Why ‘The Church’ isn’t Biblical

I have, interspersed with virus related issues – more coming – been running a series about why I left the Anglican church. Some of my issues with it apply to other inter/national chains.

I am now going to argue against these chains from the Good Book.

I invoke my usual proviso about using the Bible as our source:

—is it all from God as a timeless mandate?

—saying that the Bible is God’s only Word limits God as to what he can say and undermines our own intuition, where God speaks best

I am especially wary of cultural differences between Bible times and us, multiple translation, and of using texts out of context. Single half sentences a good argument do not make.

 

But if we were to take the Bible as our starting point to look for support of a chain church of the Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic variety, what would we find?

 

Our focus needs to be on the New Testament, since the Old is about a people whose faith follows a different course. It’s background to Christianity, and it can still be a source of learning and inspiration, but I wonder if the Old Testament is literally The Hebrew Bible: it’s the story of the Jewish people, but the Church’s story begins with the Gospels.

 

We must take Jesus’ ministry as a whole. His whole tone is one of subverting expectation.

What was his Mum’s prenatal hymn?

Swapping the humble and proud, the rich and poor, high and low.

Was Jesus born in a palace, or a stable?

Did he become a chief priest in the national church, or an itinerant independent preacher?

 

I wonder if those who argue that Jesus must’ve been a rabbi are those who are in a chain themselves, and like to think of Jesus being in it. Perhaps those who emphasise his mendicant, dissenting freelance nature are those in independent churches.

 

I think there is more support for the latter: Jesus’ father was a tradesman, not of noble birth

Jesus died as a criminal among thieves and robbers

he didn’t have an army – he wouldn’t even let his followers defend him at arrest

the sermon on the mount…more paradoxes and swaps

Jesus’ fraternising with outcasts, whom he favoured

Paul’s understanding – ‘he has taken the weak things of the world to shame the wise’

Jesus’ life and ministry seems to topsy turvy the established world:

He threw out money changers from the temple, defended the woman being stoned,

and broke their understanding of the Sabbath.

He seemed to hate the controlling abuse of power, and rules for rules’ sake.

His kingdom was and is internal and eternal.

 

And although Jesus said that not a jot or tittle of the law should pass away, he seemed both to fulfil it, and bring it to a new level, but not in the way that was anticipated.

His confirmation as Messiah came from anointing by a prostitute, on the feet, not the head.

 

The question arises: how much of the early church is relevant to us now. Is it background history, or something to emulate – or perhaps just when church planting. Is it the ideal?

If we do believe that the Bible is our model, and certainly our mandate, then we do not have the support of Scripture for the established churches.

 

Neither Jesus nor Paul and his fellow missionaries set up a rival to Judaism, a hierarchical religious chain as we know it. Believers met in homes; Jesus preached al fresco, not in Jewish holy buildings except for the day he said that Isaiah 42 was fulfilled in their hearing, and nearly got stoned.

 

As far as the Bible on church leadership is concerned, we just have Paul’s letters, often which were answering questions and dealing with issues in and from particular new communities.

The types of roles mentioned in Ephesians don’t match the establishment equivalent. For a start, as per the start of my novel, there is no vicar, no one person in charge of a community, no person set apart by a higher person. It doesn’t even talk about training and study.

 

There are deacons and overseers. Note these are plural, even in one congregation. Deacons are what C of E vicars get first ordained as. And what is their first deed at this ceremony (where they swear allegiance to the Queen and the Bishop!)? To administer communion. Like it’s the foremost power they get – not fully invested for another year – along with their new stoles [ceremonial scarves], a sign of authority.

I note that in the Metropolitan Community Church, the celebrant – not necessarily ordained – puts it on for communion with a spiel about a privilege invested in them by the community.

Note that in the early church, there’s no bishops or monarchs required, nor power passed from Masters like in Reiki or Freemasonry.

 

In online debates about the use of church leader titles, there is a divide between tradition and using the Bible. Those only arguing from the Bible point out that “reverend” is used just once, in Psalm 111, and is clearly referring to God. In the New Testament, no-one is styled with any title. Jesus in Matthew 23 speaks against this in an argument which ought to floor any adherent to being called Reverend… especially by appending Right or Venerable! They feel that ‘pastor’ is a better and more biblical name – but I would argue that isn’t a title, just a job description. It’s true that neither Jesus nor Paul nor Peter were given the titles used by clergy. There’s a claim that ‘Magdalene’ is one, but that’s about Mary’s spiritual understanding.

