This post is the fifth of a series which began here. After denouncing the use of church buildings, a set order of church service, and The Sermon, The Red Book next sets its sights on The Pastor, denounced as an “obstacle to every-member functioning”. We recall that by “every-member functioning” the authors refer to the imagined first century church practice of everyone chiming in whenever they wished over a shared meal, which practice they hold up as the sine qua non of true Christian worship. Not surprisingly, therefore, the one presiding over the gathering as its main liturgical voice and teacher comes in for a lot of flak. The authors of The Red Book assert that having a clergy “has done untold harm to the body of Christ...the pastoral office has transformed us into stones that do not breathe...it has stolen your right to function as a full member of Christ’s body”. Accordingly, one lengthy chapter does not suffice to contain all that Valentinus and Marcion find wrong with the concept of a Pastor; other chapters must be added denouncing the concept of pastoral clothing or vestments, the pastor’s role in music (more applicable to the Protestant Evangelical context in which the authors write than to Orthodoxy), and the concept of clerical salary. With these chapters on The Pastor, we have clearly come to the heart of the book, and the main objection that Valentinus and Marcion have with the present condition of all the churches.
Some of what these authors say is valuable and true: the early church, for example, local churches were not each headed by a single pastor, but a plurality of presbyters: “there is no biblical support,” they write, “for the practice of sola pastora (single pastor).” The Protestant concept of “the Minister” as the sole functionary is indeed foreign to the earthly church (and to historic Orthodoxy). But such valid insights are outnumbered and overwhelmed by a landslide of nonsense and distortion. Chief among these distortions is their assertion that there were no clergy in the first century church.
But consider the following. When St. Paul wrote this epistle to the Ephesians, he referred to a number of gifts which Christ gave to His church—such ministries as “apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher” (see Eph. 4:11). Note that “shepherd and teacher” are grouped together, since their functions more often than not coalesced into one. This witnesses to the presence of shepherds/ pastors in the church as an identifiable office, much like that of teacher (see Acts 13:1). Paul elsewhere speaks of “presbyters” or “bishops” as the ones ruling the churches, and as teaching (see Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:1f, 5:17). Thus, for Paul, the local leaders are referred to by the titles “bishop”, “presbyter”, and “shepherd” more or less interchangeably. Note that these titles all describe the same person. Note too that, like the titles apostle, prophet, and evangelist, these titles of shepherd, bishop, and presbyter describe not simply a function, but a functionary—i.e. an actual office-holder.
The authors of The Red Book do their best to evade this truth. They describe the titles of bishop and presbyter as meaning “little more than inspectors, older men”. The term “shepherd” referred to by St. Paul in Eph. 4:11 “does not envision a pastoral office, but merely one of many functions in the church. Shepherds are those who naturally provide nurture and care for God’s sheep”. For Valentinus and Marcion, “the vocabulary of the New Testament leadership allows no pyramidal structures. It is rather a language of horizontal relationships that includes exemplary action”. In this reconstruction of the first century, there were no acknowledged leaders, no men who “ruled” (1 Tim. 5:17), no men who kept watch over the souls of their brethren and to whom these brethren should submit (Heb. 13:17), no men to whose charge the Chief Shepherd allotted other Christians (1 Pt. 5:3-4). No; for Valentinus and Marcion, the pristine first century church only had Bob and his friends, men who had no special authority or accountability, but who pitched in to “naturally provide nurture and care” (whatever that might mean).
In our authors’ imaginative reconstruction of history, this clergy-less church all began to change with Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop of Antioch who was martyred in about 107 A.D. and who left the church the legacy of the letters he wrote on his way to martyrdom in Rome. “He was the first figure in church history,” according to our authors, “to take a step down the slippery slope toward a single leader in the church. We can trace the origin of the contemporary pastor and church hierarchy to him”. Serious students of church history know that the monepiscopacy is something too basic, too early, and too universal to be attributed to any single individual. But even apart from this, it is apparent that Ignatius refers to the distinction between the local bishop who runs the church and the presbyters who assist him as an already established reality. Ignatius was not innovating; he was calling the churches to whom he was writing to cling the more tenaciously to this bit of tradition. The distinction of terminology which reserved the title of “bishop” to the head presbyter might not have been au current in the middle of the first century, but the reality was there all the same. The first century knew a plurality of presbyters, but only one of these presbyters could preside, and it was this president, this head of the presbyteral collegium, for whom the title “bishop” was eventually reserved. The point is that the reality of a single liturgical head of the local church could not have begun with Ignatius. It was there in the first century from the very beginning, made inevitable by the fact that someone had to preside at the Eucharistic assembly and say the Anaphora.
