How the Organized Church Changes, Part 5 (Conclusion)

In the previous blogs Dave Thomas showed how religious entities shift from movements to institutions. One of the key elements of that shift is the move from persuasive power to coercive power. That shift is not planned, but tends to happen because coercive power is more efficient and gets things done. But when managerial power is applied to matters of faith and belief, it tends to produce compliance and duplicity rather than genuine faith. In this concluding blog, Thomas offers some implications of his study for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Jon Paulien)

Any essentially voluntary organization that makes the shift from invitation to mandate in matters of faith brings about a subtle but substantial change in its own nature. It moves, without careful consideration, away from the idea of church as a community of believers toward a hierarchical concept of church as a sanctified organization where centralized power is seen to be essential. In a community of believers, a “problem” is an occasion for fellowship and exhortation and discussion and invitation, for messy interactions. In an organization, it is time to find a policy by way of which compliance or non-compliance can be measured and action taken. And once that kind of shift takes place in a religious movement, it is not very long before “orthodoxy” and “heresy” get defined and life becomes very difficult for those who dissent. In so many cases, this is the very dynamic that, in the course of Christian history, brought death to those who dissented at the hands of those who persuaded themselves that by destroying the dissenters, they were only doing the work of God.

While researching this topic some time ago, I happened upon mention of a fascinating study, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, written by Walter Bauer back in 1934. According to Alistair McGrath, who cites this study, the conclusion Bauer came to is that, at least in the early Christian Church Abasic unity did not seem to be located at the level of doctrines, but at the level of relationship with the same Lord. Christian unity lay in the worship of the same Lord, rather than in the formal statement of doctrine (which is how ‘orthodox’ tends to be divined).” (Alistair McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 113) Bauer goes on to claim that, Aa variety of views which were tolerated in the early church gradually began to be regarded with suspicion by the later church. An orthodox consensus began to emerge, in which opinions that had once been tolerated were discarded as inadequate.@

The operative question immediately becomes one of how this orthodox consensus developed. Bauer=s answer is quite striking, that A>orthodoxy= was the result of the growing power of Rome, which increasingly came to impose its own views upon others, using the term >heresy= to refer to views it rejected.@ In other words, as the Bishop of Rome=s infrastructure-driven power increased, he was able to transition from invitation to mandate. He was able to take more and more initiative to himself and his office and he was able to apply greater and more substantial penalties to those who dissented. This is what brought Bauer to his conclusion, that Athe difference between orthodoxy and heresy often seems arbitrary.@ It appears to be more a derivation of the opinions of those in power than anything else. It is by this process that the Church of Rome grew to such prominence.

Clearly, the rise and role of infrastructure, how it functions and what power it grants to a few, is something that needs very careful thought in believing communities. While necessary, infrastructure in church cannot be left to function like infrastructure in for-profit companies. Is infrastructure using up too many resources? Is it limiting growth by being too fixed? Is it in harmony with an appropriate ecclesiology? Is it giving too much power to too few people? And is the power produced by infrastructure being used for management issues or is it broadly being called upon to also settle matters of belief and commitment? More pertinent to our setting, where is the Seventh-day Adventist Church in all of this? How far along in the Organizational Life-cycle are we? And what kind of language are we using to describe ourselves? How is managerial power being used? And how do we perceive organizational structure, as some kind of missional necessity, or as something quasi-sacred in and of itself? All of these things warrant careful thought and reflection. They warrant our best and collective attentions lest we thoughtlessly transition away from being a mission-driven “community of believers” to something else that probably ought not even to be named among the faithful.

One thought on “How the Organized Church Changes, Part 5 (Conclusion)

  1. Victor Lee

    Our current study in OT Wisdom Literature (Proverbs) provides opportunity to identify and understand deeper the intimate cooperative role of the Holy Spirit and Jesus, (Prov. 8:22). Careful attention to Jesus’ promise of His abiding companionship (Matt. 28:20) and confirmation of this intimate presence among the churches (Rev. 2 & 3) should help us stay concious of the intrinsic ‘organic’ nature of His relationship with the ekklesia. That necessity for intimate relationship in such an organic nature, also inferred in the botanical metaphor of John 15:5, takes on an interesting risk-taking unpredictability and dynamic characteristic in John 3:8, the unseen, humanly uncontrolled movement of the Spirit as wind. Indeed, when we stop being risk takers and become content with care-taking, we could end up as mere undertakers. I hear the Spirit speak to me and my church here.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *