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Monday, April 18, 2016

The Author of Confusion

Paul Mizzi is an evangelical pastor on the largely-Catholic island of Malta. His essays on various aspects of the Christian faith may be found on the website Truth for Today.

Malta got a visit from the apostle Paul in the first century that included a number of miracles of healing (and undoubtedly the preaching of the gospel to go with them). But despite the fact that Malta has had apostolic testimony for two thousand years, the structure and function of their evangelical churches today seems to have more in common with that of North American denominational Protestantism than with that of the church of the New Testament.

In Paul Mizzi’s church the distinction between clergy and laity is very well defined.

Reserved to the Pastor

For members of the so-called laity in Mizzi’s church, their participation in the preaching of the word of God is a non-starter. Mizzi tells us:
“The preaching of the Word is to be reserved to the pastor, who is set apart for this very purpose, studying it and making it his aim to present it without adulteration to God’s people.”
The “setting apart” of the pastor with respect to the preaching of the Word is a venerable tradition among certain groups of Christians, but it lacks scriptural authority. Such is often the way with assumptions.

Not Reserved to the Pastor

And yet where public prayer is concerned, Mizzi makes this concession:
“Prayer is usually led by the pastor, but room should be given for men in the congregation to lead in prayer too. I think it is too restrictive to reserve prayer for the pastor alone. Mature men may, after standing up, lead in prayer too.”
In the one case (preaching) we are given restrictions, in the other (public prayer) we apparently have some degree of liberty. But in neither instance do we get anything more authoritative than “I think”. And this absence of authority leads to inconsistency.

Some spiritual activities and uses of gift are okay for participants other than the pastor, but not others.

Getting Up Front

For instance, Mizzi dislikes solos and people getting “up front”:
“In attempting to have regular times for solos or giving an opportunity for people to get ‘up front’ for whatever reason backfires on the very idea of community worship, for then the soloist becomes ‘an actor’ and the congregation ‘an audience.’ ”
And yet the very actor/audience dynamic Mizzi rejects with respect to singing is precisely the dynamic that occurs whenever a pastor stands up to preach the Word. We have our actor, we have our audience.

What’s the difference exactly?

Non-Passive Passivity

It does not help that in order to argue that his vision of church order has some remote association with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, however tenuous, Mizzi is compelled to insist that sitting and listening is not actually a passive activity:
“In hearing the Word read and preached, [the congregation] are active enough; you need concentration and an attentive mind to listen, and in listening you would be listening to the Word of God. How we need that!”
If the fact that we concentrate and give our full attention to a sermon makes listening to it non-passive, how is it that listening to a solo is a passive activity and therefore to be disparaged?

It would be hard to overlook the fact that Paul Mizzi’s interpretation of New Testament church order is riddled with inconsistencies and arbitrary choices. This is what he thinks is reasonable, and he asserts it forcefully, but without in any way substantiating his preferences from scripture.

All Are to Participate

By way of contrast, Irene Bonney Faulkes is the author of 2010’s The Holy Spirit Came. She says this about participation in worship:
“All are to participate audibly at some time in the service, through prayer and prophecy … It includes the manifestation of the nine gifts of the Spirit in the meetings and the participation of all, male and female, in the exercise of different gifts at various times. There should be no distinction between the brothers and the sisters. All participate and all learn.”
To some, Faulkes may sound a little less uptight and a little more in keeping with the times than Mizzi, but she is no less dogmatic about what she thinks is proper order in the New Testament church. The only problem? Though just as Protestant and just as evangelical, she has come to completely different conclusions from Mizzi about church order and congregational participation by reading the very same passages he has.

The Author of Confusion

At one end of the spectrum, only the “pastor” may participate audibly in preaching the Word, while mature men may pray and all may participate in singing together, so long as no soloist is singled out for attention. At the other end, not only are both men and women free to participate if they wish, but “all are to participate audibly at some time in the service”. At one end participation is restricted to some, at the other end the participation of all is mandated.

How can this be? What are the limits on audible participation in the local church? Are there any limits at all? Logic tells us two contradictory interpretations cannot both be correct. Perhaps neither is.

Neither of our fearless church leaders has bothered to pay any more than the most cursory attention to what the words of scripture actually say. Both are very good at summing up the “teaching of the Word” in their own language for the plebes. Neither has made any serious attempt to demonstrate an understanding of the various New Testament instructions of the apostle Paul on church order that is (i) internally consistent, and (ii) comprehensive, in that it deals with everything Paul says in the various contexts in which his instructions are found.

God is not the author of confusion, yet some Christians seem very confused indeed. One is left wondering whether the source of the confusion is the text itself ... or if maybe, just maybe, it might be the unquestioned and false assumptions we bring to it.

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