Explanations of the 95 Theses on Church Control
Editorial Note: The following is a set of explanations to Dr. Schmidt’s “95 Theses on Church Control.” Those theses can be read here.
It is manifest that ordination administered by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine right. Consequently, when the regular bishops become enemies of the Gospel and are unwilling to administer ordination, the churches retain the right to ordain for themselves. For wherever the church exists, the right to administer the Gospel also exists. Wherefore it is necessary for the church to retain the right of calling, electing, and ordaining ministers. —-Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope
In the “Ninety-Five Theses on Church Control,” I hoped to speak to the Church at large about the problems facing Christians in our denominational system. Such little theses, however, are easily misunderstood, and the reader is often unaware of the historical situation from which they have arisen. Nor is one able to expound more completely on the theology that has informed them.
Like many missionaries before and after me, I was required to read the writings of Roland Allen as a part of my preparation. A missionary to China during the heyday of colonialism, Allen had the audacity to suggest that instead of relying on the power, technology, and education of Western Civilization to carry out the Christian mission, the church return to its reliance on the Holy Spirit and the simple organization of the early church. As a Lutheran, I was particularly attracted to Allen’s reliance on the Scriptures and his understanding of the Gospel as being crucial to Paul’s relationship to the congregations in the New Testament. Like other missionaries I championed Allen’s ideas with regard to the way that modern missions might carry out our ministry.
It soon became apparent, however, that Christians in the younger churches learned much more from the form and institutions of Western churches than they did from the patterns in the New Testament or the ideas of some missionaries who wanted to go back to the model of the early congregations. This meant that to free the churches in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America to carry out their mission, it would be necessary also to free congregations in Europe and America.
However, the present patterns of denominations and national church bodies have become so strong and pervasive in the nations of the first world, suggestions for renewal have again and again fallen on deaf ears. Instead, as denominations age and grow progressively weaker, they seek to shore up their structures with ever more rules and control structures. What would happen if Roland Allen’s ideas and the New Testament patterns of the church and ministry were applied to the present denominational structures of the churches in America and Europe, and then around the world? The resulting changes would mean no less than a reformation, indeed, a “transformation” of the churches in our day.
Might we signal just that type of reformation by using Luther’s early writings as a provocative challenge to the status quo? With the form of Luther’s writings and also his understanding of justification by grace through faith alone, might people again see their own freedom in the Gospel to be the church? Could we again copy the pattern of church and ministry in the New Testament? Furthermore, if the church started to permit elders, educated in congregations, to do a ministry of word and sacraments, might they not work more closely with Christians of other denominations?
There is no intent for this writer in any way to pretend to be another Luther. I have neither his genius nor his affinity for unremitting work and prayer. As the reader will soon discover, the style of these writings does not begin to measure up to Luther’s scholarship or expression. Nevertheless, moved by the need to apply the Gospel to the contemporary shape of the church and its ministry I shall try to support and expand these theses. Hopefully readers will become alert to both the evils fostered by Church control and the good news that a greater Christian unity is at hand.
Christian Liberty to Be the Church
1. In the joy and freedom of the Gospel, Christians can call locally trained ministers of the word and celebrants of the sacraments who have scriptural qualifications for leadership and the willingness to do Christ’s work for little or no remuneration. Acts 14:23; I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9.
We do not believe that the church of Jesus Christ can be changed and reformed by mobilizing power and changing leadership at the top. By doing so we would be using the same vehicles of control as those we might seek to replace. Furthermore, it is our contention that even the leaders of denominations and the pastors and priests of our congregations are prisoners of the control system. We would rather destroy that control system by doing for ourselves what we previously believed we could only do through the denominational system.
This means that any group of Christians has the right and privilege of electing, calling, and, yes (if you like the term), ordaining their own leaders. Not all Christians may want to do this. Many if not most are satisfied with the present arrangement. If that is the case, so be it. However, the option is there. If people would rather spend their money on opportunities for the poor rather than paying for clergy and church buildings, if they desire the warmth and the fellowship of a small community, if they want to do their own theology and learn from Christians of other traditions, then let them call their own part-time leaders and “be” the church rather than “going to” church.
Some may ask, how would such local leaders be educated and equipped to carry out their ministry? At the beginning of the 21st Century Christ’s church has some marvelous assets. Near every major community are seminary trained pastors who can serve as mentors, and if need be, theological educators. Through web based courses we can even supply sophisticated seminary-type information. Even more important, however, may be the fellow worshippers in the local community through whom future pastors can learn the ways the Word of God works in the hearts of their fellow believers.
2. In the joy and freedom of the Gospel, Christians at the local level can decide about doctrine. Further, they can converse with Christians of other denominations and decide for themselves, on the basis of the Scripture, if there are grounds for fellowship.
This can and should be done on a number of different levels. In the small house church, this dimension of fellowship is obvious. However, even more traditional congregations might institute far more dialogue than is going on at the moment. Finally, all the Christians in a given community might get together for a convention and decide on their mutual faith and course of action in their community. Since the communist revolution in China, Christians there have come together and are making a joint witness to their faith. If this can happen there, why could it not happen in the United States and other countries where the Christian witness is far stronger?
However, can we do this within our denominational structures? What will our church officials think? How might we explain this to others? Here we must listen to God rather than to consciences formed in the denominational system of which we are a part. Certainly our Lord prayed for the unity of his disciples and all Christians in John 17. In addition, we need to hear and inwardly digest all those injunctions of Christian love, patience, and long suffering in the New Testament. The weight of Scripture behind our common unity is far greater than those few misapplied passages that urge separation and isolation. Most of them are only used as excuses for our failure to love.
3. In the joy and freedom of the Gospel, Christians can join with their fellows of other denominations and together witness, raise social consciousness, carry out projects, and support institutions for the benefit of their common community.
What Christian institutions are now serving the communities in which we live? If they are under our denominational control, we should open them up for others. If they are under another denomination’s control, let us offer to support them for our common benefit. If new institutions are needed, let us begin them with the widest denomination base possible.
But what do we do if Christians of our denomination and other church bodies are not even willing talk about these joint endeavors? Here we must again speak as the oracles of God. Let us challenge our brothers and sisters to speak and work with us. We have Christ’s words on our side. We must speak to them firmly, yet in love. If many will not hear, we will work with those who will. Only those institutions can be maintained or begun which have the support of many people. If there are only a few in a community who wish to work jointly, they will only be able to do a little work. However, where there are many such Christians, they can fund many institutions and agencies for the common welfare.
The reformation we seek is a gradual one. If any wish to be part of this movement, there are gigantic tasks ahead of them, enough to challenge the staunchest heart. If only a few respond, they can still worship together, clarify and formulate their message, and finally outlast the “control” institutions, whose days are numbered.
4. In the joy and freedom of the Gospel, Christians at the local level can take the initiative in carrying out the great commission without waiting for denominational action or approval.
Care should be taken that not all of a local group’s energy be given to the challenges of the local scene. A very large world needs the ministry of Christian people in many distant communities. Where there are Christians in communities overseas, they might be helped to see their common oneness in Christ and work together to witness to their faith in him. Where there are no Christians, let us send one of our number to such communities to make disciples of our common Lord. Christians on the local level can do this. This was the pattern of mission work in the New Testament and there is no reason why it should not work today.
If special training is needed to prepare such people for their mission, there are a variety of places where that training can be found. Universities and schools for business and industry, Peace Corps and other groups regularly do such training. Why could not a local church avail itself of similar opportunities? Some contact is also needed with the place to which you are sending someone. This can be done before hand by writing, or the sent one can do it as he or she searches for a place to begin mission and ministry.
5. In the joy and freedom of the Gospel, Christians may create new institutions at home and abroad better suited to meeting contemporary needs and may, with clear consciences, divert funds from denominational coffers to support these new institutions.
We are against neither institutions nor institutionalization. We are rather against the tired and dead ones that need to be propped up with controls. We need new, innovative institutions that once again will capture the imagination and support of Christian people. When such support is given freely, there is no need for control.
Unfortunately, new institutions are very hard to begin and support because of the grip that the old institutions have on people’s loyalty and resources. This is why there should be a re-evaluation of a Christian’s loyalty and to what purpose his or her offerings are given. This is not only true of individuals but of congregations and other groups as well. How much of our mission offerings actually go to help people outside of our own organizations, and how much is siphoned off in administrative costs and for institutional self-aggrandizement? If a denomination is doing little or nothing for other people, we can cut off our support and aid more worthwhile endeavors. Actions of local Christians in reassessing priorities are a powerful move against denominational control. Church administrators and leaders understandably will be nervous when actions like this are taken. Then they will see that that the real decisions are again being made at the grass roots of the church. We will always need some coordinators and administrators, but let us put them on notice that they are to serve local groups throughout the world and not the other way around.
One of the most “fun” committees of a local group of Christians will be the one that explores how a group might use its offerings. If no clergyman is supported and no building is built or maintained, this money will come to a considerable amount. What needs to be done? Who needs to be supported? Which one of our number might we send somewhere to make disciples for Christ? What project or institutions might receive some seed money to get it started? What other Christian groups in the community have something going with which we can help? The Christian stewardship of time and money once again can be a most thrilling part of the Christian life as people see for themselves the results of their offerings.
6. In the joy and freedom of the Gospel, Christians will not sorrow overmuch concerning the problems and frustrations of denominations or groups, knowing that Christ carried out his mission quite well without them in the past, and can certainly do so again in the future.
