Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
August 13th, 2015 by Joel Watts

is there a “corporate voice” (and authoritative) in the Church (or denomination)? Does it matter?

English: An old Methodist church, a week after...

English: An old Methodist church, a week after its last worship service, in Ceylon, Minnesota. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often hear that the “voice of the Holy Spirit” is more important than the “voice of the church” — as if they are separate — especially in matters where the losing minority is loud and angry. In The United Methodist Church, the “voice of the church” is signified by one thing: the Book of Discipline. This is the voice of the General Conference, attended by delegates elected from the annual conferences. The GC votes on things, based on a majority (and sometimes supermajority).

The point made here is that if the Church does not make decisions as a ‘body’ and with ‘universal intention’ where that is appropriate; or if it leaves everything to civil legislation or individual conscience, Christian people may be left without a sense of direction in matters of common interest and importance.

They are persuaded that the silence of the corporate voice of the Church supplies to her members a powerful temptation, and sometimes imposes a necessity, to act upon their own individual opinion, in opposition to the letter of the law. They appeal to experience in proof of the inadequacy of a mere civil legislation to meet the ever-varying requirements of a religious system which … extends into every quarter of the globe.1

I am not an individualist. Rather, I believe that in any society based on democratic principles (namely voting), then we must do things corporately, even if our side lost. Does this make sense? If we believe in Scripture, then the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church (Ephesians 2.22). The Church is supposed to be unified (Ephesians. The entire book).

Unlike Catholicism, protestants have no central “living voice.” We can suggest it is Scripture (but do we really want to go there?). Rather, the voice of the Holy Spirit is recognized (logically) in our various denominations as the voice of the majority (supposedly making decisions based on Scripture). Why is it, then, that we feel that our voice is the voice of the Holy Spirit, even when (or, especially when?) it is the losing side repeatedly? And why, in a voluntary association, does this give us license to rebel against the majority and the actual voice of the Church, even to the point of breaking our vows, something without a doubt is an abomination in the eyes of God?

And yes, while my focus here is The United Methodist Church, likewise this can be directed against American political institutions (but, you know, with the Holy Spirit).

  1. G. R. Evans and J. Robert Wright, The Anglican Tradition: A Handbook of Sources (London: SPCK, 1991), 312–313.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

6 Responses to “is there a “corporate voice” (and authoritative) in the Church (or denomination)? Does it matter?”
  1. Know More Than I Should says

    Where is voting found in the Bible? More specifically, where does the scripture say, “Thou shalt vote” or words to that effect?

    In Exodus, Moses appoints lieutenants.

    Granted, Deuteronomy 1:13 speaks of choosing wise men to head tribe. Yet, it also says leaders will be appointed leaders.

    Deuteronomy 17:14-20 speaks of the problems of kings. In fact various verses in the Old Testament address wicked rulers. Conversely the New Testament exorts Christians to obey those in authority.

    Consequently if voting is not found in the Bible, then why use it to determine church decision-making?

    • So, lots would be better?…..
      Acts 1
      “23And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. 24And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show of these two the one whom thou hast chosen, 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas fell away, that he might go to his own place. 26And they gave lots for them; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles”

      I wonder if lots would work with three democrats and 16 republicans running for president? Half are crazy. So 50% chance of having a crazy president. I love it! Biblical is not necessarily sensible.

    • Fine comment. Better to know more than you should than to know more than is actually true… 😉

      Those who are serious about the shape of the Church in the C21 should not hesitate to reconsider all the basic presuppositions of the dying churches, lest their mistakes be perpetuated. Personally, I think historians of the future will agree that the uncritical use of popular political thought to reorder the household of faith in America was an inexorable sin of the C18-19 that came home to roost in the C20-21.

      It was inexorable because the fast organization of newly-conquered territory– did you think that its inhabitants just gave it to us so that they could run casinos?– required something ‘plug & play,’ a ‘kit of parts’ that churches of busy invaders with shallow social roots and no cultural roots at all could deploy quickly. It has come home to roost because the governance arrangements that minimally organized all the conquered territory in the same way lack the legitimacy to settle the deep social, indeed cultural and civilizational, questions of today.

      (1) Voting is about equitable representation, not truth. People who vote in church conventions may find that wonderfully meaningful– or not– but others view that much as they view scientists voting Pluto in, then out, then back in the solar system. It’s about the scientists; Pluto is unchanged.

