As I said in my introduction to this series, it is hard to find anyone today who actually tries to make a theological argument for the priority of the institutional over the charismatic in the Church.
Historically, the obvious example of prioritizing the institutional over the chairsmatic is modern Catholicism, before Vatican II. The Roman Catholic Church was conceived as a perfect society, meaning that the Church was a complete social system, and its various elements were instituted by God, so that it would lack nothing in its historical existence until the return of Christ. The priesthood, all the sacraments, the hierarchy, even monasticism and the religious life, were said to be derived directly from Jesus Christ himself. These institutions were therefore invested with divine authority, such that, any “charismatic” who arose outside the established order would be seen as problematic. As Johann Adam Möhler summarized this view, “God created the hiearchy and in this way provided amply for everything that was required until the end of time.”
Of course the problem with this perspective was that, for one, it was not historically accurate. It embraces what Avery Dulles describes as a “regressive method” of theology, whereby the latest teachings of the Church are adopted “as if they have been present from the beginning” (Models of the Church, 32), since any change would be seen as an “innovation,” and would undermine the view that all had been provided for in the Church’s institutions (including the magisterium). Clearly, the Church’s institutions have developed over time, and many innovations have been made along the way. Among these innovations, we must include some which I would call “charismatic movements”: monasticism of various kinds, the mendicant orders, apostolic societies, and so on. These are among Catholicism’s most treasured institutions, but in the modern “perfect society” scheme of ecclesiology, it would have been difficult to explain their origins, apart from rooting them somehow in the divine institution of Jesus Christ.
These ideas are pretty far removed from the life of the Church today, even for Roman Catholics. However, the “institutional over charismatic” mindset is by no means absent. Institutionalism is a pervasive social phenomenon, and all of our churches (even those which are highly charismatic) have to wrestle with the challenges it brings. Therefore, the natural tendency in any church tradition is to be sceptical of leaders and movements who arise from oustide the established order. We could say that, though it is not argued for theologically, “institutional over charismatic” is the default operating perspective of most churches.
Clericalism is perhaps the best example. Even in evangelical churches, which profess a strong doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” there is a tendency to view the pastors as “professional Christians,” and to exclude lay people from fulfilling many roles which they ought to be able to fulfill. Those who have the gifts (charisms), should be freed to exercise them, but they are sometimes excluded simply by virtue of the fact that they are not clergy.
I grew up in a denomination (The Salvation Army) where the clergy are largely responsible for the business of the church. It strikes me as rather odd that we should expect pastors to be business-savvy, when there are likely members of their congregation who are business men and women themselves.
I’ve noticed that a lot of other evangelical traditions tend to have a “pastoral prayer” at every service. This is where the pastor stands up and leads the congregation in a long prayer prayer. I suppose most people see this as harmless, but I think it promotes a clericalist mindset. Why would we want the pastor to be the only who publicly prays during worship? It sends the message, again, that pastors are the “professional Christians.” It is interesting that in the older traditions (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.), which most evangelicals assume are more “clericalized,” the prayers are not led by the pastor, but by lay intercessors. In the SA, the officer often leads this prayer, but sometimes it is a layperson.
The problem is that we can’t go too far in the other direction. We need institutions, including ordained ministry (in my opinion). We need stable structures that endure over time, and provide a means for passing on the faith from one generation to the next in a way that retains the historic core of gospel teaching. We cannot escape this need. We must embrace the institutions of the Church, without absolutizing them, and thereby excluding any new wisdom that the Spirit might bring from unexpected places. That means, in part, that the institutional authorities of the Church must be open to discerning and coordinating the charisms that arise among the people.
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