We are inviting the death of denominational Christianity as we know it. We do so with the natural misgivings of children who have been nourished by these groups. Yet, we learned from them that the cross of Christ means life from death. We know that as we die to ourselves, it is at that very point that we first live. They have taught us this. Now we invite them to practice what they have preached. Let them die to their pride, their offices, their institutional concerns, and the loyalty they inculcate in their people. Let them do this willingly and freely as even Christ let go his life for us.
Christians have the freedom to explore new forms of the church as Christ works through us to build his Kingdom. But where does this freedom come from to both free us from our religious institutions and give us the courage to work in arenas?
On Justification, the Source of Our Liberty
7. Justifying faith is the complete turning of a person from guilt under the law to the forgiveness and new life which comes from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Faith is a word describing the whole orientation or direction of a person. Thus faith is not one gift among many, or that which some people have and others do not. Each of us has faith, but faith in different objects.
The faith or direction that justifies us before God is the joyful acceptance of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ freely offering forgiveness of sins and full salvation to people that have not been able to keep the laws of men and God. Justifying faith, then, is the welcome of the surprising gift, undeserved joy instead of guilt, life instead of death.
8. Since we are justified by faith alone, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1.
Since salvation depends alone upon God and not upon us, there is nothing we can do to interfere with the availability of peace which God offers to us. Anyone who is thirsty can come to drink and they will never again thirst for that peace.
9. Justified by faith alone, a Christian has the certainty of salvation in the hope of the resurrection. Romans 8:37-39.
“For I am sure,” says Paul, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Though Paul knew himself to be the “chief of sinners” he was still sure and certain of that love of God.
10. Being justified by faith alone, we can rejoice in our sufferings and trials. Romans 5:2-5.
Through that orientation to life that Paul calls “justifying faith,” all sufferings can be faced courageously. In fact, the Christian can even rejoice in his troubles waiting in hope for the joys the Holy Spirit brings. Through the faith that justifies, Christians learn that God is in control and that suffering is the way in which God builds character and hope.
11. Justified by faith alone, people of different races, classes and sexes are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28.
Anyone who realizes in the depth of their being that they are saved by faith and not by their own station in life, cannot hate or dislike people of different groups who have come to that same faith. Faith is that great leveler of people from every culture and class and sex. Through the digestion of fact that all are justified by faith and not by anything they have done, culture fulfilled, or custom observed, there simply can no longer be racial, religion, economic, or ideological prejudice. To those who have abandoned all pride in their observance of any type of norms, there is an immediate recognition of the full and free fellowship under our God who saves us despite our identity and our qualifications.
The potential of world brotherhood, unity, the end of wars, the sharing of wealth, the demise of prejudice is present in “justification by faith.” One might even be so bold as to say that these can only be fully realized in justification by faith. All the urging in the world has not produced the end of prejudice. No law can be passed curing war or that which spawns it. Needed is an internal change deep within the consciousness of people that leaves them humble enough to value other human beings (of whatever state or condition) to be as good as or even better than themselves. Justification by faith can make that change.
12. Being justified by faith and not by works of the law, Christians are ready to count all of their good works as refuse because of the surpassing knowledge of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Philippians 3:8-10.
How weighed down we become when we feel we need to remember our successes and accomplishments. We lug them about and display them for the admiration we feel we deserve. But they keep getting in the way of our relationships with other people. We cannot truly be ourselves right now because we are imprisoned by what we have been. Paul knew how to travel light. His accomplishments he simply counted as garbage, and, like all refuse, it was thrown away.
13. Having been justified by faith alone, we are to stand fast in our freedom from the laws of God and men and not submit again to the law of slavery. Galatians 5:11.
Since joy, peace, certainty, and the gift of rejoicing in suffering, and the potential of all people to live in harmony rest upon justification, how terrible it is to lose it! Yet justification is a fragile gift that can be lost as we put ourselves under laws, rules, and discipline which inevitably takes from us those fruits of justification. Paul rightly calls it a slavery to be avoided at all costs.
14. Though justified by faith apart from the law, Christians are not to gratify the desires of the flesh, but are rather to bring forth fruits of the Spirit. Galatians 5:16-24.
Justification by faith does not mean that the boundaries are down and people can do what they please. Justification is not an invitation to moral chaos. It is rather the remaking of the entire person, a new direction and purpose for life. Once that new person has his or her new life in Christ, others can expect to see the fruits of the Spirit—joy, peace, patience, and the rest.
15. Since salvation is a gift of God, human pride and boasting, especially in religious activities, are finished (Ephesians 2:9) and excluded (Romans 3:27).
Today, religious wars and conflicts are the most hideous of all human crimes. The reason, of course, lies in religious pride and self-righteousness. But when people find themselves justified by God instead of through religious observances, they cannot be proud of either their own observances or those of their religious communities. In the light of one’s being justified by faith, it becomes very difficult to hold on to religious pride and to the hostility that it engenders.
16. For Paul, justification by faith alone is such an important doctrine that he condemns all those of his day and ours who add regulations to that teaching. Galatians l:9f.
When Paul condemned those who preached a contrary gospel, he spoke against those who merely added regulations to the doctrine of justification by faith. The Judaizers active in the Galatian churches could very easily have been considered good people. They encouraged “denominational” unity by wanting the Galatian churches to observe the same religious practices that were common in the Jerusalem Church. They were people who thought they knew right from wrong on the basis of what they had been taught. Today we would call them good churchmen and praise them for their dedicated, selfless service on behalf of their church.
But Paul calls them perverters of the Gospel and calls down on them God’s curse (Galatians 1:7,9). Paul can be charitable to the great sinner (II Corinthians 2:8) but not to those that add regulations to the Gospel. Regulations added to the Gospel pervert the entire meaning of the Gospel. This is because regulations say, in effect, that God’s grace in Christ is not enough; one must also obey church regulations.
When Paul calls those accursed who pervert the Gospel, he speaks not only against those who demanded men be circumcised to be full church members, but also to those of all ages who insist more is necessary to be full church members than faith in Christ. Churchmen such as these are truly those who “bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4).
On Church Control
17. In nearly every denomination or Christian group, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is confused through the addition of human regulations, definitions of doctrine, and customs.
Unfortunately it is not only the denominations that add regulations to the Gospel, but non-denominational groups do so as well. At one time, some of us hoped that the charismatic movement or some of the Jesus groups would be agencies that might omit new rules and regulations and be catalysts for Christian unity. Instead, they came up with their own customs and commands. Many times they have become more legalistic than the denominations they had criticized.
As we look over the religious scene in our day, it is depressing. The free gift of salvation in Christ is used almost universally as a “come on.” It has degenerated into a trashy advertising gimmick used to “hook” people into someone’s organization where they can be duly manipulated and used. God’s justification was intended to make people whole and free, but we have used it to make people cogs in an organizational machine, numbers to be counted and about which to boast.
18. Even in those churches where justification by faith alone is publicly taught, it is often obscured by a host of regulations supposedly needed to keep the church going or to provide a focus for group identity.
But the organizations reply that regulations, rites and observances are necessary to keep the church going and providing the means to do works of education, charity, and the like. Every group needs a focus for group identity. Is not discipline necessary for any group identity?
On the basis of the New Testament, we must answer with a resounding “No!” There is an entirely different attitude toward rules and regulations in Paul’s writings than is found in church constitutions and regulations. Paul treated Christian morality as an infinite progressive walk throughout all of life. We have treated it as fulfilling a minimum of organizational requirements. The only identity focus all Christians could agree upon in Paul’s day was that “Jesus was Lord.” We have gone far beyond Paul in our creation of rules and regulations, but in doing so we have obscured the Lordship of Christ and the good news of justification.
19. Because of the overlay of regulations and customs in most churches, too few of the members actually realize that they cannot save themselves by their own works, but that salvation is a gift of God through Christ to be received by faith. Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 3:21-28.
Why do so many people believe that they are saved by their own good works, even when their churches publicly teach “justification by faith”? In fact, justification may even be a cardinal doctrine of the church as it has been for Lutherans. Nevertheless, in 1972 a survey of what Lutherans believe pointed out that two out of every five Lutherans believed they ware saved by keeping the law rather than by faith in Christ. In 1998, a study by the Lutheran Brotherhood revealed that 48% of Lutherans said that people can only be justified before God by loving others.
Why do nearly half of the Lutherans not believe in justification by faith? Much may be due to the fact that the cross is foolish to all people (I Corinthians 1:18). More important perhaps is the hypocrisy of churches that say one thing with their preaching and teaching, but imply something else. Even if church leaders speak of the grace of God, they indicate with their rules and regulations that you are not a full member unless you follow church customs and regulations. Members should come to church, go to a confirmation class, believe in the doctrinal position of the church, interpret the Bible correctly, refrain from belonging to non-Christian organizations, appreciate the right style of church services and so forth. No wonder so many feel they will never be saved by God’s grace but look to their own good behavior.
20. By obscuring the Gospel, people are robbed of the certainty of salvation and are filled with the straws and husks of human works instead.
“If you were to die tonight and go to heaven and God would ask you, ‘Why should I let you in?’ what would you reply?” So goes the question in the evangelism method proposed by D. J. Kennedy. Regardless of what one thinks of the question or the methodology, the answers of many church going Christians are quite disappointing. Little bits of righteousness are dusted off and brought to light. “I have tried to be good,” say some. “I always go to church,” say others. One hears echoes of stale sermons preached long ago. Too seldom does one hear the ringing certainty that, “I have been saved by Christ and this salvation I receive alone by faith.”
21. Even in non-denominational Christian groups, justification by faith alone is slighted and obscured by emphasizing the time and place of conversion and the willingness of the individual to accept Christ. This emphasis makes of faith a human work and glorifies the individual rather than the Holy Spirit. I Corinthians 12:3.
