Pietism: Interdenominational, Nondenominational, or Anti-denominational? (Jim Rohrer)

Today I’m pleased to present the first guest post in the thirteen-month history of this blog, by Jim Rohrer (PhD, U. Michigan), a professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. A longtime reader and commenter here at The Pietist Schoolman, Jim holds a master’s in sacred theology and leads senior worship services six times a month. In this post, he considers lay preaching as an example of Pietism sometimes manifesting itself as a nondenominational or even antidenominational impulse. I certainly take it as a useful reply to my “anti-anti-denominationalism” post some time back, and would encourage response to his closing questions and to the entire post in the Comments section. Thanks, Jim!

Pietists can be found in several denominations, depending on your definition of a pietist. The pietistic movement clearly cuts across denominational lines, suggesting that it can be described as interdenominational. However, another possibility should be considered: perhaps at least some forms of pietism are nondenominational or even anti-denominational, meaning they rebel against hierarchical authority.  Lay preaching is a specific example of that rebellion.

Hans Nielsen Hauge
Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824) – Wikimedia

The energy found in pietism expresses itself in lay preaching, but even pietistic churches eventually back away from lay preaching. Consider the case of Hans Hauge, who was arrested many times for lay preaching in Norway. Hauge was a pietistic Lutheran lay preacher who ran afoul of the church-state authority for preaching without authorization (i.e., without ordination). Haugeans came to America and started their own synod. Their seminary was in Red Wing, Minnesota. Reshuffling of synods over time eventually resulted in the absorption of what used to be the Hauge Synod into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Today, ELCA churches are not supposed to let lay people preach from their pulpits. Instead their guest speakers should be ordained pastors. This is consistent with Catholic vocational rules, and I am guessing it applies in WELS and LCMS churches. I am not sure about the United Methodist Church or the Moravian Church.  The Presbyterian Church and Episcopal Church have a tradition of lay ‘readers’ who are trained and empowered to speak from the pulpit, but in practice I suspect actual preaching by Readers is rare, either from the pulpit in or outside of churches in community settings. Some training is available for lay preachers in mainline churches such as PCUSA, but I am not aware of any evidence that would indicate that lay preachers are well-accepted.

John Wesley was influenced by Moravian pietists and Methodism began with a reliance on lay preachers. The Anglican church was not evangelical, so Wesley began promoting bible study and worship outside of the churches. He was reported to be dismayed when lay preaching started. He accepted it but then began ordaining pastors. Today in the United States pastors of small rural churches may be lay preachers (licensed rather than ordained).

Some denominations have resisted the impulse to legislate the lay preacher into oblivion. The Wesleyan Church, for example, provides training to lay people so that they can preach outside of churches.  The Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) seems to have a similar process for developing and empowering lay people without creating unnecessary obstacles to their vocations. Baptist churches and the Churches of Christ have a tradition of bringing lay people into the ministry.  However, an honest assessment of the ministry field leads to the conclusion that the Master of Divinity is the standard credential for evangelical pastors of all varieties. The M.Div. degree assures that all of its holders have the same minimum knowledge level about the Bible and orthodox doctrine.

Unfortunately, the M.Div. also reflects ‘degree inflation’ and it limits access to the ministry. Understanding the gospel well enough to preach does not require a graduate degree. The fiction that the average working pastor with an M.Div. knows Greek well enough to preach from original sources is ridiculous.

Economists, known for their cynicism, would argue that the M.Div. serves to limit the supply of qualified pastors so that they can then command higher salaries. Pastors might object that the plan isn’t working very well for them. On the other hand, pastors who earn any salary at all should not complain too loudly or someone might question why volunteer preachers might not do the job just as well.

Carl Olof Rosenius
The Swedish lay preacher and editor Carl Olof Rosenius (1816-1868), leader of the Pietist revival to which the Evangelical Covenant Church and Evangelical Free Church (among other denominations) trace their origins

The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) emerged from Swedish pietists who ran afoul of the state church before immigrating to North America. An early goal of the ECC was strengthening ministerial training. Presumably this was an effort to control those pesky lay preachers.

Perhaps I am mistaken, but I suspect pastors of ECC churches would not balk at inviting a guest speaker who is a lay preacher if he has a good reputation. However, church vocations by the laity are supposed to follow some rules in the ECC. An elder who loves the Word and has years of bible study under his belt is supposed to get denominational endorsement and participate in continuing education.

This seems reasonable until we remember that Jesus’ authority to preach was questioned by the synagogue and even his own brothers. When Jesus first sent out the disciples to preach, they had only the authority he gave them directly. They were not ordained. The “keys” came later.

When James the brother of Jesus was the leader of the Jerusalem church, he probably questioned Paul’s authority to plant churches and preach. The Judaizers from Jerusalem who undermined Paul claimed to be representing the Jerusalem church—maybe they were telling the truth. If so, this would be another example of church hierarchy stifling evangelism.

Casting Pietism and confessionalism as opposing forces obscures the real conflict: the divide between freedom and structure. The Protestant Reformation was a rebellion against the central authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps the ranks of the Anabaptists were partly filled because believers could not see the point of replacing one group of bureaucrats with another group of bureaucrats.

An ‘evangelical dialetic’ is at work in the history of the church. Evangelists transmit the Spirit to the hungry sheep. Structures emerge to coordinate across local churches. Procedures and rules become steadily more limiting. Finally, the pietists of the day find they must rebel against the hierarchical authority in order to carry out the Great Commission.

Denominations tend toward structure, rules, and consequently formal creeds (i.e., confessionalism), but the confession is not the problem. Ultimately, the specific procedural requirements for sacraments, services and administration are a form of “works.” They impose quality standards and protect the flocks from whackos but they also should not be regarded as “essential.”  Note that the original Lutheran pietists did not object to orthodox doctrine. One could adhere to the Augsburg Confession without bowing to the hierarchy of a denomination or even requirements for ordination.

The ruminations presented above lead to three questions:

1. Should Lutheran pietists gravitate toward ‘free” Lutheranism? By this I mean independent Lutheran congregations that adhere to the Augsburg Confession but reject hierarchical authority.  Theoretically, a free Lutheran congregation might not be part of the AFLC.

2. Do free Lutherans, free Methodists, and Evangelical Free Churches have more in common with each other than with any hierarchical denominations?  (Note: EFC’s no longer require adherence to premillenialism.)

(Ed. – It’s certainly not central to his argument, but I’d be curious to hear from any E-Free readers on this parenthetical comment from Jim. There was a proposal to drop premillennialist language when the revised EFCA Statement of Faith came up for a vote at the 2008 national conference. However, according to a report in Christianity Today, leaders retreated when they concluded that weren’t enough delegates in favor of such a change. So Article 9 of the current EFCA Statement of Faith affirms belief “in the personal, bodily and premillennial return of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But is this functionally treated as a non-essential point, with individual congregations and preachers free to disagree?)

3. Should pietistic lay preachers work outside of denominationally-affiliated churches instead of struggling against the limiting structures found within those churches?


One thought on “Pietism: Interdenominational, Nondenominational, or Anti-denominational? (Jim Rohrer)

  1. There is only one church…… so God doesn’t recognize any denominations or any other man-made organization with man-made rosters of members and man-made names. There is only one church, and God knows who is in that church…………yes some attend denominations. But they are walking in ignorance, following a pastor that is in foundational error. A local assembly of Christians anwhere will be able to meet together in fellowship, use their individual gifts, praise God, serve God and others, be a light to a dying world, and look to the Bible as to how they should conduct themselves.

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