to be older or from rural society and adhere to early modern views about the role of women and their function in the home—what some have called the cult of domesticity. Ordinationists more often than not reside in the suburbs, come from two-income families, and had their consciousness raised, if not shaped, by the arguments of the modern feminist movement.
Despite these differences, there is one thing that both sides have in common. It is silence about the nature and scope of the authority that the office of pastor or elder constitutes. Subordinationists, it would seem, have an easier case to make because much of their perspective depends upon a hierarchical understanding of human relationships. Whether in the church, the household, or society, generally subordinationists stand for a conception of authority that places power and responsibility in the God-ordained and male-dominated offices of magistrate, clergyman, and father. Yet, one scours the writings of conservatives in vain for mention of the O-word, ordination. Subordinationists will gladly talk about the authority of the Bible but rarely come clean about the hierarchical idea of office that the Bible and its culture seem to assume. Nor are they willing to argue—as pre-revolutionary Protestants used to—that the authority of particular offices and vocations is essential to social order and the restraint of evil. Rather, most contemporary Protestants are democrats who believe that individuals should be free to pursue their own economic well-being, order their own lives, and discover their own happiness. Thus, with some irony, subordinationists have accepted virtually all the premises of modernity, premises which undermine the very notions of office and ordination they wish to defend in barring women from holding special office. But in this one area—as well as the role of women in the home—they cling to a pre-modern conception of ordination and office.
Such contradictions are no less evident on the ordinationist side. While progressive Protestants have come to terms with the egalitarian and functional views of authority and power that modern society encourages—even to the point of finding these very same ideas in the Bible, a remarkably pre-modern if not ancient text—they have not explained why the church should hold on to such antiquated notions as ministerial office and ordination. The egalitarian ethic teaches that all individuals are equal and one hears much about the diversity of gifts and ministries that all of God’s people possess. Yet if all are equal, why should we set some apart or give authority to a particularly small segment of the believing community? Wouldn’t it make more sense to abolish entirely the office of minister or elder or at least ordain everyone for the special gift they possess and ministry they perform? The way many ordinationists finesse this question is to talk about service. Clergy are not ordained to be rulers. Rather, there is a better understanding of ministerial office—through the ideal of service. (Actually the idea of leader as servant is at least as old as the Rotarians, Lions and Kiwanis.) The minister or elder does not wield power in an authoritarian way but rather abases himself or herself to serve—much like Christ did—for the greater good of the Christian community. The model for this service is Christ’s phrase: “the least shall be first.” The suffering servant is certainly an appealing ideal, but one that rarely characterizes denominational assemblies where only the use of Robert’s Rules of Order provides a modicum of order, and where bureaucrats moan about the slightest drop in budgetary allocations.
Though it may be behind the times by about three decades, the debate in the CRC over the ordination of women reflects a profound crisis within historically white American Protestant denominations about the nature and function of ordination. As timid as the Christian Reformed are about connecting the office of minister to an older conception of ordination, mainline and evangelical Protestants also avoid defining the precise nature and function of the ministerial office. The following quotation depicting the decline in ministerial authority within the CRC has been true of Protestant clergy in general for some time.
These older ministers, whose spiritual authority was enormous and sometimes tyrannical, had fixed minds. Their influence is sometimes hard to understand now when every Tom, Dick and Sadie with a strong D average in high school has the right to expressed opinion. Then, when preachers said, “Thus saith the Lord,” they were inclined to believe it.1
Few Protestants would deny that the sense of a minister speaking for God—and the accompanying sense that attending church was a duty with grave consequences—has been lost. Some would undoubtedly welcome the change to egalitarian forms of leadership that would be accessible and hospitable to the needs and demands of the laity. Yet, two separate developments within the Protestant household tell us that all is not well, developments that reflect efforts to rehabilitate the role of the clergy but, as is typical of modern times, do it without mentioning adequately or wrestling with what it is that happens in the service of ordination.
Within the mainline Protestant churches there is much talk about decline, both in real numbers and in less tangible forms of cultural clout. Some of these estimates may either be a bit too dour or are not sufficiently attentive to long term historic trends.2 Yet most would agree that mainline Protestant stock in recent decades has lost considerable value. Various medicines have been prescribed for the church’s return to health. Plans for church growth, more theology, less social activism, and greater diversity all come to mind. The Hartford Seminary Executive Seminar for church leaders is an effort to rehabilitate further the American church. The program, which was funded by the Lilly Endowment and concludes at the end of 1993, is designed to bring together younger church and interdenominational leaders to examine the crises and prospects confronting religious bodies in America. Participants in the project read a variety of manuals in business management and current affairs, and develop proposals to make themselves more effective as leaders of religious organizations. The implicit rationale in this seminar is that a future generation of leaders will be better equipped to guide the churches back into a period of prosperity, relevance and influence.