Certain of the para-church evangelical groups deserve praise for once again making “Jesus” a household word. Nevertheless, they have so bound up Jesus with their own notions of how he must be accepted that they sometimes hide the real Jesus Christ. They ask, “When did you accept Jesus as your Savior?” If you do not know the time or place, many think you less than a real Christian. At times those who are asked, begin to doubt their faith for an emotional experience they were expected to have had.
Furthermore, once a person has accepted Christ, these groups expect them to follow their prescriptions. Now they are to witness, invite people to their own Bible study group. As they learn about the faith, they are taught only literal, fundamentalist views of Scriptural interpretation. This too becomes a part of “faith.” Although it is seldom done overtly, converts are expected to switch churches if the convert’s church does not teach a fundamentalist way of looking at the Scriptures. Instead of a faith opening up fellowship with all Christians in that world, the convert is submerged into a new sect and a new set of laws.
22. Also perverting the Gospel are those who insist upon speaking in tongues and a “Spirit-filled” life before one is fully a Christian.
Needless to say, this is not a condemnation of the whole charismatic movement. Responsible charismatic leaders do not claim such things are necessary to be a full Christian. However, divisions in congregations caused by charismatics imply that some of their followers believe otherwise. The charismatic movement could have made a substantial contribution to the revival of spirituality in the whole church of God. Instead, it has tended to make a new law out of the charismatic gifts, and has ended up dividing Christians instead of uniting them.
23. By the imposition of church laws and regulations upon the consciences of the faithful, churches have encouraged the trivial works of keeping the organizations running rather than aiding the poor and unfortunate, the sick and imprisoned. Matthew 25:35, 36.
Where are the church’s funds spent? The vast majority of all funds spent by churches have to do with the preservation, aggrandizement, and extension of the institutional church. Most money spent on education has this goal in mind. The same is true for missions. Most mission endeavors are the extension of the church as an institution. Too often evangelism is not really thought to be successful unless it has added members to a church or group or can claim that so many people turned out for this function or that.
Even more tragic than the money spent is the hours of time wasted on institutional self-preservation. Think of the endless meetings about budgets, education, and getting more members for the purpose of preserving denominational identity. Faithful members’ whole lives are woven into the fabric of their local churches. Soup suppers, pot lucks, ice cream socials make up the religious life of the vast majority of Christians in the United States and in many other places.
Meanwhile, the poor of the world suffer in overwhelming numbers. Malnutrition, hunger, imprisonment, disease, poverty stalk them in nearly every nation under the sun. The poor cry out and no one hears. While the minds of church people continue to be filled with the concerns of their institutions those very institutions are busy devouring the resources needed to help the poor.
24. The perversion of the Gospel happens whenever people, out of pride, wish to build organizations, traditions, and institutions in which they can find human security and status.
See the temptations of Christ, Paul, the Old Testament prophets and the martyrs through the centuries. Everyone had the temptation to shut up, to go along, to “make it” in the religious institutions of the day. With their gifts, all of them could have achieved good positions and status. But they refused, choosing instead to do what God wished, even though for some it meant giving up their lives.
Why is it that there is so little persecution of Christians today, particularly those in Western Civilization? Is it not because most Christians have sold out to the predominant idolatry of secularism? Regardless of their religious language, church organizations are increasingly secular. Christians, like others, seek to guard their personal security and prestige by hedging it about with institutional safeguards.
25. Though church people do not consciously set out to pervert the Gospel, they are seduced into it through their efforts to get people to work together by means of rules and regulations.
The most vibrant and alive periods of the Christian Church have been those eras when no rules and regulations were present. What guidelines were there for Paul in beginning his new congregations? Who told Luther how to reform the Church? What constitutions were involved when the Wesleys began camp meetings in America?
Today most churchmen would love another period of vital Christian expansion. But they have sought it in an orderly progressive growth channeled by rules, regulations, and finely shaped plans. Ah, but they have forgotten that their rules kill the spirit (Romans 7:10).
Furthermore, their rules cancel out the Gospel that they want proclaimed. Church control and a vibrant church life do not work together because they are contradictory concepts. Where there is church control, we see a perversion of the Gospel and little authentic spiritual life.
26. When church regulations are insisted upon for full fellowship in the church of Christ, such regulations must be resisted and disobeyed as destroying the Christian freedom in the Gospel. Galatians 2:5.
The existence of church denominations and other groups, though supposedly created for worthwhile activities, pervert the Gospel when coercive church regulations are needed to maintain them. Are we against all organization? Is not organization necessary to get a job done? What about the concept that people willingly “covenant” together so that duties can be divided and shared equally among interested people?
No concept for organization is more Biblical than that of the covenant. But the Biblical notion of covenant is very instructive to our denominations. In Biblical times, people entered into covenants when they knew the terms (Exodus 19 and 20). They were renewed for those who were not present the first time (Deuteronomy 4 and 5). Likewise in those churches practicing confirmation or a similar membership ceremony, an individual enters into a covenant relationship with some expectation of what this will entail.
However, in the present large organizations of churches and denominations, there is no way people can digest all of the constitutional and regulatory provisions of the organization. As a result, the organization does not have the consent and good will of all the people for its actions. This means that new motivations (often trashy) have to be provided. New regulations are promulgated. If personnel do not conform, they are fired. Denominations and organizations of themselves are not bad. Rather, the problem is coercive control. We submit that it is better to lose the organization than to use a non-covenanted, coercive control to make it work.
Paul could not yield to the Judaizers of Galatia, nor should those of us who know we are saved by faith. When denominations forbid fellowship with other Christians because of historic differences, we can reach over those divisions with love. When enthusiasts claim that one must have an emotional experience with Christ before one is truly a Christian, we can show by our actions that we are Christians even though we do not measure up to their man-made standards. When we are threatened with expulsion because we do not agree with the rules of denominational officials, we will testify to the truth of the Gospel against all human regulations.
Our disobedience will be blessed because in every case it means being in fellowship with people who may at first reject us; loving them, even though their love for us is temporarily crippled. Why should we not seek to commune at all altars, share our gifts with all in need, and, when necessary, break the organizational rules by welcoming into our fellowship the puzzled and weak, the doubtful and despairing?
Control through Seminary Education
27. Church control exercised through obligatory seminary education of church leaders is contrary to Biblical example (Acts 14:23) and substitutes academic qualifications for those of personal morality, and aptitude in teaching and combating error. I Timothy 3:3-13; Titus 1:7-9.
We now leave the discussion of the general evils of church control to look at the specifics. One of the most important but overlooked vehicles of control is the professionally trained and paid clergy. Although doctrine and practices differ widely among denominations and church groups, nearly every single group relies upon the formal training and payment for professional church workers. This is even true of some of the Evangelical and Pentecostal groups. What is so strange about this is that a number of these groups pride themselves upon a return back to the Bible. Yet, in the important subject of the ministry they do not copy the example of Paul and the other disciples, but rather the example of the institutional churches they often disavow.
The Biblical pattern of ministry is quite clear if one does not approach the New Testament era with preconceived notions of the ministry. The early leaders of local groups arose directly out of the worshiping community. All the instruction they received was probably the instruction given to all. It is likely that the people were selected by the group and blessed by Paul. Those selected were to be of high moral character, sober, grave, people of weight and reputation.
If one analyzes the qualifications of church leaders in I Timothy 3:3-13 and Titus 1:7-9, one is amazed to find so few intellectual qualifications. There are eleven moral qualifications, one moral-intellectual, one of experience, and two concerned with reputation. In the second list recorded in Titus 1:6-9, there is but one moral intellectual qualification, namely, “holding to the faithful word.” Regardless of any denomination’s teachings on the subject of the public ministry, nearly all require long training at universities, seminaries, or church colleges.
What happens when churches go back to the New Testament pattern of ministry and again select leaders who are educated for ministry from the local or neighboring congregations? This has been done for some years in various mission fields throughout the world. In those places, different denominations have been forced into returning to the New Testament shape of ministry because of wars or other political crises. In nearly every case the churches have been blessed with tremendous growth.
Recently, Lutherans in Alaska made a purposeful decision to educate lay people for Word and Sacrament ministries to serve the isolated rural areas of that vast state. At this writing, over one hundred trained and equipped lay people are ministering to a wide variety of communities. Not only are communities being served, but lay people are catching the vision of mission and ministry in very exciting ways. New groups of Christians are beginning spontaneously as people realize that they are the church and have the privilege and responsibility to begin new congregations. Already several congregations have been started across the Bering Strait in Eastern Siberia.
As lay people take over the responsibility for ministry, denominational barriers to a common mission are also breaking down. A new common Christian spirit is breaking out in many communities. As this new spirit touches the lives of people living in rural Alaska, inspiring unprecedented growth and fellowship, one observer said, “I used to think that the book of Acts described a once and for all phenomena. Now as we are trying out the pattern of the ministry we find in the pages of the New Testament, we are seeing the book of Acts happening again in Alaska.”
The use of locally equipped “lay pastors” is also being used with great success by large meta-churches throughout the United States and abroad. Even though the Sunday morning worship is still in the hands of the professional, seminary-educated staff, lay people lead small group ministries. This use of lay people for ministry multiplies ministry to those in the groups and outreach to new members. While this use of lay people in ministry is a step in the right direction, most of these lay people still do not have the freedom to celebrate the sacraments in a small group setting. Nor have they been freed from the necessity to support the large buildings that eat up much of the money that might have been used for better purposes.
