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Sitzerrecht: the rights of the one seated

Posted by on Jun 5, 2008 in church history, edification, gathering, scripture | 15 comments

Last week, in a comment on my post called “Order or Disorder?“, Jonas mentioned the term Sitzerrecht and the book The Radical Reformation by George Huntston Williams. The seminary library had this book, so I checked it out and have been looking through it for information concerning Sitzerrecht. I thought some of my readers would be interested in what Williams says about this topic.

First, in definition, Sitzerrecht (German) is also called lex sedentium (Latin) and the Rule of Paul. Specifically, it has less to do with interrupting a speaker – although it is certainly related. Instead, Sitzerrecht is a hermeneutical priciple. Here is how Williams explains this topic in the context of tongues and prophecy (by the way, he lists several different understandings of “prophet” and “prophecy” held by the magisterial reformers and the radical reformers):

Freedom of prophecy, in any case, anchored in 1 Cor. 14:29-31, became in the sixteenth century the scriptural sanction for committed inquiry into the meaning of Scripture over against the magisterium of the papal Church – the right of those duly converted and seated in the expectancy of guidance from the Holy Spirit to judge the meaning of disputed texts.

Paul, in 1 Cor. 14:29-34, facing the phenomenon of the gift of tongues, declared: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation [clarification] is made to another sitting (sedenti), let the first be silent.” Eventually the rule for speaking up in conventicle or synod in the face of opened Scripture would be called lex sedentium, in German: Sitzerrecht. Paul was, in this pericope, sorting out the rules for prophetic glossolalia and the proper order for congregational (or synodal) interpretation of the meaning of Scripture… The first to use the pericope as the basis of common prophecy (prophetia communis) or “prophesying” (the later English Puritan term) was evidently Zwingli. (518-519)

Yes, apparently the magesterial reformers as well as the radical reformers held a view of Sitzerrecht (the rights of the one seated) at first. In another part of the book, Williams explains the importance of this concept to Luther:

Pastors and teachers therefore should at all times be subject to hearers, for, citing 1 Thess. 5:21 about testing all things and holding fast to the good, Luther says that things must first be declared by teachers if they are to be tested by hearers, for Christians, unlike worldlings who command, in their mutuality are subject to each other, everyone the other’s judge (Matt. 20:26). Christian hearers not only have the power and right to judge, but they are also, he went on, under threat of forfeiting their favor with God if they do not do so. Luther cites here the warning about the false Christ, Matt. 24:4, “Take heed that no man deceive you”. Therefore, the congregation at Leisnig, and every true congregation (which is so because it has the Gospel), has the right and power, indeed bounden duty through baptism, to judge teaching, to identify the false prophet (preacher), and either flee from him or to dismiss him… [E]very Christian indeed has the obligation to confess, preach, and spread [the Word] in one of two ways: where there are no other true Christians, any Christian is bound to proclaim the good news; where, however, there are other Christians who have the same power and right, a person should not “thrust himself forward,” but should “let himself be called and drawn forth.” Luther attaches importance to a text soon to become very important among Anabaptists and other radicals (1 Cor. 11:4b), the scriptural locus for Sitzerrecht (lex sedentium), 1 Cor 14:30, “If anything be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.” In other words, let the teacher be silent and a hearer rise to make an assessment. The layman may do this, Luther says, “Even without a call, because necessity knows no law,” observing further that if such is true for an individual Christian, how much more for an entire congregation. (145-146) 

So, for Luther, while Sitzerrecht (lex sedentium) has application while a teacher is speaking, the primary application of this term is in understanding and applying Scripture – hermeneutics. For Luther, and Zwingli above, and most of the Anabaptists and other radical reformers, Sitzerrecht is a principle that teaches that all believers have the ability to understand Scripture and to weigh what another says concerning Scripture, even if that “other” is a teacher or preacher.