After Ignatius, as far as The Red Book is concerned, it was all down-hill. Though Jesus “obliterated...the hierarchical form of leadership...with the death of the apostles and the men they trained, things began to change”. That is, despite our Lord’s promise that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth (Jn. 16:13), pretty much everything fell apart as soon as the apostles and their first converts died. The Red Book’s quarrel, therefore, is not just with the concept of a pastor. Its quarrel is with the entire history of the church, and with everything that happened in it since the late first century. Like all cults, there is the assumption of wide-spread apostasy, as if their Creed, instead of reading, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”, read “I disbelieve in everything done by the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Belief that the post-apostolic church was apostate is part of their church’s doctrinal foundation. And this is rejection of history is a constant in such sects; they only differ about the timing of the apostasy. Did everything fall apart under Constantine, or earlier? The Red Book asserts that it fell apart “with the death of the apostles and the men they trained”—that is, about 100 A.D. (I note that this is well before the settling of the New Testament canon of Scripture.)
Christ did not, in fact, “obliterate the hierarchical form of leadership”. What He did was more nuanced: while insisting upon a radical equality of all of His disciples (“you are all brothers”; Mt. 23:8), He nonetheless gave special authority to some of them (namely, the Twelve) that He did not give to others. To the Twelve He said, “whoever receives you, receives Me” (Mt. 10:40), and to them He gave the authority to bind and loose, to forgive sins (Mt. 16:19, 18:18, Jn. 20:23). As someone once quipped, “The church began with a clergy”—or at least with persons who possessed special authority. This apostolic authority was transmitted by the apostles to the leaders in the churches they founded, so that those leaders might rule the churches in the absence of the apostles. That is why presbyters were appointed when the churches were first set up (e.g. Acts 14:23), or immediately afterward (e.g. Titus 1:5).
We see this transmitted authority, this hierarchical leadership, throughout the New Testament: St. Paul talks about presbyters ruling (1 Tim. 5:17), about bishops caring for the church of God as a father manages his own family (1 Tim. 3:4-5). The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes of leaders who keep watch over the souls of others, and tells those under them to submit to them (Heb. 13:17). St. Peter exhorts the presbyters who exercised oversight over those allotted to their charge to do so humbly, according to God (1 Pt. 5:1-3). Everywhere in the New Testament epistles we find shepherds, men with authority who ruled and protected the sheep. It is true that the pastoral office evolved and developed as time went on. After Constantine, the local leaders had to take on functions which they did not have before, and the social importance of bishops grew along with it. But from the Day of Pentecost onward, some men had more authority than others in the Church. From the Day of Pentecost onward, there was a clergy.
The heated rhetoric of The Red Book notwithstanding, having an authoritative leadership does not, in fact, transform the laity from living stones into “stones that cannot breathe”. Whatever may happen in Protestant churches, the historic praxis of the Orthodox Church still allows plenty of scope for lay participation. This can be seen by spending half an hour at the Divine Liturgy: the first one to say anything is not the presbyter, but the deacon: “It is time for the Lord to act,” he says, signalling to the celebrant that he should now chant the opening doxology. Then the celebrant chants, “Blessed is the Kingdom”, and this is followed by a lengthy intercession, as the deacon and people, led by the choir, together sing the Great Litany. Next come the antiphons, interspersed again by the prayers of the deacon, choir and people. Then the subdeacons, deacon, and priest make a procession (the so-called “Little Entrance”), as the choir and people sing the final antiphon. In some churches, the people participate in this procession by venerating the Gospel as it passes them by. Next come the lessons, chanted by a Reader, with some laity holding candles (not excluding little children) as the Gospel lesson is chanted. Throughout the service one finds the constant interplay of priest, deacon, subdeacon, reader, choir and people, each making their own differing contributions. All are involved in singing; all are involved in lighting candles and venerating icons. All the faithful come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Each has his or her own role to play, his or her own part in the total offering of the Divine Liturgy. The fact that the presbyter gives the sermon, and says the prayers and anaphora does not crowd out “every-member functioning”. The presbyter has but one part among the total, and all the people participate, adding their voice to the liturgical sacrifice of praise. Canonically, if the people are not present to add that voice, the presbyter cannot serve the Liturgy. Orthodoxy knows nothing of “private Masses”; if no one else shows up on Sunday morning, the clergyman simply goes home.
More than this, the existence of a clergy ensures that the rest of the laity has the opportunity to make their liturgical contributions. Whatever lip-service the authors of The Red Book pay to the glory of house church worship, the reality is that in the absence of clearly established leaders, someone will dominate in those house churches—often the person with the most amount of enthusiasm and ego, and the least amount of real knowledge and training. Hierarchy is in fact the only thing which saves the church from the uneducated tyranny of the dominating layman. In traditional liturgical worship, the contribution of all is guaranteed, because the Liturgy is set up in such a way that priest, deacon, subdeacon, reader, choir, and people all have their bits to add, and it is the responsibility of the clergyman presiding to make sure that everyone does their appointed bit. The task of the pastor is to lead the others in their worship, not to do it for them. The shepherd exists only for the sheep. And history has proven that where no shepherds exist, the sheep soon cease to exist also. For, as St. Paul reminded the shepherds and presbyters of Ephesus when he left them (Acts 20:17, 28-29), the wolves are not slow to come, and they do not spare the flock.