Mothering the Chinese Churches: the Courage of Marie Monsen

Image: rcmi.wordpress.com

Chinese Christian women at prayer today.   Image: rcmi.wordpress.com

Marie Monsen (1878-1962) is a name held in high honour among Christians in China, yet she is barely known in the West, even in her native Norway.

In 1900, a nationalist uprising in China, the ‘Boxer Rebellion‘, had seen many foreign missionaries slaughtered. Suspicion and fear were everywhere. Even so, Monsen travelled alone to Henan province in September 1901, to work for the Lutheran China Mission Association. Not long after her arrival, she fell down some stairs and hit her head so hard that she was unconscious several days. The trauma left her unable to study language for two years. For six years she suffered debilitating headaches, as well as dysentery, malaria, pain, and frustration. The first 20 years of her service were God’s learning curve for her, causing her to be constantly aware of her weakness and to cast herself on Him in constant dependence. Marie learned the power of endurance. This blog post from Sarah Alexander gives more details.

Monsen’s devotional life was her mainstay. taken to a new level in the 1927 Shantung Revival. She had an uncanny sense that the Lord was directing her, speaking clearly in words that seemed almost audible. She sensed that God intended to move powerfully in China, and she prayed fervently for 20 years until it began in Shantung in 1927 – a revival that is still continuing and is being called ‘the biggest revival in history‘. In order to serve her Lord better, she remained a lifelong celibate. She also endured severe trials with fortitude and trust.

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Her courage was remarkable. She was fearless, traveling hundreds of miles through bandit-infested territory to share the gospel. Once, the ship she was on was captured by pirates. When an invading army of looters was ravaging a whole city, Monsen urged the Christians not to fear but to pray; the looters were prevented from coming near her mission compound because of angels standing sentry over it! This and many more examples can be found in her book A Present Help: Standing on the Promises of God.

She was no respecter of persons: she would tell church leaders to their face that they were hypocrites! A present-day house church leader writes: ‘She didn’t speak smooth words to impress the people. Instead, she brought fire from the altar of God.’  She took the emphasis off the human wisdom so prized by Chinese, and showed each person they were individually responsible before God for their own inner spiritual life. For this she was greatly loved, and church leaders saw her as ‘mother in Christ’.

Monsen was bold enough to say no to prospective baptism candidates on occasions. She discouraged ‘cultural’ emotion (Chinese weep easily). She cared nothing for numbers, but wanted to be sure each soul had left the way of destruction and truly encountered God. Don’t gather unripe fruit was a maxim of hers.

When she died, Monsen was buried in at Solheim cemetery in Bergen, Norway. In his best-selling book The Heavenly Man, a leader of the Chinese house church movement, Brother Yun, tells of how Chinese believers were incredulous to find that Marie Monsen’s grave in Denmark was unmarked. So they made the need known and donations came in, such that in 2001 a monument was erected to one of God’s outstanding (but humble) warrior women.

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The Controversial Kingdom: the ‘Natural Supernatural’ of Johann and Christoph Blumhardt


Plough Publishing House has embarked on a bold and very welcome move – to publish, for the first time in English, the works of two remarkable men: Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880) and his son, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919).

“What do such wildly diverse movements as religious socialism, neo-orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, and such Christian thinkers like Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann, have in common?”, writes one of the series’ editors. [Mention could also be made of revivalist South African preacher, Andrew Murray, who was profoundly moved on a visit to Möttlingen.] “They all trace their Christian understanding of the world and God’s kingdom to Johann Christoph Blumhardt, a humble pastor in Germany who lived in the 19th century.”

Johann Christoph was pastor in Möttlingen, a village in South-West Germany as unremarkable as Blumhardt himself. Until 1842, that is, when circumstances plunged him into the realm of ‘deliverance ministry’, exorcism and healing prayer. A young woman exhibiting the classic symptoms of demonisation, as shown in the Gospels, was released after an intensive season of prayer, spiritual battle and exorcism.

breaking-chains
Möttlingen was swept up in an unprecedented movement of repentance and renewal. Stolen property was returned, broken marriages restored, enemies reconciled, alcoholics freed, and more amazingly still, an entire village experienced what life could be like when God ruled.” People started arriving from miles around, drawn by the manifest power of God and the possible hope of freedom in their own lives. Such ‘success’ was, in fact, embarrassing for Blumhardt, who was a solid and unflamboyant character and freely admitted that he was no expert in these matters.

Even so, “Blumhardt’s parsonage eventually could not accommodate the numbers of people streaming to it. He thus began to look for a place with more room and greater freedom. He moved his family to Bad Boll, a complex of large buildings which had been developed as a spa around a sulfur water spring. His biographer [in German] recounts in vivid detail one story after another of how through the small circle at Bad Boll, desperate individuals of all stripes— burdened with mental, emotional, physical and spiritual maladies—found healing and renewed faith.”

