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Am I a Palageanist

Posted by thethousandmarch on February 6, 2018 at 7:25 PM

I was drinking from my son’s Mickey Mouse cup the other night and it prompted my daughter to tell me that she had decided for her birthday that she would have Pony (My Little Pony) cups for the girls and Mickey cups for the boys. This may seem like a trivial thing, but it’s moments like this that give me great joy. In them I see an expression, no matter how small, of my daughter’s individuality. She is expressing her desires – by expressing her choice she is exercising her freedom, and is expressing her separateness from me and the rest of the universe. Though she is in part my creation I enjoy seeing her be her own being – creating her own story. Of course this also gives me a certain amount of anxiety as I think of the things I can’t protect her from, but I would not choose safety over the beauty of freedom. Is the Creator so different that he would not receive joy in giving his creation freedom – self-determining freedom?


For Christians questions such as this can lead to a debate which boils down to who is ultimately responsible for saving the individual; God, or the individual themselves. For the classical Calvinist if the individual is capable of accepting or rejecting God’s offer of salvation then it is ultimately up to the individual to save themselves and in this they are saved by a work they have done. So even though a good Calvinist will say we have free will, they believe God chooses some people to save and gives them a special measure of grace which so changes their desires they will freely (but without exception) choose God. Those who do not receive this irresistible grace freely choose to reject God. But it’s important to understand that the chosen are not simply given the ability to have faith in God, they are given faith in God, and therefore even their faith is not a thing which is recognized as deserving of reward.


Now one of the accusations which a Calvinist will level at non-Calvinists (the rest of us are not all Armenians) is that we are Pelagianists, or at least a semi-Pelagianists. Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid. In other words human nature is good and humans who choose to do good will earn eternal life as a reward for their own good work. This means we need not rely upon the grace and mercy of God to save us from the corruption of sin and death. Semi-Pelagianism would be the belief that we need Jesus to help us, but we still have to do some of the work. And it is our will-power, boosted by the fuel of grace no doubt, which has the ability to empower that work – Jesus opens the door, but we have to walk through it. Of course most Christians don’t go running around calling themselves Pelagianists, but I’d agree with the Calvinists that most Christians are semi-Pelagianists, or dangerously close to it. It is natural to our corrupted nature. We like to think that despite the evidence most of us are basically good (certainly I am) and as long as we give it our best shot God will take care of the rest, because he owes it to us.

I believe we have a somehow self-determined choice to respond positively or negatively to the work of God’s Spirit in our lives; though I don’t believe the will has much of anything to do with this choice. I believe that freedom is one of the most important things God has built into the creation. I also believe that humans as created beings are full of God’s goodness. And I believe there are non-Christians who God counts as righteous, who will therefore live in his presence eternally. So am I a Pelagianist, or Semi-Pelagianist? No.


Humans are good, we are amazing, we are created in God’s image and we each individually bear a special worth because of this no matter how corrupted by sin we are. However we are all corrupted by the condition of sin, and as a result we will all die. Therefore we are all in need of saving. And here is where we really come to the difference between many people (who may be called Pelagianists) and myself. I’m not relying on the goodness of humans, even as good as some of us may be, to be the reason God will save any of us. I’m certainly not relying upon my goodness. I’m relying on the goodness, mercy, grace, and love of God. Yes God is also just and justice must be served; there can be no redemption without justice. But God will redeem many people and situations we think are unredeemable. So it is not faith in the goodness of humans, or our ability to earn anything from God based upon our good works that gives me hope. It is not man’s will that I think is powerful. In the Bible I see a God revealed who wants to save people and I don’t think he’s holding anything back.


2013 in Review

Posted by thethousandmarch on July 23, 2014 at 12:35 AM

My perennial, and as usual extremely late, review of the best stuff I saw, heard, and read last year (not all actually released last year). I’ve also included the stuff I really want to see, and have high expectations of, but haven’t had a chance to get around to.


Best Movies I Saw This Year


American Hustle

Inside Llewyn Davis – it doesn’t have a lot of the style, or humorous dialogue of a typical Coen brothers movie, which I think is why it didn’t get nominated for many awards, but it’s very good. The most interesting stylistic aspect of the movie is that it is a cyclical story – it ends where it begins. It seems to me that the Coen’s are not only alluding to The Odyssey, by naming the cat Ulysses and dropping in a reference to Disney’s The Incredible Journey, but they are also referencing James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m sure this movie is full of allusions to both of these works, but I do not know them well enough to spot them.


Pain and Gain – an unexpectedly great movie


A Hijacking – a Danish movie about the hijacking of a cargo ship by Somali pirates; I didn’t see Captain Phillips, but it would take a lot for it to be better than this movie.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – Steve Coogan created one of the best characters ever, and this is another great addition to the Partridge canon.

Saving Mr. Banks - sure it's sappy, but I love it.

Honorable Mentions

Gravity – good, but fell short of my expectations; in the end I didn’t think it was nearly as good as many critics did

Cloud Atlas - this movie didn't get much love, and even though it's far from perfect, it had some very amazing parts to it and is well worth watching. 

Moonrise Kingdom

War Witch


The World’s End – good, but not nearly as good as Sean of the Dead, or Hot Fuzz

This is the End


Biggest Disappointment


Upstream Color – I loved the writer/director/lead actor’s previous movie Primer (it’s one of my all-time favorite movies) and had high hopes for this movie. Yet I found this movie just too unintelligible, which I could in some ways forgive if it wasn’t so boring.


Some Movies I Really Want to See, but still haven’t gotten the chance – I can’t believe I have yet to see some of these. Yet I’m sure once I do at least a few of these will make it to the best of list and that’s part of the reason I was so late posting this review; I’ve been trying to catch up.





The Great Beauty

The Intouchables

Philomena – Steve Coogan making a run at trying to take over Michael Sheen’s career (as he stated he could in The Trip)


Before Midnight

The Act of Killing

Spring Breakers

12 Years a Slave

Enough Said

The Spectacular Now

Beyond the Hills


The Wind Rises

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Paradise Love

Drug War

Narco Cultura

The Hunt

The Purge

Much Ado About Nothing


Best New (at least new to me) T.V. Shows. For the most part I’m not listing long running shows I’ve already listed in past years.


Derek (Hulu) – an absolutely incredible show, which manages to be hilarious while demonstrating the value of many people our society tends to want to forget (people we often consider a burden to society and who we think would usually be better off dead). The second season just came out and it’s great, but the absence of Karl Pilkington in most of the episodes takes it down a notch.

Hello Ladies – I love Stephen Merchant (co-creator of the Office); this show manages to be funny and poignant, just like the best of his stuff with creative partner Ricky Gervais

House of Cards (NetFlix) – a good demonstration of why the power of those in government should be limited, and it’s very entertaining

Undeclared – Finally caught up with this Judd Apatow creation, almost as good as Freaks and Geeks

The Wrong Mans (Hulu) – a very funny and suspenseful British comedy

The Goldbergs – The Wonder Years for the ‘80’s

Moone Boy (Hulu) – Very funny Irish comedy – the Irish ’90’s Wonder Years, but with an imaginary friend instead of a narrator

Orange is the New Black (NetFlix) – you have to be willing to put up with a little more nudity and sex than narratively necessary, but a very funny and creative show

The Awesomes (Hulu) – a cartoon about an alternative super hero team

British Game Shows – there are so many episodes of good game shows on YouTube it’s ridiculous. The best I’ve found are: Never Mind the Buzzcocks, QI, and Big Fat Quiz

David Mitchell’s Soapbox – Also on YouTube, these are short little videos by Mitchell (of The Mitchell and Webb Look, and The Peep Show) humorously complaining about a wide variety of topics. The Downton Abbey one is one of my favorites.


