Wednesday, September 02, 2009

he said it




"All Christians are members of the house or family of God, are called and constituted a holy and a royal priesthood, and may, therefore bless God for the Lord's
table, its loaf, and cup--approach it without fear and partake of it with joy as often as they please, in remembrance of the death of their Lord and Saviour."










The above statement, by Alexander Campbell, is the fourth proposition of seven regarding the Lord's Supper in Campbell's definitive exposition of it in his 1835 The Christian System. It is a point of peculiarity of the Churches of Christ that our weekly communion is typically celebrated by a "layperson," though of course we don't use that term often in our churches. In most traditions, celebration of the Eucharist, or Communion, or the Lord's Supper, is an act reserved for ordained clergy or priests. In our churches, however, Campbell's argument for the radical application of the notion of the "priesthood of all believers" is applied, even to this most holy and sacramental act of presiding at the Lord's Table.

Campbell elaborates upon this proposition: "May not, then, holy and royal priests thank God for the Lord's table, its loaf, and cup of wine? May they not, without a human priest to consecrate the way for them, approach the Lord's table and handle the loaf and cup?...Do you not thank God for the cup while the priest stands by the table; and do you not handle the loaf and cup when they come to you? And would not your thanksgiving have been as acceptable, if the human mediator had not been there, and your participating as well pleasing to God, and as consolatory to yourself, if you had been the first that had handled the loaf or the cup, as when you are the second, or the fifty-second, in order of location?"

All Christians are members of the house and family of God.

All Christians are called and constituted as a holy and royal priesthood.

All Christians may, therefore bless God for the Lord's table, its loaf, and cup.

All Christians.

All.

He said it.

10 comments:

lisa b said...

It makes me want to paraphrase D'Esta Love's question When you say "anyone," do you really mean anyone?

When he said all did he really mean all?

JTB said...

Lisa, that's a great question.

At the end of the commentary on the Lord's Supper is a description of what Campbell seemed to regard as the ideal model for a simple liturgy--and while his propositional language is all gender-neutral categories, the example of presiding leadership in all cases in the model liturgy is male--the masculine pronoun abounds there. So what I noticed in reading through that material again, is that there's a move from gender-inclusive or at least gender-neutral language in the theological proposition, to gender-specific male language in the practical application.

So did he mean all? I think if he were here, and we could press him on it, that he would probably have to say that yes of course women belong to the category of "all Christians." Otherwise he'd have to say women aren't Christians. And once you admit that women are part of that category, the theological argument regarding the ability to preside applies.

So why the exclusive masculine presiding in the example? It could be coincidence. Or it could be that, when it came to the matter of liturgical practice, other considerations were admitted which threw a monkey wrench into the theological argument of proposition 4.

A bit like Paul, perhaps.

Brian said...

I am so dense. I didn't even see the point you were driving at until I saw the "women's leadership" label at the bottom of your post.

I wonder if that's because I'm a self-centered male, or because I'm an Episcopalian and was preoccupied with the lay-vs-clergy bit. :)

Sadly, I think most CofC people might just look at you and say, "Alexander Who?"

Keith Brenton said...

Alexander who?

Keith Brenton said...

Just kidding.

He was the soup magnate, wasn't he?

Brian's right. Most folks in the churches of Christ have only vague memories of having heard of Alexander Campbell, or Barton W. Stone, or Moses Lard, or fill-in-the-blank.

And, whether he would agree with the full impact of his own words, there is rude truth in them.

One of the best meditations at the table that I've ever heard was led by my wife in the home of some friends. Andrea Allen, associate pastor of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church here in Little Rock often shares wonderful thoughts at the table, usually right in the flow of her message.

We fellows usually tend to be theological and ecclesiological and sometimes - gag! - legalistic ("We do this because we're commanded to!") at communion. We miss the personal, christological, christocentric fellowship of the table. In my meager experience, women don't forget this when they lead our thoughts there.

Brian said...

I wish I wasn't right about that, though.

I read Alexander Campbell when I was a kid, but I was a pretty nerdy kid. :)

And I should have said earlier, despite my density, this is a great post.

JTB said...

Yes, I think y'all are right about the "Alexander-who" bit. I hadn't heard anything much about Campbell, Stone or CofC history until college, when I got a thumbnail sketch of CofC history from Neal Pryor.

