Sabbatical Report #22: Book Report

John Howard Yoder The Fulness of Christ

In this controversial book John Howard Yoder weighs in on what he calls ‘the model of the professional religionist’: the one professional minister who is identified as ‘clergy’ and in distinction to whom others are identified as ‘lay’, who has a special function which only he or she can perform – that function around which that special action happens which people think of as ‘church’. This office is almost universal in world religions, but is entirely absent in the New Testament. As Yoder says, ‘If we ask whether any of the New Testament literature makes the assumptions listed above: Is there one particular office, in which there should be only one or a few individuals (for whom it provides a livelihood), unique in character due to a ritual of ordination, central to the definition of the church ad the key to her functioning? Then the answer from the biblical material is a resounding negation’.

Yoder examines the New Testament material with respect to the various ministries to which Christians are called.

  • He finds there a considerable number of distinguishable ministries, and a great diversity in the number, naming, and interrelation of these offices.
  • There is no hierarchy of value and no hint of a ‘ladder’ whereby a person might progress upward to a more important office (this is the whole point of 1 Corinthians 12).
  • There seems to be a clustering of three terms used for the same office: ‘elder’ (from synagogue usage), ‘overseer’ (often translated ‘bishop’) and ‘shepherd’ (often translated ‘pastor’). These people constituted the collegial leadership of a self-governing local congregation, and there were several of them in any given congregation.
  • There is a slight linkage between the elder/overseer and the teacher; some elders are teachers.
  • There is no general pattern as to economic support.
  • None of these offices is priestly, either in function or vocabulary.
  • The office of deacon is conspicuous by its absence; most often the word ‘diakonos’ simply means ‘one who serves’ with no clear implication of specific office.
  • There is no concept of laity in the negatively defined sense, as ‘those with no ministry’. ‘The people (laos) includes all the ministries. The bishop is a member of the laity just like anyone else. The use of the word ‘lay’ to mean ‘non-minister’ is heretical, and arises only generations later’.

Is there a theological meaning to this pattern? Indeed there is! The distinct ministries are diverse, the ministries are plural (that is, several people seem to share any given ministry in a local congregation), and ‘everyone has a gift’. In Ephesians 4 Paul relates all this to the work of Jesus in salvation: ‘The multiplicity of gifts, assigned to all by the one Lord who fills all, is thus itself an aspect of Christ’s saving work and of his rule from on high. And in Hebrews 2:3 the author identifies four reasons for taking the message of salvation seriously: that it was declare by the Lord, that it as attested by the apostles, that it was witnessed to by signs and miracles, and that God bore witness by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. The giving of gifts is part of Christ’s saving work, the certification of his victory. In Ephesians 4:13-16 this universal giftedness and interrelatedness of ministries is called ‘The Fulness of Christ’.

Furthermore, the work of Christ is described in Hebrews as the abolition of the priesthood! Jesus is the perfect high priest who has done away with the need for any further priesthood and sacrifice, except the priesthood that applies to every member of the new covenant community. Parallel to this liberation from priesthood is the relative indifference of the New Testament to ceremonial issues.

‘The conclusion is inescapable that the multiplicity of ministries is not a mere adiophoron, a happenstance of only superficial significance, but a specific work of grace and a standard for the church. This follows from (a) the persistence of the various dimensions of multiplicity amidst considerable change in detail; (b) the specific disappearance of the priesthood from Judaism, whereas the other ‘offices’ of the Jewish order are maintained, (c) the specific attribution of this multiplicity, by the apostolic writers, to the work of Christ and the Spirit, and (d) the effective suspension for at least a generation of the universal anthropological drive toward the professional religionist’.

Yoder goes on, in the rest of this book, to explore how the church lost this apostolic order and reverted to the clergy/laity distinction, to the exaltation of one office of priesthood above all others, and how the tasks of ministry were concentrated in this individual, who became the paid professional minister or priest in a congregation. He looks at ways in which churches and traditions in recent years have tried to move toward a more every-member-ministry concept, but finds that in most cases they are still unwilling to concede that the clergy/laity distinction itself is unbiblical and wrong. He argues for flexibility; he is not specifically against the concept of a paid pastor but wants it to be seen as one office among many and wants churches to be free to explore other models as well.

I found this an exciting and inspiring book, but a frustrating one as well. Although I have been an Anglican minister for many years, I have never been able to make myself accept the common Anglican belief that ordination makes me an ontologically different kind of Christian. I cannot find any justification for it in the New Testament. Neither can I find any ground for the use of special titles like ‘reverend’, the wearing of special clothes like clerical collars and ceremonial robes, or the distinction between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. To me Yoder has made his case conclusively: all Christians are gifted, all Christians are a priesthood, all Christians are God ‘laos’ (people). Preaching and teaching is a ministry, serving others is a ministry, administration is a ministry, listening is a ministry, etc.

But how can this ever be put into practice in our Anglican situation? We see Episcopal ordination as essential to church order and disallow those who have not received it from exercising certain ministries. We isolate the sacramental and teaching ministries from the others, reserving them for a professionally trained and (usually) full time person who we call the ‘rector’ (which means ‘ruler’, as opposed to the biblical concept of ‘servant’). And we ask one person to be responsible for tasks which demand skills which are often incompatible with on another. How can a good listener and pastor also be a fearless prophet and a good administrator? How can a good visitor of the elderly also be an innovative youth worker?

This book raises more questions than answers for me. And yet I love these questions, and I am sure that as Anglicans we will have t wrestle with them if we as congregations are going to grow into the fullness of Christ.

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