Locally educated “bi-vocational pastors” are also doing an excellent job in ethnic communities in the United States and elsewhere. These are people who work both in the secular world to earn an income and also work in the church as opportunities present themselves. Here the advantages of educating people from a given ethnic group who know the language, customs, and traditions of their people is readily apparent. Not only are such pastors able to relate the Gospel to the culture of their people, they also have the credibility that comes from sharing in the work-a-day job experiences of their people.
With such obvious advantages of patterning our present day ministry after the one found in the pages of the New Testament, why is it not widely embraced as the way in which the church should do ministry in the twenty-first century? The reason given is that we want and need an educated clergy. But do we not have educated people in our congregations who can apply their intelligence to ministry? In Alaska, where locally educated people do Word and Sacrament ministry, we see a very interesting development. The lay ministers trained for their work have a wide variety of educational backgrounds. Some have a Doctor’s degree and others little more than a high school education. In a very natural way they serve in those strata of society where their education is appropriate to the people among whom they minister.
Isn’t the real reason for professional training the desire to control the spiritual lives of others through men and now women who have been trained to think and theologize in predictable and controllable ways? Again the advocates of the professional ministry point out the virtues of specialization and giving one’s undivided time to the task of ministry. Yet these same people in other contexts complain that religion is too often divided from practical life. Even the intellectual community is bothered by the over-specialization fostered by the academic disciplines. Movements are increasing to promote inter-disciplinary work. If this is beneficial in academic subjects, how much more is it not true for the Christian faith? The faith is much less a body of knowledge and much more an all-encompassing way of life and death.
28. Compulsory seminary certification deprives Christians in a given place of the right to select their leaders from their midst on the basis of Scriptural qualifications.
Several major denominations in the United States have faced divisions because of the question of who may or may not be ordained into the ministry. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod divided over the question of whether graduates of Seminex, a seminary-in-exile, could be officially recognized and ordained by Missouri Synod congregations. Not only was the debate long and bitter, it totally overlooked the Biblical pattern. No seminary education was necessary then. However, people believed that they should be able to control the teaching of seminaries and the graduates from those schools. Are these regulations necessary because we are much more holy than they were in the New Testament, or are they needed because the church is growing far more rapidly now than it did at that time?
In the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and other church bodies, the debate continues over the ordination of women. In the Protestant Episcopal Church, the debate rages on the issue of whether or not women can be ordained as bishops. Roman Catholics and Orthodox reject that as impossible. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America champions the ordination of women. However, not all female seminary graduates find it easy to get congregational positions, because the local members want male candidates. In these cases both the men and women in question have had “theological education.” However, on this issue both sides have ignored the Biblical example that a local group of Christians can choose for themselves what kind of leadership they wish to have. One might find that the debate would simmer down greatly if local congregations could decide what gender their leaders should be and for what tasks. Since, however, decisions are made in a power and control framework, reeking of politics and almost divorced from the concern for ministry, continuing hostility and enmity can be expected.
In some of these denominations recently debate has also erupted over the ordination of homosexuals. Once again, because the question is being posed in the national structure of the church body with full media coverage, all sorts of extraneous issues enter into the debate. Were the Biblical pattern followed, far better decisions might be made on the local level by those receiving the ministry of the person(s) to be called and chosen.
On every hand, individuals at the local level are losing the ability to make decisions for themselves. Giant corporations decide where we are to live and what we are to do. Governments decide how much we should pay in taxes and how our tax money is to be spent. Advertisements tell us what we must buy to be happy. In the same way, church organizations tell us who our leaders will be. But this is wrong. As priests of God, chosen people to whom God has given his Kingdom, we should have the responsibility and privilege of choosing our own leaders on the basis of what we believe is necessary for the ministry in our place.
29. Professionally trained and paid leaders too often are separate from the culture of their congregations by virtue of their professional education and training.
Countless pastors and priests can testify to the truth of this observation. Too often lay people do not come to the clergy for help because they do not believe that clergy persons can understand their lives and their problems. Clergy, for their part, often have difficulty in preaching to the real concerns of their people. That good sermons do get preached, despite the difference in training and culture, is a commendation to those clergy who have overcome their training and can relate to their people as fellow human beings.
30. Compulsory education connected with church leadership positions has deprived many Christians in the poor nations of the world of pastoral leadership and ready access to the sacraments.
In 1957 there was about one pastor or priest for every twelve congregations in the world. Needless to say, most of the congregations without pastors were in the underdeveloped world. For example, it is not uncommon for a seminary-trained pastor to serve twenty to thirty congregations. In Zaire, (the DR Congo) reports say that a clergyman may have had to serve up to sixty congregations. For clergy in the Western world, such statistics defy all understanding. How in the world can one person serve all those churches? The fact is that there is usually little or no ministry going on. About all clergy can do under those circumstances is to baptize and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Little time is spent on instruction or on any other forms of ministry that are common in the Western world. With so many churches, clergy can only get to a place occasionally. Thus the ready access to the sacraments is denied to people in the poor nations of the world.
31. The shortage of such seminary-trained leaders has been the chief constraint on the spread of the church in nations, which can exclude or control such clergy, and in the poor nations of the world, where they often cannot be paid.
One of the most significant contrasts in church history is the difference between the survival and growth of the church under persecution in the early centuries of the Christian church and its retreat and demise in nations hostile to the Gospel today. In the first centuries, the church could not be controlled or defeated institutionally. Since its leadership was not dependent on either professional training or salaries, it was not possible to kill it by the suppression of its leaders.
In hostile nations today, the contemporary church is very easy to control, manipulate, and kill, if that is the desire of the state. All that is necessary is to close the seminaries and intimidate the pastors and priests. Various regulations can be passed which make it difficult for the institutional church to function effectively. When such measures are taken, the church falls into line or it dies institutionally. Its greatest weakness is its present belief and practice that the training and payment of professional clergy is necessary for the churches’ life and health.
In the less developed nations, the constraint on the growth of the church is largely due to the inability to pay clergy. Two things militate against the rapid growth of an indigenous clergy in these lands. First, there is the great poverty of most of the people who simply cannot afford to pay a professional cleric. Second, the academic training of native clergy in their societies increases their expectations of how much they should be paid. Usually their expectations are considerably above what their congregations can afford. It is quite common to have theological students go into other fields as soon as they see how much the world offers them for their services. As a result, there are not enough clergy to supply existing parishes, let alone enough begin many new congregations. Churches in the poor areas of the world are almost always dependent upon the Western churches for the theological education of native pastors and priests. In some cases this means sending young men abroad for training. In other instances it means asking the richer Western churches for funds and manpower to erect and sustain theological schools. Since the churches in the poor nations cannot afford their own seminaries, Western churches continue to support and direct them and, in effect, control the seminaries and formation of their graduates.
32. Because of the compulsory nature of seminary attendance, battles are fought over seminary control, and men use worldly sanctions rather than God’s Word to enforce their doctrinal positions. Even so, seminary training has not guaranteed unity in doctrine and practice even among people who have attended the same seminary.
Doctrinal aberrations are not new in the history of the church. Paul and the other disciples knew them well. However, the New Testament, to a great degree, was written precisely to correct these problems. But what a difference between that time and our own! One does not see Paul or John firing a professor because he was teaching heresy. Paul could not fire anyone. He did not have that type of control. He would have refused it had it been offered. The only power Paul had was the word that he preached and wrote. Only in that way would the faith of his followers rest in Christ and in the foolishness of the cross.
33. By limiting church leaders to the professionally trained and paid, the resultant shortage of pastors and money has led churches in recent years to debate whether the church’s mission is evangelism or social concern, when in reality, it is both.
One of the major divisions in the church is the current debate between those advocating evangelism or social concern as the chief mission of the church. Both sides operate on the assumption that the personnel and financial resources of the church are severely limited. This is because both sides are locked into the present institutional patterns, as we know them. The fact is that the personnel resources of the church are unlimited, if we only have eyes to see. We need only pray to the Lord of the Church to send more laborers into the harvest. If once again, we would use part-time people who would receive their chief income from other sources, we would have all the money we need.
But it is argued, have not all churches encouraged lay volunteers? It would be difficult to find a church that stands against the active participation of the laity in the life of the church. The problem has been to get the laity active. However, the chief reason why laity have not been active is that there is no pressing reason why they should be. Churches with fine buildings and professional staff have looked so impressive that most people feel that the church is doing all right. Furthermore, with the clergy doing all the important things like preaching, counseling, planning, and teaching, there is only trivial stuff left for the laity to do.
Our eyes have to be opened to the fact that the church has endless resources for the big tasks such as evangelism and social concern. We might realize this more easily if all pastors and priests would give up their professional duties. Suddenly whole parishes would again have to define their purposes and together decide what their programs should be.
The real problem has not been that people have not cared to do the important jobs of the church. Rather, our customs, habits, and regulations have been so restrictive that people feel they do not have the competence for spiritual leadership. Mere urging on the part of clerics will not reverse this. Instead, we need a radical restructuring of the whole church. Once again Christians can learn the privilege and responsibility of those who have been justified by faith alone.
34. Theological training should be made a part of each local group of Christians and should be an on-going, continuing education.
In order to equip people for a ministry that is true to God’s word and effective in helping others, Christians will need a great deal more education in theological matters. For too long, people have gotten by with a minimal theological knowledge because, of course, they were paying a pastor to be learned for them. When each group of Christians realizes that they themselves must be responsible for the total ministry of the church, there will be a thirst for knowledge we have seldom seen in the church since New Testament times.
35. Local churches should again have various church leaders as they had in apostolic times, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers for the equipment of the saints and for the work of the ministry. Ephesians 4:11.