The Thick of It – The show that inspired Veep.

Top of the Lake

Some I’ve Mentioned in the Past, but they are so good I’ve got to mention them again.


An Idiot Abroad

Armstrong and Miller

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

Fresh Meat

Breaking Bad – I’ve hated the character Walter White for many seasons, but I was amazed how they managed to turn this show and make me feel sympathy for him. It was a very satisfying ending all around, even for Jesse.

Most Disappointing T.V. Show

Agents of Shield – how could this show be so bad; it seems like it was made in 1992


Best Books


The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by David Epstein


The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, by Michael R. Licona – a remarkably accessible historical study.


Little People, by Tom Holt – based upon the two books I’ve read by Holt I must conclude he is one of the best living fiction authors and I want to read more


Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, by Bryan Caplan


The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, by Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer – Sharansky is a Russian Jew who spent nine years in a Russian prison; he eventually was released and immigrated to Israel. There he played a significant, but often outspoken role in the Israeli government.



Best Songs of the Year


Get Lucky, by Daft Punk

Happy, by Pharrelll Williams

Malandrino, by Gogol Bordello

Mahindra Death Ride, by Bombay Royale – a cool song that becomes perfect at the 2 minute 14 second mark

Madrona, by Hey Marseilles

Breakin’ The Chains of Love, by Fitz and The Tantrums

LoveBlood, by King Charles


Best Album


Pura Vida Conspiracy, by Gogol Bordello

Nice, Nice, Very Nice, by Dan Mangan (This came out in 2010, but I just discovered this artist and this album this year).


Some other good artists I discovered this year

Dawn of Midi

Cosmo Jarvis

John Grant


Amanda Palmer

Tallest Man on Earth


My Favorite Podcasts (a new addition to my review, oh boy!)



White Horse Inn

Freakonomics Radio

Planet Money

TED Radio Hour

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History


The Miracle of Choice (part 2 of 2)

Posted by thethousandmarch on May 25, 2014 at 5:50 PM

Many scientists and philosophers believe that the laws of nature preclude even the slightest amount of self-determinism. And many Christians agree; they may think that choice – as I’ve described it in my previous post – would violate the sovereignty of God. I agree with these Christians that God is Sovereign, which means he is the supreme authority and has ultimate control over all creation. However this does not mean God is incapable of creating a world in which he allows for randomness and choice. I believe God has created a system in which he enables and upholds a small, yet extremely significant, human self-determinism.


As the sovereign ruler of all things, God can choose to shape all things according to his will. And this allows for the possibility that God can create a system in which randomness and choice occur. Being the ultimate authority, and having the ability to control and determine every minute detail, does not require that God does exercise such control. If God so desires he can create a world in which sub-creation occurs – a universe in which his authority allows for and upholds the sub-creative work of others. This does not mean there are powers independent of God, but that he allows them to operate under his authority. Randomness and choice can exist only if God allows and upholds their existence in his system.


But why would God create such a system? Before I answer that question let’s consider another. Are God’s actions determined, or is God free to make choices? If we consider free will merely to be the ability to choose actions which are consistent with one’s character, then our actions are all determined by our character. If this was the extent of our freedom it would mean we are not free to determine our character. This would be fine for you if your nature is good, but unfortunate if your nature is corrupted, leading you to do things you despise, and you don’t have any ability to change yourself. Of course this also means that if you are not responsible for the goodness of your nature, then you don’t really deserve the credit for the merit of your actions. So we must wonder if God is self-determined; is he ruled by something else which determines his nature; is there a measure of goodness independent of God which he is judged by?


God created the universe to glorify himself – to demonstrate his nature. God created humans to experience his being and to relate to him, in a special way. In order to relate to humans God must take upon himself limitations, we cannot experience his infinite being; not in its infiniteness. We must experience God through our finite senses and finite mind. We see again and again in Scripture that in taking upon himself these limitations God takes upon himself human characteristics. It is not that God is simply anthropomorphized, human characteristics are not merely attributed to him; he takes them on. Ultimately God incarnates himself, becoming a human, taking upon himself all of our limitations and frailties. Is it going too far to say that God created humans so that he could become a human? Why would he do this? It appears to me that God desired to create a system in which he could experience time and space, uncertainty, temptation, choice – God wanted to be able to change his mind.


In creating the universe and taking upon himself humanness God created a system in which he is able to make choices, and is able to respond to the choices of others. God is able to demonstrate his sovereignty. God is able to determine his nature. Doing this God is able to demonstrate his goodness, showing us that he is worthy of our praise. But wait a moment, doesn’t this mean that our choices give us reason to boast, do we earn our righteousness? Certainly not. Our choice to put our faith in God, to respond positively to his love and the working of his Spirit in us, will affect our nature. But it is not our choice to do good works which then causes God to account us as righteous, which would mean we earned our righteousness.


Our positive response to his work allows his goodness to flow through us, ultimately changing our nature, which results in good works being performed by us (the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us). The work, the goodness, and therefore the credit is all Gods. Even our ability to choose faith is made possible and upheld by God. What would we have to boast about? What fool would think that acknowledging the reality that God is good and worthy of our trust and therefore we should accept his love, allow his Son to heal our relationship, and allow his Spirit to redeem our corrupted beings and save us from death, was somehow meritorious. Allowing for a self-determined choice for which we are held responsible, does not mean God is not ultimately in control, or that humans earn their salvation.


God has created a universe which reveals his being. This creation is beyond incredible. The little we have discovered through experience, and which has been revealed to us sometimes seems contradictory. Yet from what we know from experience should teach us that apparent contradictions must often be held in tension, because we know both are true in a way even if we can’t reconcile them. The operations of this universe and even more so the operations of God are beyond the understanding of our minds. So to us the operation of our universe and the work of our God are nothing short of miraculous.


The Miracle of Choice (part 1 of 2)

Posted by thethousandmarch on May 4, 2014 at 6:05 PM

This post was inspired by an interview with physicist Leonard Mlodinow on the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett


Many scientists, philosophers and even theologians will tell us that “free will” is an illusion. If their models are correct then there are no real choices to be made, all our actions are predetermined. Yet despite the logic of the arguments put forward by various determinists I persist in believing (perhaps irrationally) that I do have at least some sense of real choice – meaning I have at least a small, yet significant, control over my destiny.


To be clear I don’t actually think my belief is irrational. Here is the progression of my propositions leading to my conclusion:


1. There is a God – the creator and supreme authority/ruler

2. The Bible is a unique revelation from God to humans – it is a message from God to us

3. In various places in the Bible, humans are instructed to make choices

4. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God holds humans responsible for their choices and actions


Conclusion: Humans have choice – a real though limited sense of self-determination.


