Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ordination and Anointing the Sick

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Ordination and Anointing the Sick:

Q: Do churches outside of Roman Catholicism practice Ordination and Anointing of the Sick? Are they considered Sacraments in those churches?

There is a wide spectrum of sacramental theology among non-Catholic Christians. On one end of the spectrum, the Eastern Orthodox recognize all seven Roman Catholic Sacraments (and allow the possibility for even more). The Anglican tradition recognizes two Sacraments, but considers the other 5 to be Sacramental Rites. Lutherans recognize at least two Sacraments, but do not specifically limit the number, and most in the Reformed tradition recognize only two Sacraments. Finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum, those in the Baptist and Pentecostal traditions typically recognize no Sacraments, but do still practice Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “ordinances.”

Specifically regarding Ordination, its use varies widely among the different protestant traditions, and even within them, but it is still retained as a practice in many denominations. There is Biblical evidence for the practice in the many cases, especially in Acts and 1 & 2 Timothy, where it speaks of the Apostles “laying hands on” those who would become pastors. In the Lutheran and Anglican traditions, Ordination is a requirement to perform certain ministerial duties, but is not considered a Sacrament.

Other denominations may make use of ordination for some, but not all, ranks of their clergy. For example, they may allow recognition as clergy and placement into pastoral duties without completion of the full requirements for ordination. They would consider those clergy with lesser training to be licensed or certified for ministry, while reserving ordination only for those clergy who have completed the full educational requirements and have been thoroughly examined by church authorities. In such cases, clergy are often required to complete a probationary period of several years before becoming eligible for ordination.

Still other denominations may not practice ordination in any formal sense. These either take a more corporate approach to certifying their clergy where they license them either permanently or for repeated terms of a definite length. In other cases, denominational officials may practice what amounts to self-ordination where any person who feels they have been called to engage in ministry is recognized as clergy by the denominational authorities.

When it comes to the Anointing of the sick, there is Biblical evidence for the practice found in James 5:14, where it says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (ESV) Based on this verse, the use of oil in prayer, especially prayer for the sick, is found on both ends of the spectrum of Sacramental theologies, although not as frequently in the middle.

On one end of the spectrum, Lutherans have a tradition of using this practice, although not requiring it or considering it sacramental, and many Lutheran pastoral texts provide a ceremony for anointing the sick with oil during prayer.

On the other end of the spectrum, the use of anointing is also frequently, but not uniformly, found within the Pentecostal tradition, where physical contact as an element of fervent prayer tends to be highly valued. I am not personally aware of instances where anointing is used commonly among those in the middle of the spectrum of Sacramental theologies, such as Methodists and the Reformed.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Doctrinal Diversity

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Doctrinal Diversity:

Q: If all Christians get their teachings from the Bible, why is there so much doctrinal diversity among the various Christian churches? Is Christian doctrine a matter of opinion or fact, and is every individual interpretation of the Bible equally valid?

In today’s churches, there certainly is broad diversity in the doctrines that are taught, even on the most foundational teachings of Christianity. For example, one church might teach that God saves people purely as a gift, while another teaches that God requires that humans port forth a majority of the effort from their own ability in order to earn salvation. One Church might teach that Jesus literally and physically rose from the dead, while another might teach that Jesus’ resurrection is merely a myth meant to inspire us to hopeful living.

The first thing to consider when examining this diversity is whether the question is a doctrinal issue or something called an Adiaphoron (something the Bible has neither commanded nor forbidden).

On the issues of Adiaphora, there may be wise or unwise choices, but there is no Biblical command regarding how they must be handled. This type of issue would include things like church government (whether a congregation’s business affairs are decided by the pastor/priest, a group of elders, or democratically by every member) and the style of music used in the worship service. In this sort of question, there is room for diverse conclusions.

In doctrinal questions, such as whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or whether God actually forbids theft, murder, or sexual immorality, there are definite factual answers, and when disagreement arises, only one position can be correct.

The reasons behind the doctrinal diversity we see today are complex, but I can see three primary factors that account for a majority of the differences:

The first of these is what a church believes about Scripture. Some churches believe that the Bible was given by God to human authors who accurately recorded the message they were given. As a result, they believe that the Bible (in its original languages) is without errors and completely trustworthy. Others believe that the Bible is a recording of human contemplation about God, and as a result, contains both elements of divine truth and elements of myth or opinion. This difference will certainly play a large role in accounting for the differing conclusions reached on important questions.

Secondly, what a church considers valid sources of doctrinal authority will play a role in determining its answers to doctrinal questions. Many churches see the Bible as the only authority for Christian Doctrine while others see the Bible as one authority alongside of others, such as traditions, the past rulings and proclamations of church authorities, or personal revelations claimed by individuals or church leaders through such means as dreams or visions. Again, this question will have a significant impact on conclusions reached regarding other doctrinal questions.

The third of these factors is assumptions that are brought to the table when discerning what the Bible says on a given topic. For example, Americans tend to highly value personal freedom and the value of individual effort, which has the potential to distort our understanding of what the Bible is saying. On other occasions, we may approach the Bible with a conclusion we are seeking for it to affirm rather than a question we desire for it to answer. If we are not careful to clear away these sorts of assumptions while we study the Bible, we may find ourselves making the Bible say what we want to hear rather than listening for what it has to teach.

When Christians arrogantly approach the Bible seeking to affirm their existing opinions or trying to harmonize it with what is taught by the world or human authorities, they will probably come to whatever conclusion they desire, but when Christians humbly approach the Bible, acknowledging its authority, they will certainly be led to a deeper understanding of Him about whom all the Scriptures bear witness—namely Jesus, who is the Truth in human flesh.