Blumhardt had the courage to work through the ideological issues (and plenty of opposition) and to conclude emphatically that the Kingdom of God was perennially able to break into everyday life, with whatever manifestation of the divine or miraculous that the Holy Spirit might choose.

Blumhardt was not a theologian and did not attempt a reasoned theology of his stance. He was a practical man, full of compassion, who was wise enough to realise that the damaged, the sick and the demonised need compassion and hope in their damaged souls every bit as much as healing or exorcism. His sermons pleaded, cared, pointed to a God who is love and who wants us to know it. Part of his legacy is his unshakable conviction of ‘realised eschatology’: the glorious belief that the promises of scripture for the end times are meant for the Church now.

Blumhardt offers hope to Christians who long for the transcendental, for God’s power to be seen in today’s world. He was convinced that the Old Testament prophecy of Joel, quoted by Peter when the Holy Spirit was first outpoured (Acts 2:17) had only been partly fulfilled; that the generous and saving God in whom he believed had so much more for the Church to discover and to use for God’s glory and the blessing of multitudes.

From Bible College onwards, he had had dealings with missionaries, doctors and exorcists, who had first hand experience of the power of the risen Christ to free those enslaved by evil. So when the young woman in Möttlingen was delivered from evil after eighteen months of prayer and spiritual warfare, Blumhardt was convinced of two things: Jesus is victor and His kingdom has come on earth. His experiences of healings at the sanatorium of Bad Boll caused him to interpret this in-breaking of God’s kingdom in an individual way. Jesus was doing for precious people what He did as He walked the earth: making the blind see, opening the prison door and releasing the bound (see Luke 4:16-21).

As Johann Blumhardt lay dying in 1880, he spoke a blessing over his son Christoph (1842-1919): that he might conquer in the strength of Jesus, the victorious Christ.

Christoph, like his father, had trained as a pastor. He was, by all accounts, controversial. The novelist Hermann Hesse recalls him saying that “a Mohammedan with a real and honest heart is closer to God than many Christians.”

Christoph Blumhardt

Christoph Blumhardt

Blumhardt grew increasingly disillusioned with the established church, so he returned to Bad Boll and assisted his father with the work there, until Johann’s death passed the mantle to him. He held healing crusades, which carried the same power his father had known.

But Christoph was on a different, more radical road. “A Christian must be born twice“, he wrote: “once from the human to the spiritual, and once from the spiritual to the human“. In other words, a spirituality or church commitment which had no interest in addressing the sufferings of people and the ills of society was a comfortable lie.

Christoph had a more developed notion of God’s kingdom. In later years he claimed that his father’s compassionate heart had swayed him in favour of the individual, whereas Christ the King has His kingdom rule – a rulership that includes all things, the universe, the earth, nations and structures. This kingdom was wider than the Church and not best expressed in a religious system which was a preserve of the middle-class, concerned only with power and influence.

Johann had begun with the ‘cosmic’ through the exorcism at Möttlingen (see previous post). His son saw the ‘cosmic’ aspect of the kingdom of God – that it was a Body hastening the return of Jesus Christ by shining as a light in darkness, a ‘city on a hill’ (Matthew 5:14). Johann had acted as if the Kingdom was part of the Church; for the son, the Church is part of the Kingdom.

We Christians think of a heavenly kingdom; I came to see that God intended an earthly kingdom, or rather, a heavenly kingdom on earth. God’s name was to be hallowed on earth, His kingship seen on earth, His will done on earth. The earth should announce eternity: God on earth.”

In a number of writings, Christoph Blumhardt presented his understanding of the kingdom of God and how it is forever breaking in to life on earth – for that was always God’s intention.

The angels have God in heaven, I have not – I want to pray down here. I must have God here. The earth is the stage set for the kingdom of God, because the kingship of God is in direct relationship with this earth: the Saviour, down here. God’s intention is the here and now: Jesus challenging poverty, sin and misery on earth.”

A post on the John Mark Ministries blog considers the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann – theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger. Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown. To begin with, Blumhardt’s life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity.

‘Blumhardt did not care about matters of religion and church, of worship services and dogma, not even of inner peace and personal redemption. For him, faith was a matter of the coming of God’s kingdom, of God’s victory over darkness and death here and now. The kingdom of God was the creative reign of Christ’s peace and justice on earth. His vision of God’s righteousness on earth was an unconditional and all-embracing one: God’s love reconciles the world, liberates suffering, heals economic and social need – in short, it renews the earth.’

Christoph Blumhardt at his desk

Christoph Blumhardt at his desk

Blumhardt believed that the prophets and Jesus wanted a new world: the rulership of God over all reality. He could not identify with most Christians’ longing for heaven and enduring this earthly life as a necessary precursor. In his view, heaven must come down to earth.

“Many people long and yearn for heaven; they stretch out toward heaven. I would like to tell them: Let your minds reach to the heights that we can already perceive on earth. Down here is where Jesus appeared, not above in the invisible world. Here on earth he wants to appear again and again. Here on earth we may find him.”