Of course there are many Christians who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, believe in human responsibility, and even believe in free will, who don’t really believe humans have any real sense of control over their destiny. What kind of choice am I talking about; free will is not the real issue. Even determinists agree that we are free to choose to do what we desire to do. However our choices, our desires, and therefore our actions are ultimately determined by our character. Our character is determined by a variety of factors, none of which we have any control over. This means we don’t actually determine who we are or who we become, our true nature is simply revealed.


However if this is the case this means that humans cannot actually be held responsible for their actions. To be sure our actions reveal who we are – they show us to be good or bad. But we bear no responsibility for being good or bad. We may like the good and want to destroy the bad, but no moral guilt can be assigned. I don’t think weeds are morally responsible for corrupting my garden, nor do I think dogs are morally responsible for biting and killing (especially if their natural tendencies have been accentuated by their breeding and training) – we simply destroy what hurts us. But there is no guilt, nor is their justice in such a circumstance.


Yet I believe that we humans actually have the ability to make choices which change our desires and change our character. It is not simply that we have the freedom to choose what we will. If that was the extent of our choice, then all of our choices would still ultimately be determined by our genetics, our environment, coincidence, the laws of nature, God, etc. We would therefore have no real ability to change who we are; we would have no control over who we become. Yet this is exactly the choice I believe we do have - to put our faith in God or something else, to respond positively or negatively to the grace he bestows upon us all, to seek to have our desires fulfilled in him or something else, to choose the good or the bad. It is this choice which can change our character; it is this choice which determines our actions and it is this choice for which we are held responsible.


But if the scientists, philosophers and even the theologians are correct, how can such a choice be possible? Perhaps it is a miracle. If a miracle is an “exception to the laws of nature” (Leonard Mlodinow), then I would propose that perhaps choice is a miracle. A truly free choice as I’ve described it is not common, but is common enough that we do not recognize its miraculous nature. But consider how remarkable it is when a person’s nature is transformed. When we examine the evidence we may be unable to see where there is any room for a real sense of self-determination. It may seem that we are slaves to the tyranny of cause and effect. We may acknowledge that though we feel that we make choices, our feelings are superficial and illusory. I actually agree that most of our choices are predetermined by outside forces. But I do believe we possess a freedom and this freedom may have no natural explanation. It may be quite appropriate to call it a miracle.


Is it Irrational to Believe That a Man Can be Raised From the Dead?

Posted by thethousandmarch on April 20, 2014 at 3:20 PM

To be a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus. Not simply to believe he was a wise man, a great moral teacher, or a significant socio-political catalyst. We believe this man is God’s Anointed One (Messiah) sent to redeem and restore the world. We believe this man is God; so we trust him to save us from the corruption of sin – to save us from death. How could we believe such a thing? Because we believe that Jesus the “Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.” (1 Cor. 15:20) This belief that Jesus rose from the dead is the foundational belief of the Christian worldview. It is this event which vindicates Jesus and validates his claims. Our trust in Jesus is not an irrational hope founded upon blind faith.


There are many reasonable arguments for the existence of God, but his existence cannot be proven through anything we presently objectively observe. We can only know what we experience; we can only know God exists if he reveals himself to us. Jesus claimed that he was a representation of God – “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9) – he claimed that he revealed God to us. How could such a claim be validated? Jesus performed many miracles which demonstrated that he was a prophet, and the ultimate miracle was being raised from the dead. Such an event is a considerable piece of evidence.


The claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is a historical truth claim. There is no piece of observable evidence which can be evaluated scientifically which we have in our possession at present. However science does not have an exclusive claim upon reason; it is not the only discipline which analysis data through a logical process. There is an ample amount of historical evidence pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus which can be evaluated. And Christians have always understood that our faith is dependent upon the reality that this event truly occurred. The story is not a myth or metaphor. If it did not in fact occur, what hope do we have? “And if Christ has not been raised, then [our] faith is useless and [we] are still guilty of [our] sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.” (1 Cor. 15:17-19) So because I do believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, I believe he represents God. And because I trust Jesus, I believe I can know some very crucial facts about the nature of reality, both physical and spiritual, most importantly I can know the Creator.


There are of course many people who think such beliefs are irrational, in part because they believe all religious thought is irrational. They would say science is based upon reason and religion is based upon faith. They would say faith is completely subjective and generally irrational. Of course many religious people are quick to oblige them in confirming their bias. Certainly religious beliefs are not all or equally justified. Yet many are justified. Only a man blinded by his own unprovable ideology would assume that his assumptions must be self-evident to all reasonable people. The fair-minded atheist and agnostic will acknowledge that not all Christians are ignorant, naïve, or superstitious fools.


We Christians are very aware of the fact that people do not naturally die and regenerate. Jesus’ disciples, despite his claims, did not actually expect Jesus to rise from the dead. As superstitious as you think they might have been they each refused to believe that Jesus was actually raised from the dead until the each saw him with their own eyes. Just because something does not usually happen you cannot simply dismiss the claim that it has happened in a particular instance without examining the evidence. If you don’t think it worth your time, you have not made a scientific or historical, or therefore rational, assessment of the evidence. You’ve allowed your bias to predetermine your response to the claim. If that is a person’s position they must be honest, their ideology, not their logic has determined their judgment.


If you take the time to examine the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, and do not dismiss the possibility of resurrection (or the existence of God) before hand, you will find that it is not an improbable hypothesis. The possibility cannot easily be dismissed, unless your ideology does not allow you to consider it. For those interested I’d recommend a book which I am currently reading by Michael R. Licona called The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach (his website risenjesus.com). He provides a robust argument in support of the historical claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Licona acknowledges the fact that we all have our biases, which make it impossible to be completely objective in our interpretation of evidence. Yet he attempts to be as honest and as rational as possible as he thinks through the data. He does not ask us to ignore logic and just believe. He does not ask us to ignore what we know to be true. He doesn’t tell us to put our faith in our own subjective experience. He wants us to use our reason and examine the objective evidence.


I believe in God for various reason – some based on rational arguments, some experiential, some emotional and subjective. I believe Jesus was raised from the dead – I believe this was an historical event for which there is objective evidence. It cannot be proven, but it can be demonstrated that resurrection is the most probable explanation of the evidence. This is a claim which can be rationally assessed and discussed objectively (as objectively as an historical event can). I believe Jesus’ resurrection from the dead demonstrates that he was a revelation from God. Therefore we should listen to him. And so, though my religion requires me to have faith, it is not an irrational unreasoned faith.


If the Christianity you have been exposed to or grew up with was completely subjective and experiential, didn’t care about rationality or logic, was anti-science, or only cared about personal transformation, health, wealth, and behavior modification, then I would say you have not been exposed to Christianity.