Not only have programs been devised and recommended by the mainline churches and their supporting institutions, but a variety of authors have explored the crisis of leadership within American churches. One such book is Jackson W. Carroll’s As One With Authority. Carroll argues for a model of ministerial authority rooted in “reflective-leadership,” a dialogical approach to Christian living that is based upon a high degree of trust and interaction between clergy and laity. While Carroll pays some attention to the sacramental character of the ministry (i.e., the minister as God’s representative), the focus of the book is on how ministers can function better as reflective leaders. The clergy, according to this view, are still experts or professionals, but their expertise is less scientific, less bound by iron-clad laws of cause and effect, and ultimately more humane because they are more cognizant of the contingencies of daily existence. Carroll’s book, and works similar to it, give the impression that clergy will become better leaders if they become more effective professionals.
The model of minister as professional is rooted in developments almost a century old within American Protestantism. As Craig Dykstra and James Hudnut-Beumier have demonstrated in an astute article on the structure of American denominations from the late eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, denominational governance has witnessed an organizational revolution. National church bodies went from constitutional confederacies (1780-1870) to corporations (1870-1960) to regulatory agencies (1960 to the present). In the early period the character of denominational life was local. Denominational structures served chiefly the needs and ministry of the local congregation. Since 1870 the nature and purpose of denominations have changed dramatically. The focus shifted from the local congregation to the national body that has its own functions and duties, ones that were known to be different from the work of the local church and, in some cases, more important. Also, what this change accomplished was to create a large bureaucratic structure filled by church executives whose function was to manage the programs of the church. As these programs and agencies grew they took on a life and culture of their own that was different from the life and culture of the local church but very similar to the corporate culture that was developing simultaneously in American business. The church became more a corporation than a household of faith.3
Not surprisingly, strategies for enhancing the authority of the modern denomination use the language of professionalism and expertise, even applying these models of leadership to the work of the local minister. The managers of Protestant corporations turn increasingly to the literature of scientific management produced by America’s corporate executives for help with everything from improving morale at the national office to making the local sales representative, the pastor, a more productive and effective agent. Yet there is a danger to corporate models for the church contained in the literature on management. As a recent book on the bureaucratic therapies of management gurus like Peter Drucker shows, recommendations for greater participation and harmony within the corporation often obscure the strategies of powerful executives intent on preserving their own authority and status.4
Despite numerical growth and greater visibility, American evangelicalism has not been immune from the crisis of leadership affecting the mainline churches. The functional equivalent of mainline denominational leadership within evangelical circles is the seminary. Evangelical seminaries fill a void created by a variety of independent non-denominational congregations and evangelical churches within denominations suspicious of denominational structures. Both kinds of congregations need some agency to recruit, train and certify church leaders. Despite the size and affluence of many of these seminaries, all is not well within the evangelical fold. Increasingly, one hears concerns about the irrelevance of traditional theological studies and the need for ministers who are better equipped to grapple with the demands of contemporary believers and modern society. Especially threatening to the evangelical seminary is the proliferation of mega-churches that teach the heart (piety) matters more than the head (theology) and yet demand ministers schooled in the latest social scientific and business strategies of church growth. Critics also fault the traditional seminar curriculum for being too quietistic. Some Evangelicals want ministers who are more eager to promote various strategies for social justice and peace.
In this situation, evangelical theological educators are having to confront tensions that have bedeviled the evangelical movement since its origins. Evangelicalism came into being during the revivals of the eighteenth century and was dominated by the English evangelist George Whitefield. These revivals were important because they forged a new style of religious leadership, one that was direct, personal, popular, and depended more on the speaker’s appeal to the audience—his charisma—than upon his standing in the social hierarchy. Theology and formal learning were not important to the revivalists’ appeal. Instead, personality, style and emotion were better indicators of their leadership ability. Religious disestablishment after the revolutionary war was like throwing gas on the fire of evangelicalism. Where previously church life had been highly regulated, the separation of church and state in the American republic gave the upper hand to revivalistic ministers informed by pragmatic know-how and unfettered by the restraints of learning and certification. Little wonder then that Methodists and Baptists, the two groups that promoted revivals best, grew the fastest, while older established churches like the Congregationalists and Episcopalians declined. Even more important was what the tradition of revivalism did to evangelical patterns of leadership and governance. The most successful evangelical leaders were and continue to be individuals with enormous popular appeal who are ready and willing to use whatever techniques are available to communicate the gospel. Theology, liturgics, and office do not matter. Folksy stories, schmaltzy music, mailing lists, and satellite dishes do.
