Friday, December 17, 2004

Without Author|ity 6: Enough Already!

OK, I’ll be honest. I’m tired of dealing with this authority question for now. I will, however, look at it from one more angle, and then put it to bed.

The persistent question in the comments of the previous posts on this subject has been regarding authority. In fact, I saw this coming, and hence the title of the series: “Without Authority.” That’s not just a postmodern word play. I am actually giving a nod to the fact that postmodern theorists really did, in my opinion, problematize and complexify the issue of authorship – and the related issue of authority.

So I have proposed in the previous posts a kind of congregational polity – one based on a hermeneutic “from below,” and one that unmasks and marginalizes hierarchies and bureaucracies of all kinds.

That has led some to wonder about the abuse of power possible without the “accountability” of bishops, synods, and presbyteries. Well, I put the word accountability in rhetorical quotes in the previous sentence because I think the empirical evidence is clear: the accountability practiced by American Protestant denominations is a joke. One the one hand, you’ve got the Missouri Synod Lutherans defrocking a bishop for praying with Oprah at Yankee Stadium on the one hand, and on the other you’ve got a communion table in the PC(USA) that’s open to someone “who’s been divorced six times and is having sex with his dog,” in the words of one of my PC(USA) friends.

Now please don’t waste the HTML space telling me that these are rare exceptions to the otherwise utopian denominational structures. I’ve collected so many stories of really good and godly people who’ve been completely screwed by their denominations that I could start a whole new blog just for their stories. As I’ve ranted here before, these things are broken, and irredeemably so, and we’ve got to start to developing alternatives of inter-church connectionalism.

So, how do we avoid the abuse of power that comes in the type of congregational polity that I am suggesting? How do we avoid an emergent version of David Koresh?

Well, I suggest that we pay some heed to Michel Foucault. Some may be willing to write him off due to his bizarre sexual proclivities, but we dare not ignore his valuable critique of Power in human relationships. Power regimes are, Foucault argued, unavoidable when human beings get together.

If we can agree on that much, then I want to suggest that we build systems into the emergent church that are constantly unmasking those power regimes. For instance, it usually take a person with a strong personality to plant a new church with no money or denominational support. That’s good. But strong personalities also tend to censure those with whom they disagree. That’s bad. If an emergent church planter is getting too big for her britches – and there’s no bishop to step in and make things right – then there needs to be another way to unmask that abuse of power. Is it the local cohort? Is there a national or international system of accountability that can be developed?

I don’t necessarily know the answer to these questions, but I am not so idealistic as to think that they either don’t need to be answered or that the answer is going to be easy. Nor do I think we have nothing to learn from the different options that have been developed in the history of the church. We would be silly not to learn from our forbears.

I have a friend, an emergent church planter, who notoriously has problems with the theological concept of the Trinity. I think he’s wrong. Not only that, I think it’s important that he’s wrong, and thus I try to persuade him otherwise. However, I am not about to declare him “unorthodox” (whatever that means), and he is not about to freeze me out of conversation. We are in what might be called a “mutually critical dialogue.” The era of truly ecumenical church councils ended a long time ago, but maybe there’s something between worldwide church councils and a lunch conversation on the Trinity.

Can the emergent church develop a global, mutually critical dialogue in which spiritual friendship is a higher value than doctrinal correctness?

13 Comments:

Blogger Jimmy said...

One problem with the local church unmasking the power is the very nature of power itself. In a system, the powerful can only become that powerful because the others in the system fail to check it. The 'weak' become as much a part of the problem as the strong. Yet, how could a national group have the actual insight as to what was going on in a local congregation? It would only have a perspective from a distance, but not an upclose look, and thus potentially have either a distorted view or be blind to abuses of power.

It seems to me that at least emergent churches that are planted or young ought to focus heavily on 'process' as it relates to decision making. Good process that is shaped by the stories of the faith and the best modern day understandings of what constitutes a healthy group ought to help churches go a long way towards building authoritative communities, not just authoritative individuals. Wouldn't it be something if that was our paradigm? A community of character is a whole lot harder to deceive than one individual.

Emergent might be doomed to failure if it assumes that any structure or process ever used in church before must be really really bad unless of course we give it a new name and call it something different that we've made up. From my limited perspective, this failure to recognize that which has been useful in the tradition BECAUSE it has been used before is a potential weakness in emergent. alas, I ramble.

9:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First forgive me being the "common man" responding, and my lack for "ism" words. But I do agree the denominations are dead, and only divide the church. My clear example is a town called War, WV, population 1000. The town has 30-40 churches.. great, right? Well, each church has 10-15 members, bad. The problem is that each church has its own legalism, or simply lack of love among certain members that chases people to the church across the street. This is the small town example of what is happening all over the US. Any criticism to the "old guard" is considered closed mind, and look out if you state "Jesus is the only way".. then you are simply intolerant.

As for church authority, my feeling is that is rare for pastors/priets to stand up and say, "hey, I am sinner just like all of you, but lets open the Bible, try to do what is says, and walk out this journey of faith." The question is.. what as Christians will we use as our authority.. head of the local church, denomination heads, pope? To offer the Bible is considered too old school, but I believe its the ruler we must all use. People, denominations, even the "isms", come and go.. but the Bible has outlasted it all. For example.. anyone here know anyone plowing through the "Prayer of Jabez?" The "Purpose Driven Live" will take its place beside it on the bookself in a few years.

So finally to sum.. the churches that are truly growing and seeing real spirtual movements aren't entrenched denominations trying to open the door for everyone and every belief.. its those waking up that the Bible is the way to live, even making hard decisions on beliefs and daily walk. It shouldn't amaze us that God honors and blesses those churches, but it does.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Zach said...

so from what i can gather from your post, it's ok to learn from those who have "bizarre sexual proclivities"....just as long as they aren't a part of a religious denomination?

10:18 AM  
Blogger Bill Bean said...

I realize you have a lot going on but it would be great to have the whole "without authority" topic packaged into one document or post. Not sure if you have an assistant but maybe someone can help with this. You've said some helpful things in succinct fashion.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Fajita said...

It would seem that a cohort would still have a sense of authority, but in a different way than a denomination. The authority of friendship is powerful, but not binding like the authority of a bishop (I guess it could be binding, but only on whether the friendship lasts, not the minstry context). In other words, your job isn't on the line when a friend holds you to account. There is more room for honesty, dialogue, and genuine struggle when a friend, a peer, a cohort member calls you to the carpet. In fact, it is not a calling to the carpet, but rather it is a tuning - nah, it's not that either, but it is something diffferent.

Responsding to, "Yo bro, are you really doing that?" is different than responding to the letter from the powers-that-be by trying to figure out how to please them NOW and hold on to a scrap or two of integrity at the same time. In fact, there is quite possibly more power in the friend's challenge because it can come across as authentic. The friend puts himeself at risk with the rebuke while the bishop puts the minister at risk with his.

Too many minister, pastors, church workers operate in fear of something rather than a passion for something. All too often, faith loses out to fear when your paycheck is on the line. I've seen too many ministers toe the line because they've got mouths to feed and children to put through college.

With only a collection of friends, cohort fellows and so forth to serve as a source of accountability, could there be abuses? Hellllooooo!!! However, the current denominational system has nearly perfectly theological dishonesty for ministers. If the shepherd's a liar, then what are the sheep supposed to do?

If we're looking for the right way to do this, then emeregent is on the verge of becoming a denomination - YUCK! If we're looking for an improvement that could be improved later and then again later with a built in tolerance for improvement that is generous and humble and perpetual, then there is a fighting chance something good could come of it.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Fajita said...

It would seem that a cohort would still have a sense of authority, but in a different way than a denomination. The authority of friendship is powerful, but not binding like the authority of a bishop (I guess it could be binding, but only on whether the friendship lasts, not the minstry context). In other words, your job isn't on the line when a friend holds you to account. There is more room for honesty, dialogue, and genuine struggle when a friend, a peer, a cohort member calls you to the carpet. In fact, it is not a calling to the carpet, but rather it is a tuning - nah, it's not that either, but it is something diffferent.

Responsding to, "Yo bro, are you really doing that?" is different than responding to the letter from the powers-that-be by trying to figure out how to please them NOW and hold on to a scrap or two of integrity at the same time. In fact, there is quite possibly more power in the friend's challenge because it can come across as authentic. The friend puts himeself at risk with the rebuke while the bishop puts the minister at risk with his.

Too many minister, pastors, church workers operate in fear of something rather than a passion for something. All too often, faith loses out to fear when your paycheck is on the line. I've seen too many ministers toe the line because they've got mouths to feed and children to put through college.

With only a collection of friends, cohort fellows and so forth to serve as a source of accountability, could there be abuses? Hellllooooo!!! However, the current denominational system has nearly perfectly theological dishonesty for ministers. If the shepherd's a liar, then what are the sheep supposed to do?

If we're looking for the right way to do this, then emeregent is on the verge of becoming a denomination - YUCK! If we're looking for an improvement that could be improved later and then again later with a built in tolerance for improvement that is generous and humble and perpetual, then there is a fighting chance something good could come of it.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

A cohort of friendship is not only fine, but potentially very powerful and authoritative. The problem: people can and do ignore their friends and cut them off if they feel threatened. It seems to me that the process is the key. If one is going to be granted the authority to minister to a group of people, there ought to be a cohort in place to begin with. Furthermore, anyone who enters that cohort or community ought to do so with the explicit recognition that what makes the cohort/community work is mutual submission to one another.

So I'm heading down the wrong track and my entire cohort says so? Then I ought to step aside, or submit to their wisdom. If I'm a member of a cohort and I see this happening with another, then its part of my responsibility to address this with the person.

If a person isn't willing to start out with the willingness to submit to the wisdom of a cohort, she/he ought not be invested with any authority to begin with.

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tony, you propose authority "from below" but then give us a picture of a heroic individual churchplanter who can only be challenged by regional and national networks, presumably consisting of other heroic individuals. Why not challenge the myth of the heroic individual and discuss ecclesial structures that could provide relations of accountability within the congregation? In this manner, the people who are most affected by the leadership and direction of the church have the ability to hold leaders responsible for the decisions that are being made. By appealing to authorities outside the congregation, you bring in parties who couldn't possibly know the missional context within which decisions (whether doctrinal or practical) are being made and who are removed from the actual relational dynamics at play.

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Above post signed by:
Steve Bush
http://harbinger.blogs.com

7:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here’s a practical point to consider mister youth minister – when I take my daughters to Sunday school, I don’t want to be in a “mutually critical dialogue” with their teachers about such things as the Trinity or the proper behavior respecting animals. But perhaps there aren’t children in these emergent thingies of yours?

1:25 PM  
Blogger EL MOL said...

tony
here's a practical "thingie" to consider, how about making all your posts about the importance of children . . . in fact your children or that anonymous guys children better yet . . .and about how all life force (God included) should rotate around those kids . . . because in the end, they are the center of the universe and all deference should be carefully made . . .because if we want to succeed as the last two generations have in making little ones grow up with only one myopic view of the world . . . . THEIR OWN . . . .we better get started now . . .

new blog name: babyblogy

Viva La Paz

5:35 AM  
Blogger Anastasia said...

To answer Zach's question, yes it is alright to learn from people with bizarre sexual proclivities. I would add that it doesn't matter whether they belong to a religious denomination or not. You can learn from anybody.

That doesn't mean you have to believe everything they say or accept their sexuality.

I think this movement wil become a denomination or it will just...kind of...fizzle out. It will be something that the pastors of non-denominational churches talk about. And that's all. To tell you the truth, were it not for a few bloggers, I would never have heard of "emergent" and I study religion for a living.

To be honest, I don't see very much potential for overcoming division in the larger church here. What I mean is, you're certainly not going to bridge the gap between protestants and catholics (and eastern orthodox) this way. Maybe that isn't the point. But as long as we're trying to figure out a new/better/right way to do things, all on our own, from the ground up, I think we're going to see more and more and more division.

But that's just my opinion. It's based on historical reflection, but I am well aware I could be totally wrong. I'm not really an expert in the movement and I can't see the future.

Anyway.

Last thing, are we sure that churches with 10 or 15 members are a bad thing?

1:06 PM  
Blogger Zach said...

anastasia, thanks for the reply. i am pretty sure we can claim God's truth wherever we find it. whether it's spoken by a dude who loves to have sex with animals or even anton lavey.

my question was really aimed at tony due to his apparent double standard of who we can befriend, partner with, learn from, and enter into a community with when it regards a Christian community. i am the first one to agree with tony that the way the american church today is broken, or sputtering at best. i also agree that if we did post the stories of those who have been burned by the church, the blog would be never ending. but to abandon the church without recognizing that there real people with very real chances of God working through them to help get all God fearers moving in the better direction in their journeys of faith, i think that's a big mistake. to deem a way of thinking broken or unfixable is one thing, but to deem our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ from the modern thinking megachurces broken and unfixable is just pure evil.

i am making an assumption here but i would say that many in the emergent "conversation" are themselves products of the very institutions that they rail against and want to abandon. so for those of you who "made it out of the spiritual ghetto' and say that they ones still there will never get out and let's move on......please. get over yourselves.

although i do enjoy many of the things that are coming out of this conversation of emerging voices, i sometimes feel like i need to send out some "members only" jackets to a few of the participants.

8:21 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home