Community Without Institutions - The Church Without Institutions (part 5)

Posted by thethousandmarch on April 6, 2014 at 11:25 AM

What I’ve attempted to do in this series of blog posts is to begin a justification for the abandonment and deconstruction of some or our church institutions. But not without understanding their benefits, so that we don’t destroy what is valuable, or what is necessary. What is essential is an understanding that those who are abandoning institutional churches are not doing so because they are anti-community. In fact many leave because the consumer culture that some institutional churches now foster can never create the kind of community these people long for. So they leave because they desire community.
People want meaningful community; they want to make a positive impact on the world; they want healthy families and friendships; and spiritual growth. But not only are they tired of the pseudo community that is often all they get at church, they are tired of corrupt institutions and leaders. It’s not that they are anti-leadership, they’re just tired of bad leaders. A disgust with the corruption that power attracts has led many people in a variety of contexts to seek to create communities with decentralized organizational structures so that the effects of corruption can be minimized.
Some people think we need stronger formal institutions with more coercive power in order to keep corrupt people in line. However no matter the organization or institution no one can be held accountable who does not want to be. We do not need formal institutions; we need individuals with a strong commitment to the shared values of our communities. In the context of the Church, this will involve a commitment to traditions which are centuries old, which have been represented by formal institutions, but which transcend these institutions. Even the traditions and culture of the Roman Catholic church would survive the destructions of its formal institutions and organizational hierarchy, because it is much more than those things. A church which does not survive the failing of the legal organization which represents it, the loss of its property, or the passing of its leaders is a very shallow community indeed.
Many church-goers and church leaders seem unable to separate the Church from those formal institutions that the localized gatherings of the Church have established. They think that if you stop attending the events these institutions put on then you have abandoned the Church. I would say they are wrong. I am not convinced that people no longer attending these churches is necessarily the problem that so many people think it is. It’s not good for the survival of those institutions, but it may be good for the Church. I believe true Christians will continue to seek true community. They will find ways to worship together and disciple one another. Motivated by their love of God, their commitment to the mission Jesus has given them, guided by the Spirit, they will seek to do the work of the Church. Elders will emerge; their leadership will be recognized and respected. Everyone will find ways to serve according to their talents and gifting.
It may sound as if I’m describing some utopian vision, but this is not my desire. Certainly some of what I’ve suggested would result in a healthier and more effective Church, but most of what I’m after is practicality. What I propose would mean the abandonment of some of our institutions. But I’m not out for the destruction of formal organization because I dislike order, nor do I desire change for its own sake. I want to find effective ways of organizing which make our organization anti-fragile, strengthened by adversity; making us more effective in accomplishing our mission. We are living through a significant transitional period; as significant as the fall of Rome, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the industrial revolution. We live in a very different world from the one in which the Church began. We live in a globally interconnected society, which is largely democratic and merit based, with a market economy. This has allowed for an unprecedented amount of freedom for most individuals. We have escaped much of the oppressive limitations of tribalism and nationalism – more than ever we are able to cooperate with those who are not our genetic relatives. This means that no individual in a modern society is constrained by their community if they do not want to be. And now electronic digital technology is causing an incredible amount of disruption in our society. This technology has and will continue to change us in ways we cannot yet imagine. Who we are as humans, how we see the world, how we interact will be changed; this change is inevitable.
We can be amongst the people who resist change. Socrates opposed a technology we now take for granted, writing. (Fortunately for his legacy his disciple Plato did not have the same qualms.) Now I’ll admit that certainly our societal development and our many other technological advancements have not been entirely positive. And even positive change creates its own new challenges. As we move forward there are many dangers we must be aware of and many challenges we must overcome. Let’s try to be amongst those who lead. If we acknowledge reality and learn to adapt in ways that best serve the societies in which we live without losing the core of our identity, then we can better accomplish the mission we have been given. The freedom to adapt our forms and practices is one of the things that has made Christianity so effective.
What form must the local Church take? There is no pure ideal, no structure is prescribed. We have been given a mission. We have been told reasons why we as individuals should gather with other Christians on a regular basis. We cannot mature, or accomplish our mission in isolation. And there are certain practices which mark the followers of Jesus. But all of this can take on many different applied forms. One form is to organize ourselves through the formal institutions we call churches. They are a tool which can help us accomplish our mission, but these formal institutions are not necessary.
We need to understand the nature and purpose of our institutions. We need to understand our mission as a Church. Some institutions are desirable for a well-functioning society. Some institutions are helpful tools for the functioning of the Church. Institutions collect and pass on the collected knowledge and wisdom of the group by establishing systems which work independently of the charisma and talents of an individual. As well, institutions enable cooperation that would otherwise never (or most likely never) occur - even though we all would like it to.
We need to recognize and mitigate the negative effects formal institutions have on our communities and ourselves as individuals. In our churches they have helped to create formal entities which stand apart from the community they are intended to represent. This has in turn fostered a false dichotomy between the leaders of the Church and the Church itself. It has also led to unnecessary competition between our churches. Furthermore there inevitably comes a time in the life of every institution when its original mission becomes secondary to the maintenance and survival of the institution. When this happens, bad things follow.
Our institutions don’t like defections, because it is a threat to their existence. However one of the ways I believe we need to adapt is by accepting that many Christians will no longer take part in formal institutional churches. We need to understand how these people are still being part of the Church. Not so that we can control it, but so that we can accept it. In part 4, I briefly discussed some of the ways we can learn from other social movements in our society, including individualism. Individualism entered the Church in a new way during the Reformation. The results have not always been good, to say the least. However if we are to encourage responsibility, growth and participation in the Church we should encourage individualism.
I propose that this is not just a good way to move forward, but the only way to move forward in this society. We need to encourage responsible individualism. It is responsible individuals who will be committed to community. The only way for our churches to be effective is for them to be gatherings of like-minded people – with shared values and mission – people who will truly commit their talents and resources because they have freely chosen to be part of the community. The only way for there to be accountability is for individuals to mature into those who actually want to hold themselves to a higher standard. We don’t want our communities filled with people who would rather be somewhere else; who would leave if they felt they had another viable alternative. These people will constantly seek to turn our communities into something other than what they Jesus intended them to be – communities of disciples.
Unfortunately some of the people who have corrupted our institutions are those who lead them. They are misguided in their belief that their institution encompasses the Church. And therefore the work of God and the work of the people must all flow through their institution. Many leaders are overly confident in their ability to command and control the operations of the Church. At the least they feel the need to measure the work of the Church, which requires that they be part of organizing all “legitimate” work, because if it can’t be measured it doesn’t really exist, and no one can get credit for it. I propose that we give up our feeling that we need to control, measure, or take credit for the work of the Church. The reality is that we cannot.
So let’s move forward, instead of getting caught up in trying to preserve what must change. Many institutions will be unable to adapt; even if some of the people leading these institutions try to change them, their inertia makes them difficult to steer. Let them die; let’s take care of those people hurt by transition, but let institutions which no longer serve their intended purpose die. We can maintain what is essential without maintaining these institutions. The Jewish people maintain their fundamental identity through a shared story, not through an institution. Likewise Christians find their identity in a story, the story of Jesus. The Church is and has always been a decentralized community independent of formal institutions. Our institutions can all be destroyed, our institutions may all be abandoned; the Church will not be destroyed


In Support of Individualism - The Church Without Institutions (part 4)

Posted by thethousandmarch on March 9, 2014 at 3:55 PM

In this post I will discuss individualism, tribalism and church government.