Although the New Testament concept of the ministry seems like less ministry, in reality, it is more. In the New Testament the emphasis was not on the omni-competence of one or two paid people; it was rather on the talents of all of God’s ministers in that place.
The very absence of a professional was that which encouraged each Christian to minister in the way he or she knew best. Congregations have sinned terribly against pastors by pressuring them to carry out all the ministries at a high level of competence. Clergy on their part have abrogated for themselves far too much power and responsibility. As a result, the people blame their leaders for an ineffectual church and the leaders blame the people for an ineffectual church. While both sides are involved in mutual recrimination, the church stagnates, dies, and a lot of real ministry never happens.
36. Full-time seminary training can be useful for training teachers, scholars, and traveling missionaries, as long as non-seminary trained people are also eligible for church leadership positions, as they were in the New Testament. Acts 14:23.
There is nothing wrong with seminary education except for its obligatory nature. Those advocating a return to a Biblical pattern of ministry can be misunderstood as being anti-intellectual, or anti-academic. Nothing is further from the truth. Both now and in the future the Church needs brilliant and well-educated women and men who can relate the faith to modern movements in technology and letters. The Church also needs more scholars to preserve and secure for future generations the lessons of the past. However, given the necessity for relating the Gospel to secular learning, perhaps the seminaries of the future ought to be more closely connected with larger universities and communities of learning as they are in Europe and in America’s more prestigious schools.
Church Control through Economic Pressures
37. Building congregations about a full-time clergyman has of necessity promoted large congregations to pay them and has also made necessary a large expensive building to house such a number for worship.
A careful look at the early history of the church shows that church buildings began at approximately the same time as did the growth of a full-time, resident, professional clergy. At the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to the Christian faith, it suddenly became popular to be a Christian. Thousands and tens of thousands of converts joined the church. To teach the great crowds, the local part-time ministers became full-time. To house the large number of peoples (enough to pay the priest’s salary) a church building became necessary.
By this time church buildings have become such a recognized part of the Christian Church that it is almost impossible for us to conceive of the Christian Church without them. Yet, for several centuries the church got along without them very easily. What a difference between that era and our own! When the church was yet an infant, immature and scarcely alive, mission churches such as the ones in Galatia and Corinth would send their collections to the church at Jerusalem. How could they afford it? It was quite simple. Nearly all their money could be used for helping the poor since they neither had to pay for resident clergy or for expensive church buildings.
The wealth that congregations have stuffed into buildings has greatly impoverished the churches of the West. Money spent for charity is nowhere near that spent on buildings. Now pressures are being put on churches in European nations for a dwindling number of Christians to maintain and keep open historic churches and cathedrals. What a tremendous burden this is on church people who have so many other burdens. Even in the poor nations church buildings are seen as a necessary aspect of being the church. Alas for the creative opportunities for the poor that might have been provided!
38. Since congregations and missions are built around the full-time paid professional, and since the poor cannot afford such, the poor, by and large, do not have the Gospel preached to them as much as do the rich.
When mission boards and committees in America decide on where to begin a new parish, most mainline churches will opt for the suburbs where more affluent people will be able to support clergy and a building. Parishes are rarely begun in inner city areas. In fact, most white churches in those areas close their doors and head for the suburbs.
The poor would often have no Gospel at all if it were not for the churches of the poor themselves. Operating on a far more Biblical pattern, Black and Hispanic lay preachers have sustained people’s hope in the midst of poverty and degradation. Small storefront churches remind us of Paul renting the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). The worst faults of these little churches come about when they seek to copy the denominations and have a full-time resident pastor. Often their calls for funds drown out the message of hope, and in many cases the poor scorn these churches as well.
Of course, all of this is magnified on the world scene. Contributions to “foreign missions” are pitifully small compared to what Christians in the rich nations spend on themselves. There are still millions of people in this world who have neither heard the name of Christ nor tasted his love in the gifts of food and medicines that are needed to sustain life.
39. Because of the imagined necessity of having a full-time professional and a church building needed to house large numbers of people, the church has been closely tied to the moneyed classes and has lost credibility among the very poor.
The real reason why Marx, Lenin, Mao, and other communists disliked the church and became atheistic was not because they did not like Jesus and his love for the sick and distressed. Instead, the communists saw that the church was consistently allied with the moneyed classes in order to survive as an institution. Thank God that there have been important exceptions. In works of charity and education the church has healed and uplifted thousands, yes millions. It should be noted that in India, the poorest have accepted the loving message of Jesus.
However, where the church has been the longest, where it is the most institutionalized, the poor have been alienated from the church. The working classes of Italy, Spain, and France have largely turned away from the church. The same is more and more true of those people who have been locked out of the high tech information society in England and America, and also of unemployed minorities in those countries. The future looks even grimmer. As churches panic over the loss of their general support, increasingly they will turn to the rich and thus will become more imprisoned by the desires and prejudices of the wealthy.
40. Because of the economic pressures of paying for personnel and buildings, Christians in different denominations, and within the same denomination, compete for members to the sorrow of Christ and the destruction of Christian unity.
What is often called “evangelism” is little more than a thinly disguised attempt to gain members for one’s own congregation. The need of large congregations to become even more successful and the approaching death of many stagnating congregations has become the real motivation for evangelism. However, the success of some congregations is often at the expense of other congregations. Jealousies and rivalries abound not only between churches of different denominations but also between congregations of the same denomination. Ecumenism is weak and getting weaker at the local level. Even if theologians come to some common understanding about doctrine, cooperation on the local level between different congregations is difficult, if not impossible, because of the rivalries for members and funds.
41. Also because of these pressures, churches must resort to fund raising efforts which are often manipulative, legalistic, and go against the clear teachings of our Lord not to let one hand know what the other one gives. Matthew 6:3.
Here we do not condemn a simple appeal for funds for those in need. Rather we condemn the calculated, pressurized campaigns to raise money for the organized church. Not only is the purpose of such fund raising misplaced, but the methods are vile as well. We see techniques of social pressure, shame, and the promotion of phony status for large givers. However, we also see many people alienated from the church by such methods.
In the Palestine of Jesus’ day, there was great and abiding poverty. But Jesus was not after money, he was after people’s hearts. There are no appeals for funds for him to carry out his ministry. He could enjoy gifts or do without. He does not commend the big money givers but the widow who gave all she had (Mark 12:42). He warned against false pride by telling us not even to let one hand know what the other one gives (Matthew 6:3). Think of how difficult it would be to run an “open pledge” stewardship system if we followed that saying. Churches get around this by saying that drives for money are necessary to keep church doors open. But are they really?
42. Because of the imagined necessity of buildings and professional clergy, churches are not able to contribute as much proportionally for the poor as were the New Testament churches. I Corinthians 16:1f.
One of the greatest contrasts between the mission work of contemporary congregations and that of the early church is the fact that money was sent from the young mission churches to the older church in Jerusalem. Today, this would never be done. The reason is not hard to see. In the early church there was no need for money to support professional clergy and erect buildings. This is why the mission congregations could send money back to Jerusalem for the poor and also to demonstrate their unity in love with the Jerusalem church.
43. Where the ministry of Paul was filled with great joy because it operated with church leaders selected on the spot, the ministry of many contemporary pastors and missionaries is depressing and burdensome because of the need to keep the organizations running with limited resources.
The holy ministry has never been an easy profession. On every side, there is human selfishness and greed, pride and arrogance. Because of our common sinfulness, none of us wants to be loved by God or love others in return. Ministers are prepared to accept this. It is spoken of in sermons, dealt with in counseling, fought in community action. This is not what gets preachers down. The problems that afflict the clergy are the endless meetings and fuss to keep the church going as an institution. Are there enough Sunday school teachers? Will we meet our budget? Do people like my sermons enough to come back? Where are all the young people going? The mortar between the bricks on the south wall is coming out. These are the concerns that get pastors down.
Oh, to be as free as Jesus was! Would it not be great to simply help people by word and deed, particularly where they were really hurting? It is so good to speak the comforting word to the depressed, to aid a young mother who desperately needs help. This is why people originally went into the ministry. Furthermore, it is this that keeps people in the ministry despite the institutional burdens.
The methodology of Paul in forming his mission congregations was for the word of God to be as unencumbered as possible. We hear nothing of church buildings being erected. There were no stewardship drives. Paul was not even overly concerned about recruiting young men for the ministry. Instead, any group of Christians, large or small, could select leaders from their midst with Paul or another apostle blessing them in their service. Here was a shared responsibility from the very first. When the people not only picked up the house keeping chores of the church but also served as its ministers, Paul was free to continue the work of preaching Christ’s good news.
44. The ecumenical movement has failed to bring unity to Christians on the local level largely because of the economic bases of professional clergy, congregations and denominations.
Under the present circumstances, important gatherings of all Christians at the local level are not likely to take place because the ecumenical movement has not penetrated local churches. The 20th century held great promise as the century to reunite all Christians. On the national and international level there were great successes in the International Missionary Council, in the World Council of Churches and in denominational federations such as the Lutheran World Federation. The Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II showed more openness to other Christian churches than it had in its entire history since the counter-Reformation. At the top, Christians were coming together. The same started to happen at the ground level. Lay people from all denominations were recognizing each other as fellow Christians despite different denominations.
However, because of the economics of the local parish, the whole ecumenical movement broke down at the congregational level. Neither church executives nor the theologians had to keep the parish doors open. Rather it was the clergy and their faithful supporters who advocated denominational and congregational loyalty. This was the stone of stumbling. By now, the ecumenical movement has lost its vitality and its vision. The most parochial churches grow the fastest. These are the churches that serve their own economic interests and not Christ’s. This is why the movement for greater Christian unity is almost dead.