Book Review: Stories of Broken People Living the Power of Christ’s Beatitudes

I have just finished Broken but Blessed: Journeying from Pain to Peace, by hospice chaplain Rebekah Domer. It could have been a quick read, being a fairly slim volume and written in a flowing, easy style. But I found myself unable to read much before the stories themselves arrested me and I had to lay the book aside, my heart challenged by shining examples of the human spirit at its best, refined by pain and able to bless others because of it.

Domer’s approach is to group several short real-life stories under each of Jesus’ Beatitudes. For any of us unfamiliar with these, they are eight statements in Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew chap.5) that declare: Blessed (or happy) are those who…, followed by particular lived-out virtues. The more you read these, the clearer it becomes that they are very high, and we need help from outside ourselves to come near to them.

Henri Nouwen popularised the concept of the ‘wounded healer’ in his book of that name. His basic premise was “Man cannot be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there. Who can take away suffering without entering it?” The supreme example, of course, being Jesus Christ, who was wounded for our transgressions, and by whose wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). Domer continues this theme with well-chosen testimonies, including her own – available for free download here.

It is said that suffering can make you bitter or better. The primeval angst of the sufferer, “Why me?”, is well known to Domer as a chaplain. ‘Everyone on this planet suffers. Sooner or later, we’ll all be broken in the business of living.’  Her own degenerative spinal condition took her there, but a wise mentor taught her: “Your pain can be a gift if it teaches you humility.”

A gradual transforming work began in her that day – the same process that turned brokenness to blessing in the lives of those whose stories she tells:

* Louisa, living with Down Syndrome and heart defects, who said on her deathbed “My task is to bring joy!”

* Elaine, having lost many of her family to violent deaths, finding the grace to forgive the killers

* Kelvin, paralysed in a road accident, his pride stripped away, now ‘giving back’ as a chaplain to broken people who can relate to a ‘padre’ in a wheelchair

* Magda, giving birth to a stillborn son, but finding a whole community blessed with peace through the shared pain.

I might have wished for a little more formal teasing out of the essential truths behind each Beatitude, but I can recommend Broken but Blessed as a cathartic, “uplit” read – the stories and the pain are agonising, but the overarching message is one that we all need to hear: there is genuine hope. God is not remote from our human agony and fear but chose to enter it, and now he trains many people to enter it too as ‘wounded healers’.

 

 

 

The Prophet as Both Lion and Lamb: the Example of Menno Simons

LionLamb
Menno Simons (1496-1561) was so significant a figure in Anabaptism in the Low Countries that the movement could be divided into three phases: “before Menno”, “under Menno” and “after Menno”. His travels in the church’s service took him from the Rhineland across the Baltic lands to Danzig (Gdansk) in Poland, always in danger, with a price on his head – and accompanied by his wife and children! Records show that he won followers wherever he went – some of whom died as martyrs, refusing to renounce the truths he had taught them. In the judgement of the Mennonite Encyclopaedia:

“Menno’s significance lies in the fact that he prevented the collapse of the northern wing of the Anabaptist movement in the days of its greatest trial and built it up on the right Biblical foundation. He did this as its leader, speaker, and defender, through his preaching as he journeyed from place to place, and through his simple and searching writings. Particularly the Foundation-Book did much to restore the original Anabaptist concepts and principles, which were in grave danger of being lost.

“His writings were effective not so much because of their superior and logical qualities as a theological system, but because behind them stood a man formed according to the Scriptures who sincerely and honestly wanted to give all for the Christian church and the glory of God. Through Menno’s courageous and devoted life a distinctive witness in the Reformation movement, representing a Christian brotherhood and a Christian way of life, was preserved.”

He knew full well that he could be arrested at any moment. He also knew the crucial importance of unity among the scattered groups of Anabaptists who claimed allegiance to him. He had to mediate and be diplomatic, yet set a tone that others could follow. He called leaders’ conferences, he encouraged debate, he urged brotherly grace. This has led to Menno being treated in the history books as a moderate among the Radical Reformers. Given the tight line he had to keep, this would hardly be surprising. Many of his writings restate the root principles and doctrines of Anabaptism and plead for wholesale acceptance of them.

Menno's grave at Bad Oldesloe, Germany

Menno’s grave at Bad Oldesloe, Germany

Thus far we have the lamb-like side of a true prophet of God – a nature drawn from Jesus the Lamb himself. But what of the lion? A prophet is more than a skilled counsellor and pastoral guide. There is the cut of the two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12) to prophetic ministry, again drawn from Jesus (Revelation 19:15).

Certainly, Menno was no lamb! One of his writings can serve as our example: ‘The Reason Why Menno Simons Does Not Cease Teaching And Writing’, written in the 1540s, is outspokenly hard-line in its exposure of sin, its naming of idols, and its call to repentance and a holy life.