I particularly take issue with “rector” which was a more honorific title referring to the clergyman entitled to take parish tithes, when the whole neighbourhood, not just attending parishioners, had to give a tenth of their income and produce to their local Anglican minister. As this abhorrent prerogative has been abolished, the distinction is purely status driven, for there is no meaningful difference between ‘rector’ and ‘vicar’. If you’re a team minister leader, say so. ‘Rector’ is also related to straightness and rules, which I dislike – and yes, I am aware of another word from that root (chakra!).

The established churches interpret the Biblical Greek words used for church leaders in very different ways to other Christian groups. The word for ‘deacon’ becomes a councillor in the Presbyterian church, which it is at a local level in Baptists; in Anglican and Catholic churches, it’s the priests, traditionally the table servers at communion. Note that the eastern part of cathedrals especially is known as the presbytery – the space for priests alone to inhabit. Typically, the laity – the nonordained – have been disallowed in this space by the high altar; and today, it’s still got an awe and taboo around it and is often roped off or gated.

The higher the church, the greater the gates and the further back they push the laity.

Just like in the old Jewish temple which had various courts for the public (starting, like cathedral naves, with a kind of market), getting ever more exclusive as you got closer to the important bit, until there was the sealed empty room of God’s presence – the Holy of Holies – where the high priest alone may only enter once a year by pulling back the dense curtain.

Ruth Scott Connolly said in her Phoenix blog that the tearing of the temple curtain meant that no longer was God limited to the holy of holies: he came out, and we could go in.

No longer in a place for the high priest alone, God’s presence was now omnipresent.

Thus the role of priest as special mediator between humans and God, carrying out rituals and duties, allowed in certain places that others were not, ended with the Easter story. Paul believed that Jesus was now the great high priest, permanently. There was no need of priests: – yes to leaders, pastors, healers, word spreaders, but the priestly function of the Jewish world ended for followers of Jesus with Jesus. Hebrews 6 states the priesthood of all believers. It means we do not need an intermediary, and implies we can all potentially do all priestly functions.

Hence I wrote phrase that on my bosom when I left the church of England last month.

I do not see a scriptural mandate that only ordained people can administer the meal Jesus instigated. Breaking bread and drinking together is a wide old custom. Jesus is recorded to have said, “do this in remembrance of me”, not “here’s how you get fixed up to be able to do so.” No one in the room had to swear an oath, or put on a special outfit, or get blessed or zapped or gain a degree. Nor did the epistle writers say that. “Do this until he come” Paul exhorts in 1 Cor 12, and simply summarises the story of Jesus’ Last Supper. (These words are the only legal requirement of the church of England eucharist). It’s not: make sure it’s a man; make sure you have been to rabbi/Way school and got a certificate; make sure you’ve got this title and garment, and wear your stole like a Miss World sash until you’re deemed worthy to drape it.

 

The overseer is just that. Not a ‘I live in a palace and have big gardens and a hat shaped like a fountain pen, and a good salary and status.’ In medieval times, these office holders didn’t even necessarily live in or even visit their dioceses, and nor did some other senior clergy!

And as for Archbishops, or worse still, Popes…!!

Where are these in the Bible? God’s rep on Earth is the Holy Spirit; he sent no others.

 

It’s said that Peter was the first pope, but the keys speech doesn’t make him Father on Earth to Christian believers. There are but two people who are my father: my God and my Dad.

I certainly don’t acknowledge priests as ‘father’ as some honorific title.

 

And there’s the whole argument that Mary Magdalene is really Jesus’ successor, culverted by Peter’s followers, but who is re-emerging.

 

Ted Doe, writer of Who Do You Think You Are about Norwich Baptist history, states that the established churches are like old Judaism: “new wine into old wine skins” (Luke 5, Mark 2).

In fact, the wine isn’t very new either.

In fact, it occurs to me that modern Judaism doesn’t have priests and holy of holies. They have ravs and rabbis. Yes, even the Orthodox version. So why are certain Christians maintaining an order and division that even the original faith group doesn’t?

 

‘The Churches’ are too much like the military, and judges. It’s all about stripes and twirls in your wig. I know someone who sent his cassock back because it didn’t have the red edging of a canon on it. But we rarely see cassocks, they’re covered with surplice/surplus robes, outfits that are ridiculous in our culture – not to mention expensive. What better use of the hundreds of pounds these worth might churches make, for general benefit, not just show?

I have much more to critique about how the C of E uses money.

I have an even bigger critique coming of pastoral care – the very heart of ministry, and why I left.

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