      (2) New England, Appalachia, and New Mexico are as different as England, Macedonia, and Cyprus. For what theological reason should they be governed together in matters as personally intimate and culturally contextual as religion? The Protestant churches along any town’s main street have deep differences with co-denominationalists in other regions that they do not have with each other, despite their traditional differences. Large denominations that have bases in one or two regions and offshoots elsewhere are ‘national’ in name only.

      (3) From antiquity, the Church has generally ordered herself around political provinces that usually correspond to actual human communities. But in undivided churches, this was to facilitate mission to those communities in just the way that our divisive hierarchies of conventions make impossible. Especially if one accepts the branch ecclesiology of the OP, the Yankee Doodle voting-and-representation thing does not have the gravitas to warrant these divisions.

      Now even on their own terms, there is a mindset in which one can reject these arguments. One could be a sort of theological drifter not really expecting churches to have truths, not thinking of religion as part of intimate cultural life, and not concerned that denomination facilitate racial and social divisions as well they do. What those angry minorities the OP mentions are concluding is that the majorities for whom conventions seem to be ends in themselves have this mindset. Do they?

      • Postscript– We could reframe ‘the regional question’ as a consequence of sola scriptura much as the Augsburg Confession (1530) did.

        The scriptures show all that is necessary to salvation, and the catholic Church is custodian of those scriptures and that truth. But everything else that contibutes to church life is an adiaphoron over which no single earthly authority is appointed by God (cf the several patriarchs of Orthdox churches). Therefore, in matters not necessary to salvation, Germans (and other Europeans in the northwest) are entitled to order their affairs locally. The pope’s claim to jurisdiction north of Italy confuses ancient Roman imperium with an eternal divine order.

        One analogy is obvious. North America’s denominations are generally dividing along enduring regional lines over issues that are not generally conceded to be truths necessary to salvation. This does not mean that the issues are not important, nor that the scriptures do not speak to them. But there is no necessary reason to expect a dozen different cultures to apply the scriptures in the same way on secondary questions. Denominations may have a responsibility as patrons of scholars, hymnwriters, etc of their traditions, much as the popes of the C16 did. But as in the C16, that gives them no intrinsic administrative authority anywhere outside whatever headquarters building they own.

        Another analogy is subtle. The Augsburg Confession came 13 years after Luther nailed up the 95 Theses. In that time, a regional consensus had been reached on an appropriate order of things for several German territories. The formal point of the AC is to ask for recognition of this local order. Similarly, the most constructive move for would-be reformers today is mostly, not in changing the denominational epiphenomena of our regional religious lives, but rather in taking local churchways ands the lives they form in Christ seriously.

      • Know More Than I Should says

        Truth is relative. Actuality is the problem.

        Given enough time, a couple of witnesses to a single event can generate half a dozen versions of what happened. None of those may be wholly accurate. Yet, each telling will usually contain some element of fact.

        Churches in the 21st century are dying for several reasons. Among them are:

        — Christianity over-promised.

        — Faith under-delivered.

        — Preachers chased money as well as skirts.

        — Denominations confused politics with gospel.

        — Christians became sanctimonious.

        One might also add that among the truly abysmal failures of churches in America is in the arena of marriage and family.

        Much like economics, religion in American life follows a boom and bust cycle. As with stock brokers, preachers are always waiting for the next bull market (Great Awakening) for what they’re peddling.

        Churches attracted what they became — shallow, mindless, and insipid individuals in search of simple solutions to complex problems. If there is one thing Bill Graham’s crusades proved, it is that easy faith through evangelical mass hysteria has feet of clay. Never mind that Preacher Billy was selling politics rather than religion!

        Pluto’s problem wasn’t what it was — or even what it wasn’t. Rather Pluto got plutoed because of the company it kept. That association consisted of the Kuiper asteroid belt. Most likely, had Pluto been a stand-alone blob of rock and ice, it would still be classified as a planet.

        Numbered among the more significate disasters of religion in human history has been a tendency to take itself too seriously. In the hands of shrewd manipulators, religion went from being a way of explaining life to being a mechanism of controlling every aspect of life. While this strategy may work for a while, it eventually becomes too self-serving to be sustainable.

        As for addressing the itemized issues:

        1) As in American politics, voting may be little more than an effort to give people the illusion of having a voice. Often, it is little more than a safety valve for discontent. Meanwhile, the real decisions are made behind the scenes.