“When I look to find a magistrate who fears God, rightly performs his office and uses his authority properly, I find, as a general rule, nothing but a wine-sodden Lucifer. Again, when I look to find true pastors and teachers, such as are sent of God, quickened by the Holy Spirit; who sincerely seek the salvation of their brethren; who are not earthly-minded, but preach the saving word of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, in purity of heart, and who are blameless in their doctrine and life – I find instead nothing but robbers of the glory of God, and murderers of souls; deceivers, blind watchmen, mute dogs, masters of sects who are carnally, earthly and devilishly minded; enemies of the cross; serving their bellies instead of serving God; false prophets, idolaters, vain talkers, liars, and tricksters.

“If any person does not believe my words, let him prove their walk by the word of the Lord; let him compare their doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life with the doctrine, sacraments, spirit, object, walk and life of Christ, and even common sense will teach you who has really sent them, and what fruits their teachings bear!”

Menno would not be the first apostolic radical to be accused of being kindly when present and tough when writing from afar – St Paul had the same thing levelled at him [2 Corinthians 10:1]. Perhaps the underlying principle here is to show grace and understanding to open hearts, while slicing into falsehood and self-centredness in backslidden or blind hearts, with a view to winning them. We see Jesus Christ Himself doing this, so we may safely conclude that this is the heart of the true radical. And yes, where necessary, it is obnoxious!

A Very Human Reformer: Martin Luther Struggled With Depression and Nightmares

 

Image: Teologia Hoy

On 31st October 1517, exactly 500 years ago, the German priest Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his 95 ‘Theses’ (subjects for debate) to the door of his church in Wittenberg – the church door in those days doubling up as a community notice board. Luther is rightly remembered as a champion of church reform, who translated the Bible into German, wrote vernacular hymns, and freed the glorious truth of justification by faith from the overburden of empty tradition.

Luther could also be touchy, aggressive and opinionated, but what is less well known is that doubt and fear of death played a major part in Luther’s psyche throughout his life. He knew phases of dark depression. Particularly in later life, with all his triumphs behind him, he experienced seasons of terror that God had utterly forgotten him and abandoned him to hell. His prayers and cries were met only with silence. He felt alone in the universe. For more detail, read this post by Chris Anderson.

At one point, the crushing doubt about his calling led him to such a deep pit of gloom that he wrote, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.’” He had nightmares, sweats and heart palpitations.

It is a peculiar – but very human – mixture: on the one hand, penning books and hymns in praise of God’s glorious gift of freedom in Jesus Christ, but on the other suffering haunting reproach, guilt, condemnation and cosmic fear.

Richard Marius, in his study of Luther, offers a very telling image: ” For Luther, Christ was like a campfire projecting a circle of light against the vast dark of earthly life. Whenever the darkness threatened to encroach upon that illuminated ground, Luther flung more of his volatile ink onto the fire, causing it to flame up again in his own heart, and keeping the darkness at bay.”

Portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

So Luther the great champion of doctrinal reform becomes Luther the troubled human being, one of us, someone we can relate to when we hit the rocks of life or hang on cliffs of horrible despair. If he found a way through, then we can surely learn from it and find hope.

The answer that Luther found was to allow tribulation to drive him to prayer and Scripture and above all, to God’s promises. ‘God has need of this: that we consider him faithful in his promises [Heb. 10:23], and patiently persist in this belief.’ [The Babylonian Captivity of the Church]  Luther concluded that God uses the assaults of doubt to strip us of self-assurance. In other words, we are unable to wholly grasp the promise of God and our salvation, which saves us from the danger of placing our confidence in ourselves and our own understanding.

In this life, God does not lift the Christian out of human nature, nor does he reveal himself beyond any shadow of doubt. Even to discover God’s saving grace does not necessarily mean escaping spiritual conflict and ‘desert’ experiences. Rowland Croucher writes: ‘As odd as it seems, doubt serves to protect us from ourselves. When we can’t trust our capacity for faith, we have to go back to trusting God and only God. Doubt serves another purpose in the life of faith. If we’re willing to put the energy and effort into the struggle, rather than just walk away, it can serve to keep us engaged with God.’

How Did the Early Methodists Handle Leadership Succession?

John-Wesley

Leadership succession in early Methodism was marked with a certain theological ambiguity, which stemmed from its founding father, John Wesley. Throughout his long life, he liked to consider himself a true son of the Anglican church, not the leader of a sect. As a true churchman, he believed there was divine merit in an apostolic succession, as it conveyed the historic commission of Jesus to Peter.

Wesley felt keenly the criticism that, in founding Methodism, he had stepped outside the Anglican branch of apostolic succession. He was also well aware that, having been only an Anglican priest and not a bishop, he could not himself ordain anyone to a higher office than that – but would need to in order to cover Methodism’s spread in two continents.

