Change: Adaptive, Progressive, or Regressive?

Change: Adaptive, Progressive, or Regressive?

Or, Was the 1st-Century Church a Helpless Embryo or an Ambulatory, Full-fledged Entity?

In terms of coming to understand and practice the authentic Christian faith, for me, it goes without saying that 1st-century documents carry more prescriptive authority than 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-century sources.  Said another way:  the later the writing, the more likely that undesirable/undesired ideas crept into it.  The last blogpost probed along these lines, even to the point of distinguishing among decades and developments in the 1st century.  Could some later New Testament documents have begun to veer from the originally laid out course?

This is not so much about a hermeneutic of authorization, i.e., that specific things were/were not authorized by God, and that such things were/were not codified in the writings.  I do not take that approach.  Nor can any careful NT reader ascertain that any particular 1st-century congregation—say, Antioch in the 40s or Philippi in the 60s—was iconic.  I do, however, wonder whether the letters to Timothy and Titus, attributed to Paul, might betray a relatively early adaptation of original Christian practice viz. the roles of church leaders (bishops/elders/pastors) and servants (deacons).  For sake of discussion, I am assuming that that “original,” however elusive it might be to us today, was a good thing, worthy of some later pursuit.

[Aside:  calling attention to the relative timing (early vs. late) of Christian writings begs the question of how undesirable these blogposts of mine might be.  They are, after all, about as “late” as I can get in terms of authorship!  Here, I only intend to be comparing the canonical apostolic scriptures and the works of the so-called church fathers, not even distinguishing between the Antenicene fathers and the later ones.  Moreover, there are always exceptions to a general rule; many helpful and/or worthy passages will be found in later writings.]

If something is just born, is it only to be pitied as a helpless creature, not fully formed?  Some might think here of the long-observed “progression” from movement to sect, and from sect to denominational institution, but that is not really where I’m headed.  Larry Hurtado has recently offered a corrective to the idea that a newly born anything is necessarily to be seen as a baby.  I agree that a sense of early Christian faith and practice is crucial, and I do not relegate the nascent first-century movement to “helpless infant” or “cute toddler” status.  There is no call to apologize for, say, documented aspects of Christianity in the year 48 or 57 or 62.  Hurtado sees mid-1st-century Pauline literature as viable:  Paul, in writing his letters, presupposed that Christianity was at that time “adequately formed and fully appropriate.”  Hurtado has his “historian” hat on as he assesses this way, and the hat fits well.  It is good for later observers not to superimpose value judgments (“well, Christianity was little more than embryonic then”) that cloud or falsely view the realities of historical scenarios and changes.

Hurtado goes further in suggesting that observed changes are not necessarily “deviations from a ‘pure’ and ‘original’ form.”  Sometimes, changes may merely be adaptations of a neutral original.  To question the existence of an original ideal is admittedly uncomfortable for me, restorationist and neo-protestant that I am.  In the ecclesiological sphere, I am typically suspicious of changes that occurred well after the launching of the movement—so this bent would affect my reading of Origen, Eusebius, and Tertullian—although generally supportive of changes in organizational methodology in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Without delving into specific reasons for this apparent inconsistency, I think there are some fairly good reasons for it, at least with the types of changes I have in mind.

I affirm that changes do not necessarily imply progress.  Sometimes, change may be regressive; in other instances, merely adaptive.  Take the Windows PC platform (now perhaps more a fortress than a portal from which to see out and do one’s work) as an example.  Windows 3.1 was quite functional and seems to me to have been well tested, with little performance concern.  From the end user’s perspective, Windows 95 “progressed” yet had serious issues, some of which were fixed in Windows 98.  I found Windows XP to represent a more helpful progression, whereas Windows 7 and Windows 8 were beset by issues.  The successively opaque versions of Windows might be alternately assessed as progressive or unwisely adaptive to demand.  Somewhat similarly, while some ecclesiological adaptations of the first century were arguably progressive, the eventualities that led to the Roman Catholic institution are for me adaptive departures from the original ideal.¹  From the cultural and “market” perspectives, some changes that occurred in, e.g., the 4th century or the 6th were understandable adaptations, while others were misbegotten and fraught with apostasy.