So while mainline churches pattern themselves after the model of professionalism and expertise, evangelical churches emulate the practices of popular culture. Both kinds of leadership, as Max Weber argued, exhibit the types of authority produced by modern society. The development of mainline Protestant denominations reflects the “rational-legal” variety of leadership that relies upon professional training and bureaucratic certification. The revivalist practices of Evangelicals are typical of the charismatic basis of authority that stems from an individual’s exceptional personal qualities of morality and heroism. Ironically, the allegedly anti-modern Evangelicals have capitulated almost as thoroughly to modernity in matters of leadership as the so-called modernist mainline churches. Yet, both evangelical and mainline practices are far from what Christians have historically thought about ordination and the kind of leadership that proceeds from it.5
Ordination is the setting of individuals apart to perform certain tasks within the church. It carries with it the conferring of authority and prescribes the tasks of office holders. The Apostles Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 4:1 is a helpful summary of ordination’s significance. He writes, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The Geneva Confession of 1537 explained that this conception of the ministry requires church members to “receive the true ministers of the Word of God as messengers and ambassadors of God,” to “hearken” to these ministers as to Christ himself, and to consider “their ministry as a commission from God necessary in the church.” And just to make sure unruly Genevans knew who was in charge in church matters, John Calvin wrote that true pastors were called by God, that the government of the church, “in short,” was not “a contrivance of men but an appointment made by the Son of God.” Calvin went on to warn that those who rejected or despised the Christian ministry were in effect rebelling and insulting Christ himself.6
This kind of pious language, to be sure, can be heavy-handed and sanctimonious. It can also be very repressive. Nevertheless, the idea that ordination sets one apart for ministry instituted by the creator and redeemer of the universe does bring an altogether different understanding of church leadership than the models bandied about within evangelical and mainline churches—an understanding that has authority and, hence, leadership built into it. The minister does not hold authority because of special gifts (expertise), though gifts are important. Nor does the minister speak with power because he is telegenic and winsome. Rather, authority resides in the ministry because of the office of the pastor itself. The office, no matter who holds it, is authoritative. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) expresses such a view of office when it states “we know that the voice of Christ is to be heard, though it be out of the mouths of evil ministers . . . . We know that the sacraments are sanctified by the institution and the word of Christ, and that they are effectual to the godly, although they be administered by unworthy ministers.”7
The authority of the ministry does not originate strictly from its ontological status but also follows from the functions ministers perform. According to older Protestant conceptions of ordination, ministers were set apart not just to rule but to administer the word and sacrament; they were stewards of the mysteries of God. One way churches in the Reformed tradition have talked about the authority of the ministry is to use the phrase, “the power of the keys.” According to the Heidelberg Catechism “the preaching of the holy gospel and Christian discipline” are the means by which the kingdom of heaven is opened and shut. The doctrine of the Keys, in the logic of the Second Helvetic Confession, means that while Christ reserves ultimate power and authority for himself, the minister has the powers of the steward in the Lord’s house; the Lord gives keys to his servants in order to restrict access to the household of faith. Granted, few American Protestants today are willing to invest their minister with this kind of authority. In fact, many are quite suspicious of any structure of governance that smacks of patriarchy, much less hierarchy. But such suspicions will hardly be assuaged by remedies that make the ministry little more than a source of empowerment or therapy. Modern rationales for ministry still protect the prerogatives of ministers—there is still a distinction between the clergy and laity under the guise of equality and service. At least the older conception of ordination was candid about the nature and, therefore, the limits of the minister’s office and power.
The older idea of ordination also contained a clearer understanding of why the ministry was important and why it should have such power and authority. Ultimately, the power of the minister flowed from the Church’s confession of faith and the Christian hope for eternal life. The functions ministers performed, the administration of word and sacrament, were means of grace, ways for the faithful to be reminded of and confirmed in their salvation from misery and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These mysteries of God put all the rest of life into a different perspective. No matter what the condition of temporal existence, whether in feast or famine, wealth or poverty, freedom or oppression, there was still hope for the life to come and assurance for that life through the work of Christ. As stewards of those mysteries, the ministry could not have performed a more valuable or vital service.
In contrast, the authority of ministers today is negligible because such a cosmic perspective on their services is largely absent. Churches no longer have a clear sense of what they do. The language of salvation and redemption is still used, but these doctrines are increasingly vague. Those who see social justice and mercy as essential to the Church’s redemptive mission have failed to present a vision of equality and empowerment that transcends political partisanship or that can in any meaningful sense be recognized as sacred. And if progressive believers do try to argue that a particular policy is sanctioned by divine teaching they come perilously close to sharing with the religious right a Constantinian understanding of the political order where God’s law is the basis for the law of the land. As long as Christians disagree about what constitutes a good society, social justice and mercy will not, short of holding public office, provide ministers with much authority.
