Samuel Miller: Discipline on the Frontier

D. G. Hart and John R. Muether

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 6, no. 2 (April 1997)

“No biblical gobbledygook. No prayerly rote. No fire, no brimstone. No pipe organs. No dreary eighteenth century hymns. No forced solemnity. No Sunday finery. No collection plates.” This is a partial description of the “Next Church,” a distinctly American form of Protestant worship that is flourishing today, according to Charles Trueheart in the August 1996 issue of Atlantic Monthly. But as Trueheart notes, the revolutions in worship “style” are a function of greater changes wrought by these megachurches. The focus in these churches is shifting from the Sunday morning corporate worship to a full-service, seven-day-a-week church, with a dizzying array of services, ministries, and fellowship opportunities, all of which are succeeding in drawing thousands to their doors.

Perhaps more than anything else, the Next Church movement is a testimony to the triumph of the lay revolution in American Protestantism. Sunday morning sermons have been replaced by messages that are augmented by testimonies, special music, dance, and dramatic skits, all performed by specially gifted laypeople. Lay leaders conduct customized ministries throughout the week. Adopting industrialized patterns of bureaucratic and organizational efficiency, churches hire multiple ministerial staff that engage in high levels of specialization. So the professional staff might include a Small Group Leader or a Minister of Music or a Director of Recreational Ministries whose tasks are to assist the members of the church in identifying their gifts and then to equip and manage them for ministry. As one church growth leader put it, the twenty-first century pastor must graduate from a shepherd to a rancher. That is, the pastor no longer provides care, but he manages the lay care-givers. And so a megachurch leader might more readily be quoting management gurus like Peter Drucker than John Calvin.

All of this, advocates argue, is in service of the church’s minister to the new frontier: graying and disillusioned baby boomers or cynical Generation Xers who are turned off by traditional ways of doing church. It is important, however, for Presbyterian officers to understand that the challenges presented by today’s megachurches are not that new. There were antecedents in the previous century, as Presbyterians – along with other Protestants – faced the challenge of ministry in the expanding American frontier.

Samuel Miller (1769-1850) served as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at Princeton Theological Seminary for over forty years. Miller’s writings on the nature and purpose of Presbyterian church office reflected careful thinking on the challenges that confronted Presbyterian faith and order in the nineteenth century. As a pastor in New York city before accepting a call to Princeton, Samuel Miller witnessed the abuse of clerical power in episcopalian polity, and warned against the temptation toward a “Presbyterian papacy” that elevated the minister above ruling elders. Ruling elders were an important check on the tyranny of one-man rule in churches.

During his Princeton years, Miller’s attention focused on the rise of the laity. Untrained ministers were flourishing in anti-intellectual frontier towns, both in church pulpits and in moral-crusading voluntary societies. By stepping “beyond the limits” of general office and “encroach[ing] upon the appropriate functions of ecclesiastical office, “the laity, Miller wrote, became “a source of mischief, and not of benefit.” Ecclesiastical authority was necessary for discipline, without which there could be no true church. It was not possible for the pastor alone to exercise such discipline nor was it wise to entrust the task to the care of the laity. Effective discipline was a spiritual function of shepherding that must be carried out only through a plurality of elders who alone were authorized to perform it.

Miller’s book, The Ruling Elder, was a sustained effort to uphold the uniqueness both of the Minister’s exercise of the ministry of Word and Sacrament and Ruling Elders’ ministry of rule and discipline. Thus, for example, he eschewed the term, “lay-elder,” and insisted that if the clergy-laity distinction had any merit, elders belonged with the former. Miller refused to impale himself on the false dilemma that characterized much of the nineteenth century debate on office: was the elder a clergyman or a layman? To flatten the biblical teaching into merely two categories was to invite either clerical tyranny or anarchical rule of the masses.

Miller was also concerned about the proper deportment of Presbyterian ministers. In his Letters on Clerical Manners and Habits, he spoke on the need to maintain “the delicacy of polished manners.” Anticipating the charge of elitism, Miller claimed not to advocate a “starched, artificial, formal manners” for ostentatious occasions like ball-room dances, but rather “those manners which become the Christian gentleman; which naturally flow from the meekness, gentleness, purity, and benevolence of our holy religion; and which both the precepts and examples of the Bible equally recommend.”

In upholding the dignity of both the offices of elder and minister, Miller did not offer a formula for Presbyterian success along the expanding American frontier. Frontier Presbyterians who were eager to establish new churches generally ignored Miller’s attention to discipline. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone left the Presbyterian church to form what would eventually become the populist Disciples of Christ, refusing to submit to Presbyterian orthodoxy and authority. In Kentucky, the Cumberland Presbytery defected in 1910 to form a frontier-friendly denomination. And ex-Presbyterian Charles Finney’s opinion of Presbyterian polity is well-known. The new denominations that employed Finney’s new measures, along with the Baptists and the Methodists, all adjusted quickly to the temper of the times. Writes Nathan Hatch, “if America was becoming a marketplace of equally competing individuals with interests to promote, it is not difficult to see the insurgence of religious movements that claimed a place at the center of culture by virtue of their popular following.”

J. Frederick Holper has pointed out that construals of ordination are closely related to denominational identity: the ways in which denominations understand their offices shape the way they define their mission. Just as the nineteenth century frontier placed pressure on churches to adapt entrepreneurial models of ministry, so in the late 20th century, the notion of “lay ministry” is normative, where everthing is a ministry, from nursery duty to softball teams. But where everyone is a minister, no one is a minister. And so for Presbyterians, the democratic temptation to level all sense of office can come only at the expense of the order and discipline of their tradition.

Within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church there is divergence of viewpoint on whether the Bible prescribes two or three offices in the church. What both views share, however much they differ on the office of the elder, is opposition to the ascendancy of the “one office” view in American Protestantism: an anti-clericalism that insists that every member of the church is a minister.

In Samuel Miller’s day, Presbyterians lost the frontier to more democratically styled denominations. Should we expect another outcome in our day? Single-office and post-denominational Next Churches are likely to gain in popularity, but Presbyterians will adopt their ways only to the demise of Presbyterian faith and practice, especially in the discipline provided by the Presbyterian commitment to special office.

The OPC is often given to regretting its small size, and ministers and elders may be tempted to envy the buildings, budgets, and cafeteria choices of programs offered by neighboring Next Churches. But the size of a church reveals more than its evangelistic effectiveness, and Orthodox Presbyterians need to understand what Samuel Miller knew: accomodating Christianity to the language and style of American individualism will always prove more popular than faithful stewardship of our calling as ministers and elders in Christ’s church.

D. G. Hart and John Muether are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Dr. Hart was recently elected as an elder in the Calvary OPC, Glenside, PA. Mr. Muether is an elder of the Lake Sherwood OPC in Orlando, FL.