As a historian, one should not, as Hurtado points up, arbitrarily overlay value judgments on changes.  As an idealistic Christ-ian, though, I long for authentic, pure faith, untainted by decades of darkness and centuries of clouds.  I see the composite picture of the early church as presenting a better, more viable ideal than any ecclesiological reality manifest in any later centuries, despite the sincere efforts of various reformers through the ages.  And yes, these are value judgments.  I admit it.

To read Dr. Hurtado’s blogpost, click the title below.

How We See Historical Changes


¹ For instance, I should think the Apostle Peter would be spiritually indignant if made aware of what transpired over a period of centuries with regard to his person and legacy.  Those changes might be viewed as regressive or progressive, depending on one’s viewpoint, but they were in any event substantial departures from the original ideal.

Immersion (2 of 3)

I can still see the translucent glass on portions of the Cedars baptistry walls, with clear glass in the middle.  I can still see dear, white-headed Henry as he did his deacon’s duty, checking the temperature of the baptistry water every Sunday morning before the assembly began, just in case someone were to need the water that day.  I probably witnessed a few dozen immersions in my early years, but it was not so frequent an occurrence as it should have been.  Our church had historically been fairly evangelistic for a while (40s, 50s, 60s), but more of its later efforts were focused overseas.  During the 70s and 80s, I don’t think there were ever more than a couple of intentional efforts going on to study with, convert, and immerse people.  In my experience, there has never been enough discipling effort in any church, either before or after baptism.  (And that reality, in part, led to the offshoot branch of the Church of Christ known in various eras as the Crossroads Movement, or the Boston Movement, or the International CofC.  For all their abuses of authority and dogmatic approaches, they were serious disciplers.)

Christian camps tend to produce baptisms, and my camp was no exception.  Proportionally speaking, the rate of baptism at summer camp was probably ten times that of most people’s home churches.  At some point, I think a rule was put into place that campers at one of the senior high weeks could be immersed regardless of family, but that anyone in junior high or younger would need parental permission.  That rule probably just increased some young people’s determination.  I remember one evening, down at the camp pool, when three young people were immersed on the same occasion.  Singing and wet hugs were part of the camp baptism experience.  Although I attribute a great deal of spiritual growth to my camp experiences, I myself was immersed well before junior high age, following three others in my age group, within the confines of the aforementioned indoor baptistry.

Quite distinct from the quarterly or annual (or spotty) baptism practices of some churches, relative immediacy was important in my tradition.  “Gospel meetings” (a/k/a “revivals”) might lead to baptisms, but not every time.  My church was labeled a “cerebral” one by one reputable, deep-thinking, passionate guest speaker, and I think he was onto something.  We didn’t have as many immersions every year as a couple sister churches tended to have.  I think we were less prone to heart-responses.

Next part:  Sunday, 10/30/16

Packaging

Many jokes have been made about Ivory™ soap’s being (only) 99.44% pure, but I think that’s probably a better stat than that of most other soaps, my wife’s homemade Little Goat’s Natural Soaps excepted.  (Ahem.  That was a cue for a few of you readers who’ve used her soap to say, “Yeah, Karly’s soaps are great.”)

I have been an Ivory soap user for as long as I can remember.  Once in a while, I try another soap but always return to Ivory.  I used Irish Spring as a teenager, and that use might have contributed to a few more zits than I would have had otherwise.  Coast, Lifebuoy, Dial, Safeguard . . . I’ve tried those and more, but my staple bar of soap has always been Ivory.

For all Ivory’s merits, I absolutely hate the packaging.  The wrapping is horribly hard to handle.  About 49 of 50 times, unwrapping the bar takes at least a solid minute and results in something like this:img_20160915_064445_706.jpgI didn’t even mention the outer, clear plastic layer that wraps the whole 8-bar pack.  That in itself can require a knife or a set of fingernail clippers or at least a key to remove.  But the damp, white-paper inner wrapping comes off only with greater effort, and a lot of mess, pretty much every time.  You’d think that a soap that’s been around for 125 years could do better than that with its wrapping.  But I keep coming back to it, because what’s inside is what I’m after.


I have been a Christian since I was 9.  (The definition of “Christian” is significant but is beside my point here.)  And I’ve been an active participant with a number of churches.  What I have inside and what the churches have inside can be as difficult to get to as Ivory soap is, given the packaging!  Since it’s less comfortable to talk about my individual heart than the “inside” of church groups, I’ll opt to spend a few words on the latter.