The question is, “Who determines what Scripture means?” Certainly, all would say that God determines the final meaning, but how do we understand this meaning? During the sixteenth century, there were three answers to this question: 1) the pope through the Roman Church, 2) the religious professional, and 3) the Christian congregation. The principle of Sitzerrecht puts the burder of understanind Scripture squarely in the domain of the congregation – with the assumption that the individuals assembled are indwelled by the Holy Spirit:

[These] appealed to what they and the radicals generally thought of as they Rule of Paul or the lex sedentium (Sitzerrecht), based on 1 Cor. 14:23ff. and with some support from 2 Pet. 1:19ff., namely the right of the whole Christian congregation, the laity with the divines [religous professionals], to judge difficult passages of Scripture together, not individually or professionally. The principle of inspired corporate interpretation of the Bible was the presupposition of much of the committed conversation within Anabaptism… as well as in magisterial Protestantism, but this interesting theological formulation would be eventually routinized or abandoned. (1256-1257) 

Discussing the abandonment of Sitzerrecht by the magisterial reformers, Williams quotes an article by John H. Yoder (“The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists,” MQR 41 (1967): 291-308):

He [Yoder] contrasts them [Anabaptists and other radical reformers] here with the other Reformers, who “abandoned their initial vision of the [Reformed] visible church, the hermeneutic community, and were obliged to shift the locus of infallibility to the inspired text and the technically qualified theological expert.” (1257) 

Sometime during the 1500’s the magesterial reformers abandoned the idea of Sitzerrecht – that all believers have the right and duty to test teachers and determine the meaning of Scripture together – and embraced the principle that only a “technically qualified theological expert” could properly interpret Scripture for a gathered group of believers.

The idea that only a qualified expert can exegete and explain Scripture today is embraced by most congregations – even if it is not voiced as a hermeneutical principle by those same congregations. For this reason, the “sermon” and the “pulpit” are placed in a superior position to any other type of communication between believers. Since the sermon is now in a superior position – for many a sacrosanct or even sacramental position – Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor. 14:26ff. concerning interrupting a speaker are considered to not apply to sermons.

I agree that in many of today’s churches it would be distracting and not edifying to interrupt a teacher or preacher. I do not question whether or not this is socially or culturally acceptable. I still wonder, however, why interrupting a speaker – even a preacher – would not be considered scripturally acceptable.

Is there any indication in Scripture that the sermon should be immune from Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor 14?

Why do you think the magesterial reformers abandoned the idea of Sitzerrecht – that any congregation of believers has the obligation to weigh teaching and interpret Scriptures?


15 Comments

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  1. 6-5-2008

    Well, it’s true that it could become distracting, but it could also be beneficial.

    I appreciated the option of raising my hand to ask a question for clarification while at university. Since the oratory model of most western churches derives from the Greco-Roman culture that also provided the basis for our universities, I don’t see why this shouldn’t be an option in church as well.

    In school, sometimes people would raise their hands and ask frivolous questions that distracted from the topic. But this was rare. Usually, people asked good questions that others were also wondering about, just weren’t brave enough to ask. It would be nice to be able to raise my hand and ask a preacher questions as long as it was done in a respectful and honoring way.

  2. 6-5-2008

    I should have said “in congregations as well” instead of “in church” (I remember, church is people, not an event).

  3. 6-5-2008

    Alan. Thanks for bringing this up again! I think the reason they abandoned the principle has to do with the church moving back into the direction of the established church, probably due to the will to become accepted by the ruling authorities and distancing themselves from “sectarian” groups, thereby avoiding persecution of different kind. The early church´s development in the first three hundred years once again (but at a faster speed this time).

    Today, I doubt that even most remaining anabaptist groups (mennonites, hutterites, amish)honors this principle. (They probably do when the question is decision making, but most of them as far as I know not in services.)

    I know that many neo-anabaptists (for example Anabaptist Network) and anabaptist Bruderhof-movement (“church communities”), honors this principle, though. Some of them due to the influence of Yoder, who has written inspiring and revolutionary stuff about this, for example in Body Politics.
    /Jonas Lundström
    http://blog.bahnhof.se/wb938188

  4. 6-5-2008

    Alan

    Ok, I’m going to run this up a flag pole to see if it’s a flag—–If we’re preaching the Bible, isn’t the goal to proclaim the message of God and explain it so that the people understand what God has said? If that is the case, shouldn’t we who are listening respond as we would if God was speaking-be quite and listen? Sure, if the preacher came out with some goofball exegesis that was blasphemous I could see saying “Whoa there, bubba.” (Well, that’s what they’d say in Alex City anyway.) Otherwise, I would think most questions could be addressed after the sermon.

    My two cents.

  5. 6-5-2008

    Alan,

    Regarding your ending questitons:

    “Is there any indication in Scripture that the sermon should be immune from Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor 14?”

