Friday, November 21, 2008

Unorganized Reflections on the Loss of the Authority of the Church

Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the loss of the authority of the church. One of my favorite writers, Stanley Hauerwas, is one of the foremost expositors of the need for the church to reclaim its authority, so he is one reason for my reflection. Another is a handful of recent situations that have served as catalyst to considering the witness of the church in a place and time like modern America.

Specifically, what does it mean for the church to be the church in a land mostly self-identified as "Christian," wherein even in a small town one might find at least a dozen different denominations available to churchgoers? Is it possible for churches in such a context to retain and foster the kind of communal discipline that both shapes healthy formation and can adjudicate conflict?

For example, the New Testament offers numerous examples of the ways in which conflict ought to be addressed in church. Before even taking a look at those examples, we must recognize the way the context shapes the approaches. In the first century, to have heard and believed the gospel, to have been baptized and welcomed into the covenant community, to have been initiated into God's new all-nations people, to have chosen to worship this one true God and to follow this one true Lord and to receive this Holy Spirit -- that was quite a distinction between "old" and "new," "then" and "now." It was a serious decision with serious implications -- financial, social, familial, religious, societal, etc. Thus if conflict were to arise, there was no possibility of packing up and shipping out to the next church down the road: you were in this for life. Like a marriage, the only exit was divorce, and when divorce means leaving God's own people -- having given up everything -- that's not a viable option apart from losing one's faith.

So, just like a family, for better or worse, once you made the decision, you were in. No turning back now.

That helps explain why so much of the New Testament centers on church conflict -- a now-converted slave has run away in Philemon/Colossians, the Galatians are being deceived, the Philippians have two members at odds, the Romans are dealing with ethnic differences, the Corinthians have messed up just about everything. In nearly every instance, the plea from the apostle is for the church to remember its story, to reconcile over differences, to be of one mind, to serve one another after the paradigm of Christ, and for the church as a body to, essentially, "work it out" -- that is, the problem must be dealt with, because it's not going away on its own. Such a reality results, at least in one occasion in 1 Corinthians 5, in a member being excommunicated. (Even then, it is with the hope that he will realize his sin, repent, and re-enter the community.)

It is difficult to imagine sharing that worldview today. Not only am I not bound to my church, I was the one who chose it in the first place! When it stops pleasing me -- much less demands something of me (as if that "something" could be other than "voluntary service") -- I'm out, down the road to the next option in my buffet line of delectable ecclesial choices. The next row of stores in the outlet mall of religious consumerism.

There are three primary types of Christian traditions today that seem to still retain some semblance of church authority:

1) cults;
2) Catholics;
3) autonomous churches.

Of the first, we have groups like the one in El Dorado that were totally self-contained, with fanatical control over everyone present on an independent complex. I consider such instances to be both heretical and wrong, so we will leave them alone.

The second type is obvious: the Catholic Church has a clear hierarchy, essential beliefs to which one must give assent, and inessential beliefs with which one may disagree, and issues of authority and discipline have been and are enacted on a regular basis.

The third example includes traditions like Anabaptists, Congregationalists, and my own, churches of Christ. Some of these groups have formed semi-hierarchical/inter-congregational structures over time, but for the most part, they represent broadly a strand of "doing church" that entails each local church as an autonomous body responsible for its own doctrine, practices, and discipline.

Within this third type there are, in my opinion, some of the best and the worst displays of church authority and discipline. On the one hand, because the local church is "the" church for members and it is free to make decisions about said members, one sees a remarkable degree of profound spiritual formation in these communities. Not only that, but if a member is found to be in sin of some kind, the elders (or fellow members) will openly approach and confront the person in the hope that he or she will confess and repent the sin and find forgiving reconciliation with both the congregation and whomever he or she sinned against.

(Now, even formulating the account that way begs the question of experience: Has it ever really gone that way? The answer is obvious: not too often. But I know it has happened, and that is the biblical teaching, and implementing structures based on the assumption that it "isn't realistic" or that it has been abused in the past does not seem to me a wise move, insofar as those structures or assumptions disallow the possibility that Jesus' teaching might actually work.)

Because, on the other hand, we all know of a thousand examples of the abuse of ecclesial authority, and the severe and lasting effects -- literally down through multiple generations -- on members on the receiving end. Thus churches of Christ share a collective memory in which there is a kind of constant hum of fear of excommunication for the tiniest of offenses. And that still goes on today, in my own and numerous other traditions.

So I don't want to engage in mythologizing or romanticizing the idea -- long lost in that "wonderful world" of Christendom/Christian America/whatever -- of church authority. I only want to think about what it would look like for churches not to act as one of a dozen equally valid institutions in which individuals choose to partake and over which those individuals have unquestioned authority. How could the church ever be faithful in such a context?

Which leads me to gently lament the schism of the Reformation. The Catholic Church has its flaws and the Reformation happened for a hundred reasons, many of them valid, but the disunity and denominationalism -- and therefore loss of identity, authority, and power of God's people -- resultant from that event, so disastrously infectious in its territorial expansion and philosophical prevalence in the hearts of Christians everywhere, reminds us that the breach of God's church is not an event of celebration. Even if it or subsequent splintering was ever -- in whatever sense we might define it -- necessary, it ought to make us sad, it ought to provoke regret, it ought to instill lament, and not joy.

The Catholic Church, if it is anything, is coherent. We non-Catholic Christians are often and usually unknowingly incoherent. A primary marker of our incoherence is our inability to form communities in which the authority of the church speaks in any way distinguishable from cultural institutions and forces. May we return to Scripture, and to unity, and to the history of the church, and learn again what it means to be God's people; what, that is, it means to be holy.

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