A person’s response to the question – “is individualism bad?” – is very telling. Some people will of course say yes outright. Others will feel a need to qualify their answer; no but . . . . Their qualification then reveals a bias against individualism. They’ll acknowledge it has some benefits, but they don’t really like it. From my experience it seems that most church leaders, especially in the emerging church movement, are anti-individualism. But my answer to this question is an unqualified no. I can certainly acknowledge the abuses of irresponsible individualism, but this is not what I think of when I speak of individualism. When I hear the word individualism I don’t hear narcissism. I don’t automatically equate individualism with selfishness. This is in part why I don’t believe it is bad for a Christian to decide that an institutional church may not be the best place for them to be.


To me individualism means each person recognizing their freedom to take responsibility for their own actions. Individualism helps us see that we are free, there is absolutely no outside force that can constrain our choices. We choose to enter into and remain in relationship, community, society. Therefore no social institution can constrain us unless we agree to submit. Some people will deny this, but it is merely because they fail to see the freedom they possess. Of course this is in part due to the fact that many social institutions use coercion, such as shame, the threat of exclusion, and physical force as a means to enforce the will of those in charge. However this just means the individual chooses submission rather than punishment; it may be a terrible choice, but the choice is theirs.


This is individualism to me. And as I discussed in a previous series of posts (Am I an Evangelical) individualism is to me at the heart of the Reformation and thus Evangelicalism. The individual stands before God alone and must relate to God as an individual – no tribe or church can represent them. Even though being a Christian makes us part of a body manifested in localized gatherings – we enter into community and sometimes take part in formal institutions – we still function as free individuals responsible for ourselves.


Therefore we must remember that any organization, including a church or denomination, is never itself an individual entity. So we can never say for example: ‘Lutherans believe this’, ‘Texaco did that’, or ‘The American people want this’. Even if a majority of people in an organization do or think a particular thing, the group has not done or thought that particular thing.” Individuals make choices, not groups. Political leaders are able to pursue a course of action if a majority of their constituents don’t actively disagree with them and another powerful leader, such as a military general, doesn’t oppose them. The leaders of a church denomination are justified in making their core values and mission known and refusing to allow members of the institution to pursue actions they feel are in violation of those values and mission. But in both of these situations, it is the leaders who want a particular thing and make a specific decision. They will only retain power as long as they are able the maintain control over the institution, which requires convincing enough other people who have the power to depose them to keep them in charge and do what they say. In the end every institution, and their leaders, will only be able retain power if enough people, especially the most powerful people, agree to submit to them.


In regards to the Church this means that church institutions are not synonymous with the Church. Each institution merely represents a small group of people who identify in some way with a particular institution – and that association may not even include identifying as a Christian. The individuals who work for and lead these institutions make decisions and perform actions as representatives of the institutions, but their values and beliefs, which guide their decisions and actions, will never be completely congruent with each individual the institution is supposed to represent. So when an individual abandons one of these institutions and instead chooses to associate with other Christians, even if only in an alternate and informal way they have not left the Church they have simply stopped associating with a formal institution. They have not necessarily abandoned community, discipleship, accountability, corporate worship and study, or the mission of the Church – they may simply be pursuing these things in an alternate manner, which for many may be a more effective manner.


But what about submitting to the authority of the elders of the Church, an office we see established in the New Testament, you may ask. There is no formal institution which can legitimately claim its elders have been appointed by someone with apostolic authority. So then where does the authority of an institution come from? It comes from the consensus of those governed. A person is identified as having been gifted for ministry and their character is considered appropriate for leadership; the leaders of the institution certify that person as being an elder, deacon, pastor, etc. It does not matter what particular process is used, the consensus of the congregation, unopposed by a minority powerful enough to change the situation, is required. This is how the leaders of institutions are chosen and retain their power. Hopefully they submit their decisions to the revealed word of God, pray, and seek to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Yet when Christians are in disagreement one cannot simply insist that one’s way is God’s way (well you can, but that would be rather arrogant). If individuals are going to continue in community together they must come to a mutually agreeable consensus. If a consensus cannot be reached it is perfectly acceptable to go one’s separate ways (see Acts 15:36-41 as an example; and in this example Barnabus refuses to submit to Paul who most Christians would agree had apostolic authority). It is ridiculous to demand that each person must always submit to the consensus of their congregation, or the will of its leaders, and can never be justified in dissenting and disassociating.


I certainly respect the opinions of others living and dead – which includes traditions. I would never lightly ignore the consensus of my community. The books of the Bible were chosen by an agreed upon consensus of what books were revelation from God. The New Testament was specifically formed by an agreed upon consensus of what books were written by an apostles or under the authority of an apostle – giving the author the authority to speak on behalf of Jesus. There was a consensus that Paul and James had apostolic authority. Orthodox Christianity is a consensus of what early Christians believed about Jesus and his teachings. These beliefs developed over time often in response to opposing views; they were not forced upon the Church by a central authority. Yet though I respect the consensus I must relate to God as an individual, and as my creator only God has final authority over me. Consensus can guide me, but I must make my own decisions. Therefore I respect the individualism of others; I respect the individual’s right to reject the leadership of their community.


So what does this mean for the organization of the Church and governance of those institutions we call churches? The Church should organize in ways that encourage individual participation; our institutions should no longer be structured in ways that create a separation between the institution and the people it is intended to represent. It is this separation which creates a two class system of clergy and laity. There are those who serve and those who are served. This has led to a situation in which most Christians act like consumers, church planters are entrepreneurs, and pastors are managers, head pastors are CEOs – which would be fine if churches were businesses. Unfortunately more and more American churches seem to be organizing themselves like businesses. In the past most churches organized themselves after the dominant models of imperialism and feudalism. But during the reformation a more democratic form of church governance emerged in Presbyterianism and Congregationalism. And many people from those church traditions which brought these systems to North America are proud of the influence it had upon the establishment of democracy in the United States. But this form of democracy is already outdated; we have more advanced ways and a better understanding of how to engage the members of a society.


One way of finding out what people really want is let them have the freedom to choose; people will vote by using their resources in the way they most value. However churches may not actually accomplish the mission of the Church simply by doing whatever it is people like best. And as I said we want participants, not just consumers. How do you organize a church like that? I talked about this in the last post when I discussed the starfish organizational model. Research that idea and similar ideas, such as open source, open government, and crowd sourcing, and you’ll find out how this type of thinking is affecting the organizational models of many institutions today – even governments around the world are using technology like wikis to get immediate input from their citizens. Likewise churches should use technology to make their organizations more transparent and encourage participation.


There are other ways to make churches more participatory that include using old ‘technologies’. Corporate worship should be structured in ways that encourage participation and interdependence. We need to move away from the modern professional performance model. One way to do this is by adopting liturgical practices from the past (which I’ve written about). We could also look to a folk art model. Making church more participatory means adopting a variety of teaching models and taking discipleship beyond the classroom. And it involves changing our attitude of what churches are for; churches do not exist to do the work of the Church, they exist to equip the people who make up the Church to do the work of the Church. This means church leaders need to figure out better ways to train their congregations to do the work and then trust them to do it; stop trying to be in control, stop trying to measure, stop trying to get credit. It means we need to stop thinking that only the work of an institutional church constitutes the work of the Church, and that a person has to be involved with an institutional church to be involved with the Church.