The packaging or wrapping of a church might include, but not be limited to, these elements:

  • Signage
  • Condition of the parking lot and ease of driving in and out
  • Attractiveness, condition, and cleanliness of the building (if there is one)
  • Manner of activities in the assembly (including perceived “style”)
  • Denominational overlay (whether acknowledged or not)

I prefer my parking lots to be paved, but that’s not too big a deal.  I do actually reject some churches as potential “homes” based on such surface-level elements as signage.

A recognized denominational name on the sign?  Although I try to be un-denominational, some signs can lead me instantly to reject a church as a possibility for me.

A narrow-minded message?  If a sign advertises “fundamental” or “KJV only” (or some such), I can know I wouldn’t be accepted there and would end up either being miserable or causing disunity.

I can leave some churches on the shelf, as it were, never needing to “purchase” or unwrap the “product,” although others might find value in what they’re selling.  It takes a little more time and effort to unwrap some other churches.  One church we’ve visited twice has a kind of packaging that we think might end up being deceptive, not revealing all that’s inside.  (If I’m fair, I suppose that’s true about most groups.)  We’re still not sure, but when you tear a couple corners off, the product doesn’t seem to be worth the money, so to speak.

Another church seems to have less wrapping that obscures the product.  (I wonder if “truth in advertising” laws could apply to churches?  Not really.)  This one has some nicely conceived outer packaging but also some inner wrapping that might present some problems for me.  (Oh, how I hate finally getting that first layer off the product, only to find that I have to struggle with yet another layer of wrapping.)

Yet another church, visited once recently on a special occasion, is from a brand I have “trusted” (to an extent) for many years.  I suppose that, if I’m honest with myself, I’d have to admit that I keep returning to this brand in some way because I know its history—but the Ivory isn’t always as pure as the wrapping claims, if you know what I mean.  And then, come to find out, even the best bars of this particular brand were only about 77% pure to start with.  At any rate, the packaging of this one local church included some noticeably outdated communication styles—think veggie burger in a 1950s McDonald’s wrapper or maybe hip-hop on an audio cassette.  More important than the wrapping:  the product found inside was lacking, to my eyes and ears and soul.

We’ll see how the process goes.  Maybe, just maybe, the traditional wrapping in terms of church building cosmetics will ultimately reveal a pure, purposeful, viable church group “product.”

Formation and success of movements

People in societies or sub-societies sometimes want change, and groups may band together to begin “movements.”  In music history, the Renaissance, the thought and work of the Florentine Camerata, Romanticism, Impressionism, and Neoclassicism are examples of movements.  Others could be identified, such as the educational band music quasi-movement of the 70s and 80s.

In religious history, many movements have been observed, including the the various stripes of Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the movement of Anglicans that became Wesleyan Methodism.  The religious movement with which I am most familiar, the frontier American Restoration Movement, was at one point truly a movement, manifesting both distinctive features and corporate energy.

None of those movements identified above are movements anymore.  Loosely speaking—and expanding on how I’ve heard it—the train of thought goes something like this:

  1. Some idea-germs can blossom into vital, vibrant movements.
  2. Most (if not all) movements eventually become sects.
  3. Most (if not all) sects eventually become denominations.

How to keep a good idea and a good movement alive before it crystallizes or ossifies . . . that is the question.

I’ve read with interest a recent discussion between high-profile scholar-authors Ben Witherington and Larry Hurtado about the latter’s new book which treats aspects of the formation and distinctiveness of early Christianity.  (In one sense, early Christianity was a movement within first-century Jewish religion, and it serves well for us to keep this reality in mind.)  About a third of the way through the interview, Witherington makes the following comment, and I appreciate the thoughtful analysis:

Reading your review of Stark’s 10 factors on why a religious movement succeeds, you point to the fact that the movement on the one hand must maintain some continuity with its cultural setting so it is not seen as totally alien and incomprehensible, but at the same time it must have some distinguishing features, presumably appealing distinguishing features, that set it apart from its setting, including certain behavioral demands made on insiders.  The boundaries between insider and outsider must be porous enough to readily allow outsiders in, but at the same time the identity formation must be clear enough that the difference between between insiders and outsiders is reasonable clear.

A movement, then, may “succeed” by being

  • attractive to and connected with people (appealing within a culture)
  • distinctive and demanding—worth joining because it has (1) something unique to offer to prospective adherents and (2) something to ask of them

Speaking on a practical level, a movement will also need to provide a way for people to join up.

