Friday, January 28, 2011

Ordination

The religious tribe I grew up in (Churches of Christ) tends not to touch the idea of ordination with a ten foot pole.  Things have changed a bit in the last decade or so as far as language about ordination goes, but Churches of Christ still do not practice ordination.  This is sad to me.  Let me attempt to express why, and again, understand that these thoughts are coming from a person who grew up in a denomination that disdained the idea of ordination.  To use a phrase I heard often growing up, "That's what Catholics do."

1) First, by distancing ourselves from ordaining individuals, we fail to acknowledge that God calls people to different functions.  Churches of Christ, as they formed on the American frontier, tended to be very anti-institutional, which played itself out in a fear of hierarchy (this has ironically led to an even stronger unofficial hierarchy because many people refuse to acknowledge it exists in the fist place).  Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the old cliche goes.  So, by doing away with anything resembling hierarchy, the goal was to do away with abuses of church power and the division they caused.  There is, however, a fundamental flaw in this logic.  Calling to a function does not automatically imply authoritative power over another.  Not only that, but Christian 'authority' when it is given shows itself in service.  If it shows itself otherwise, the individual abusing his or her Christian authority should have it removed.  Paul told the Ephesians that God gave gifts to some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists or pastors or teachers, but all for the building up of the body of Christ.  All these different gifts are a reflection of the same Spirit.  Ordination is the community's way of practicing discernment and acknowledging that one among them has been gifted by God to perform a certain function.  This is not an abuse of power or position, but rather an acceptance of God's power and position over us all.  He gives gifts as he sees fit.

2) Another thing that bothers me a great deal about my religious tradition not ordaining individuals is that it has fostered a lack of appreciation for the sacrifices people make to try to listen and respond to God's call.  My brother-in-law likes to call graduate school the snooze alarm on life, and I hit that button hard while earning my Master of Divinity.  Also (and my thinking is shifting to the calling of congregational ministry now), there are emotional costs that come with a life in ministry.  Ministers must sacrifice time with their families, which we know going into ministry, but minister's spouses and children must sacrifice time with their fathers, mothers, husbands, and wives.  They typically have no say in this.  Ministers are constantly critiqued on how they perform as spouses and parents, how they perform as community leaders, public speakers, teachers, etc.  That is not a 'normal' life.  Very few professions, outside of the political arena at least, come with the same pressures and expectations.  Let me be clear, even though I'm obviously complaining about this, it does come with the territory.  Every minister commits to this life or leaves ministry.  That's just the way it is.  So don't read this and say, "Stop whining.  If you don't like it, quit."  I agree, although I hope I would say it a little more gently.  However, people who are not in ministry shouldn't abuse or take advantages of the sacrifices their ministers make, or worse, pretend sacrifices weren't made to begin with.  That is exactly what has happened in many Churches of Christ, not all, but many.  Ordination acknowledges the sacrifices that have brought an individual from point A to B.  It acknowledges that the individual is doing exactly what the Church says he or she should.  When Jesus said, "Follow me," that's what the person did.  Ordination is not just an act of acknowledgment; it is an act of appreciation.

3) Support groups are great, and I honestly mean that.  Groups for young marrieds or for families with small children or for individuals who have lost a loved one, these are all good things.  They have their limitations, however.  I have a friend who laughs at the idea of groups for families with young children, specifically if they're composed of only people with small children.  He astutely pointed out that the group was mostly accomplishing the goal of swapping ignorance.  The support such a group provides is good, but as far as helping the participants know what to do about the challenges young families with children face, well, they are all equally clueless.  This can happen on a much grander scale in a congregational environment.  I am a strong advocate for the idea that we, as Christians, are a priesthood of all believers.  I am very uncomfortable with the words "you can't" when they're told to someone who wants to serve.  At the same time, sometimes a congregation wants to do something and doesn't know how.  This is where the ordained minister can be of great service.  There are requirements that come with ordination, educational and experiential.  When I'm sick, I'm not angry at my doctor because she knows more than me or has worked hard to put tools in her toolbox that I do not have.  I want her to help me.  That is the role of an ordained minister in a congregation.  Through work and sacrifice, the ordained minister has hopefully added some tools to his or her toolbox that others do not have.  This does not give the minister the authority to say, "My way or the highway."  It does mean, however, that the minister might actually be able to provide essential insight into a situation so that the whole congregation can move forward.  What I have seen in far too many congregations is a mass of people swapping ignorance.

God told Moses to ordain Aaron and his sons for a specific function.  This gave them a unique role among the Israelites, and yes, there were some who resented this, violently.  Who was Moses to say that Aaron's family could be priests and others couldn't?  The problem with the complaint is that Moses didn't call Aaron and his family.  God did...not to give them power, but to call them to service.  Ordination has never changed in that sense, and it's sad to me that my religious tradition threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Stopping point: Exodus 29

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