Though the Church should never rule through force, at the local level a church is certainly justified in excluding those who violate its values and mission, especially those who hurt others. When it is used it should be more a means of protecting others in a church, not punishing the one excluded. As a form of discipline exclusion has very limited power. The Church in Corinth could actually kick someone out of the entire Church community; the man they kicked out couldn’t just go down the street to another community that didn’t know he was sleeping with his father’s wife. But that’s not the case today. No church in America today has this ability. For which I’m glad, because those communities today which do have some power to use exclusion as a meaningful punishment tend to have leaders who use that power for their own selfish means. These are generally “tribes” which are poorly integrated into the broader society.


There are many people today who tell us our society is returning to a form of tribalism. Those opposed to individualism seem to be drawn to this idea of tribalism, which they equate with community. To begin with I don’t think we are returning to tribalism – niche marketing is not tribalism. But more importantly a return to tribalism would be terrible. Tribes have their benefits – especially if you’re a hunter-gatherer, sustenance farmer, or need protection because you live in a society with a large amount of conflict – but the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits. To begin with tribalism keeps your society from developing into a society with less conflict. Societies based upon tribes do not cooperate well with others, so they rarely trade. They don’t pursue mutually beneficial outcomes – when they want something someone else has they fight. Tribes are a way of prejudging and excluding others simply because they are not related. Tribes are not based upon shared values. They are arbitrary connections – some of these connections may be good, but many will be with people who have little or no merit, who do not share our values, who do not deserve our loyalty. (This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love them, just that we should not bind ourselves to them.) Because tribe members are not good at interacting with outsiders, let alone integrating, tribes are able to enforce burdensome customs and practices because the cost of disobedience is so great. The collective power of a tribe forces people into terrible situations.


Community is wonderful, but a tribe is hardly the only form of community. It is not a metaphor the Church should use, because we are to be a body made up of every tribe, tongue and nation.


Our churches should be structured in such a way that we encourage individual participation, growth and responsibility. Our institutions should not create atmospheres where unquestioning conformity is demanded or coerced. Our communities should encourage freedom of thought, even though this will mean that we at times realize we do not always have shared values and mission, and should therefore go our separate ways. Any institution which actually cares about the people it claims to represent and serve will not seek to force those people to participate in and support that institution against their will. The leaders of church institutions should seek to build institutions made up of like-minded people with shared values and a shared mission to do the work of the Church. And if a person doesn’t want to be a part of your institution it doesn’t mean they aren’t a part of the Church.


Disorganized Religion - The Church Without Institutions (part 3)

Posted by thethousandmarch on February 16, 2014 at 6:35 PM

I suggest we refrain from using the term organic in relation to social institutions such as the Church. If we are speaking of gardening, organic means something very specific and measurable. But as a metaphor it can get rather tortured. So instead of stretching the metaphor past its usefulness, I think it is best to simply define organic as natural. But what would a natural community look like? When we ask this we may then discover that talking about being organic may not be very helpful. It can become a rather meaningless buzzword that can be made to describe whatever we want. I prefer to use the terms “emerging” and “spontaneous” – as in an emerging spontaneous order. This describes an order that comes about gradually and unexpectedly – it cannot be designed, preplanned or controlled. This type of order lacks central planning.


When a central planner attempts to design a society through command and control their planning is limited to the extent of their knowledge. The more they try to regulate the interactions of individuals in a society through legislation the more they limit the ability of individuals to use their best judgment in specific situations to do what’s best in their situation. The more the central planner’s judgment conflicts with the individual’s the more force will be required to enforce conformity. But no individual can possibly know what’s best for the group, or what’s best for each individual in the group. When each individual is allowed to freely make the best decision they can with the knowledge they have in their own specific situation a complex order will emerge unplanned and uncontrolled, but which will be the best possible result if people are making moral choices. Of course not everyone makes moral choices, so it is necessary to keep people from hurting others, but laws which protect peoples personal and property rights are very different from legislation which attempts to engineer social interactions. Only an emergent spontaneous order can harness the distributed knowledge, wisdom, and values of the group.


Applied to the Church what this means is that no institution can hope to command and control it. The Church is a complex organism, which has grown to an unruly size. It seems that at its inception the Church was small enough to be governed by a small group of Apostles. They appointed deacons as it grew beyond their capability to oversee the group’s daily operations. As the Church spread throughout the world, elders were appointed in each town – but it was still small enough to be spoken of as simply the Church in this town and the Church in that town. But today the Church has grown to such an extent that it has thoroughly outstripped the ability of any humans to govern it. No human designed institution can harness or guide the knowledge, wisdom, resources, and work of the entire body. Only Christ who is the head of this body can orchestrate its operation. “. . . [H]e holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.” (Col. 2:19) Let’s stop thinking we can shape it to our satisfaction. Christ has “been given all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18). Let’s let him oversee his Church – he is the only one capable, the only one with the authority to do so.


And this leads me back to my statement, made in the first post of this series, about how the Church should act more like a starfish and less like a spider. There are two different types of organizational models which can be described as the starfish model and the spider model (I heard about this concept on Econtalk, and there is a book written on the subject - www.starfishandspider.com). The starfish represents an organization which has no central leadership; the spider is the central power whose web gathers information. Now it’s not that a spider organization doesn’t have its advantages; there are reasons that an institution may want to organize itself as such. A strong central power can be very efficient as long as it can handle the information. A starfish has no central intelligence guiding its movements, just thousands of little feet all with a shared mission; thousands of inputs pulling in whatever direction feels best. The starfish prospers without any centralized planning – it is a creature whose existence demonstrates spontaneous order. An organization which acts more like a starfish can more effectively harness all the resources of the group.


Another advantage of the starfish is that it is difficult to destroy – cut off a leg and you can end up with two starfish. Starfish organizations are decentralized, power is shared – participants are empowered to make decisions independently. In this way the organization remains flexible, it responds quickly to new problems and can innovate and change as situations demand. Attack can make it stronger. It can separate and spread without centralized direction.


The Church is a starfish organization, whether we like it or not. There is no centralized human agency giving orders to the entire group. No human institution is capable of processing the body’s knowledge, or controlling the body’s actions. There are billions of Christians each moving in the direction they feel is best – when we each pursue the shared mission given to us by our Lord a spontaneous order will emerge which will guide the resources of the Church to their most effective purposes. Will each Christian always make the best decisions? Certainly not. But each person in their own specific situations has more information about that situation than anyone else and can therefore do a better job of evaluating the wisest course of action. As leaders and members in the Church we need to be active in discipling each other – equipping each other to take part in the mission of the Church, encouraging each other to obey all that Jesus commanded, not trying to make peoples’ decisions for them.


