What would you think of a person who sensed the call of God to start his own ministry? Would you see his self-declaration of being a minister of God as a problem? What if he had no authorization from any religious tradition, but was simply voted into an official position by his congregation? Pretty standard stuff in America these days, right?
But what if such a person proclaimed himself Pope?
David “Pope Michael” Bawden
I first heard of David Bawden when the satirical website Eye of the Tiber did a couples pieces on him. It was funny, but I did not fully get the humor until I learned more of his story. Bawden is an American in his mid-50’s living with his parents and leading his own church . . . The Catholic Church. You see, David Bawden thinks he’s the Pope – “Pope Michael” to be exact.
After being expelled from seminary, Bawden was “elected to the papal office” in 1990 by the unanimous vote of six people (counting himself and his parents) who had come to believe that the papacy had gone into apostasy after Vatican II. Taking the name “Pope Michael,” he has since created his own website, blog, and written several books. He also has a Facebook page which (without a trace of irony) displays a banner reading “True Humility.”
Even without Eye of the Tiber’s biting wit, the “Pope Michael” story is pretty funny. The idea that a guy blogging from his parent’s basement could be elected Pope (by said parents) is so absurd, it would not even be laughable if it was not being taken seriously by himself and his nearly three dozen faithful followers.
But why is it so funny? That’s the question I asked myself one day as I considered my own religious past.
My Christian upbringing was basically “Non-Denominational” (= Baptist with some Calvary Chapel thrown in for hipster points). This meant that each ministry or church I was involved with basically fit an “affiliated-but-autonomous” model. In other words, these ministries were only related to some official organization in such a way that legitimized their use of the title (not that they always used it), but there was really no authority above the local group’s leader(s).
So, how did those people become ministry leaders? Often they simply started ministering and when they had gathered enough people to minister to, those people assigned whatever leadership title was appropriate to that particular ministry. Much the same way, in fact, that “Pope Michael” did.
So I asked myself why such a process seemed legitimate when it came to Protestant pastors, but ludicrous when it came to Catholic popes?
Now, most Protestant traditions are a lot less individualistic than the ministries I was involved with. The larger denominations have more rigid authority structures, and so a self-proclaimed Anglican Bishop or Presbyterian Elder would have a harder time being taken seriously than a Pentecostal Pastor or a Baptist Preacher. Even so, however, the parallel with the above process is not completely lost. Even those in more complex authority structures have to justify their positions as well. This is simply one of the ramifications of religious systems that eschew a final authority for personal calling.
This, I think, is at least a significant part of why “Pope Michael’s” story seems so absurd, even though thousands of non-Catholic ministers follow the same basic pattern (if not the same particulars). The difference is that a privately-experienced “calling” together with some sort of public recognition of that “calling” is generally all it takes to become an “authorized” minister in many Christian organizations. In contrast, Catholic ministers are legitimized only by those who posses ministerial authority grounded in apostolic succession.
A Catholic can objectively and officially say that David Bawden is a fraud. Regardless of his thoughts on the Church or his sense of calling, “Pope Michael” simply has no legitimate claim to either apostolic succession or to election by apostolic successors. Thus, for both Catholics and non-Catholics, there is no question that his self-proclaimed position is a sham. However, since Protestant authority is not based on this historically objective apostolic lineage, judging a Protestant minister’s legitimacy requires validation in some other way.
In line with their other principles, Protestants generally are bound to using their personal biblical interpretation (or that of their chosen denomination) as a standard for judging someone’s credentials as a minister. The problem this causes is one of conflicting biblical interpretations leading to conflicting ministries and ministers. Worse, in less hierarchical systems, virtually anyone can start a ministry and call themselves ministers (for who could authoritatively gainsay them?). After that, it is simply a matter of garnering followers who share the same view.
In the end, without an objectively-identifiable authority that can adjudicate between legitimate and illegitimate ministers/ministries, “the Church” comes to appear as a series of conflicting collections of like-minded people forming loosely-affiliated organizations determined by mutual levels of acceptable disagreement. This harms the body of Christ both internally (by division) and externally (by scandal) – not to mention the many good people who become lost in the chaos of competing “Christian ministries.”
When I was an Evangelical, it used to make me crazy when people would lump false teachers like Benny Hinn or Kenneth Copeland in with “my” faith. But without resorting to question-begging personal judgment, I could no more legitimately define them out of my group than they could define me into theirs. After all, who determines the authoritative definition of “Evangelical“? Eventually I came to see that if Christianity is true and the Church is objectively identifiable, there had to be a true and objectively identifiable authority at its helm.
Catholics and Protestants can both enjoy a good laugh at “Pope Michael’s” expense, because Catholics need not worry about his being lumped into Catholicism, or that critics can legitimately use him as an example of division within the Church. Further, his story might help those outside Rome’s walls better understand why Catholics remain within them.
Two factors make the issue of apostolic succession less tidy than it might seem. The first is Eastern Orthodoxy. The Catholic Church recognizes the Orthodox as having valid succession and sacraments, but the reverse is not always the case. None of the churches of the East can speak with one definitive voice on the issue. (e.g., Rome’s succession is recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church, but it is not accepted by others). It is important to understand that the East’s issue is theological, not historical – that is, they cannot demonstrate an objective historical break in the West’s apostolic succession, and instead focus on their theological disagreements (which reintroduces the same kinds of problems inherent in the Protestant method).
The second issue is that while few Protestant groups claim apostolic succession, some do (usually in modified forms). The most credible of these is the Anglican Communion. This is a complicated issue, for while it is an historical fact that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions share apostolic succession, neither affirms the Anglican claim. Further, many conservative Anglicans have started break-off organizations to avoid association with the liberalism of the communion-at-large. Like the Eastern Orthodox, these Anglican groups add theological criteria to the historical criteria as a requirement for valid succession, which has led to the same problems caused by the use of alternate criteria of “non-apostolic” Protestant groups.