45. By insisting upon the paid professional, we impose intolerable financial burdens on the churches of the third world. By subsidizing their education and support, we make them open to the charge that they are captive to the churches of the West.
Seldom in the history of the world has there been a more winsome and attractive personality than that of Jesus Christ. Hindu holy men know of him and emulate him. Muslims are attracted to him as one of their prophets. Even Marxists applauded his championing of the poor and out-casts. But all of them have had different feelings about the churches of Christ—churches they describe as imperialistic and parasitical. They point to how the church has grabbed land, forced and seduced children into schools to indoctrinate them. These critics are angry at how the church asks poor Christians to support a minister and a building when the poor have barely enough to eat. Even the schools and hospitals erected by Christian missions are often used as vehicles of coercion as patients must hear Jesus stories before they get the penicillin. They hear of children at the schools being flogged if they do not go to the right church on Sunday morning.
Why has the church done all this and in the name of Christ? Simple, the church is an institution. Missionaries have to be able to show results (for the institution) in order to justify the missionary’s financial support. Churches have to be built (like they were at home) and pastors have to be paid. The real message of Christ is barely heard.
46. The economic basis of the Church, together with the desire to control the organization of the church, has led to the introduction of seamy politics into the house of God, with men vying for positions of high remuneration, status, and power. All this is contrary to our Lord’s teaching that the greatest among us is a child or a slave. Matthew 18:4; Matthew 20:26.
If church folk and the world knew half of what went on behind the scenes at church conventions, gatherings of bishops, presbyteries, synods etc., they would turn up their noses at the odor. While pious sentiments flow out in news releases, the real battles are fought over power, prestige, and status. These power battles are camouflaged as “standing up for the truth,” “championing the rights of the local congregation,” or whatever. The refrain continues as church officials say with holy tones, “if we want to accomplish our goals, we have to work through church institutions, and that involves politics.”
No doubt the motivations of many church officials and office seekers are noble. Yet, why do they think their objectives can only be met through gaining power in the institutional church? Why do they allow their egos to deceive them and seek prestige and power in the church? Has not the church become as the world? Little do these office seekers realize that by seeking to accomplish their objectives through power, they are destroying the very essence of the church that exists by grace.
There is a place for power politics. It lies in the worlds of government, business, education, and all other institutions of society. The role of the church is not to gain political power; it is opposed to political power as its goal. The church exists to chasten and purify political institutions. Jesus did not create a highly structured church; neither did Paul. This does not mean that they were not conscious of political decisions. Indeed, they moaned when they saw around them the results of political oppression. The focus of their ministry was not to liberate people through political power, but rather through the power of Christ’s grace. Through their words and actions they elevated the status of women, slaves, and children. In doing so they accomplished that which no political institution of that day could accomplish.
More needs to be said, however, lest this be interpreted to mean that the church is an escape from the political structures of the world. If the church is true to her nature as a community that exists by grace and not by political power, she can live in a creative tension with the political structures of the world. Then, with a greater moral authority, she can struggle with government. In the political realm she can work to see that power does not always go to the powerful. In business, she can struggle to see that profits do not always go to the wealthy. The struggle can go on in all other fields as well.
Control through Church Administration
47. Church control through paying full-time people or withholding funds for their support stifles the prophetic voice that condemns the sins of the rich.
The real criminals of our day are not so much the poor who steal bread. Instead, they are the rich who control most of the wealth and power of the world. These are the people who prevent guaranteed employment because they need a surplus labor market. These are the people who speculate in the world’s grain markets, making unconscionable profits by stealing from both the farmers and the hungry. These are the oil barons who manipulate supplies and prices. While their profits go up, the hungry child dies because there is no fertilizer for his father’s field.
But some of these same people are generous givers to the church. With pious attitudes they want the church to teach morality to the people. Needless to say, the morality they want preached is a morality for workers, consumers, and obedient citizens. They do not want a morality preached which will question their own unjust accumulations of wealth and control. If the church would dare to turn on them and expose their sins to the light, there would be trouble. If the church gives a voice to the oppressed as they seek to throw off an unjust system, the rich will stop giving to the church. Suddenly the church’s prophetic voice will get quieter. Fears will surface. How will the church survive without the financial gifts of her lovers?
The bride of Christ has too often become the whore of the wealthy. She lusts after the gifts, the perquisites, the respectability that the wealthy and the powerful shower upon her. But she is a kept woman. Her pastors and priests procure her customers. They dare not speak honestly and forthrightly about the present injustices of the world lest they lose their support and their jobs. Worst of all is the almost total silence about the wealth, the power, and the control of the churches themselves. The church has to be silent because she is part and parcel of the oppression in the world. Churches hold investments. Her buildings and property throughout the world add up to a great amount of money. However, instead of the church owning her wealth, she is owned by it. She can no longer take the side of the disenfranchised because she is in danger of losing her own possessions. This is the deep and abiding frustration of the church. She cannot help because she is not free to help. Only by being set free from her clergy, her buildings, her lands and possessions can she again stand at the side of the oppressed and give her life, give her all.
48. Church control over pastors has largely silenced their public criticism of the denominational system of which they are a part.
Many clergy see the problems of the institutional church in its present denominational system. But what can they say? In the system in which they find themselves, what are they to do? As family responsibilities increase, pastors need more money. Clergy are trapped people. The institutional church has been the devil’s most clever ruse to keep these dedicated people from becoming the prophets of God. The devil fears prophets, but he has us in his net. Only a gigantic rent and tear in that net will let us out again to vanquish him with God’s word of power.
49. The dependence of the clergy upon their salaries has tended to make them servants of their members’ comforts.
How inappropriate for the modern church is the picture of the church as the people of God trudging through the wilderness toward the promised land. Today the metaphor should be that of the spiritual clinic where people get band aids and aspirin when their problems often require radical surgery.
50. The financial vulnerability of most clergy has led them to become cautious in condemning the real sins and prejudices of their members.
Clergy have the same problems with the prejudices of their members as they have with the rich, the denominational system, and the comforts of their congregations. However, the problem with prejudice is more insidious. By not speaking out against prejudice, one soon finds oneself infected with it. Thus, after a while the clergy find themselves reflecting the prejudices of their people.
51. Control over pastors and missionaries has diverted their energies from creative approaches in pastoral care and mission in order to fulfill the institutional expectations of their paymasters.
The church of Christ has always been best when she was doing something new and innovative. At times this was patronizing artists like Michelangelo or Da Vinci. At other times it was in the building of the cathedrals. At other times it was in the creation of adult schools, cooperatives, and societies for the betterment of the working classes. At other times it was in the education and use of deacons and deaconesses in aiding orphans and disabled in Europe and America. As mentioned before, some of the most exciting things in the mission of the church is happening in the state of Alaska where volunteer lay ministers are bring the Gospel and Christian instructions to sparsely populated villages throughout that great state.
Thank God that such Christian surprises are still happening in various places in the world. However, in so many congregations throughout the world, there is a stifling sameness about the church’s life. Where did the sparkle go? Why do congregations in Nigeria look so much like those in Cincinnati? Why are the patterns of church life so deep, so dull, so unimaginative? Is it not because the people who pay the money have the same expectations? The clergy expend so much energy living up to those expectations that little time is left over for innovation.
52. Denominational mission boards are not necessary to carry out mission work at home and in foreign fields, as can be seen from faith missionaries who receive support from individuals and congregations.
The age of missionaries is not over. It is still necessary to send missionaries from the West to the nations of the former Soviet Union and the third world. There are still many that do not know of Christ and his Kingdom. So many wonderful things can happen when liberated Christians can bring their faith and talents to people of a distant land.
However, the recruitment and support of missionaries must not be used as a rationale for centralized mission boards and their sponsoring denominations. For many years, faith missionaries raising their own support have far outnumbered those missionaries sent out from denominational mission boards. Furthermore, it is quite evident that denominations have used mission fields and missionary concerns to keep money coming into the central headquarters of the denomination. From there it is bled off into administrative costs, educational systems, seminaries, and other projects.
53. By using stipendiary missionaries administered by boards, we have, in effect, discouraged the natural mission work of traveling Christian lay people, who in New Testament times were able to begin self-sustaining congregations.
Though many Christian lay people travel all over the world, few think it appropriate to begin a new congregation of people in a distant land. First of all, they do not believe that they have such authority. Next they would ask themselves how such a group of people would get along spiritually if they had to leave. After all, starting congregations in foreign lands is a big undertaking. Surely it requires planning, policy making, a board that meets regularly, dedicated missionaries, and lots of money. How could a simple Christian hope to do all that?
Yet, as any casual reader can tell from the pages of the New Testament, this is precisely how churches started then. The churches in that era did not even have New Testaments. Now there are available Bibles, all types of religious literature, radio, computers, the Internet, and hundreds of helps. It is far easier for lay people to begin churches today than it was for Aquila and Priscilla. Why then does it happen so rarely? Is it not because of our ideas of church control?
54. Denominational mission boards have often taken away from single congregations and small groups the thrill and excitement of doing their own mission work.
The real drag of people’s spirits in most parishes is doing busy work without having the excitement and the thrill of harvesting. Even St. Paul needed to “reap some harvest” (Romans 1:13). When local Christians are involved in the chief work of the church bringing about God’s Kingdom in the world, then church is fun. It becomes demanding, requiring prayer and sacrifice, but it is also something no one wants to miss.
55. Clergy and missionaries can accept their salaries as gifts freely offered, but ought neither to expect them nor be governed by them.