    I do not think so. Apart from the need for “order” there is no reason why the sermon is immune from both questioning and interruption. And both can be done in an orderly manner.

    “Why do you think the magesterial reformers abandoned the idea of Sitzerrecht – that any congregation of believers has the obligation to weigh teaching and interpret Scriptures?”

    There are a number of reasons that I think are possible. There may have been men who thought they were correct and grew tiresome of being questioned. There may have been too many people disrupting the teaching so they thought it would be best to cease questions. The people may have been more uneducated than the leader and the leaders felt that they were above the people.

    Unless there is some writings telling us why they abandoned it, we’ll never know.

    God’s Glory,
    Lew

    The Pursuit Online Store

  6. 6-5-2008

    Joe,

    I agree that we should be courteous and be careful listeners. Especially when we are all trying to learn. However, I think there is a flaw in your theory. If the listeners should not interrupt the speaker because he is preaching from the Bible, why is the preacher allowed to interrupt God’s word by inserting commentary and/or by only preaching part of a book?

    God’s Glory,
    Lew

  7. 6-5-2008

    Alan, I did a quick search of my Logos library and not one instance of these words in German or latin in any of the 3,000+ resources I have. Bummer, I was hoping for something more.

    One of my pet peeves is pastors who use Greek to bully people into thinking their teaching has greater authority because they, the pastor, have a “deeper” knowledge. That may not be the way it is expressly taught, but as someone who has studied Greek, that is certainly how most, but not all, folks who know Greek use it.

    Alan, is this something you are able to bring up during your own Greek classes? Or is that something out of the scope of what you are able to teach?

  8. 6-5-2008

    Joe. I think what you say presupposes a certain type of hierachichal leadership. In God´s renewed covenant with Israel, we have no other Leader (king), Mediator (priest) or Teacher/Prophet, than Jesus, the Messiah. He was God´s Word in flesh, and he fulfilled the call of God. After his resurrection, the disciples received his Spirit. Now the Spirit dwells within the church, the assembly of believers. God´s word and God´s spirit have (as Moses prayed) entered the lives of all true believers. For this reason we need no leader (Matthew 23:8-12), or Teacher (1 John 2), we all have part of Jesus prophetic and priestly kingship. God´s Word doesn´t dwell with a religious expert anymore, but is proclaimed when all come together and share (1 Kor 14:26), according to the roles the Spirit has given us in the body.
    /Jonas Lundström

  9. 6-5-2008

    Sarah,

    The school setting is an interesting context to bring into this discussion. I have known instructors who welcomed interruptions, and other instructors who disapproved of interruptions. I agree that “interruptions” can be distracting or beneficial, depending upon how someone views the “interruption”.

    Jonas,

    Thank you for pointing me to The Radical Reformation. I’ve found William approach to be very balanced. Unfortunately I probably won’t be able to read it all (1500+ pages!!!). I’ll have to add Yoder to my reading list as well.

    Joe,

    I understand what you’re saying, and I agree the purpose of proclaiming (preaching) God’s word is understanding and application. I think the question here is, “Who can proclaim God’s word?” Is it only “the preacher” or can any believers “proclaim God’s word”? If any believer can proclaim God’s word, then interruption should be allowed if someone else desire to proclaim God’s word. Of course, besides teaching there are other types of Spirit-led speaking as well.

    Lew,

    Unfortunately, Scripture is silent (strictly speaking) about interrupting “teachers”, unless the principles of interrupting “prophets” (1 Cor 14) apply, which I think they do. If the principles of interrupting prophets do not apply, then Scripture does not say anything about interrupting teachers, and we’re left to our own devices, I suppose.

    I agree that we’ll probably never know why the magisterial reformers abandoned the principle of Sitzerrecht. I think there were probably several reasons that came together to cause them to abandon this principle.

    J.R.,

    I tell my Greek students that they should never say, “The Greek means…” or anything similar. (I admit that I do this occasionally, but I try hard not to.) Instead, we should be able to explain a passage from the English (or the language of the audience) text and parallel passages.

    -Alan

  10. 6-5-2008

    Glad to know that, and I agree. I never refer to the Greek with the exception of once or twice a year. Even then, it is never to subvert the plain meaning. for me, it seems to distract from the message and gives the wrong message that only a “scholar” can understand the text. So I am definitely with you on that.