Tomorrow:  being in the world but not of it (whatever that means)—and joining in the Way in various ways

 

An improper riddance of the proper

With proper-noun naming (denominating) comes more of a sense of formal organization, as detailed in the last post here.  A denominated group may manifest unwillingness to have its name questioned.  This was my experience when teaching a junior high Bible class as a young instructor in a Christian academy.  I had the one Bible class (along with band and choir classes I taught) and took them all very seriously; the worksheet below is one assignment I devised for the students.

8th grade test given during a course on the book of Acts at a Church of Christ school
Worksheet used during a course on the book of Acts at a CofC school

One would think that I’d’ve been applauded for asking the 8th graders to “go back to the Bible” to find various descriptions and labels for the church.  Not so.  The Bible class was actually taken away from me midstream.  In my view (obviously not that of a certain school administrator and, I suspect, some others with clout), this was an improper riddance of me as a Bible teacher.  More important, it was an improper pushing-aside of some very simple, yet significant, facts from scripture.

It is hurtful to be judged unworthy by the group from which you originate when you are only trying to bring growth.  Although I was over those particular wounds within a couple years, in a very real sense, a general anxiety in connection with potentially being judged improperly has remained with me.

Relatively consistently for a quarter-century now, I have been seriously interested in undenominational Christianity, relegating group names to a low berth if proper names must be used at all.  This is a small part of restoring and unifying, but it is a part nonetheless.

Subtle shifts to the “proper”

It can be intriguing and informative to learn of groups other than the one from which you originate.

Various groups, like “mine,” have had their struggles with restoration and unity.°  Many attempts to restore or reform have involved division and departure from larger, established groups, as well.  While that precedent is commendable, another trend is negative:  as far as I can tell, all reforming groups of any size have eventually become proper-noun institutions rather than bodies/organisms.  For instance,

The Church of God initially called itself the church of God to indicate its understanding of unity.  To my knowledge, no one has traced the shift from church of God to Church of God.[1]

That no one had historically traced the shift may indicate an apathy about institutionalization/ crystallization.  In other words, if one is content with membership in an institution, s/he might not even notice the subtle shift from church to Church over a period of years.  In my own musings and dreamings, I admit that I have at times been fixated on naming something I wanted to be a reality but didn’t yet exist for me.  Although I’m quite content in one respect simply to gather with Christians for discussion or study or a communion meal (to name a few things), at some point, I do wonder what to call the group or the meeting.  The gathering.  Our study.  The community group.  Our Christian get-together.  The practical reality is that we need nouns (sometimes, adjectives) when we refer to something.

When one “calls” oneself something, as an individual, he likely has a common-noun sense in mind.  I can call myself an erstwhile athlete, a dad, a husband, a teacher, a studyer of ancient texts, a musician.  All those labels have function or activity at their root.  When a group feels it should call itself something, though, a corner has been rounded, and the group probably then has a proper-noun sense in mind.  A group may be

  • a band . . . or The Balderdash Band
  • a team . . . or The Phillies
  • a duo . . . or The Dynamic Horn Duo
  • a church . . . or The XYZ Church

(In English, the indefinite or definite article helps to clarify the sense of the label.)

With proper-noun naming (denominating) comes more of a sense of formal organization.  When a proper-noun sense is the obvious intent of a church group, the lower-case “c” on “church” is incorrect.  It is admirable if a group wishes to retain a lower-case “c” sense of meaning, but actual retention is often elusive.  “The apparently irresistible urge to bureaucratize reflects a modern mind-set.”[4]

John Brooks of the Church of God (Holiness) argued that human law in the church was “not only unnecessary, but presumptuous.”[2]  The flyleaf of Brooks’s book describes its contents:  “a treatise on the origin, constitution, order, and ordinances of the Church; being a vindication of the New Testament Ecclesia, and an exposure of the anti-scriptural character of the modern church of sect.”  “Church of sect,” by the way, is Brooks’s term for the denominational system.[3]  Ironically, Brooks used the capital C in the first instance—presumably not to refer to his group but to “The (universal) Church,” as a whole, through the ages.  I would argue that any such capitalization tends to institutionalize rather than to focus on meaning and function.  When Luke wrote in Acts of “the way,” there were no capital letters employed, and I can’t be sure whether Luke a) wanted his readers to recognize a formal label for the new sect or b) perhaps was merely depicting function, i.e., this is the pathway for God’s people.