Churches of all denominations, and other religious groups, have built their structures upon the professional worker for so long that it seems impossible for any change to come about. Workers are trapped because they have no other skills they can use for their livelihood. The churches are trapped because they do not know any other easy way to run a church without such a professional. This mutual entrapment would seem to guarantee that church control and its attendant evils will be with us for some time. What is to be done?
It is both impossible and implausible to think of clergy leaving their jobs, seeking other work end leaving the laity on their own. In the short range, the congregations would probably find other professionals to serve them. Furthermore, it is not the professionalism of the clergy that is at the heart of the problem. The problem is church control. The professionally trained and paid clergy is just a vehicle for this.
Let us not do away with the clergy with one fell swoop. Let us only do away with the control. This can be done by clergy freely accepting their salaries. As everyone knows, there is ample Biblical precedent for this. However, we can undercut church control by having the clergy open to other work. If clergy know that they can do other work for income, their preaching will improve. Suddenly the pastors and priests will be serving not because they have to, but because they want to. Now they can preach with greater power because they are not afraid for their jobs or their income. Now they openly can criticize their denominations and call into question the sins and prejudices of their best members. If some clergy become free, they will be able to liberate their brothers and sisters in the ministry and also free up the people of their congregations.
56. The sooner clergy can find other work to fall back upon, if need be, the happier their ministry will be.
Paul enunciated the principle that those who proclaim the Gospel, should get their living from the Gospel (I Corinthians 9:18). However, for much of his ministry he earned his living with his hands (Acts 20:34). Were clergy today as willing to take up other employment, they would soon know a greater joy in ministry that comes from being as free as the Gospel they proclaim.
Church Control through Confessional and Constitutional Standards
57. Denominations are unable to exercise control over doctrine despite confessional, constitutional, and/or hierarchical provisions. Instead, we find the greatest disputes over doctrine and practice precisely in those denominations that seek to enforce such provisions.
Many of the control structures of denominations were designed to insure some unity in church doctrine and practice. In some denominations such as Lutheran Synods, candidates are required to swear to confessional standards. In Roman Catholic churches, clergy must swear obedience to a superior. In other churches, clergy must go along with the constitution, policy, or decisions of their elected officials. Behind all this is a fear for the doctrine and life of the denomination. After all, if the church loses her doctrinal base, it might seem that she would lose her identity.
But what has the control really accomplished? Nearly every major denomination in the United States has been split once or more in its history. Even the Roman Catholic Church now suffers from a crisis in authority with its moral opinions challenged by clergy and laity alike. Can one really summarize the faith of a denomination in a standard of doctrine or life? Even if it could be so summarized, would not the enforcement of that standard do away with the very love and grace of God that the standard was designed to protect? True living teaching about God and the Christian life can never be contained in any standard. Such a teaching is made up of living, creative words full of their own power and life (Acts 12:24; I Peter 1:23). Let Christian people decide for themselves doctrine and life. The safeguard will be the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God based upon the Bible and shared by the people.
58. Even though confessional and constitutional commitments do not guarantee pure doctrine or even unity within a denomination, it is certain that they effectively split Christians, who may share a common faith but belong to different denominations.
A unified denomination in all areas of doctrine and practice is a foolish dream. This simply does not occur anymore, if it ever did. So what have such denominational provisions accomplished for doctrinal unity? All that they have really done is to separate Christians of one denomination from Christians of other denominations. In every community, there are Christians of various churches who have similar interests, who could unite about some worthwhile project for the community. However, suspicion of one another, caused by different standards of doctrine or tradition, have poisoned their thinking about each other. As a result, real fellowship and a common working relationship is often impossible. No, not only do such Christians suffer from their isolation, but their community suffers as well. The health clinics do not get built, the poor still suffer, and the churches waste their efforts on duplication.
59. In a rapidly changing world of diverse cultures, where concepts and words have different meanings, and problems differ, every few years confessional and constitutional commitments are out of date.
Most confessions and creeds were written for a specific situation in history. Like many of us, however, they have the tendency to put on extra weight over the years. Even after the situation they addressed has long gone, the creeds live on. They also begin to pick up functions that their authors never intended them to have. Most of the time, they were put forward as positive theses, identifying a certain position. Later on, they became a test of orthodoxy to which people must adhere or suffer expulsion.
The world has changed immensely since the sixteenth century when many of the confessions were written. They were written before the historical-critical approach to Biblical interpretation, before the Enlightenment, and prior to modern technology. Nation-states were few and not very powerful. In addition, nearly all of those confessions came out of the European culture with its own distinctive antecedents and culture. Now the Church of Christ has been planted in nearly every country of the world. Each of those nations has its own distinctive culture and thought patterns. In many ways, the world is in an entirely new setting from that of the sixteenth century, or even the nineteenth.
For example, the debate over the Lord’s Supper sounds foolish in an animist culture. In animism everything has a “soul” or a “real presence.” Thus, theological followers of Zwingli, as well as Lutherans, are likely to believe in a “real presence” since they come out of an animist background. In that society the debate is quite different. Is the Lord’s Supper really good for stomach problems or does it have some other purpose? Which confession, constitution, or other doctrinal standard has addressed that potential heresy? Yet to thousands of African Christians, it might be a very real issue.
60. Control through enforcement of confessional and constitutional commitments too often precludes honest and effective dialogue between Christians of different denominations, at a local level.
Some years ago, it was quite fashionable to have ecumenical dialogues at the local level. However, little or nothing has come of them. Not only was this because of the economic bases of congregations as mentioned previously. Participants were also prevented from entering into them wholeheartedly because of their own denominational loyalties. Instead of people freely confessing their faith and listening with gratitude to the faith of others, people rather proclaimed the confession of their own denomination and listened to the denominational loyalties of the others. Not much came from these dialogues because everyone went into them from a denominational position. Since such loyalties were assumed to continue, a real creative dialogue was impossible.
What would have happened if all the participants had left their churches and now came together and asked themselves what it meant to be a Christian in this time and place? Each would bring from his or her tradition the best treasures and traditions and all might really learn from each other.
61. Denominational control over fellowship with other Christians clearly omits Christ’s own criteria of judging prophets by their lives (Matthew 7:16-20), and neither a church convention nor a far away bishop can decide that for us.
In the Scriptures it is assumed that there is a unity between a person’s nature and their actions. “So every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every good tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:17-20). This unity between faith and life of good Christian people can be seen and has been experienced in the ecumenical discussions between church leaders in our century. It became almost commonplace at such discussions for the participants to forget whom they were representing. Confronted with the exemplary Christian lives led by the others at the discussions, a new bond of fellowship was forged. After such discussions the representatives would come back reflecting their new fellowship rather than their old denominational position.
The path to the freedom to engage in fellowship discussions lies in the words of Christ that prophets can be judged by their lives. Lay people do not feel qualified to judge theology, since traditionally that has not been considered as part of their calling. Yet nearly all lay people are quite good at judging the quality of another person’s life. Such judging takes place nearly every day of a lay person’s life. Lay people need to hear again that this is Christ’s criterion in talking with other Christians. Hopefully, we will see happening among the laity that which happened among the participants in the great ecumenical conferences of the 20th century. People will again sense and know a true unity in Christ that comes from good Christian people who confess a common faith and live according to the teachings of their common Lord.
62. Costs incurred in propagandizing councils and conventions are clearly wasted funds much better given to provide opportunities for the poor.
If lay Christians must make the final decisions about issues of doctrine, why all the fuss about conventions and church gatherings? Why also is so much money spent urging this course of action or that? Are the parties who spend the money so naïve that they really believe the lives and deeply held beliefs of common Christians are going to be swayed one way or the other by church votes? No, people who spend money like this are after coercive church power and control. Faithful Christians living in the power of their Christian freedom will deny such power to them by laughing at their pretensions.
63. Control through the political interpretation of confessional and constitutional commitment robs the church of the sweetness of the Gospel and replaces it with bitter battles over human definitions.
What happens when we decide issues of doctrine, or fellowship, or control of seminaries on the basis of majority vote, and a sizeable group does not like the decision? Are their consciences bound to a majority vote, influenced by electioneering and manipulation? The winners tell losers that if they do not like the decision, they can fight about it at the next convention or leave the denomination. Thus, the forces retreat to take up the battle at another time. Meanwhile, the air is poisoned with recriminations and bitterness. Winners enjoy their victory and the losers vow revenge as they nurse their wounds.
64. Control through confessional and constitutional commitments clearly takes doctrinal decisions away from the common people and places them into councils and conventions where politics are supposed to answer questions that only the Holy Spirit can resolve. John 14:26.
How ridiculous it is when a church convention passes a resolution that Adam was a historical person and the vote is 325 to 215. Does the vote now determine whether or not Adam really lived, or even what it meant that Adam lived? Or again, thirty-five bishops against two defeat an ecclesiastical approval of abortion. What is really defeated? It is certainly not the practice of abortion, which continues at an alarming rate. Conventions and councils are announcing to themselves that they are the church. It would be hilarious, if it were not so sad. Voters at such conventions reply that they are only exercising their opinion. Yet they often have the power to promulgate that opinion and chastise the people who do not go along with it.
The only group who can decide for the church is the church. These are also the common church people at the local level. Christ has called them his own. They live in the world, but are not of it. If these good people decide on Adam or on abortion, so be it. They may be wrong but their Savior is their judge. They won’t be that wrong. Church leaders can give their opinions. Opinions and advice are always welcome, but working with the Spirit through the Word the people can decide.
