You might be surprised to learn that at the moment Pope Benedict XVI resigned as pope earlier this year, his official pronouncements were no longer considered “infallible”—without error—as Catholic dogma teaches.
A late-night comedian used the occasion to joke about it: “One minute the pope is infallible. The next, he’s not.” Ha!
What’s going on?
The explanation lies in the high value the Roman Catholic Church places on church office, which ultimately trumps personal qualifications. If the church says its highest office can speak infallibly, it can—regardless of the person who’s holding the office. What the pope declares ex cathedra is considered absolute truth—for example, the dogma of the Assumption of Mary.
No wonder morality and competence have been relentless problems for Roman Catholic clergy (and, for that matter, clergy everywhere). From inebriated priests in the Middle Ages performing the mass to the scandals that plague the church today, the idea persists that the office qualifies the person who holds it, personal shortcomings aside. Unless, of course, a public relations nuisance arises.
In strong reaction to the Roman Catholic Church, some sectors of Protestantism developed an opposite approach: a low view of office and a high view of the qualifications of the person holding the office. In fact, anyone with the right gifts could hang out a sign and create a church. It is no wonder that some rogue pastors with no official sanction or oversight have been able to fleece the flock unchecked.
The Reformed view seeks a balance between office as conferred by the church (1 Tim. 5:22; 2 Tim. 2:2) and the qualifications of the office-holder (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1:5-9). Though imperfect, both are needed for a biblical view of office to come into full bloom in Christ’s church. Related is the importance of an external, ecclesiastical and an internal, personal calling from God.
However, even in these circles there is sometimes confusion.
I once heard a Reformed minister say from the pulpit that if the church calls you to an office (such as that of elder or deacon), God will equip you with the gifts you need to perform the duties of that office. Wrong! If you don’t yet evidence the gifts for an office, even in seed form, the church should not call you to that office.
In my ecclesiastical neighborhood, I’ve also heard that if you already have the gifts and feel called to an office, you have the right to hold that office. Wrong again. You have no right to plant yourself in an office without the church's calling.
In these two tendencies we can feel the tension between office and gifting. And as the pope leaves his office behind, forfeiting an infallibility he never really had, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the nature of biblical office.
Yes, all Christians hold the office of every believer. And thankfully, God can and does work in churches with misinformed views of the special leadership offices. However, we should not resort to ecclesiastical fiction.
Without the biblical balance that keeps imperfect churches like mine and flawed officebearers like me on track, the church and its mission are sadly weakened.
And that's no joke.