Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My attempt at a collegial rejoinder to Tony Jones

So if you're coming late to this discussion, you can catch up by reading the posts below. Author and Emergent Church leader Tony Jones has made it his mission to convince his readers who are in denominations to abandon the ordination processes which he considers worthless. Tony and I are friends from seminary and, oddly enough, attended each other's ordination services, which provides some interesting context for our discussion.

In many ways I'm an odd choice to defend traditional ordination in a denomination. While I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA, most of my career has been spent in non-profit management, mostly in the fringes of denominational life. But I do have enormous respect for my brothers and sisters who have served Christ faithfully and effectively within the institutional structures of the Presbyterian Church, and so I am offering an opposing viewpoint to Tony's 'all babies out with the bathwater' argument.

Wherever else this discussion goes, the crux of my argument is this: The choice of denominational ordination is precisely that. It's a choice, made prayerfully and with integrity, to serve Christ and the world in partnership with, and in submission to, agreed upon organizing principles.

That's it. That's the point I'm trying to make for Tony and his readers. I make no claim of superiority for my Presbyterian tradition, and I would never, ever, argue that only large denominations have the authority to define and practice the ordination of ministers.

I simply want my choice of denominational participation, and the similar choices of others, to be respected in partnership with the groundbreaking work of Tony and other Emergent leaders and thinkers. The attacks really do have to stop. The missiles Tony is sending at those of us in denominations misrepresent the experiences of thousands of ministers, hurt the body of Christ, and they distract us from our true calling: To worship and serve in Christ's name, and to model the transforming love of Jesus to a hurting world. The attacks really do have to stop.

Below, in a format I'm borrowing from Tony's last two posts, are my responses to some of Tony's arguments. I hope it's interesting, I hope it's edifying, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I hope it's a little entertaining. But what I truly hope, what I really want out of this, is for Tony to call a truce in his war on denominational institutions, for him to turn his intellect and spiritual gifting toward the real task at hand.

Here, then, are my responses:

TJ writes: ‘We ordain everyone. If you want to be ordained to perform a wedding, or to be a lawnmower repairman, we'll ordain you to that ministry.’

That’s fine. As was surely clear in my first post, I wasn’t trying to tell anyone else how they should ordain their leaders or ministers. What continues to baffle me is why you would try to do exactly that. There’s simply nothing to be gained by commenting on a process you neither fully understand nor respect, simply to spark a discussion or to score points for your friend. Ordaining the gardener is fine, but as a practical matter let’s at least agree on another term for the biblical task of setting aside some gifted people for ministry leadership in a particular church. Call it ordaining, call it anointing, call it a ‘Half-Nelson’, but call it something so that we don’t have to spend so much time talking about it while there’s work to do.

TJ writes: ‘Both you and others have questioned whether Adam has been entirely forthcoming in his posting about these matters. Maybe, some have implied, there's a back story of disobedience that Adam is hiding from the blogosphere. I can assure you that Adam is being candid about his candidacy.’

In point of fact, Tony, you can’t assure your readers of anything close to that. You know what Adam has told you, but even those facts are in dispute. As this has become part of the issue, I asked colleagues, both close to the situation and not, what they thought. Those close were dumbfounded at the way this has been inaccurately blasted all over the web, and those of us who are not connected to it have a queasy feeling that there must be some reason for a CPM (Committee on Preparation for Ministry) to act as they have.

Some facts to help our understanding: One does not get a ‘new presbytery’ just by showing up at a meeting—even Adam’s own website lists him as under care of the Kendall presbytery and not San Francisco. Further, in order to be ordained (or, in normal circumstances, to move to a new presbytery) one must have a valid call to a church or ministry. If Adam has a call, then where is his calling church in this? Say what you will about monolithic Presbyterianism, but at one level we’re all just congregations trying to get by. If there’s a church out there that has gone through a lengthy search process only to be thwarted by a presbytery, I would expect to hear a mighty outcry indeed (see, for example, any issue of The Layman). All I hear is, well, silence.

