This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Emergent Post-Christendom Polity?

Under Christendom the church was structured to serve the empire.  It was centralized, hierarchical, and geared to produce the uniformity the empire required, accomplish the missions assigned to it by the empire, and diminish dissent.  The church assumed the form and mission that the empire demanded of it.    

Even in democratic systems there remained this common assumption that the churches would consider and do whatever is good for society as the rulers of society understood it.  In a democracy the rulers of society are the people, which means that the church reflects the will and sensibilities of the majority of the people.  This bias has so infected our churches that many often automatically think that the people are the highest authority, not God.  

If Christendom demanded an imperialistic framework for the church, then what kind of ecclesiology will we see emerging now that Christendom no longer functions?   I suspect that our churches will start to look more like marginal, minority, alternative communities, and less like pillars of cultural conformity and imperial power.  Christian communities will be increasingly rooted in counter-cultural practices which emphasize and embody an identity distinct from that of the majority.  

I wonder if the example of the Jewish community provides any insight here.  For centuries, while the Christian churches were mimicking the empire in their polity, the Jewish communities within the same empire were organized differently.  Having little or no investment in the empire or its power, the Jewish communities were more diverse, decentralized, flexible, and small.  They were free to order their lives according to their own understanding of their identity and mission.  They did not have their mission assigned to them by the powers that be.  (Although they certainly had the limits to their mission imposed upon them.)  

Rabbinic Judaism, with its deepest roots in the Babylonian Exile, was well-suited to the situation of a scattered and oppressed religious minority.  Counter-cultural practices had already been developed — kosher laws, circumcision, Sabbath, etc. — that enabled the communities to maintain a distinct identity as a persecuted minority.  (Stanley Hauerwas has said somewhere that the Jewish synagogues were far more in tune with what Jesus had in mind than the imperial church.  I think he is right.)

I suspect that the emerging polity will both transcend and include elements of the three historic polities in the church: congregational/democratic, presbyterian/representative, and episcopal/monarchical.  I also anticipate a looser, more networked format, with local faith communities and ministers voluntarily aligning themselves in “movements” that emphasize different approaches, styles, perspectives, and theological outlooks.

I wonder if polity doesn’t reflect the approach the church has to the Scriptures.   If we have had democratic, representative, and monarchical frameworks in the past, perhaps the future will be more “dialogical,” to use Walter Brueggemann’s term.  That is, instead of a polity which is oriented towards producing the single, consistent, enforceable meaning required by the empire, we may see a polity which is more energized by the way different voices are held in tension/balance, in an ongoing, contextual discernment process.  It will be less legal.  (We Presbyterians no longer call our regional units “judicatories.”  The current nomenclature, “governing bodies,” is also being seriously questioned.  The proposed Form of Government will call such units “councils,” which is a considerably more dialogical, consultative, and interactive term.)

The link between hermeneutic and polity calls for more exploration.  But I am liking the idea of the emergent hermeneutic and polity being described by the word “dialogical.”  


Doug said...

Paul: I like what you are writing here about emerging polity. You write, "I also anticipate a looser, more networked format, with local faith communities and ministers voluntarily aligning themselves in “movements” that emphasize different approaches, styles, perspectives, and theological outlooks." This reminds me of something I have been thinking a lot about. Every time I use the word "movement" as you do here, I remember that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote somewhere, maybe Life Together, that we need to beware of people who form "movements" rather than
understand themselves as a part of the one church. I invite you to write about this. I agree with you and with Bonhoeffer, but not sure how to reconcile the two thoughts.

Paul Rack said...

I was using the term "movement" in the sense of the way Judaism is segmented into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. A rabbi friend of mine used to refer to these as "movements."

I do understand however the importance of not loving the organic nature of the church. And it is frustrating. Part of me (the Stated Clerk part) wants to defer to the wisdom of the gathered church, even when that wisdom is contrary to where I feel the Spirit calling. Another part (the Shaman part) wants to leave all that behind and move into the emerging model.

I haven't balanced them, just hold them in tension right now. I also wonder if the two -- movement and one church -- are mutually exclusive, or if the church cannot be big enough to hold movements. "Hold" meaning not necessarily stuff in a box, but more in the sense of keep in an orbit however distant and eccentric.