Sunday, July 05, 2015

E5. There is no one, correct form of church government.

This is the fifth post on the Church in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit on the Spirit and the Church was on the Holy Spirit.
There is no one, correct form of church government, nor is there one "denomination" or organized Christian church that is the correct church. [1]

1. Until the year 1054, it was fairly easy for Christians to assume that there was only one true visible church that was the Church, even if it was allowed that some of those in its membership might be weeds rather than wheat. [2] There were some smaller groups, such as the Coptic Church in Egypt or the church in Ethiopia. But the difference in size no doubt made it easy to consider them deviations from the true church rather than groups with equal claims to be in the Church. [3]

However, in 1054, the Orthodox churches of the East were separated from the Roman Catholic Church, leaving Christianity in two halves. Looking back at this Christianity separated by region, culture, and language, it seems all the more impossible to consider either the true church. Two different bodies of believers with very similar, yet slightly different structures, were both legitimate forms of the Church.

There was still a great deal of similarity between these two groups in belief and form, as well as with the earlier Coptic and other groups. This form was the episcopal form of governance, where the church is governed by bishops and even more authoritative archbishops over geographical areas. These authority figures have authority analogous to that of a king, which is unsurprising given that this was the structure of governance outside the church at the time.

2. Here we reach upon a very important principle. As people and culture has changed, church governance has changed. While some might find in this dynamic a weakness to be corrected, it is rather a great strength.

God meets his people where they are, and culture is one of the most central features of human existence. The Bible does not dictate the specific forms in which Christianity functions, and it is always perilous to look to the Bible for the specifics of how to do things. Form and process have everything to do with context, and it would be silly and counterproductive to think we must mimic the forms of the Bible, which themselves were a function of the ancient cultures of the peoples of the Bible themselves. [4]

So we are not surprised that in a world where kings and their representatives governed the world, the church would primarily be governed by authoritative figures.

3. The Protestant Reformation confirmed the notion that there is not one, true visible church. Despite the split of East and West, all the existing churches retained a certain "catholic" form. Indeed, there are "Old Catholic" groups to this day in Europe that are neither Roman Catholic or Orthodox. When the Church of England was founded, some of its defenders argued that it was a truer catholic church than the Roman Catholic Church. [5]

But the new groups that emerged from the Protestant Reformation differed more greatly from what had come before, both in belief and practice. As culture changed and the common person gained more power in the world, new forms of church government would arise that gave more power to the ordinary believer. The presbyterian form of governance would rise, where church leaders are chosen (i.e., elected) from their equals. We especially associate this form with Reformed and Presbyterian churches.

To be sure, this new form of church governance was justified by reference to the Bible. It was a necessary game, given the Reformation need to find biblical precedent for its practices. But the objective historian recognizes that this was every bit as much God meeting his people within the culture of their time and place. Is it any coincidence that the presbyterian form of governance rose at the same time as representational governments were arising?

4. The Reformation also saw the rise of Anabaptist churches that did away with church hierarchy all together. The house church movement today reminds us of these groups that tried to be lead directly by the Holy Spirit. Inevitably, individuals with more charismatic personalities emerge as leaders in such contexts, even if they do not bear an official role.

While we would not want to de-Christianize such groups, they tend toward the kind of anarchy that Paul tried to redirect in 1 Corinthians 14. In such contexts, much of what is attributed to the Holy Spirit is inevitably the whims and eccentricities of human personalities. Further, the power of the church is typically muted in such amorphous cells because of their isolation and lack of structure.

A much more stable and culturally appealing form is the congregational structure of church governance, where individual churches have their own individual leadership without any overarching church hierarchy. The Baptist tradition most typifies this approach, and it has dominated the United States. Again, it is no coincidence that a form of governance that emphasizes individualism would thrive in a nation that emphasizes democracy on the local level.

5. The Bible does not dictate any of these forms of governance, remembering that description in Scripture does not imply prescription. Even if Israel and the New Testament churches had certain forms of governance, this fact does not dictate that we must have those forms. What is essential are the functions of the Church, not the forms.

We can make a further claim. If it were important to God for all his people to believe and practice the same thing, then we would find that the most spiritual individuals in the Church, those who are most in tune with God, would migrate over time to a particular visible church group or tradition. But we do not find this migration.

What we find instead is that there are equally godly, equally holy individuals across the spectrum of church groups and denominations. We find equally godly Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Coptic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, and other Christians. This observation suggests that God is far more concerned with the attitude of our hearts than the beliefs of our heads or even our specific church practices.

This is not an argument against truth or there being preferred positions on belief and practice. It is simply an observation that these matters surely are not God's first order of business.

6. My own denomination provides an excellent case study for how church governance can fit hand in glove with culture. The Wesleyan Church has a largely presbyterian form of governance, mirroring the United States. An equal number of ministers and non-ministers elect their leaders on each level of church governance.

But the church does have a regional, national and international structure, with elected leaders at each stage of governance.  There is a shared, core set of beliefs and practices, with an increasing amount of latitude for local churches and individuals. On the local level there is a significant amount of overlap with congregational forms of governance. Ministers are more chosen by the local church than appointed by district leaders, although district leaders often play a significant role in who "candidates."

International conferences are given greater leeway to contextualize the form of Christianity to their own particular cultural contexts. There is currently a drive to move membership within the church toward entry level Christianity rather than a more mature state of discipleship, which would be expected of leaders. The result would be a broader membership without loss of those beliefs and practices considered dear to our tradition.

7. You might argue that the varying denominations of the Church today are simply an example written large of the diversity of the local body of Christ. As in a local church there are differing individuals with differing gifts and roles to play, so in the universal Church, different Christian groups tend to play different roles.

Some denominations emphasize the Spirit more than others. Some denominations emphasize salvation more than others. Some denominations emphasize God's sovereignty more than others. Some denominations emphasize God's grace more than others. Some churches emphasize an optimism of God's power. Some emphasize human sinfulness.

Perhaps if there were only one visible church, these valid elements would blur together into gray. [6] The Church is a unity in diversity, not a monolithic unity. Diversity in the church thus has some strengths, even if the current diversity may seem more an embodiment of weakness.

We should strive for greater unity and it would surely be ideal if a great movement of reuniting were to take place among the tens of thousands of different church organizations. In the meantime, there is still no one, correct form of church government or correct Christian denomination.

Next week: E6. The Church is in the world but not of the world.

[1] A "denomination" is a group of Christians that are organized together into a common organizational structure, usually with common beliefs and practices.

[2] Augustine, Sermon 23 on the New Testament.

[3] Cyprian's slogan, "there is no salvation outside the church," was formed in the middle of controversy over groups deviating from the mainstream church over the purity of priests and bishops who had renounced Christ under persecution ("To Jubaianus, Concerning the Baptism of Heretics," 21). It was used until the late twentieth century to deny non-Roman Catholics the possibility of salvation, although since Vatican 2, baptized members of other churches are considered, "separated brethren."

[4] Therefore, while it is perfectly acceptable to call church leaders today by the titles they had in the New Testament church (e.g., elders, deacons, overseers, etc), it is ignorant to think that we must use those models, designed as they were in the light of first century culture.

[5] E.g., John Jewel.

[6] More likely, these variations would simply occur on a local level.


Martin LaBar said...

Well done! Thanks.

jesse chupp said...

The Apostles didn't seem to respond well to overtures toward Congregationalism.