Hopeful Fruit #3 – Populist Insistence of the Priesthood of All Believers

One of the marks of the Protestant Reformation, of course, has been the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. As a direct result of a priesthood that had become thoroughly corrupt and overly powerful, believers found life and hope knowing that Scripture was for all and shouldn’t be reserved for the most educated and annointed. There are few groups of Protestant groups that have realized this as significantly as the Church of Christ.

I always find some humor in explaining to pastors from other denominations how our churches find their ministers. When you really step back and think about it, it is quite humorous . . . and yet, somehow strangely, refreshing. In a postmodern world where skepticism abounds and trust of “The Man” has all but deteriorated, it seems as though this tenet of our churches just might push us through a difficult transition. It seems to me that outsiders will be excited to know that our ministers are not the product of some denominational appointment or designation, but that this is who the local congregation chose. There is a great connection with our populist emphasis and our insistence upon autonomy.

I find myself talking out of both sides of my mouth on this topic. On the one hand, I am encouraged by our desire to level the playing field of interpretation and leadership. Regardless of education, background, or perceived expertise, everyone pretty much comes in on a level playing field. This is overstated, a bit, obviously, in that we still maintain some hidden or unwritten “weights” based on family demographic in the congregation (more prevalent families often have a more vocal place), socioeconomic bias I’d like to think we are free of, but are just as susceptible as other groups to injustice there, as well as racially and culturally. However, finding no perfect system, we may just have something to offer here.

I am writing these words as the Sarah Palin circus has come to town. They are expecting 5,000 to 8,000 to attend the Columbus-area bookstore where she’ll be promoting her book. The Sarah Palin political entry last year has proved to be an interesting example of the power of populist appeal. Regardless of your political leanings, you can’t help but find something attractive to the “normal person” who takes on “the Man.” This is the heart and soul of Palin’s attraction. She speaks for all the soccer and hockey moms – her now famous self-identification. And the response? A great outpouring of support (at least in the Midwest and Southeast . . . she’s not surprisingly avoiding the coasts in her book tour – now there would be some interesting events!) In any case, I bring Palin up here because she illustrates the power of the populist voice still today. People like the story of the underdog. They like to think that no office is too big for the common folk.

Sociologically, Churches of Christ fit this mold for the religious sects perfectly. We don’t ordain our pastors. The local congregation maintains the criteria and job assignment for the ministers. Worship assemblies are overseen equally by “clergy” and “laymen” (and maybe someday “laywomen” – we’ll get to that into the pruning portion of the posts!) Ministers are generally appreciated and respected for their unique Bible knowledge and ministerial expertise . . . at least generally.
It is here I find myself speaking out of both sides of my mouth. On the one hand I believe the populist appeal of our Movement speaks volumes for how we can traverse the postmodern matrix. However, at the same time, I feel as though it has been one of our most signfiant liabilities. In my ten plus years of ministry, now, I can assert that one of the most challenging aspects of working for churches is leadership. I have taken special interest in leadership in the past three or four years, seeing it as such a glaring weakness of my own, and many ministers I have worked alongside and known. It is tough to know how to lead a church.

However, I believe in the midst of such a populist driven church, the issue is ampiflied. Suddenly, the minister’s voice is watered down, and his significance dulled a bit. “He makes some interesting points, but let’s hear what lukewarm member who doesn’t do anything but warm a pew has to say,” and we have to keep in mind that so and so just isn’t there yet” and those kinds of comments abounds. It seems, from my experience, that the power and influence of a minister in Churches of Christ is truncated even to a greater extent than those in other denominations. This makes the task of leadership extremely difficult and probably says a lot about why our churches tend to remain pretty small.

Again, I see this populist approach as both a potential bonus for our involvement with non-Christians. Realizing the only folks setting doctrine and making decisions and excommunicating members and hiring and firing ministers are those folks you worship right beside on Sundays. However, it has potential risks as this populism can just as easily make us lazy and myopic in our understanding of our role in the invisible church. Group think can (and I think has) set in quickly under populist-driven congregations. Looking around at congregations of Churches of Christ throughout the rural parts of the United States, I think this is exactly what is ailing them.

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