In speaking of the anabaptist (which might have a lower-case “a” sense when speaking of the dynamic, or a capital-letter sense when historically identifying the masses in a recognized movement), Theron Schlabach has noted, “The essence was radical discipleship and the ever-renewing church.  The structural pattern was non-structure, really:  to transcend the cultural and ecclesiastical structures that history had produced and to be a Spirit-led, constantly recreated people of God rather than an institution.”[5]  I say “yes” and label that good.

Where I land in all this, for the present (and it’s been relatively consistent for a quarter-century now), is that I am one of Christ’s, weakly trying to follow; I am shying away from institutional manifestations where I find them; and I am trying to be part of a movement.


° Some restorative groups that come to mind:  Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites; Lutherans; Oneness Pentecostals; Church of the Brethren; Church of Christ and Christian Church; and various Reformed churches.  I am not intentionally omitting any group here; I suspect that most of them (even the Roman Catholics?) would lay some claim to attempting to restore or reform something at some point.  The groups I listed are a few that have, more or less, made reformation something of a hallmark.

[1] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 134.  Emphasis on letter case mine, bc.

[2] The Divine Church (Columbia, MO.:  Herald, 1891; rpt., New York:  Garland, 1984), 27.

[3] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 136.

[4] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 126.

[5] Theron F. Schlabach, “Renewal and Modernization among American Mennnonites,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 213.

Facilities, leading, & tech observations

The hall
It’s a very nice room—about the best I can imagine for a church of this size and type.  If you are traditional enough to have pews, this is the best arrangement for them.

wpid-img_20151122_103621_665.jpg

The photo isn’t actually wide-angle enough to show what I mean, but the structure is octagonal, and one can see faces in other sections no matter where one sits.  In this room, it’s possible to feel as if you’re part of something larger than the pew-sitting group on your own row, plus the neck you might be breathing down in front of you.

The leader
The song/worship leader where we visited this morning was quite capable; I would say he’s easily in the top 1/4 of all the CofC song leaders I’ve sung with in two decades.  His planning was apparent; his manner, leaderly yet unassuming; his execution, relatively decisive yet not distracting; his voice, pleasing and not overbearing.

He led a three-song medley to begin, and this very fact clearly manifests forethought.  In churches with non-organ instruments, medleys routinely occur by default:  leaders may plan songs in the same key (D or G are favorites for guitar-driven music) and move from one into another without pause.  And/or keyboardists or guitarists may play chords lightly in the background, helping to transition to the new song while the leader makes a connecting comments.  In this a cappella church, the songs had lyrical connection and were sung without pause, but there were a few attendant issues related to key:

Song Written Key Actual Key
in which sung
∴ had flatted by this much
How Majestic Is Your Name C C
I Will Call Upon the Lord D C (- ¼ step 1+ steps
I Will Enter His Gates Eb B (ish) 2 steps (ish)

The planning was good, but the execution needed a boost.  By the time we were near the end of what should have been the most energetic song (“I Will Enter His Gates”), I was about to get on the phone to the ER docs to request a heart monitor, because the congregation’s vitals were slipping.  Said it before; saying it again:  key does matter, and especially so if you want to reap the greatest possible congregational benefit from participatory singing (whether instrumentally accompanied or not).

Two bits of sound-board wisdom from today’s experiences

  1. The levels may need adjustment for each new person.  The first announcer this morning needed more volume or gain and a bit of treble.  The worship leader pictured below was just fine.  In another place in the evening, both the speaker and the songleader’s volume were way too much, resulting in a bellowing effect.
  2. One may never know that adjustments are needed if one is sitting in an isolated booth behind glass and closed doors.  Get the mixing board into the main hall so the operator can actually hear what the rest of the people are hearing.

Technology
Now for an unexpected bit of learning.  Believe it or not, this was a new sighting for me in the context of a church gathering.

First, a backstep. . . .   Nearly a quarter-century ago, a friend named Richard was the first I saw doing it.  This man probably has genius-level IQ and had patents on microwave technologies.  He regularly brought his Mac laptop to church and used the Bible software during Bible classes and sermons.  This was of course long before many churches boasted open wireless with access to Net-based Bibles.  It was conspicuous at the time, but I thought Richard was cool.  I still feel a little conspicuous myself in church halls and Bible classes and small groups with my Android devices, but I do it because it makes sense these days.

