Jamie Forsythe always felt called to be a priest, according to a CBS News 5 February report. That calling persisted even after pleading guilty in 1989 to attempting to sexually abuse a 15-year-old Kansas boy, serving a prison sentence, and being laicized by the Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City. Forsythe was released from prison after less than four months of his sentence, and, after some professional twists and turns, landed at Holy Angels, a “parish” in Wilton Manors, Florida, that is part of “The National Catholic Church of North America.”
Holy Angels is unaffiliated with the real Catholic Church, but celebrates seven sacraments “and the Sacred Traditions” (whatever that means) and stresses a message of inclusion. The “parish” ordains women, married people, and those who identify as LGBTQ. It refuses Holy Communion to no one who seeks it. Someone should have explained to Forsythe, and the Holy Angels community, that God isn’t a big fan of attempts to create parallel, unauthorized ecclesial structures. In fact, according to Holy Scripture, He hates it.
Divine disapproval of independent, parallel ecclesial church-craft is found across the Bible, and pretty early. It didn’t take too long after YHWH rescued the Israelites out of Egypt for an attempt to be made against Moses’s divinely-instituted leadership. We read in Numbers 12:1-2:
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman; and they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it.
Not only did the Lord hear it, He was also angry (Numbers 12:5). So angry that He made Miriam “leprous, as white as snow” (there’s an added irony that Miriam was made so white, given that she and Aaron were attacking Moses because he had married a dark-skinned woman). Miriam, after Moses pleaded with God, was subsequently healed. The message, however, is pretty straightforward: don’t try to usurp the authority of those in divinely-constituted positions.
Yet the Israelites didn’t learn their lesson. King Saul performed a sacrifice without God’s sanction, using captured animals he was supposed to have killed. Again, following the Lord’s decision to split the people of God into northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms, northern king Jeroboam came up with a novel idea. We read in 2 Kings 12 and 13:
Jeroboam thought to himself: “The kingdom will return to David’s house. If now this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, the hearts of this people will return to their master, Rehoboam, king of Judah, and they will kill me.”
And Jeroboam certainly didn’t want people worshiping at the place and under the ministerial priesthood ordained by God! So he did the only sane, Machiavellian thing. He created two calves, declared they represented God, and placed them in two northern cities for the Israelites to worship. Not only that but he created a competing liturgical calendar, and “stationed in Bethel priests of the high places he had built.” We are further told: “Whoever desired it was consecrated and became a priest of the high places.” God didn’t like that so much either. The author of 2 Kings tells us: “This was a sin on the part of the house of Jeroboam for which it was to be cut off and destroyed from the earth.”
Perhaps those creating parallel ecclesial structures—be they LGBTQ-friendly former Catholics, Sedevacantists, or even Protestants—will cite Jesus as an example of someone who upended powers which God had ordained. Didn’t He wrest religious authority from the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees and create something brand new? Not so fast.
First off, Jesus Himself tells people that however self-righteous and mistaken the Jewish religious leadership might have been, this didn’t fundamentally erase their authority. We read in Matthew 23:1-3:
Then said Jesus to the crowds and to His disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’s seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.
In other words, yes, those of the Jewish religious leadership are hypocrites. But because they occupy a divinely-approbated position (the “Moses seat”), they cannot simply be overthrown.
How, then, do we understand Jesus’s own authority and creation of a new priesthood? First, Jesus was Himself God, and had authority to refashion and fulfill the priesthood of God as He saw fit. Secondly, as the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus was a legitimate priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5-7), a fulfillment of Psalm 110:4: “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” So unless one dares to claim to have the same authority as Christ, he or she should think twice before setting up his or her own church and priesthood.
This is why two of the earliest extra-biblical Christian records we have—St. Clement and St. Ignatius of Antioch—are so insistent regarding divinely-instituted ecclesial authority. St. Clement tells the wayward Corinthian church that in overthrowing their bishops—what he calls “sedition”—they have disgracefully sinned and provoked God. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in turn, uses unequivocally strong language in his descriptions of the authority of the bishop. In his Letter to the Trallians, we read: “You submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ… It is necessary, therefore—and such is your practice—that you do nothing without the bishop…. Without these [the bishop and priests], it cannot be called a Church.”
According to a group calling itself the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America, there are approximately 250 independent “catholic” churches throughout the country. And there are plenty of other examples: Christopher Lee Coleman presents himself as a priest on social media even though he was removed from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn in 2011 after leaders there determined there was a credible accusation he sexually abused a minor. He now works at the Hermitage of Peace, a Connecticut religious center that has no official relationship to the Catholic Church. Then, of course, there are all the Catholics who are calling for a “dismantling” of the priesthood, such as authors James Carroll, Joe Holland, and Garry Wills.
There are plenty of reasons to be upset with certain priests and bishops: sex abuse scandals, corruption scandals, and the capitulation to the sins of modern culture. One should note that the Bible never says it’s wrong to criticize our religious leadership, to demand they follow God’s law, or to expect accountability for wrongdoing. Sometimes such actions aren’t just permitted, but required. But someone should remind those eager to create their own ecclesial organizations about Numbers 12 or 2 Kings. God, we know, isn’t too hot on the idea.
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