        In November of presidential election years, American voters go to the polls supposedly to elect a new president.

        Regardless of whom the voters choose to occupy the Oval Office, every likely winner has been prescreened by someone with deep pockets and a vested interested in the outcome of the election. When this is not the case, the candidates would be reduced to write-in status.

        Furthermore, as evidenced by the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, this process is further removed from the voters’ hands by the constitutionally mandated Electoral College. In other words, the candidate receiving the most votes doesn’t always win!

        Now, take selection of the minister for theoretical denominational church as another example. While church members may vote to for the candidate of their choice, members only get to vote on those individuals approved through some pre-selection process beyond their control.

        Even decisions arising within the church are often defined by narrowly selected options. Many are simply reduced to NO or YES voting on a particular issue. Rarely are pew sitters permitted the luxury of engaging in fully informed independent research of a full panoply of possibilities.

        2) Much like political parties, denominations have their regional bases. In this regard, churches are certainly not unique!

        Yet, despite attempts by cults and Catholics to claim otherwise, churches are voluntary associations. Even worse for early 21st century churches, frequently for reasons listed above, religion is a buyer’s market in which church cash registers are ringing up NO SALE regardless of region of the county.

        3) Although it began as a religion of slaves, since at least the fourth century Christianity has more typically been are religion of masters. Entire mythologies have been built around this central theme.

        Chief among 20th century American mythologies was the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Although popular at the end of World War II, when the United States seemed immeasurably blessed by wealth and invincible, the idea has lost much of its luster over the intervening decades.

        Much of the anger in white churches originates from those still, in their minds at least, living in the 1950s.

  2. Joel, I’m glad that I recently found your blog. Though I cheerfully disagree with you in this case, your posts never disappoint

    The method of bottom-up, gathered consensus (eg ‘yearly meetings’ of the Religious Society of Friends) is more compatible with Protestant faith than flatly majoritarian voting schemes. And there may be even better alternatives than that.

    Protestant confessions usually point out that neither popes nor councils have the final authority in the Church. If you are a Protestant, you do not believe that this has changed or can change.

    More generally, Christians believe that their churches are called both to participate in Christ’s reconciling work and to be ruled by the Holy Spirit. Majoritarian synods are not congruent with their faith. A body that marginalizes its own members to reach out to the marginalized of society or to purify its ranks of non-conformists is not quite what Jesus started in Galilee.

    So in the face of majoritarian mechanisms, especially those in which the majority is one pole of an enduring polarization, minorities are right to protest that the Holy Spirit’s authority has been flouted, and sometimes right again to insist that they have in fact been expelled from the body.

    Apart from that, polarized majorities are likely to get big things wrong. Very often the seed of the most Christ-like response to events is not in either pole of a disagreement, but in common ground that both sides neglect in heated controversies. The Quakers are right to insist that the Holy Spirit works as the unity of the body incorporates the insights of dissenters, and that he illumines our understanding on a calendar of his own that generally frustrates that of zealous partisans and order-loving majoritarians.

    It appears to me that the generations of Christians who set little parliaments in charge of churches did so for three understandable reasons that have not stood up to history. (1) They thought of these bodies as unintrusive instruments of equitable governance. With the passing years they have become doctrinal and moral authorities without a plausible Protestant basis for being this. (2) God did not inspire eg General Conference; grand representative assemblies were a fad of Yankee Doodle nationalism. The military conquest of North America dictated political organization that prioritized unity across territory, and the founders of mainline denominations just copied them. Today, we can see that this abstract Americanness gives too little voice to the strong regional affinities among Christians that actually animate church life more. (3) The founders were founding easily-replicable, one-pattern-fits-all governance for the frontier, not anticipating the right sort of sea-to-shining-sea order for a post-Christian society. There are likely several good templates, and none are likely to be invented by a parliamentary committee; rather they will emerge on the ground in places where nobody would look for them, and will spread from there on their merits. Indeed, the little parliaments serve the Church best as the Kingdom’s world fairs.

    While the decline of the mainline has several causes, of course, it does not seem unreasonable to me to point to this as a hidden one: just because these denominations are part of Americana, their members have been unable to get and maintain critical distance from their polities. Scrapping majoritarianism is the beginning of ecclesial maturity.

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