So it was that, against the advice of some of his inner circle, Wesley contacted Erasmus (Gerasimos), Orthodox bishop of Arcadia in Crete, now living in exile in Amsterdam. Wesley had Erasmus’s credentials checked with the Metropolitan (Archbishop) of Smyrna and was satisfied. So, on a visit to London in 1763, Erasmus consecrated Wesley a ‘bishop of the Christian Church’ and ordained several Methodist preachers as priests.

Wesley could not make known his episcopal consecration because of strict laws in England (statutes of Praemunire) forbidding any activity seen to promote foreign powers – in this case, the Pope. But it gave him the authority that he felt he needed for proper ordination in a recognised succession. It was on that basis that he consecrated Thomas Coke to be bishop of the Methodists in America.

At home, Wesley determined to appoint John Fletcher as his successor.  Swiss by birth, Fletcher was an Anglican priest but became an ardent Methodist. From 1757 onwards, when Fletcher was 28, he became Wesley’s coadjutor. Wesley wrote in his journal: “Mr. Fletcher helped me again. How wonderful are the ways of God! When my bodily strength failed, He sent me help from the mountains of Switzerland; and a help meet for me in every respect: where could I have found such another?” Fletcher quickly became the most influential person in Methodism next to John and Charles Wesley.

John Fletcher of Madeley

John Fletcher of Madeley

Fletcher’s numerous writings clarified and synthesized Wesley’s developing ideas. Wesley said they frequently consulted one another on the most important issues and that their friendship was sealed with mutual loyalty. Wesley further said: “We were of one heart and one soul. We had no secrets between us for many years; we did not purposely hide anything from each other.” Wesley spoke of “the strongest ties” between them and wrote of Fletcher: One equal to him I have not known—one so inwardly and outwardly devoted to God. So blameless a character in every respect I have not found either in Europe or America; nor do I expect to find another this side of eternity.

In 1773, Wesley invited Fletcher to become his successor. He told him that he was the only person qualified to serve as his sole replacement, noting his popularity with the preachers and his “clear understanding…of the Methodist doctrine and discipline.” Fletcher did not think it was the proper time to take on this responsibility. He believed his continuing task was to write as an interpreter of Wesley’s theology. In 1776, Wesley repeated the invitation, adding: “Should we not discern the providential time?”

Again, Fletcher declined. He knew that he was in failing health. So Wesley decided on a different path of action. At the Methodist Conference of 1784 (Fletcher’s last before he died aged 55), Wesley announced that, for the British Isles at least, he would nominate 100 preachers to serve jointly as his successors. For America, being free of laws of Praemunire meant Thomas Coke could act appointed the great circuit rider, Francis Asbury, to succeed him as the head of transatlantic Methodism.

Thomas Coke ordains Francis Asbury as bishop of the American Methodists

Thomas Coke ordains Francis Asbury as bishop of the American Methodists in 1784

It is perhaps noteworthy that the handing on of the bible that Wesley used for field preaching became a traditional symbol of Methodist succession.

Early Quakers and Leadership Succession

Early Quakers with broad-brimmed hats meeting local officials

The Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as Quakers, made a big impact in Britain and America, particularly in the 17th century. Unconventional, largely working class, and given to headline-grabbing methods of spreading the gospel, they carried unusual power – which they attributed to the “inner light” of God in each member. For a good overview of Quaker faith and practice, follow this link.

When it comes to leadership succession (the subject of this series of posts), we search in vain for any succession planning among the early Quakers. There may be two main reasons for this: their accent on mission and, linked with it, the persecutions and imprisonments that they faced. Potential successors to their pioneer and founder, George Fox, might not live to see the day, nor be available for training!

The "inner light" of God's Spirit in the heart was a central tenet of Quakerism

The “inner light” of God’s Spirit in the heart was a central tenet of Quakerism

One scholar writes: ‘George Whitehead, by his age, his consistent character and eminent services, approached nearest to the position of successor to George Fox in Britain. His connection with Quakerism dated from its commencement in the north, and he was one of the “valiant sixty” sent out on mission to plant new ‘societies’ in 1654. At eighteen years of age he was the Quaker apostle of Norfolk, and through all the fiery trial of the first generation he bore his full share of labour and of suffering. His comrades succumbed to the rigours of imprisonment; but he survived to the venerable age of 87, and fulfilled 68 years of ministry. When they buried him in Bunhill Fields, in 1722-3, the Quakers lost the last link which connected them with the birth-time of their society.’

Sources vary on Fox’s successor in America, some suggesting John Woolman, others William Penn, but it is noteworthy that nowhere is a direct, appointed succession mentioned.

Quaker founder George Fox (1624-1991)

Quaker founder George Fox (1624-1691)

This would be entirely consistent with Fox’s insistence on the “inner light” – the Holy Spirit’s inspired guidance in all things. To structure and plan over much would be to overrule the Spirit by the human. Although some might say that the Society of Friends eliminated the clergy, it is more accurate to say that it eliminated the laity. Every Friend (member) was ‘a saint in Christ Jesus’ and should be a minister of religion, a prophet, a mystic, an evangelist, a church administrator – and a potential apostle.

The Quakers have continued to this day, but in a very different form and spirit from the origins. There is still no succession planning, for the same reasons as above, but a web search throws up plenty of material on “Quakers in Transition”. This is telling. Having deliberately thrown out ‘apostolic’ succession and other things of “hireling ministry” (as they called it, see John 10:12-13), and having with time lost the inspirations and the prophetic anointing of their origins, it remains to be seen how they will handle issues of leadership transition and succession.

 

“Faithful Succession”: Protestant Responses to Apostolic Succession

torch

My last post looked at the model of leadership succession that held unquestioned sway in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches for nearly 1500 years. Then came the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. Their champions re-examined many of the centuries-old traditions of the established Church and pressed for sweeping change in doctrine and practice.

What do Protestant theologians make of Apostolic Succession? There is no fixed consensus. Some conservative Anglicans believe that apostolic succession is important as a link to the first church. I once met a bishop of an independent Episcopal denomination in America who carried with him a ‘family tree’ showing his supposed succession going right back to St Peter.

Protestants who reject apostolic succession generally do so from three angles:

  1. It is a historical fallacy. Early church history is sketchy and records are incomplete. It is hard to justify a clear and undisputed timeline of leaders from the Apostles to the present day.
  2. It was political expediency, invented by corrupt leaders to establish power and control.
  3. It is irrelevant. It may have been useful in combating heresy in the first centuries, but it is not explicitly found in the Bible, so we are under no obligation to hold to it. Besides, they point out, the New Testament uses ‘bishop’, ‘presbyter’ and ‘priest’ as alternative names for the same office.

For a fuller exposition of these points and more, see this discussion and this article.

In general, Protestant denominations deny the need of maintaining episcopal continuity with the early Church, holding that the role of the apostles was to be a foundation and that a foundation is not constantly re-laid, but built upon (Eph.2:20). When the apostles died, runs the argument, they were replaced by their writings. To share with the apostles the same faith, to believe their word as found in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only meaningful continuity.

William Booth, founding General of the Salvation Army, and his appointed successor, Bramwell Booth, c.1900

William Booth, founding General of the Salvation Army, and his appointed successor, Bramwell Booth, c.1900

There is, however, a Protestant belief in what we might call a “faithful succession” – a spiritual connection to the heart, vision and practice of the first Apostles, in four main areas:

  1. Perseverance in the apostles’ teaching

  2. Commitment to preaching and the proclamation of the gospel

  3. Right celebration of the sacraments, principally baptism and communion

  4. Commissioning others into key areas of service by prayer and the laying on of hands.

Today, Anglicans are passed over by traditional Roman Catholics as being outside the apostolic succession. Anglicans in turn question the validity of Methodist holy orders, because John Wesley stepped outside the apostolic succession to promote his movement. But whose apostolic succession are they meaning? They went out from us, but they were not of us (1 John 2:9) can be used by anyone as a convenient stick to beat others with!

Some Protestant churches, such as Anglicans / Episcopalians, Lutherans, Moravians and Methodists, maintain a version of Apostolic Succession, which they prefer to call “historic episcopate“. I hope to devote a post or two to some examples.

‘Apostolic Succession’ in the Church – How Did it Develop and What Can it Teach Us?

An artist's impression of St Paul commissioning Timothy

An artist’s impression of St Paul commissioning Timothy

For 1500 years, until the 16th century Reformation, apostolic succession in varying degrees was the unquestioned norm for ecclesiastical hierarchy, both in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Protestants tend to throw it out as yet more papist baggage. So, what are the points at issue here? There seem to be three notional stages of development in the concept of Apostolic Succession.

Continuity of teaching.  The Church as a whole was the vessel into which God’s truth is poured, and bishops were seen as the conduit for this purpose. One bishop succeeding another in the same bishopric meant that there was continuity to this truth. This position was formulated in the early 2nd century as a response to Gnostic claims of having received secret teaching from Christ or the apostles. It emphasised the public manner in which the apostles had passed on authentic teaching to those whom they entrusted with the care of the churches they founded, and that these in turn had passed it on to their successors: What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2). Ignatius of Antioch, in his “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans” writes: See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.

Continuity of function.  Bishops were also seen as successors to the apostles in that the functions they performed (preaching, governing and ordaining) were the same as the Apostles had performed. Tertullian, Irenaeus and others (late 2nd century) introduce explicitly the idea of the bishop’s succession in office as a guarantee of authenticity, since it could be traced back to the apostles. Irenaeus writes at length on this in his “Against Heretics”; for example: It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times.

‘Let them produce the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that a bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men.’           Tertullian, ‘Prescription Against Heretics’, late 2nd century.

