Ever wonder why there is such a stark difference in church polity (how churches conduct their operations)? Some, even among evangelicals, have full-blown denominational structures. The church is run by pastors, elders, presbyters, and bishops. These are they who chart the course for church operations and manage the qualifications of pastors and teachers. These fellowships also tend to be the liturgical fellowships where there are strict controls on communion and where children are baptized.
Then there’s the rest of us. Our churches are independent of each other. Sometimes they never talk, even for years on end.
We see these things but how did we get here? It’s been a long journey and has taken us several hundred years. Let’s start with the days when there were but two major churches, Rome and the Eastern rite fellowships. Oh, there were other smaller groups like the Antiochan Orthodox, Coptics, and others. But the two largest and most powerful were in Southern Europe. They held tightly to government and at times even behaved like civil government.
Whether some of that was necessary is up for debate. After the fall of the Roman empire the turmoil in the region left the continent a mess. (They really never had full control over those Germans.) Europe seemed to be in constant turmoil for several centuries. The Roman church barely survived the Gothic invasion, the Huns, and other assaults. Europe needed a stabilizing force with no more Caesar to guide the continent.
But things did stabilize, finally. No, things weren’t perfect. But by the 12th century they were generally stable. To the south was the ever-pesky problem of Islam with their regular attempts at incursions into Europe. And internally there was a lack of identity. Though the Holy Roman Empire generally united central Europe that left half the continent on its own. But even internally the HRE was filled with problems.
Strong men always seek more power. In the 17th century the northern part of the HRE was shaken. A group of men each attempted to form their own nation-state within the empire. This was a new venture. Up until this time a “nation” represented a larger tribal area and the concept was mostly an ethnic matter. Now a nation became whatever land area the ruler could take control of. These kings were independent.
But what fueled this? A couple centuries before that we had this thing called the Renaissance. This was in Southern Europe. But it wasn’t a short-term event. It was a mindset that allowed the individual to live independent of the authority of the church. One might say that the theme could be encapsulated in the phrase of De Cartes, “cogito ergo sum.” “I think, therefore I am” finds the identification of self in one’s ability to think. This is more than just a philosophical speculation. It represents the independence of the individual apart from creation and apart from dominant ecclesiastical and governing authorities. You became free because your mind was free.
The Renaissance placed a heavy emphasis on the human as supreme, at times even at the exclusion of God. One only need not the art of era and the human perfection portrayed in the paintings and sculptures of the period. But that stuff was expensive. A good artist isn’t cheap. How was it all paid for?
Well, that’s what prompted more individualism in Northern Europe. When the Roman church was trying to raise money by selling God’s grace, Luther exploded. He was of course a bit of a bombast but that’s what it took to challenge Rome’s immorality. They didn’t listen to Pelagius on sexual immorality and they didn’t listen to Luther on theological error.
Luther’s response opened a door. Roman was, and to some degree rightly so, whether the individual should be free to draw his/her own conclusions from the Bible without consulting the church and its authority for the correct answer. This could lead to all sorts of problems. To this Luther replied “So be it.”
And here we are. The Renaissance with its secular emphasis on the individual and the Reformation with its theological emphasis on the individual. Add to that the Anabaptist complete rebellion against ecclesiastical structures and you have evangelical and fundamental church polity today.
The final, the most significant, political rebellion against secular authority was certainly the American Revolution. The theme might be stated as, “We can govern ourselves justly. We don’t need a king. The individual is king.” We call this The Great Experiment. And things have been progressing quite nicely. We had a correction in the beginning when we figured out that a confederation of states was insufficient so we changed to a central constitutional republic. Then in the mid 19th century one group tried to return us to a confederacy. That didn’t work.
Then there was the French Revolution, but that fizzled. The emphasis was on the individual but only so far as the authorities would allow. This gave Europe its Napoleon and another voice (Marx) who sought to return people to a effective feudal economy with an even more powerful central government, complete with central planning. The French experiment was a bit of a flop.
In the 18th century many churches saw this individualism as necessary. (Read “The Democratization of American Christianity” for a rich picture.) Churches intentionally adopted governing systems that paralleled what civil government was doing. They were becoming democratic.
Just as in Europe there was a rebellion against ecclesiastical authority this continent was in no sense isolated from that situation. American churches, those which are historically evangelical and non-liturgical, tend toward a high level of isolation and independence. If you’ve ever heard the joke where “seminary” is confused with “cemetery” you have already been introduced to the rebellion. One is to trust one’s self and not the higher authorities.
There’s another phrase that goes half-way. “People don’t need to know how much you know but need to know how much you care.” Consider this a half-truth. Yes, people need caring and that’s never to be dismissed. But people also need a vision and an understanding of God’s work and Word. Avoid creating the false dichotomy of separating the two. It may reduce your impact for the kingdom.
One irony is how many of these who rebel against serious theological education also depend on Scofield’s notes in their Bible.
This anti-intellectualism is part of the life of many churches. It is now part of our DNA. You can see a symptom of this in the pro-life movement. It is the strong ecclesiastical system of Rome that has generated the greatest involvement in the movement while the independent and individualistic churches have but a small public voice.
This is not merely a church situation. Look at our culture and education. We might make fun of East coast schools not keeping score in games and not grading people because it might harm them emotionally without realizing that this reflects the same individualism and anti-intellectualism that afflicts the church. As a result, colleges are having to teach 8th grade math to students as they enter.
If you’ve watched the “news” over the past few decades, and thought about it, you’ll notice that the content is programmed, scripted, and completely planned out. Much of it is even syndicated around the country. In the thirty minutes of your late news you’ll get roughly 12 minutes of it in commercials, 2-3 minutes of weather, 3-5 minutes of sports, for a total of about 20 minutes. What comes in the other ten? There will be one syndicated piece for three minutes. Expect 1-2 minutes of commentary. In other words there’s not much to learn at all. We’re not being taught. We’re being sold something in place of education in local and global events. That something is found in the emotionally- and politically-driven themes you hear.
America is filled with, not stupid people, but uneducated, untrained, undisciplined people. A lot of people want to learn and are eager to do so.
Nobody likes church discipline. But it can’t exist in an individualistic society. A few years ago in Tulsa, a woman was under church discipline so she left and went to another church. The first church reported that to the second church. She sued. She won. This is the price of an individualistic society and individualistic church life.
In historic terms, the church is the place of fellowship, of proclamation, of training, and of discipline. Subtract discipline and you have a Bible study. The church is not merely “where two or three are gathered” as that passage was a discussion of, you guessed it, church discipline. It is about what the church does, not what the church is. We are to gather for multiple reasons.
Education in church is critical. Discipline is largely missing. Proclamation is hit-and-miss. Joe Bayly’s “The Gospel Blimp” has been moved from satire to training manual. At best, for many, proclamation is merely public service rather than a guide into fellowship and the kingdom. We do public acts and serve the community but, in many cases, without either a mention of the gospel and certainly without a call into fellowship. We instead pay a proxy, a para-church organization, to do our actual evangelism for us. Never mind that in their libertarianism they seldom funnel people into church life. We pay to perpetuate the problem.
How do we fix this? I’ve got ideas but no solutions. Certainly improving local church education is a start. A rich education in theology, philosophy, history, and of course the Bible will enrich all. After that, do things together. Pray together. Fellowship together. Build a body life. Build toward proper discipline.