Well, what I saw this morning was this, and it does not make visual sense, in my estimation:

wpid-img_20151122_103613_786.jpgIf you look closely (and/or enlarge the picture), you’ll see this that leader is using a smart phone to read the words.  At first blush, he seems cool.  With-it.  Hip.  Chic.  Whatever.  And he’s not likely to lose his place or stutter when the PowerPoint operator falls asleep at the helm and doesn’t change the slide in time.

But it only took me a few seconds to realize why this struck me negatively.

Look next at the pics below and tell me what you see. . . .

PhoneObsessAs with-it as those people seem to be, all engrossed in their technologically delivered data . . . as attractive and contemporary as they appear to be, they are all oblivious to ambient realities.

I am not, repeat not, saying this particular leader was oblivious.  I am saying that the sight of him looking just like all the other robots you meet on the street, in the hall of your office building, on your campus, in Walmart . . . that visual image is not desirable in one who is purportedly serving as an exemplary worshipper and usher into The Courts.

This is not a visual persona that a worship/song leader should aspire to.  He ought to be connecting visually with the people he’s actually with, in the room, in the moment.

Who knows what will be possible in the next decade?  Based on the little I know about “Google Glass,” it offers improvements over smart phones in terms of posture and what other people see, but it doesn’t rise as a beacon of hope in its potential for worship leaders.  (See here to get an idea of Glass’s use.  If you watch from about 1 minute in to 6 minutes in, you’ll get enough.  It’s cool, but I’d still rather it not be on the person’s head if I’m listening to her/him.)

For the present, leaders should probably just look at the people and the music, as needed.

Order and organization (3 of 3)

[Continued from 9/2 post, found here]

Church leadership structure may not be a particularly crucial area of Christian doctrine, but it is worthy of consideration as a practical matter.  In my personal history, most churches have had deacons.  This last installment will deal a bit with these church servants.

Deacon/deaconess/minister
The word “deacon” is a transliteration of a Greek antecedent—a word that may also be translated “minister” or “servant,” depending on context.  Sometimes, a designate-role seems implied; other times, not so much.  It might well be deduced that, in terms of function within the Body, a staff minister such as a youth minister is the same as a deacon who isn’t paid but who, say, takes care of the building and grounds:

One has one job; the other has another.
One gets paid; the other doesn’t.

I suggested this idea once and lost a friend and (staff minister) collaborator soon after.  Not that my assertion was the only cause of the separation, but the professional hierarchy of an institutional church does have its pitfalls.

Where churches have elders and deacons (and also where one or both of those subsets don’t exist), there is most almost always a man who stands and preaches sermons, along with various other roles assigned to him.  This man may be called “preacher” or “minister” or “evangelist.”  The last term, evangelist, while perhaps somewhat more intentionally biblical, rarely corresponds to actual evangelization in the biblical sense.

A few churches, including one whose website I recently browsed, have “ministry leaders” that include Christians of both genders.  Never have I known personally of a church who used the word “deaconess” to refer to someone within its midst, but the case against doing so is not strong.  If one is designated as a mere “ministry leader,” s/he is probably not paid and probably will not be respected as much as a staff person would be, yet there is much to be said for authentic ministry that is unfettered by denominational dogma, employment agreements, and the need for a salary.

Sometimes, after a few years of languishing with less ept leaders, the well-meaning preaching minister—and there are many like this—will begin to conclude that, after all, I have a gift with administration and spiritual leadership, and, yeah, I also have a degree in ministry, so doesn’t it make sense that I can serve this church better if I am recognized as an elder, too (or [muffled choking sounds from this writer] “senior pastor”)?  After all, Timothy and Titus did this kind of thing in the 1st century, sort of, so it’s justifiable, isn’t it?

It’s not entirely fair to find fault with the staff minister/preacher who reasons this way.  It’s more the people’s fault than his; they have abdicated their kingly, priestly roles in deference to a dubiously authorized high priest, a/k/a “pastor.”

