Friday, August 12, 2005

Fantasy Time: The Old Testament Church Polity

Recently on Pontifications, some writers expressed the view that the Old Testament contained the same charism (spiritual gift) of infallibility attaching to the prophets as persons (rather than to simply their words). In the course of refuting them, here, here, and here, I found it an amusing (but instructive, I hope) fantasy to "translate" the Israelite polity directly into Christian terms. If we take commonly found typologies of Old Testament things as types of New Covenant realities what sort of picture would it paint?

Warning: this is only a kind of imaginative game. Other people can find different correspondences--typology is not a one-to-one match. Do NOT fill the comment box with anguished comments about heresy! But do please comment on what implications if any the Old Testament polity has for the New.

Entrance into the people of God would be by baptism (=circumcision) whether as an infant or a convert. Once entered, however, it would be assumed that the descendants of those baptized would be baptized by their parents, regardless of their actual beliefs, as long as they did not formally apostasize by worshiping other gods. Even then, in practice, they would rarely if ever be expelled from the community. The sacrament of the altar would be in charge of bishops following an apostolic succession (=hereditary Aaronite priesthood), with a rotating yearly Papacy (=the high priest). Any attempt by the elders or presbyters (=Levites) or other laymen to replace the bishops would be rebellion and sin (rebellion of Korah). At the same time, however, the widespread practice of allowing elders or presbyters to hold the Eucharist (=sacrifices) themselves in their own churches would be likewise sin and rebellion (=worship of Yahweh at the high places), only not as bad. With revival, however, and rediscovery of the Bible, there would be a great press to centralize the Eucharist in cathedral churches, which would be a great and epoch-making reform (Josiah’s reform). Once this great reform was carried out, only the bishops would be able to hold the Eucharist, and people would once again have to required thrice yearly pilgrimages to cathedral churches (=Jerusalem), on Easter (=Passover), Pentecost, and Christmas (=Tabernacles) to do so. There would be an enormous paid staff of singers and worshipers at these cathedral churches, so worship would be very splendid (1 Chronicles).

After the big reform, the Eucharist would cease playing a great role in most people’s ordinary spiritual life, which would be dominated by local lay elders (=Levites), by charismatic-style preachers (=prophets), and hairy, teetotalers under vows (=Nazirites). Prophets would prefer to prophesy with loud music to help them go into a trance and hear God’s word (sometimes truly, sometimes falsely); they would often do prophesying in groups together (1 Samuel 19:20-24; 1 Kings 22:10ff; 2 Kings 3:14-16). A number of isolated sub-groups would form, with their own traditions and morals, such as teetotaling (=Rechabites) and God would bless them for their faithfulness to their founders’ traditions. Others might live full-time at the episcopal seats and center their spiritual life on the Eucharist, but this would be a small minority. During the thrice yearly pilgrimages, the bishops would not exclude any baptized (=circumcised) Christian regardless of his partisan affiliation with any small sect or views. So Pentecostals (=prophets), Bible teachers (=scribes), fundamentalist separatists (=Rechabites), and high-church Catholics (=temple staff) would all rub shoulders at the communion rail, three times a year.

Authority would be very decentralized. Bishops and elders would supposed to be the main interpreters of Scripture, but it would be a well-known fact of life that they were often wrong. After many tumultuous events, influence would gravitate mostly figures (some ordained, some not) to those with proven abilities to interpret scripture and apply it in practice (=Ezra and Nehemiah). Prophets would be judged by their hearers and the secular authorities. Those who were judged to be wrong would be expected to be stoned by the local authorities (=Deut. 13), but in fact that would rarely happen. The true prophets would in fact be more in danger. The centralized Christian government (=kings), although still resented by a small group yearning for the old traditional republic, where everybody could worship as they pleased, would be powerful figures for (usually) evil and (occasionally) good, but in either case would rarely have trouble pushing the bishops and popes to do what they wanted. At one point the government completely reorganize the liturgy and temple worship (David and Solomon) and one ruler even presided over the Eucharist (David eating the showbread) with God’s blessing, although later that would be banned (king Uzziah). At another point, the central Christian government would depose one whole line of apostolic bishops and popes and set up another (=deposition of Abiezer’s line under Solomon and his replacement by Zadok), and this change would be blessed by God. On the other hand, when political revolution divided one Christian state, the new government even created non-apostolic bishops (=Jeroboam’s irregular ordinations at Bethel and Dan). Prophets denounced this, but they would last for hundreds of years. For this and other reasons, there were lots of people with bishops’ ordinations not serving at cathedral churches (=prophets of Aaronite lineage like Jeremiah, scribes of Aaronite lineage like Ezra); they often expressed their resentment of the established cathedral bishops with fierce denunciations and Bible-based literalism.

Originally posted at Here We Stand