Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Losing our view of "office"

An acquaintance recently pointed out that she has noticed the tendency for the news anchors to refer to our President as “President Obama.” This wouldn’t be that peculiar, except, as she noted, they preferred to call President Bush simply, “Mr. Bush”-- though they were thick with “President Clinton” before then. She noted this as possible evidence of media bias, but asks, is she being paranoid?

She isn’t paranoid; neither is this phenomenon something unique to the media, nor to "liberals" in general. What she has noticed is simply the fruit of the degrading of the concept of "office" in American culture: we (the people of the United States, not necessarily “we” as individuals-- though it certainly can and does include some of us as individuals) no longer have respect for the Office of the Presidency; now we only regard the man who occupies that office.

This is a problem that, i believe, can be traced back to two primary (and probably surprising to many) sources: Charles Finney (and the Second Great Awakening), and Rush Limbaugh (and like-minded talk show hosts).

Finney's teaching on the church-- and particularly the pastor-- led to a predominant mindset in Christianity that the pastor is no one special, that he is no different from anyone else, and that he isn't due any particular regard or respect simply because of his role as pastor. This is only a small fraction of the problems that Finney introduced into the evangelical church, but it is a substantial one.

In the 80s and 90s, a number of Finney-esque pastors (self-appointed, often with no theological education or training, following Finny's very teaching about what a pastor is and should be) rose to prominence nationally, largely leading revival-style meetings that were much in the way of charismatic/pentecostal churches (though they are in no way a fair representation of charismatic/pentecostal faith and practice, any more than they are representative of pastors in general). The multitude of scandals involving these men led to the broad-spread acceptance of Finney's view of the pastorate. No longer could we trust someone implicitly, because of the office they held; not even pastors were properly due a certain amount of trust or respect.

Limbaugh, and others like him, indirectly took this concept to ALL offices in the 90s. To hear Rush Limbaugh speak of President Clinton was to hear contempt. Period. There was no restraint in his discussion of the man or his politics, simply because of the fact that he held the office of President of the United States of America. I remember Limbaugh railing against President Clinton after the truth of the Lewinsky stuff came out, saying that the media ought to always refer to him thenceforth as, “known liar Bill Clinton.” Whatever you believe about the man Bill Clinton, surely the fact that he then occupied the
office of the President should have reigned in the vitriolic language from Rush. I quit listening to him with any regularity back then, but from all I know and have heard, he is still a source for the same sort of contempt.

Now, we are reaping what we have sown. Ironically, so much of this originated under banners that are historically conservative-- but it comes back around to bite us in the end. Almost no one values offices any longer-- even within the church, and even though the concept of “office” is literally ALL OVER Scripture. While there are still latent acknowledgements of it-- for example, my recent reference to how frequently people recognize my clerical collar as an indication that I am someone they can turn to for spiritual counsel-- the active, intentional, and thoughtful acknowledgement of an office is diminishing.

This is a shame, at very least because it means that a new pastor has to work from scratch to begin his ministry to his flock. More than that, however: if and when it truly diminishes completely, many of our social structures that we now take for granted (such as our system of elections in a democratic republic, order within our churches, even basic leadership among groups like civic service groups) will begin to fall apart due to implicit lack of trust.

But worst of all: our understanding of the gospel itself will be threatened. How can we grasp what Christ did for us as Prophet, Priest, and King, if we do not understand the very concept of
office itself?

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