Summary
The above is not by any stretch a thorough treatment of the organizational roles in churches.  It has been a mere glimpse into roles in a subset or two within Christendom.  Additional time could be spent on the nature of “membership” in an “organization,” but even using those words sours my stomach a bit.  I renounced the practice of “placing membership” a couple decades ago, preferring to let my intentions be made known by action rather than registration.

I might just mention the curiosity of being “in” but not “of” a congregation:  one relatively small denomination, an Ohio nondenominational church I visited once, and a larger denomination that friends attend in Missouri, all have at least two “levels” of membership:

First level
“covenant members” who buy in to everything

Second level
“community members” who attend and generally support but who take exception to one or more tenets and/or who aren’t as committed to the whole program

On the one hand, having two levels of membership begs the question of why one would choose to be a second-level member if s/he doesn’t buy in to the whole she-bang.  On the other hand, with all the superimposed dogma to which one is subjected in an institutional church, having a less committal version of membership may be the only way for said churches to survive.

When it comes down to it, I’m not sure that patterns of church organization seen (or hinted at) in the scant records of the primitive church were intended to be standardized.  Whatever organizational structure exists, or doesn’t exist, within a local church, I’d say two things, in order of increasing importance:

  1. A local church should use whatever organization and identified roles work for it, regardless of any larger denominational structure.  For the moment, and only for a moment, let us accede to the perverse reality that churches are businesses.  I would assert this truth for any business:  there is little validity to be found in people’s making decisions from four levels up in the off-white tower, unless they live where the people live on a regular basis.
  2. A local church should manifest the clear knowledge that no believers are in any sense to be set above any other believers.  All Christians are ministers; all Christians are priests; all Christians are saints.  There is no place for positional hierarchy within a church.  The subtle effects of the blind acceptance of de facto clergy/laity systems (on the part of blurry-visioned, lame sheep) may be more insidious in this regard than de jure hierarchies boldly emblazoned on signs and imprinted on letterhead.

Order and organization (2 of 3)

[Continued from 8/31 post, found here]

Church leadership structure may not be a particularly crucial area of Christian doctrine, but it is worthy of consideration as a practical matter.  In my personal history, all churches but one have had elders (and a few other roles designated for serving, leading, or accomplishing tasks).  This installment will deal a bit with the role designated by the word “elder.”

Elder/shepherd/bishop
An elder might also be called “shepherd.”  An even less common appellation in modern and postmodern times is “bishop.”  Each of these three words has been derived from a corresponding Greek word, and each suggests a different aspect of what one of these men might do and/or be.

Carrying the above a little further . . . I sometimes wonder whether there might be a practical separation of roles and responsibilities, according to the ranges of meaning of the terms elder, shepherd, and bishop.  In other words, maybe there could be distinct groups or individuals, delineated something like this:

  • the oldest, most respected in the church, perhaps dispensing general life wisdom and helping with life situations (elders?)
  • those who primarily cared spiritually and physically for sheep (shepherds, not necessarily the oldest wise ones in a church?)
  • tasked with decision-making and executing plans (bishops, perhaps businesspeople, but not necessarily as wise in terms of individual life or things of the Lord?)

The above, which would probably add hierarchy instead of enhancing function, is probably of little value.  One can sometimes observe that the “slate” of elders/shepherds includes one or more from each of the above types, though.  Elder and bishop are not as distinct from one another in NT usage as both of those are from shepherd.

Personally, as a teenager, I aspired to be a church elder/shepherd.  I’ve decidedly lost that desire through the years, having observed what elders are actually called on to do in most churches.  (It’s not enough for me that there are good groups of elder-shepherds who regularly use meeting time to pray together for people.  Through no particular fault of any individuals, the working model is off kilter in pretty much every church I’ve been a part of.)

Speaking pragmatically, most congregations’ institutional needs require a bunch of folks to make decisions—usually by group vote or consensus.  That bunch of folks is usually the group of elders/shepherds, although there is little to no biblical precedent for elders’ functioning as a group.  Yes, fiscal decisions must be made, and program decisions may arguably fall within the realm of spiritual shepherding, but it’s not necessary that either of those fall to elders.  It’s a shame when deacons and other “ministry leaders”—not to mention Jane and Joseph Pewpacker—aren’t empowered more often to do these things.  If there were less organizational hierarchy and less of a business model, the elders/shepherds could care more for individual sheep and for the flock as a whole.

Next:  Deacon/deaconess/minister, member, and a couple of bold summary statements