Even Evangelicals, the so-called conservatives, have mucked up older ideas about the Church as what Calvin called “the mother of salvation.” Evangelicals regard redemption as a way to have a therapeutic (“personal”) relationship with the sovereign and transcendent God of the Universe. They want God to be their buddy. And to the extent that Evangelicals think about the clergy, they regard ministers as models of the kind of intimate relationship with God they desire. But if, as Evangelicals believe, the most important aspect of Christianity is a personal friendship with God through private Bible reading and prayer, who needs the ministry or the visible church?
The old understanding of ordination is implausible, however, not just because theological consensus no longer exists. Another difficulty, perhaps even more basic, is the social order on which churches depend. Modern society regards ritual, symbol, hierarchy, and form as unreal at best, and fake at worst. Gone is any conception that the forms and shapes of temporal existence represent transcendent realities. Instead, what matters most is standard of living and gross national product. How can ministers provide any leadership, let alone exert any authority, when what ministers do as stewards of the mysteries of God is marginal if not antithetical to the way most people spend their time? Can Protestant church leaders, with straight faces, as the president of the CRC’s seminary recently suggested, encourage young people with particular gifts and abilities to go into the ministry rather than become doctors, lawyers, or academics? Can Protestants do this especially when their churches have blessed the current pursuit of material goods and therapeutic services? Some may object that these goods and services are not as equitably distributed as they should be, but almost no one, with the exception of a few agrarians, is willing to say that corporate-industrial society—a society that puts a premium upon productivity, efficiency and function—undermines the idea that there is a transcendent reality and, therefore, that this kind of social arrangement is harmful, not just for the Church as an institution but for humankind more generally.
Richard M. Weaver, the Marxist turned agrarian, was on to something when he pointed out the connections between modern economic realities and the demise of the importance of metaphysics and religious ideas. In his book Ideas Have Consequences (1948) he wrote,
The spoiling of man seems always to begin when urban living predominates over rural. After man has left the country to shut himself up in vast piles of stone, . . . after he has come to depend on a complicated system of human exchange for his survival, he becomes forgetful of the overriding mystery of creation. Such is the normal condition of the deracine. An artificial environment causes him to lose sight of the great system not subject to man’s control. Undoubtedly this circumstance is a chief component of bourgeois mentality, as even the etymology of “bourgeois” may remind us. It is the city-dweller, solaced by manmade comforts, who resents the very thought that there exist mighty forces beyond his understanding; it is he who wishes insulation and who berates and persecutes the philosophers, the prophets and mystics, the wild men out of the desert, who keep before him the theme of human frailty.8
Weaver offers no solution to the problem of clerical authority, but by implication he raises the question of whether the Church can grow, let alone subsist, in a society that is structured in such a way as to deny the very reason for its existence—to make men and women aware of their frailty and to offer a divine and mysterious way for overcoming it. Until the churches reconsider the function of the ministry in the light of reality—that the clergy is set apart for a special, gracious and authoritative task—efforts to pump more vitality and efficiency into Protestant leadership will be futile.
1. John M. Timmerman, “Whatever Happened to Sunday?” Reformed Journal (Feb., 1981).
2. William R. Hutchison, Catherine L. Albanese, Max L. Stackhouse, and William McKinney, “Forum: The Decline of Mainline Religion in American Culture,” Religion and American Culture 1 (1991), 131-154; Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge & Donald A. Luidens, “Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline,” First Things, March, 1993, 13-18.
3. Dykstra and Hudnut-Beumler, “The National Organizational Structures of Protestant Denominations: An Invitation to a Conversation,” in The Organizational Revolution, ed. Coalter, Mulder, Weeks (Louisville, 1992), chap. 12.
4. Stephen P. Waring, Taylorism Transformed: Scientific Management Theory since 1945 (Chapel Hill, 1991).
5. See for instance, Weber, “Politics as Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed., H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York, 1964), chap. 4.
6. J. L. Ainslie, The Doctrines of Ministerial Order in the Reformed Churches of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Edinburgh, 1940), 8-9.
7. United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., The Book of Confessions (New York, 1966), 5.166.
8. Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, 1948), 115
D. G. Hart works for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (www.isi.org) and is an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He is the author of A Studen't Guide to Religious Studies (ISI Books) and John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (P&R Books).
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