An early representation of Apostles “holding” the Church

Continuity of grace.  Apostolic anointing and grace were held to be automatically transmitted from the Apostles by each generation of bishops through the laying on of hands. This was believed to guarantee the continuity and faithfulness of the Church. Thus, only bishops and priests ordained by bishops in the apostolic succession could validly celebrate the sacraments.

This late 4th century development suited a time when schisms (e.g. Arianism) troubled the Church, and where there were rival bishops – even rival Popes. The ‘true’ apostolic succession had to be protected. The idea comes from 2 Timothy 1:6, where the Apostle Paul laid his hands on Timothy, by which act a gift of God was planted in him. This is the most contentious aspect of apostolic succession, and there are serious problems with it. Passages like Acts 20:17 and Acts 20:28 show authority bestowed only over a local congregation – no apostolic authority is given over the church universal. And what are we to make of men who were apostolically commissioned but then backslid and deserted, like Demas? (2 Tim.4:10)

Even so, many a church today can produce impressive credentials, traced right back to the first Apostles, in support of their minister’s divine right to perform the sacraments (one example here). I conclude with a few of my  own thoughts and reflections on the subject.

Issues of succession logically come to the fore with the second generation and those following. The New Testament is the work of the first generation of Christians. They easily deferred to the Apostles appointed by Jesus Himself, or to others of trusted and proven calling, like Paul and those whom he appointed. Most scholars have no problem accepting that the Apostle Peter commissioned James, the Lord’s brother, to be in charge of the church at Jerusalem, while his own focus shifted to Rome, and John’s to Asia Minor. This was not without its tensions, however, even in the first generation: “I follow Paul”, “I follow Peter”, “I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:4).

But greater tensions were to come when Constantinople and Rome operated independently as the East and West of the Empire. Roman Catholic scholars tend to regard this as a lamentable departure from what Jesus intended. Another way to view it is as a logical and eminently practical extension, pointing towards geographically autonomous apostolic circuits with their own senior and junior apostles, appointing their own ministers.

A chart of the supposed apostolic succession of the bishops of Glastonbury, UK

While many Protestant scholars see succession as only in the ministry of the word, the principle of apostolic succession marries the word to the witness. It carries the extra stamp of anointed humanity in the person of a duly commissioned man. There are two extremes to avoid here, as later church history has shown: at one end the placing of God’s word on so high a pedestal that human vessels count for nothing, and at the other the “anointed vessel” whose life might not match the claim.

Historically, the crunch came when Gnosticism in its various forms championed a free and speculative interpretation of God’s word. For a time, referral to a recognised apostolic man was sufficient for “the sure word as taught” to be established (Titus 1:9), but with the passing years, this no longer sufficed. It became necessary to have fixed points for the testimony of truth, and these were found in the so-called apostolic sees, that is, in those places where the apostles had been active. The focus moved from the truly apostolic (anointed, commissioned men known to the churches and trusted by them) to places and systems. These became the schools of training. Local churches no longer had a relationship with a trusted apostle. The apostolic place now commissioned its senior bishops, increasingly with a trouble-shooting role.

The fact that, in Roman Catholic and Orthodox denominations, apostolic succession based on the supposed sanctity of particular places has continued to this day, has something to say to us. The church hasn’t died! This shows either a disturbing ignorance or an amazing trust on the part of rank-and-file church members, who are content to receive whoever is sent to them as being God’s choice for them, just because “that’s how it’s done”. And indeed, it works – at least for maintenance, if not for mission or movement.

Postscript

Responding to my first posting of this piece, Paul F Pavao (via Facebook) offered some further considerations, which I gratefully reproduce here.

‘Tertullian argued that the fact that all these separate churches have preserved the same truth is part of the power of the argument because “Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues.” Prescription Against Heretics ch. 28

Today, the churches, even the Catholic and various Orthodox churches do have various issues. They have officially split over these issues. The Church of the East and the Coptic Church have been excommunicated since the fifth century. By Tertullian’s argument error has crept in.

So, when you say “this was believed to guarantee the continuity and faithfulness of the Church,” I agree that at the end of the second century, when Irenaeus and Tertullian wrote, and even into the late third century, apostolic succession had successfully guaranteed the faithfulness of the Church. Afterward, though …’

 

 

Succession and Commissioning to Leadership in the Early Church

Leadership succession has been a big issue in churches and ‘streams’ for some years now. The appointment of relative outsiders to be the new Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury show that the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations are concerned to have the right person at the helm for a new generation of the Church. Both seem to be making good headway and generating respect.

The many “new churches” that sprang up in the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s are having to face the issues too. Their leaders are now in their seventies at least. Having turned away from traditional ordination, what models are there for succession? Does any one seem more fruitful than others? When should a senior pastor initiate the process?

I was asked by my own church to research succession and the process of transition in churches in history.  Over the next posts I’ll look at some of the issues, with examples that I found helpful. Logic suggests we start at the beginning, with succession in the Early Church.

