Thursday, October 27, 2011

Priests and Prophets; Bishops and Charismatics

One of the mysteries of the Church throughout the ages, Old Covenant and New, is that God has set up at least two sources of authority among His people. In the Old Covenant these were often typified by the priest and the prophet, in the New Covenant this same reality, this same tension, is seen in the bishop and the charismatic.

The priest/bishop and prophet/charismatic are both sources of authority in the Church, but different kinds of authority. And both are necessary. The priest/bishop preserves the tradition, the law, and the teaching (that is, both the written scripture and its interpretation). In the Old Covenant, it was the priests who preserved temple worship and who preserved the Law of Moses. Were it not for the priests, temple worship as God had revealed it to Moses would have been completely lost (along with the Scripture). It was the priests who preserved the Book of the Law that had been lost during the reign of wicked King Manasseh. It was the priests who preserved the knowledge of temple worship so that the Second Temple could be rebuilt after the return of the exiles from Babylon.

The priests, and the bishop in the New Covenant, are the ones who preserve the form of worship and correct teaching of God's people. They are the ones with the God-given authority to tell God's people how God is to be worshiped and what are the correct ways to speak about God (doctrine) and to guide God's people in orderly assembly.

If you look at St. Paul's criteria for selecting a Bishop, except for the ability to teach, no other specific charisms are called for. What is called for is moral integrity, faithfulness, and good repute in the community. A bishop may have many other charismatic graces, but these are not essential to his calling as bishop. A bishop is an administrator, an overseer, a faithful preserver of the truth "once and for all" handed to the Church, he is the teacher of the Tradition, the Great Shepherd's shepherd of the flock.

Prophets and charismatics , on the other hand, have a different kind of authority. The prophet calls the people to faithfulness to Tradition that the priests have preserved. And sometimes even calls the priests themselves to faithfulness to the tradition they have preserved, but that they follow only in outward form. The prophets do not stand outside of the community of God's people. They also are subject to the Law and Tradition and worship led by the priests. But the prophet by the manifestation of the Spirit becomes a sign to the people of God. Not only the words of the prophet call the people to return to God with their hearts, but the whole life of the prophet is a "word" or sign calling the people to return.

In the New Testament, we see this tension play out in St. Paul's letters. The Corinthians, a community zealous for spiritual gifts, are warned by St. Paul that everything must be done decently and in order and that others are to judge the prophets. Yet he says explicitly, "forbid not prophesying." Charismatic people and graces have their place in the community; however, that place is determined by the overseer (bishop and elders) of the community. This becomes particularly evident in the Pastoral Epistles, where St. Paul is giving instructions to Sts. Timothy and Titus, two young newly-appointed bishops. St. Paul does not quibble about their authority to "teach, correct and rebuke in righteousness."

In the history of the Church since New Testament times, the charismatics have often found their place and their voice in the monastic communities. Bishops have authority over the teaching and worship of the Church, but the holy, charismatic monastics are the ones who through their evident holiness and the power of God manifest in their lives have historically called the Church to repentance, to a faithful return from the heart to the faith preserved and taught by the bishops. And when, as it has happened occasionally in history, the bishops are making a terrible mistake in teaching (as was, for example, the case during the iconoclast controversy) it was the holy monastics and holy lay people who humbly rebuked and resisted the erring bishops.

However, the opposite has also been true. When charismatic persons (monastic or not) have led people away from the Church and into false teaching, the bishops are the ones who stand firm, refusing to be led by charisms away from the Apostolic Tradition.

Both kinds of authority are important to God's people. God has established both. Sometimes those inclined to favour charisms may be tempted to look at the bishops and the structure of the Church as lifeless. This would be a mistake, a mistake as serious as it would be for the bishops to cut off from the Church those annoying monks, and the miracle working saints, and the fools for Christ sake who always seem to be stirring up fervour that threatens to bubble out of control.

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