So--if this eventually does become something I write up in a more serious academicky way--a necessary extra step to the argument may be to establish that Campbell's eucharistic theology is his biblical interpretation of the command/example/necessary inference sort. Then it's not an argument relying on Campbell as an extra-biblical authority (clearly a "denominational" move, heh) but an argument using Campbell's biblical theology of Lord's Supper as the starting point.

I suppose, though, that we could characterize this as "gotcha" theologizing. ;)

JTB said...

P.S. Brian, I actually tried to write it so that it might not be immediately obvious what I was driving at, because, of course, Campbell's concern is not gender but the clergy-laity distinction. So I am quite pleased that it kindof worked. Of course, it's probably more due to the fact that you operate in a context where the question of women's ordination has been settled for quite some time, and you don't have to be constantly preoccupied with this matter. (For which I say, praise God.)

It also occurs to me that in not following through with the gender implications of radical priesthood of all believers, that perhaps Campbell is implicitly capitulating to the Orthodox/Catholic logic that 1) presiders at the table ("priests") represent Christ and 2) only men can represent Christ. (This is still the major theological objection to the ordination of women in these traditions.) If so--then Campbell's inability to consistently follow through in practice his stated theological principle of lay-presiding is an indication of a larger inconsistency within his theology of (non)ordination...

Brian said...

JTB, it's funny to me that you should mention the command/example/necessary inference (C/E/NI) framework. I hadn't thought about that in a long while, but oddly enough it came to mind the other day while I was obsessing over whether or not to yap about "health care reform." One of the arguments against a federal-government-run health insurance scheme is that there is no authorization for such a thing in the US Constitution.

Back when I used to argue about church matters from within the Church of Christ, I always said that approaching every question of the "may the church do X?" variety with the C/E/NI framework was a category error. It treats the New Testament as if it were a constitution - a spelling-out of all the contours and boundaries of an institution. And of course, the NT is nothing like that. It is a collection of historical storytelling and personal letters. It is not a legal document.

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free", and the church has supposedly been given the Spirit to guide it in truth. So, given a "may the church do X?" question, I've always thought the default answer should be, "Yes, the church may do X, if it is good for building up the body and spreading the good news of God's love for us in Christ." Unless, of course, the church was specifically commanded not to do X. But even here, given the genres of the NT, the question remains if any given statement in the NT is actually a command for all time, or merely instructions for a particular community in their own particular circumstances.

The C/E/NI framework, of course, turns this on its head. "No, the church may not do X, unless Jesus or an Apostle commanded X, or there is an approved example of a NT church doing X, or we can infer that a NT church must necessarily have done X."

But the NT is not a legal document setting out the rules and boundaries of an institution. On the one hand, I applaud this good argument for full participation by women in the worship of the church along "necessary inference" lines. On the other hand, I wish the CofC would move away from treating the NT like a constitution.

The US Constitution, however, obviously IS a constitution, and its authors were quite consciously setting out the rules and boundaries for the Federal government. I wish more people would apply a C/E/NI type of framework when interpreting it. In fact, I'd even argue that the Constitution itself fairly explicitly says we should interpret it that way in the Tenth Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

If the Constitution doesn't say the Federal government may do X, then the Federal government may not do X. The government gets away with doing a lot of things not spelled out in the constitution by arguing that the power to do them can be inferred from the Commerce Clause. I disagree.

Then again, arguing about what inferences are necessary occurs a lot in the church, too. :)

Sorry about the super-long comment.

JTB said...

Yeah, I'm not thrilled about the C/E/NI hermeneutic myself, and wouldn't want to be implicitly for it. But as it's so often the means by which the biblical text is read in ways that silence women, it's nice to see a reversal, and perhaps, may be rhetorically useful--in that, as I see it, the "women's role issue" is stalemated precisely on the larger hermeneutical question, and, in the CofC you can't talk theological anthropology without dispensing of the hermeneutics first--so things are going nowhere.

I also take your point regarding the differing nature of the documents in question, Bible and Constitution. I read you as saying that this warrants two different modes of interpretation. I wouldn't disagree, but I think I might be willing to pack a lot more into the epistemological notion of interpretation of legal documents.

I keep trying to say more but I end up just recapping a past comment on a previous post, so I will stop.