It is for this reason that even the formal institutions that represent the Church in a localized context (churches) should try to act more like starfish organizations. Our formal institutions will always retain some spider-like organizational traits. But this can allow them to be useful tools. They just need to recognize what they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are, what they are most useful for and when to get out of the way. If the leaders of these institutions are willing to divest themselves of their systems of command and control, and they instead find more effective ways to equip and empower each member of the congregation to act independently when needed, they will strengthen their churches and the Church. These churches will not simply attract consumers, they will attract contributors. The members will not wait around for the central power to organize and lead, they will not look to the central power to provide for all their needs. This type of organization creates a group of self-motivated contributors, who build an anti-fragile network which can grow exponentially. Each member and each localized community will pursue intentional goals, but a much larger unintentional result will emerge. And no human can control, measure, or take credit for that.


The Church Without Institutions (part 2)

Posted by thethousandmarch on February 9, 2014 at 2:25 PM

In my last post I discussed the nature and role of institutions. In this post I will discuss the nature and role of the Church. The Church is a worldwide collective made up of every true Christian. I distinguish a true Christian from a person who merely professes to be a follower of Jesus. If I may be so presumptuous, the use of the terms true and professing are a better way of describing what Augustine described as the visible and invisible. There are many who claim to be Christians who do not actually love and trust Jesus. A person may make a public profession of faith which they do not actually believe for a variety of reasons – and they may not be consciously aware of the duplicity of their profession. Others may “truly” believe in an entity they call Jesus, but it may not be the real Jesus. Conversely a person may not even know the name Jesus, or have much of a comprehension of his true nature, but still have a faith which God counts as righteousness. (And before someone gets upset with me and says such people do not exist, I would point out that the Old Testament saints belong in this category). Every person who actually trusts and follows Jesus is a member of his Church – this we call the universal Church. The institutions which we call churches are made up of both true and professing Christians.


In Greek the Church, in its abstract universal sense and manifested as a local gathering, is referred to as the ecclesia – a gathering of people who have been called out. The universal abstract body is a bit difficult to get our minds around so we generally think of the Church as it is manifested in a portion of the body gathering in a particular time and place. But it must never be forgotten that this manifestation of the Church is not a separate entity, but is rather part of a larger whole. It is improper to speak of a church here and a church there; instead we should speak of the Church here and the Church there. This is a subtle but significant difference. The lack of such a distinction is perhaps why we English speakers use the word church in the first place. This word actually derives from a different Greek word which means the Lord’s house – in other words the building. So then the word we use to attempt to speak of a universal body, actually means the building in which that group meets. How did this happen? Perhaps it is because for hundreds of years institutional churches have focused upon their separation – not the congregation’s separation, not the sacredness of the entire universal body of believers. Instead the institutions focused upon the sacredness of their leadership and their buildings. In this way each institution set itself and its priests up as the mediators between God and man, making it necessary for people to pay them for their salvation. And of course a variety of institutions emerged competing with one another for the title of the true Church, making it worthy of the fees it charged.


Many people still seek to find, or establish a pure church. But no such thing can exist on this earth. And Jesus makes it very clear in his parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt 13:24-30) that no such endeavor should be attempted. It is impossible for us to determine who is a true Christian and who is merely a professing Christian. Our institutions will be filled with both types; the leadership of these institutions will be of both types. Therefore no institution can claim to be the true or pure church. Being accepted and approved of by an institution – making all the necessary public professions of allegiance, and performing all the duties and rituals which one’s chosen institution requires does not in and of itself make a person one who God counts as righteous. Institutions may be helpful to the Church in helping us accomplishing the mission God has given us, but we must stop focusing on the institutions, because formal institutions emphasize our separation. We must stop focusing on our separation and start recognizing our unity, which would make a very significant difference in the way we related to one another.


Each institution is a separate entity. This is when we start talking about churches. Each formal institution exists to create for itself a unique identity and boundaries. There are clearly insiders and outsiders who are identified by external criteria such as a public profession of faith. Each institution has a formalized leadership structure whose job includes protecting the institution – not just the congregation who the institution is intended to serve, but the self-interests of the legal institution. And really whose self-interests are synonymous with the institution’s – the leaderships. I’m not saying all or even most church leaders are bad people; but the responsibility of leading an institution comes with particular incentives which make it difficult at times to distinguish between what’s best for the institution and what’s best for the Church. As a result most institutions compete against each other for power, influence, and property/money; too often churches work against each other as we pursue many interests counter to that of the mission given to us by Jesus.


What is the mission Jesus has given his followers? Of course we can start with the ‘great commission’ – “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” (Matt 28:19-20). Let’s also consider the words of Jesus found in Acts 1 – “. . . you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”, which we see throughout the book of Acts means telling people the “Good News about Jesus” (8:4). What I do not find in the New Testament is any description of particular rituals we are to practice, or form of institution we are to create. Certainly we are told to gather for the purposes of discipleship and corporate worship (which goes beyond just singing). We are told to take communion together and we are told to baptize disciples. But we are never given descriptions of how we are to do these things – no particular order is prescribed. The form of the early Church is briefly described to us, but no form is prescribed. Elders are appointed to lead the Church in particular localities; deacons are appointed to make sure that everyone in the Church in a particular area is being taken care of; and particular individuals are recognized as servants of the Church are therefore deemed worthy of being supported by the Church (though they do not always chose to be). But again no particular way of organizing these activities is prescribed. Yet one thing which is particularly special and potent about the Christian faith is that it has no particular prescribed form.


Christianity has no particular culture or ethnicity. It’s identity has no particular set of rules that set Christians visibly apart in the way they dress, eat, worship, or where they live, etc. We are told to obey all that Jesus commanded, but the focus of these commands is placed upon our motivations, not outward conformity. Because of this “obeying all that Jesus commanded” may look different from one person to another. The early Church realized that people did not have to become Jews to become Christians. As a result Christianity has spread throughout the world taking different forms, and institutions. But none of these particular forms or ways of organizing the work of the Church can claim to be the correct way of being the Church.


The Church is not a sacred space in which we encounter the transcendent. The Church is the people who follow Jesus. The Church gathers in various forms to do the work given to them by Jesus. How formal must the gathering be, how big, and what must happen at it for it to be considered Church? These are questions which are relevant only if the Church is simply a thing Christians do when they get together, rather than a thing which they always are and the work of which they should always be doing.


Many of the topics which I have brought up should be explored in more depth. I have sought to point out some of the major issues which cause confusion. No particular institution can claim to be the Church, or claim that its way of doing things is the only and correct way. Christians must maintain a distinction between the body of Christ, universal and local and the institutions which call themselves churches. These institutions may help or hinder the Church in accomplishing its mission; they may have self-interests which are entirely different from that of the Church. Leaders of these institutions should remember that their institution is not the Church; it is a tool of the Church. Leaders of different congregations should seek to emphasize the unity they have with other congregations, and must consider how the institution which serves their congregations may seek to serve the larger Church. We are not in competition with one another and we should always seek to do that which would have the greatest impact for accomplishing the mission of the Church, which may not mean the survival of a particular institution.


In a future post I will discuss what a Church without institutions may look like and what benefits will result from a less formal structure.


If you liked this post you may also like a past post, “Are Institutional Churches and Denominations Really Para-church Organizations?


The Church Without Institutions (part 1)

Posted by thethousandmarch on January 28, 2014 at 6:55 PM

It is claimed that young people are leaving the Church at an alarming rate. But this claim assumes that no longer associating with an institutional church equals leaving the Church. However abandoning a formal institution is not the same thing as abandoning the body of Christ, and some may feel it is necessary. I would like to consider whether this trend (if it really is something new) should be embraced rather than feared. And so we must ask the question can and does the Church exist without institutions? I can’t tackle this whole subject in one post. There are many issues we must consider. In this post I will discuss the nature and role of institutions. In future posts I will discuss: the nature and role of churches, ecclesia, and the Church; the benefits of organic and emergent orders; individualism and tribalism; and finally the reasons why the Church should act more like a starfish rather than a spider.


Let’s start by making a distinction between two different kinds of institution. One is an established organization; the other is a custom practiced by a group of people. In regards to this discussion an example of the first would be a specific “church”, and an example of the second would be the practice of baptism. What I am asking is does the Church – that is every individual Christian in the world – need institutions of the first kind? Can the Church exist without these specific “churches”, with their buildings and property, staff, and legal identities? Can the Church accomplish its mission without centralized authority (besides Jesus of course)?


The Church has always made it a practice to meet together in groups for the purpose of discipleship and corporate worship, which includes the practices of baptism and communion. The main word used for the Church, local or universal, in the New Testament is ecclesia. The word means a gathering, yet it was primarily used as a political term which referred to a group of citizens called out for civil purposes. Jesus and his followers believed that they were a group unique from the rest of society – called out to fulfill a mission. And the writer of Hebrews encourages us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (10:25). As Christians we are part of a community which has reason to gather together on a regular basis. But how did we get from the early Church which generally met in houses – granted some of them very large – to where we are today? No longer do we tend to think of the Church as a universal body, or even as a local body in a particular town. But instead we tend to focus on specific individual legal entities which we call our church, and to which we go – in this way identifying them as an entity that is separate from ourselves, administered by the professional clergy.


Instead of tracing the historical development of institutional churches, let’s consider what the purpose and benefits of these institutions are so we can understand why they would develop. They developed to help us function in mainstream society; to function efficiently we adapt. In a modern society it is usually considered necessary to have a legal identity, this necessitates a formal institution. If a church – rather than just an individual member of the Church – is to own property; enjoy special tax exempt status and allow it donors to receive tax benefits; enjoy official state sanction; hire and manage staff; enter into contracts; etc.; it must be a formal institution properly registered with the state. Some of this may be seen as selling out, some may be working the system (can we call that good stewardship?), but it must be remembered that the legal identity is merely a representation of the actual group. The legal identity is abstract and in some ways is really just pretend. Any small business owner knows how this works – they would never confuse the legal identity which has been set up to represent their business with themselves. Speaking of business we often talk about corporations as if they are individuals, but then people get upset when the Supreme Court rules that they are individuals (at least legally). A corporation is not a person; it is made up of people – each acting upon individual motivations and knowledge; each which the shareholders hope is working towards a singular mission. Similarly a church is a gathering of people – it is an abstract entity made up of individuals.


Another important purpose for which an institution exists is the reduction of transactions costs – meaning it acts as a mediator between individuals making it easier and less costly for those individuals to interact. For example, it may be very difficult for me to determine who actually is in need of my help, so instead I give my money to the institution and they can determine how it may be best spent. This can save me time and energy, and possibly keep me from wasting money as I might be tricked into giving it to people who don’t really need it, or who won’t spend it in a way I think is valid. Wait a second, you may say – what if the church wastes my money? But you see it is much easier for me to determine if my church is doing things that make me happy and therefore make me want to give them money than it is for me to determine if a missions organization half way round the world, or the poor widows and orphans in my church are spending the money in a way that makes me happy. I hope you are starting to see how this benefit which a formal institution provides may not be so fantastic for the Church.


This may be great for business, but may not be so ideal for the Church. Because local churches have adapted to modern society in taking on the form of a modern formal institution it has changed the way they act. More and more local churches are acting like businesses, treating their congregations like customers, and we congregants are starting to act like consumers. Institutions reduce friction between individuals. But perhaps in a community like the Church some of that friction is good. Being part of the Church may mean expending time and energy dealing with others, not simply looking for the most efficient means to avoid them. Being part of the Church means we are contributors, not just consumers; and it is certainly not the job of the clergy to perform for us our religious duties in exchange for our money.


But let’s get back to the benefits. A reduction in transaction costs can also mean making it easier for one person to find other individuals with shared values, beliefs, and goals to partner with. And an institution can certify individuals as suitable for particular tasks – if you trust the institution you are more likely to trust the individual it certifies. These are certainly benefits which the Church would enjoy. As the Church has grown, and questionable groups have splintered off, there has developed reasons to more easily identify like-minded believers and trustworthy leaders; institutions help facilitate this process.


Finally an institution can collect and pass on the wisdom of a group. This is the greatest strength and most beneficial purpose of an institution. Collecting, testing, systematizing and passing on the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of the individuals who make up the group. In this way the group becomes less dependent upon the talents and personality of a single individual, which makes the community` more robust and increases its longevity. G.K. Chesteron writes in Orthodoxy (Ch 4),


Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. . . . Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.


Institutions codify and pass on tradition in various forms. The traditions that an institution passes on are the way in which it passes on the values of its members throughout time. If we confess the Apostles’ Creed then we confess that we believe in the communion of the saints as well as the holy universal Church, which means that we respect and value those who came before us. Therefore the Church must have some institutional form, yet this benefit can be enjoyed without the institution being a legal or even particularly formal organization.


An informal community can regulate a communities core values. Human beings are able to work together remarkably well and when we do cooperation emerges amongst those with shared values, beliefs, and goals that does not require any top down planning or control. This organic process unintentionally accomplishes much more than any intentional order directed by humans can ever hope, because it coordinates the knowledge and interests of each individual in the group; something which is beyond the capacity of any individual. Formal regulation and coercion are only necessary when a group is trying to force those who disagree with them to follow their rules. When people enter into a voluntary and open agreement with one another there is no need for coercion. One may want to define the relationship one has with others to ensure shared values and goals are present, or one could simply work together until an unresolvable conflict arises. This is the first step in formalizing an institution, but it must not mean one has stepped onto the slippery slope which leads to becoming an institution like the Roman Catholic Church.


An institution, formal or informal, has many benefits. I have focused on those I think are most pertinent to this discussion, but there are many more. An institution is the most effective way of organizing infrastructure development for example. And if you want to rule an empire you probably need a highly structured military (though an effective resistance can be informally organized). Does the Church require a martial structure? Or can the Church – to be precise, can the individuals who make up the Church – accomplish the mission of the Church without formal institutions? I believe the answer is yes. Those of us who lead the formal institutions, and are paid by them, must accept that the Church is becoming more informally organized. We should embrace the movement in America to deformalize organization and help people understand what is occurring, how it can benefit the Church, and how they can remain faithful to Christ and his body, even if they do not feel at home in an institutional church. The order which will emerge will be organic and voluntary – which will mean it will be purposeful and effective in its mission.