The earliest church communities had been founded by itinerant apostles and their teams. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that, when a need arose, suitably qualified men would be considered before God by the governing corpus of apostles, with prayer and fasting [Acts 13:1-3]. On one occasion we find the drawing of lots [Acts 1:21-26. The apostle’s (or apostles’) selection was ratified by the assembly of the local church, leading to commissioning. There is, however, little practical documentation of how prospective successors and key leaders were trained.

Traditional ordination to the priesthood

Anglican ordination to the priesthood

With time, the cultural contexts in which those churches were planted produced a variety of patterns for local leadership, some informed by Jewish models, others by Greco-Roman society. By the end of the 1st century, the pattern that emerged was a threefold, “cascade” structure:

(1) A single pastor-bishop, elected by each community and commissioned by a senior apostolic bishop. He presided over all aspects of the congregation’s life and worship. According to Hippolytus’s ‘Apostolic Traditions’, an episkopos, or senior bishop, should be at least 50 years of age. He was empowered to commission and ordain the second tier, namely:

(2) A shared ministry of leaders known as presbyters / priests / elders, elected by the local church-community, who oversaw the life of the church-community under the leadership of the bishop. These were empowered to commission and ordain the third tier, namely:

(3) Service-oriented ministers, called deacons, who assisted the bishop and the presbyter-elders in both ministry and worship [Acts 6:1-7].

In the first generations of the church, each man in tier 1 was expected to find, train and commission men into tier 2. In time, however, training became more a matter of schools; candidates were sent away from churches to be trained as leaders, rather than being trained within them.

Men in tier 2 were expected to find, train and commission both men and women to serve as deacons.

It is sometimes argued that the Didache (or ‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’), dated by most scholars to the late 1st century, disproves such a ‘cascade’. Chapter 15 contains the words: Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Some observers see in the words “for yourselves” a more democratic, grass-roots process than a monarchical one. However, the Didache may simply be describing the process we find in Acts 6, where the Jerusalem congregation was told to put forward suitable and respected candidates, whom the apostles then commissioned by the laying on of hands. For further discussion of the Didache on leadership, follow this link.

Sources:

The Ordained Ministry in the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Church, chapter ‘Ministry in the Second Christian Century, 90 – 210 AD’, which includes a detailed look at Hippolytus’s Didascalia (‘Apostolic Traditions’).

Thomas M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries.

Since posting this, I have received some helpful insights and comments from David Valentine, via the ‘Patristics for Protestants’ Facebook page. He has kindly given his permission to reproduce them here.

On the tier 1 bishops, for example, the evidence for such mono-episcopacy is far thinner than this article would suggest. As the big promoter of this model, Ignatius of Antioch appears to be the exception rather than the norm – and even he is not inside the first century, as the article implies. The evidence of Clement of Rome, Hermas, Justin and every Roman source (before we even reach non literary evidence such as archaeology) is of a more collegiate, team-based leadership, at least in the imperial capital, until near the end of the second century, when Irenaeus starts providing bishop lists that lack any corroborating evidence in the surviving literature before his time. He may be publishing something accurate, but we lack the evidence to check this and everything else says no, at least for Rome. In Alexandria, working back from Origen’s time (only decades after Irenaeus, and less after Hippolytus) the same pattern seems to be repeated as with Rome: teams of presbyters working together, with a fairly sudden appearance of mono-episcopacy in the first half of the third century, even later than Rome. Smaller cities may have had single leaders earlier, but in the case of Antioch alone (a big city) we have this strong tier 1 model.

Some excellent Anglican studies have suggested that the role of ‘bishop’ was simply that of the relatively rich householders who hosted meetings. It was only good manners that the hosts should preside, unless an apostle or prophet (according to Didache) was present; but this was not simply intended to perpetuate the existing social structure within the Church for all time.

I agree with your observation that the apostles tended to let local churches sort themselves out and be as autonomous as possible, with exceptions as the apostles discerned the need for more direction. Clement of Rome does point to an ongoing respect for the appointments of the apostles, but he can be placed as early as AD 68 – contemporary with the last canonical literature – rather than the ’90’s.

Having waded and brooded for some years on these things, I remain sceptical about what happened after the apostles. We just don’t know if there was a scheme of succession and how it worked. Paul’s own trajectory could even have set a precedent for charismatic leadership appointed in each generation by God. If the Lord could simply leapfrog the Twelve and start a new stream with a fresh appointment, then Paul’s model of seeking ‘the right hand of fellowship’ to ensure continuity while starting a whole new apostolic stream, could have been perpetuated after him, as it has throughout church history. Wesley, for example, sidestepped Anglican tradition and initiated his own ‘apostolic stream’ by ordaining ministers, and this fresh stream has continued through Methodism and Pentecostalism. Perhaps Paul is the real precedent here.

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