    I am still thanking about the interrupting part though and appreciate the comments so far.

  11. 6-5-2008

    Alan and other folks who have commented (You know who you are. Don’t be fronting like you don’t know.), thanks for your feedback.

    Let me say that I agree that leadership in the church should not be set up where only one person is the source of all teaching in a church because truth doesnt’ come through a person but from God’s word. However, I would say that not ever person in the church is gifted to teach. I mean, my body would look pretty funky if I was made up of a much of big toes. Furthermore, I am more on the side of a planned service with the idea that someone should be assigned responsibility to prepare to teach. This would allow for the sharing of the burden of study/preaching and for the development of new teachers in the church.

    Having said that, I could be wrong and off base. It happens. I just thought I’d respond here before I got off lunch and got back to making the world a better place—-one audit at a time.

    Thanks again, folks.

  12. 6-5-2008

    Alan,

    This subject has been very much a part of my learning process over many years of being there and doing that. I am ashamed, and appalled at some of what was part of my,very wrong, but quite orthodox evangelical understanding of leadership in my younger days.

    My understanding of soteriology remains thoroughly orthodox evangelical, but my understanding of ecclesiology is very much opposed to what has become acceptable.

    As a result, it became my habit, prior to preaching/teaching, to ask those, to whom I ministered, to to be as the Bereans were (Acts 17:11), not accepting what I said and taught until they had ascertained for themselves, from the Scriptures, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that what they learned from me was correct.

    I encouraged further insights and questions, but, without exception those who had something to say did so after the message was completed.

    If the Holy Spirit is in control of a meeting, can He not control those who would interrupt, as well as those who are speaking?

    I have often described the way our churches function as Neo-Roman Catholicism; and the reason for that is that there are clear parallels with R.Cism. and its magisterial rule.

    The way many, and, it appears, maybe most, church leaders operate is as an “ordinary universal Magisterium”. I reject this form of leadership as being un-Scriptural.

    There are three levels of magisterium:
    1. “Extraordinary Magisterium” refering to the teaching office by either the Pope and bishops together, or the Pope alone,all of which is to be regarded as without error, therefore infallible.

    2. There is the “ordinary Magisterium” referring to the authority of the day-today teaching of bishops in their dioceses, or their transmission of the Popes teaching, all of which is to be regarded as without error, therefore infallible.

    3. There is the “ordinary universal Magisterium” which entails complete agreement, or fairly close to complete agreement, among the Catholic Bishops of the world that a particular doctrine is certainly true, but is not regarded as infallible.

    Like the RC. Magisterium a very large part of todays church leadership exhibit a clear belief that the Holy Spirit guides them in a way he does not guide anyone else,and that anyone who appears to disagree with them and their pronouncements are in opposition to the Holy Spirit.

    Again, it appears to me, that,in the same way as their R.C. counterpart, the non-R.C. magisterium, believe they are a wonderful gift from God to whom the congregations must constantly look to be kept safe from heresy and anything else which will cause us from thinking differently to them.

    What prideful cods-wallop.

  13. 6-5-2008

    J.R.,

    Just for the record, given the prevailing thoughts about preaching and teaching today, I would not interrupt someone unless I knew that it was either expected or welcomed. In fact, I do not think the Spirit would lead someone to interrupt a teacher if that interruption would not be edifying to the people.

    Joe,

    First, thank you for the humility of your response. I echo your words – I could certainly be wrong, and I always learn from interactions like this.

    Yes, I believe that there are people who are gifted to teach by the Spirit. I think, however, that all believers can teach as directed by the Spirit – just as some are gifted to prophesy, but all can prophesy (1 Cor 14:31).

    Aussie John,

    Thank you for the discussion of the various degrees of magisterium. I had not heard it broken out in that fashion.

    You asked, “If the Holy Spirit is in control of a meeting, can He not control those who would interrupt, as well as those who are speaking?” Yes! Absolutely! In fact, even if “interruption” was allowed, I would not interrupt unless I thought that the Spirit wanted me to interrupt.

    -Alan

  14. 6-5-2008

    Alan,

    I am 100% in agreement.

    My question was rhetorical!

  15. 6-5-2008

    Aussie John,

    Yes, I knew your question was rhetorical. I was simply pointing out to others reading that even if someone is allowed to interrupt, the Spirit should still be followed in all instances.

    -Alan