This post will be a little different…
I know it’s been a while and since I last posted. I have been completing my degree and also decided to run for local office (more on that later and please keep me in prayer).
This Saturday I graduate with a Theology Degree that took me ten years to complete, because… life is like that sometimes.
When I began it was because I thought I needed some kind of status in the church to teach and serve. Here is what I have learned over the last decade, encapsulated in my final essay before I begin my Masters of Divinity.
The Attack of Hierarchy on The Ecclesiastical Priesthood
History and Theology of The Church
June 2nd, 2021
To survey the history of the Christian church, we must subject ourselves to reviewing hundreds of years of plot twists that, as I will argue, should never have happened in the first place. While many of these turning points are beautiful, laced with tales of courageous martyrs and valiant attempts at reconciliation, each and every one dealing with this attempted reconciliation and revitalization of a perpetually fracturing church exists only because of a single deviation from early tradition; the tradition of priesthood of all believers. It seems that, upon its first fracture whereby the Christians became a distinct community apart from their Jewish brothers and sisters, the Church reacted in a kind of fear and grasping for control that Jesus spoke against so often. I would argue that every subsequent turning point was simply a repercussion of the Church’s deep seeded desire for safety in a world which was never designed to be a safe place for believers. This desire produced an unfavorable reaction to the unknown as the Church hastened to compile years of communal experience and wisdom into meticulously outlined rules and regulations for the community of believers. It is not that structure is bad in and of itself but that people who grasp after worldly power and desire to control the Church’s narrative will inevitably do so by exploiting loopholes, which will always exist, and the placement of the gospel into a structured theological box provided a timely opportunity for those who would exploit the Church. The result was a rapid decline into hierarchy that glorified people instead of Christ, and that placed authority in the hands of man instead of the full body of believers.
When the Christian branch of the early church moved out on its own in the year 70 AD, it seemed a necessity to develop a written theological standard which could be answered by canonizing existing documents that guided the life and culture of believers during the apostolic period. While we do ultimately have the Bible to show for it, I would also argue that in refining these documents and standardizing a theological stance so early in the formation of the Church, we also saw the exclusion of many nuances that could have benefitted such a young, fragile community. I do believe that the Holy Spirit has ultimately guided the formation of our sixty -six books of the Bible that exist today, yet it is only recently that in-depth academic study has been made available more widely for the common believer and resulted in a more widespread theological dialog that is necessary for the proper formation of the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, many have been conditioned by tradition and misinterpretation of Scripture for so long that reversal of indoctrination into the belief system that is hierarchy is very unlikely. For hundreds of years, we have been told that only certain people know best and we ought to listen to them, even against our better judgment. We have essentially been coached out of practicing sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. “The emergence of a hierarchical administration centered on the bishops can be observed… Ignatius, as early as 112, could urge believers to ‘follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father’… ‘follow the presbytery as the Apostles, and respect the deacons as the commandment of God’” citation All of this, the Church is still wrestling with.
From here, we have seen the outgrowth of fortified pride, strengthened dependence on worldly authorities, and a vast array of atrocities committed in the name of Jesus Christ. All of these shortcomings necessitated pivots and turning points, yet none have been adequate to return the church to her former apostolic glory. The Reformation came the closest as it sought to deal with lust for and abuse of power. However, these issues were already so ingrained in the DNA of the institution of the church that doing so would entail an overthrow that had already been initiated by Jesus and failed to be upheld by those who led the Church forward. The proverbial nail in the coffin occurred sometime around the publication and widespread advocation of the “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy”, written by an imposter who claimed to be a convert of Paul yet lived about five hundred years after Paul’s ministry. His name was Dionysius, now commonly referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, as scholars now know he gave false witness about himself to gain authority in the life and business of the Church. His ploy worked. Though laced with Neoplatonic philosophies and ideologies, Dionysius’s works (including writings on celestial and ecclesiastical Hierarchy) gained momentum and support and became authoritative texts to inform the structure and formation of the church. The belief that Dionysius was who he claimed to be persisted until the 19th century, when studies showed a “marked influence from the Athenian Neoplatonic school of Proclus”. Citation By then, the damage to the church had been done and the priesthood of believers had been effectively hijacked by a liar, for personal gain, whose works had infiltrated the church and had our beloved community looking more like a modern day pyramid scheme.
A deeper dive into the philosophies of Plato, Potinus, Proclus, and Aristotle (Historia Animalium), reveals that the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, taught throughout many early Christian schools of theology, bears a striking resemblance to the Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain is rooted in pagan philosophy that allows for a kind of hierarchical ladder whereby one can “achieve God” rather than submit to Him. This fundamental and flawed ecclesiology poisoned the formation of the church at her outset and is widely evident in “Christian” practices and structures today, especially in the West. The way that the American church so easily accepts and makes use of capitalism is one example. The ever popular “prosperity gospel” (which we know is no gospel of Christ) is also a fruit of pride and the illusion of worldly authority, perpetuated by the idea that the members of the Body of Christ hold some authority over one another and, by extension, the world as well. All of these practices and the ideologies that lie behind them, the practice of requiring priests to be present for sacraments, disallowing women to hold positions of authority, relegating the roles of the entire fivefold ministry to a single lead pastor, they are each a dysfunctional watered-down version of what Jesus intended.
Let us take a closer look at what (at least some of) the apostles practiced. The root prefix in hierarchy, heir, means “sacred” or “holy” and was used in 1 Peter 2:5 to refer to the entire body of believers as priests. This is an often quoted, rarely understood passage about the royal priesthood of all Christ followers. This book was written around the same time as 1 and 2 Timothy which provide conflicting views on the manner in which authority ought to be handled within the church when contrasted with 2 Peter’s statement of a common priesthood. We should find it of at least some relevance that the three of these books were all written around the end of the Apostolic period and the beginning of the Christian separation from Judaism. The division seems to already have been in motion for a larger split when the Temple fell. Perhaps these New Testament writings provide us an early glimpse of the struggle for power that would ensue and plague the Church for centuries to come. It was as if Christ, being the “second Adam”, had come and initiated a new beginning, handed it off to the Church, and we immediately defaulted back into the lust for power that had begun in the garden. Since being given another chance in Jesus, we have exchanged an adventure for a conquest and we have paid dearly for it. We have been restored to the Father through Christ, but until the Church addresses her own original sin, namely our lust for power, no turning point will suffice to restore us to one another.