19 April 2012

is there a hubris in congregationalism?

Especially in the last year or so I have been struggling with congregationalism, a system of church with which I have been involved for pretty much my entire life.  I am ordained in the Brethren tradition, one that is deeply rooted in the notion of local church autonomy.  So much so that I am not entirely certain why there is a denomination above any of our local churches - there exists no polity that can make any denominational decision affective to any congregation at anytime.

Before I continue, a word to those who are possibly thinking that this is a positive setup, inasmuch as you have undoubtedly hit the wall in the other direction, namely, the layers and layers of church government and authoritarianism have made church leadership in your context unbearable.  Let me say that I recognize two items at the outset: 1) no system of church structure or governance is perfect; 2) each system of church structure or governance has its benefits and its detriments.  My comments here are directed at a certain strain of congregationalism which has some serious flaws that need to be identified.

Why would I think that there is a hubris to congregationalism?  A few reasons have developed through my own reflection and experience.  First, there is a lack of intentional connection to the wider body of believers.  Those churches which operate independently of other congregations (and not all congregational churches are this far, but many of us are even when we say we are not).  Second, there is a lack of intentional connection to the traditions of the church, most specifically liturgical practice and creedal affirmation.  Third, there is a lack of intentional connection to church leadership and discipline, especially for those who are leaders in the congregation.  Fourth, as a result of these (and possibly other) factors, there seems to be an internal hubris to doing church as independent congregations that is uncommunity and thus unbiblical.

First, any believer who is not connected with other believers is missing out on a vital element of the Christian experience.  Namely, that this is a community of faith that is designed to be such out of the unity of the Trinity, now given to us through the Holy Spirit in the person of Christ.  From the outset there can be no such thing as lone-ranger-Christianity, by definition.  Why are we so quick to think that a church body can then be intentionally cut off from other believers?  (This particular issue breaks right through the wall here, for it indicts every level of congregation and denomination in modern America for making Sunday morning a competition or marketing campaign rather than a joint effort for the kingdom of God.)  When we make this part of our modus operandi we are saying that we don't need each other. 

Second, there is a good amount of theological discussion going on right now about the creeds and their place in the history and life of the church.  While working through my ordination, I was taught that the Brethren do not accept any creeds, for they are manmade works and not inspired Scripture.  I was taken back by this, but understood how this sentiment could be taken.  But even something as simple as the Apostles Creed was rejected, because it did not mention anything about the life of Jesus.  I agree, that this is the one major flaw of this creed, but is it worth the rejection of all of the other statements that are found in it?  One of the results here is that many people who do not recite the creed as part of their rhythm of worship simply cannot articulate the main points of their faith, and often do not ponder them in their daily routines.  Much like the church in Ephesus (Rev 2), we might have won a theological war but we have lost the behavioral war.

Third, although no (well, I suppose everything exists somewhere) congregational church would outrightly be founded on the principle of being as undisciplined believers as we want to be, this has happened behind the masking or it has been the case of deterioration in many instances.  In other words, even though there are many benefits to congregationalism, one of the areas that needs to be particularly guarded is that of church conflict.  Without the benefit or backing of denominational leadership, these situations typically become a free-for-all, and are breeding grounds for all sorts of behavioral bacteria that cancer away at a congregation for years.  (This isn't to say that denominational leadership hasn't done its fair share in screwing things up, but it is more prevalent where there are no official referees.)  Much of this rests upon the pastors and church leaders who, at some point, are typically happy to be left alone from things they would rather not do.  But there is a spiritual discipline that comes from doing things that one would rather not do, so long as it is with a purpose.  Sadly, most congregational structures don't provide this, and pastors typically drift away from interest.

My conclusion is that this situation has given a certain amount of hubris within the congregational church.  For pastors, they have often fit into this context by reaching the conclusion that their expertise is better than what they can learn from other pastors or church leaders, so they stay within their shells.  For churches that have decided that the creeds are useless and that the liturgy is an archaic system of Roman Catholic spiritualities (or something like that), they are shunning more than two thousand years of church tradition - built upon another six thousand years of Jewish liturgy, most of which was ordained by God himself.  Why?  Because we know the true Scripture, whereas everyone else in the history of the world before us did not.  And the lack of unity is simply the outworking of our know-it-all, be-it-all thinking.

Anecdotally, my observations are that this context has solidly contributed to the movement of young men and women into more liturgical traditions, even from evangelicalism to the Roman Catholic church.  Much of this movement isn't fueled by orthodoxy, but by orthopraxis.  I know firsthand that rather than stay and fight within the broken (and breaking) system of congregationalism, it is far better to migrate toward those who can usher me into the place I ought to be.  This is not necessarily the resignation from my own congregational tradition - if you read closely above, there is nothing that impedes my church's autonomy to keep me from doing such - but rather an abandonment of its leadership in the quest to discover a new world of faith.  Those who are under my congregational care desire much of the same, for I have slowly introduced them to the wider picture of the church (i.e., prayers, liturgies, creeds) over the last few years.  Their thoughts?  Wow.  (and, Something's wrong with how we've been doing it all these years.)

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