Marinov’s Ecclesiology (pt. 2): Warning Against Vagabond Ministers

Today is the first of two posts that will consider the content of the catalyst for Marinov’s blog series, a Jeff Durbin Facebook status update. Here is the status that started it all:

Facebook is filled with “Facebook Prophets”. These are people who aren’t a part of the local church but insist on giving biblical insight and wisdom to those who are actually a part of God’s design for believers: corporate worship, communion, under the care of pastors, etc. The Bible can be a dangerous thing in the hands of those who despise authority, aren’t involved in the life of the body, and act like renegades. We are wise to avoid the “insight” of people who refuse to participate in the most fundamental part of the life of a Christian: the local church. God gave us one another for a reason. If we don’t love the church, we don’t love Jesus.

Marinov makes this extraordinary claim about the status:

The quote carries an ecclesiology that has been introduced only recently in the Reformed world, it is based on a fallacious ideology, and it has proven destructive to the Reformed churches.

I couldn’t disagree more with Marinov. I think Durbin is right on the money. There are two key assertions contained in this status update.

The first assertion is that you should avoid Bible teachers that demonstrate their despising of authority in their unwillingness to belong to a local church. I’ll refer to this as the warning against vagabond ministers.

The second assertion is that the local church is the most fundamental part of the life of a Christian and that a willful lack of participation in it demonstrates a lack of love for Christ Himself. I’ll refer to this as the centrality of the local church.

These are the two fundamental concepts that I see being put forward by Durbin in his status. Marinov claims that these assertions are relatively novel, founded on fallacious grounds, and ultimately destructive. He is absolutely wrong. Historically speaking, Durbin is making boringly normal pastoral exhortations. There is nothing novel to his ecclesiastical concerns or claims. They are completely in keeping with our Reformed predecessors and can easily be traced back to the pre-reformation periods of church history.

In this post, I want to briefly demonstrate that Durbin’s first assertion is an old warning that has been put forward since the first century (see Didache 11). Pastors have long been concerned about the corrupting effect of “wandering ministers.” This can easily be demonstrated through a quick survey of church history but is especially evident in the writings of the reformers.

With this in mind, it should be noted that Marinov’s argument is largely made through non-biblical historical claims. I don’t take issue with his approach per se. The testimony of church history is a powerful apologetic and should be wisely used. It just needs to be mentioned now because I know some will undoubtedly critique my lack of Scriptural evidence. That will come. For now, I’ll address this from a historical perspective because that is the heart of the issue.

Remember, Marinov says that the ecclesiology contained in Durbin’s status has been “destructive to the Reformed churches.” For the sake of clarity, I’ve broken the status into two key assertions. The first assertion I’m considering here is the fact that Durbin is warning about Vagabond ministers. Contrary to Marinov’s claim, we find that Durbin is very much in step with the reformers in this regard. For example, consider the following excerpt from Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors:

Reformed churches in France regularly confronted the problem of self-appointed itinerant ministers known as vagrants or vagabonds (coureurs) who traveled about, causing dissensions and usurping leadership of local churches without official authorization or a legitimate vocation. Some these vagabond ministers had been deposed from previous charges for moral failure or doctrinal error; others had never been properly ordained to the pastoral office; still others were self-styled prophets who spewed forth all manner of confusion and heresy. The problem was so widespread that the official minutes of the French national synods maintained a “list of vagabonds” (role des coureurs) to warn reformed congregations about specific preachers. p. 79

This concern wasn’t merely a French issue. It extended to Geneva. Manetsch writes:

Despite warnings like these, vagabond preachers continued to trouble the French churches throughout the sixteenth century. Beza himself recognized the danger. From the pulpit of St. Pierre he warned his congregation about “those men who run about, that is to say, who have the audacity to teach in the church both in public and secret, without having been elected and chosen by the order established by Jesus Christ [and] by the Apostles in his Church.” These vagabonds should be “repudiated and chased away. p. 80

Durbin is concerned about people “who aren’t a part of the local church” but still posture themselves as teachers. Due to technological developments, these men can wander from church to church without leaving their laptops. That wasn’t the context in the late 1500s.

In the era covered by Calvin’s Company of Pastors, these vagabonds wouldn’t submit to the rulings of various churches or presbyteries. They would simply “wander” to another church and start doing the same thing. The issue, ultimately, is that they weren’t submitted to any particular church or presbytery. They are wanderers and vagabonds. Yes, their morality in life and doctrine is the clear issue. However, the overarching issue is that they are either previously deposed or self-appointed. They operate outside the visible institution of the church.

The similarities between Durbin’s status update and Beza’s 1593 sermon are striking. These concerns aren’t just modern Baptist concerns. They are pastoral concerns that have long been in the church. They certainly are keeping with the Reformed tradition. Hence, I find Marinov’s initial claim to be completely and clearly fallacious. 

There is an old saying that I’m fond of: “If you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that yips is the one that got hit.” I think that is the case with this situation. Durbin tossed a stone and someone yipped.

Next time, I’ll consider whether or not the centrality of the local church is a theological novelty. 

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