The bottom line here is that someone, somewhere, isn’t telling the whole story. That’s OK with me, because the church, the presbyteries involved, and mostly the candidate, deserve to conduct this process with more discretion and seriousness than it’s receiving right now. What I have to challenge categorically is your assertion that he’s being fully candid with you or his readers. That simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

TJ writes: ‘I don't know that everyone would concur with your verdict that the Christian fundamentalism crippled the spreading of the gospel.’

I’m sure you’re right on that, because I haven’t published my book on it yet. Let’s revisit this one in a couple of years. I'm quite sure that the post-WWII years represent the biggest missed opportunity in the Protestant era. My contention, and you’ll hopefully appreciate the nod to logic here, is that whatever might have been accomplished by evangelicals in the years after WWII, it is surely dwarfed by what they could have accomplished if they hadn’t had their guns (time, money, rhetoric, etc.) aimed at each other for most of the century. Once separated from Protestant liberalism, conservative evangelicals spent much of the next seven decades fighting with each other over doctrinal purity, ecclesiological conformity, and (mostly) market share. While you’re certainly right in saying that our beloved Fuller Seminary was born out of ‘chasm between liberalism and fundamentalism,’ it’s important to note that Fuller and its early faculty functioned more as a reaction to fundamentalism than to anything on the left.

Where this fits in with your attacks on denominations (and the people who love or even tolerate them) should now be clear. You continue in your broadsides and ‘ironic’ petitions to belittle a system within which other Christians worship and serve, while I, along with hundreds of readers and commentators, have blown a lot of hours this week trying to challenge or present an alternative view to your thinking. I argue that this is a growing drain on Christian resources (oddly enough, time, money and rhetoric) that could be used to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in meaningful and creative ways. I’m not going to let this one go—I can’t let you be the only voice on this to your readers. On this issue you are mirroring the pattern of mid-20th-century American fundamentalism, and my prayer is that the impact won’t be nearly as damaging. We simply don’t have the resources in the bank to waste anymore.

TJ writes: ‘My dispute with denominationalists is surely not theological. No, my quest is more like that of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Simons, Wesley, and Wimber. I see a system that has outgrown its usefulness, and I am calling those who run that system to reform it, radically and immediately. And: ‘‘My point, as I wrote yesterday, is to expose the ridiculousness of the systems by which people use denominations to exert their power over other people—like Adam.’

Dude. I have admired your chutzpah for almost 20 years now, but for me this is going a bit too far. I can’t quite place your darts at denominations on the same level as Calvin and the rest! What really gets me, and others like me who are trying hard to sift these things out of your otherwise helpful writings, is your pronouncement that my church ‘has outgrown its usefulness.’ That’s simply false—and more than a little bizarre—on its face, and when joined with the other attacks on Christians who serve in denominations it becomes a body of misinformation for which I think you should apologize. It may be true that blogging is ‘immediate work’ and should be absolved from having to be accurate, but it’s in your published work as well, so I know you’re given it some thought.

Maybe the real irony here is that what I want to say to you is a variation on the Jon Stewart line you quote in The New Christians (p.22): ‘Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting’ those of who serve in denominational churches, and who seek to be your partners—your brothers and sisters on the journey.


  1. I saw this earlier today, but couldn't get back to it till now. I wanted to commend you on this post. I agree with it. I was going to copy the statements that I particularly agreed with but then I'd be recopying nearly the whole thing. lol. Anyways, I think you did well during this whole web debate. I too am moving on, and letting those who want to take the time away from Kingdom work to debate ordination do so. Meanwhile, back to reading/reviewing/blogging (for my one blog) and thinking about what a real Christian is for my other blog,online; and doing other stuff in real life.

    Thanks for the discussion. May you and your wife be blessed as you continue to work in the UK.

  2. Thanks PW. I've appreciated your comments and encouragement. Feel free to stay in touch via the blog or by email. Just Google the church site. JD


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