65. Confessional statements and church decisions can and should be honored as witnesses to the faith of the dead and the living. Such confessions, however, become evil when they are appealed to as law and used for church control.
Church control through appeal to confessional commitments does not let the Word of God fight its own battles but replaces the Word with legalistic arguments on the meaning of ancient and modern church documents. There are right and wrong views on doctrine and life in the church. Paul knew them in his day and we know them in ours. When Paul wished to show an erring church where it went wrong, he wrote them a strong letter. He could not control the church but he could speak to it. We need to recapture a proper respect for the efficacy of the Word of God. This is the Word that broke up kingdoms and powers in the days of the prophets. Why then do we try to protect this mighty Word with fences made from the twigs of our church resolutions? Why do we attempt to guard it with the puppy dogs of our church officials?
As there is a place for true doctrine, so there is a place for good church confessions. Those confessions are particularly important where men risked their lives and property for the sake of the confession. We honor those people and respect their faith. That faith may be identical to our faith or the faith of our brothers or sisters. If so, we respect them for their commitment. But what has this to do with our fellowship in Christ’s Body? He has made us one, regardless of the confessions to which we subscribe.
When one ventures into the conventions and conferences of churches which seek to keep a doctrinal standard, one is simply horrified at the language of law and its enforcement. God knows the church needs more doctrine and not less. However, the doctrinal standards approach is wrong. Here words are used like “require,” “enforce,” “comply,” “repudiate,” and “oppose.” Such negative words just reek of law and Pharisaism.
Christian teachings, especially those parts related to the love of God, his goodness, grace, and kindness, can never be taught rightly when one appeals to the standard of a new law. Good Christian doctrine can best be taught through the humble witness of a Christian who has learned and experienced the grace of God in Jesus.
66. New confessional and creedal statements should be continually drawn up by Christians crossing denominational lines as joint testimonies to their common understandings of God’s Word.
The two most significant movements in church unity in the last thirty years have been the dismissal of church creeds as impediments to unity and the recent attempts at confessional agreement between denominations. The former has been practiced on the local level by community churches. These have largely followed the Baptist tradition of eschewing all creedal statements and centering their unity on a personal relationship with Christ. This has had the advantage of making possible a local unity. However, the lack of creeds and confessions often limits their action in a community to a narrow understanding of their mission so that the focus of their church life is often simplistic.
The second movement is the attempt to bring about altar and pulpit fellowship between denominations. One such attempt has been made between the ELCA Lutherans, the Reformed and Protestant Episcopal churches. Even though the declaration of such unity may make possible joint communion and preaching at one another’s pulpits, such unity will be largely symbolic and is not likely to have a very profound effect on the communities in which the congregations are located.
In this thesis we are proposing a third option. When local groups of Christians realize the freedom they have in Christ, they have the liberty to enter into discussions with one another and produce their own confessions of faith for the work that they need to do in their community. With the freedom they have from denominational control, Christians from a number of denominations can come together and talk with each other. They can study the Scriptures, adopt appropriate creedal statements, map out a vision for working in their community, and write up new confessional statements for their work together. These people could put down for themselves, and only for themselves, what beliefs they have in common. Such people would not need to speak about all aspects of the faith (indeed, what creeds do?), but only those which directly affected their fellowship together. Joint confessions such as these would not and could not be used as some great standard for all congregations. Instead, they would be provisional documents to accomplish a provisional goal. In this case it would be church fellowship among people at the local level. These confessions would be happy documents, freely created, and, after their purpose had been accomplished, they could be happily destroyed.
Control through Church Regulations
67. Through church regulations, denominations are more often characterized by their prohibitions than by the Gospel they attempt to communicate.
Listen to the way common people talk about denominations. One cannot practice artificial birth control if you are a Roman Catholic. Lutherans of the Missouri Synod cannot belong to lodges. Amish people cannot use tractors or other modern machinery. You cannot be a combat soldier if you are a Quaker or a Mennonite. You cannot drink coffee if you are a Mormon or a Seventh Day Adventist. The list goes on and on. Do people really hear about the great injustices of the world to which they are contributing? Do they ever really hear about the marvelous Christian liberty we have in Christ that empowers us to make our own decisions about Christian morality with the help of the Spirit of God? No, they do not. Instead there are just the church injunctions, nearly all of them human rules, designed largely for institutional purposes.
68. By working through church regulations, churches have invariably bypassed the Biblical way of dealing with sin and error as is specified in Matthew 18:15-21 and I Corinthians 5:1-13.
Seldom in the “institutional church” have Christians lived according to Christ’s way in dealing with sin end error indicated in Matthew 18:15-21. Instead (because the errors are supposedly public), rules and regulations are designed to check aberrations in doctrine and life. In every denomination, there are special books and materials on constitutions and canon law. Things must go according to the by-laws. Who protests if Christian liberty is eroded and destroyed in the process?
The real tragedy is the dehumanizing of God’s fellowship of the faithful. With the way of Christ, we must deal with one another as real people. We can meet with one another face to face. We must listen to explanations and get our facts straight. We are often confronted, in turn, with our own frailties. In such relationships all parties remain human. However, with contemporary church control, orders are given, resolutions are passed, clergy lose their ministries, the married priest is deposed. It is all very businesslike; it is all terrible.
69. Through rule making and policy setting procedures, church denominations have taken away opportunities for decision, study, and growth by local lay Christians.
The “keys of the kingdom,” the power to forgive and retain sins, was given to all Christians. One of the “gifts of the Spirit” is the power to discriminate between spirits I Corinthians 12:10). All Christians must be alert to wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). However, too few common Christians are able to exercise these gifts. In our day the institutional churches seek to keep controversy away from the people. How strange! Controversy is almost always interesting. If the controversy were on the local level, it would only affect the people of that group. Controversy such as this would be stimulating and enlightening. Both sides could represent their views and people could decide individually or collectively what they wanted to happen.
The problem with church controversy at the denominational level is that decisions made there affect thousands and millions of people. Furthermore, those people often have almost nothing to say about how those decisions are made. This is why church denominations are among the most undemocratic of all institutions. Most of them do not have strong provisions for the separation of powers. Few of them are really representative of the majority of their members. Furthermore, church theologians and church administrators are often blissfully unaware of the misery caused by their decisions. Faced with this tyranny, many Christians find that their only recourse is to leave the churches, and they are doing so in unprecedented numbers.
70. Since common lay Christians’ beliefs are so often formed through regulations, such Christians are often apathetic about Bible study and theology.
Since church decisions about doctrine and life are almost always made at a higher level, who needs to study the Bible? This is a perfectly understandable position taken by most lay people. Is abortion wrong? Can women be pastors and priests? Can lay people celebrate Holy Communion? Are church buildings necessary? Is patriotism Christian? All these questions lay people can decide for themselves if they are only permitted to do so. In truth, they probably have already answered many of them. However, in arriving at such decisions, many have done so without the benefit of the resources of the Scriptures, good theology, and the common sense of the Christian community in their local area.
71. Congregations may have customs and traditions, but they should be agreed upon by all who are expected to observe them.
Some of the greatest disagreements among Christians are more related to questions of “style” than of substance. Thus, worship styles can often be very divisive. It is difficult to think of a convinced Baptist who would be happy with a Roman Catholic High Mass. The opposite is just as true. If Christians from different denominations were to come together on the local level in house churches, or small groupings, new styles of worship would emerge.
72. Such customs and traditions must neither be insisted upon nor used to divide Christians whom Christ has reconciled with his blood. Ephesians 2:14.
People have worshiped God in many ways during the history of God’s good conversations with his people. If people, gathered together, agree on the way they worship God, all will be well. However, all should be open to other forms and styles so that the richness of Christian worship is heightened and made even more beautiful.
73. Church control through regulations concerning non-essentials has contributed greatly to the non-relevance of the church in minority areas in the United States and in non-Western countries.
Non-essentials include many things that we in the Western churches consider essential. The academic study of theology is really not essential, nor are public worship services, nor are musical instruments. Hymnbooks are not essential, nor are Sunday schools, nor are fellowship groups. Preachers are not necessary, nor are salaries, nor are church buildings, nor are budgets. In the final analysis, none of these are fundamental to the nature of the church. Yet, in spreading the Gospel, Western churches have brought all these things along with them. Many of these things are good; others are indifferent or bad. However, in sum, they have detracted from the message of the Gospel. What is worse, is that they have come on so strongly that people in the third world have not had the opportunity to let their own culture supply them with more appropriate customs and structures. As a result, Western cultural baggage gives the churches a foreign flavor and tends to make them culturally irrelevant.
74. Regulations concerning the ministry, liturgies, customs, hymns, and traditions are often only Western cultural transplants, which grow poorly among people of another culture.
Despite the innovations in worship forms and music the past forty years, denominations, especially within the liturgical denominations, are having a hard time digesting the changes. Despite the widely publicized “Mariachi Masses” and African hymnody, most worship services in non-Western cultures still follow liturgies that grew up in Western Civilization. If people from other cultural backgrounds learn to love and appreciate these traditions, this should be applauded. However, if through church control denominations discourage innovation and spontaneity in worship, they kill the Spirit.
Not only is this a problem in overseas setting, it is also a problem for young people in Western culture. Observers claim that most of the values of young people are learned through popular culture, especially its music. When denominations discourage the use of popular music for worship, many young people feel that the church is rejecting them as well.
Liturgical and musical experts in denominations decry the paganism, lasciviousness, and immorality of such popular music. Because they believe it to be their vocation to save young people from such evils, they decide it is wrong. They then use church control to make sure that such music is never used in worship. Even if they might be right in their judgments, their use of “church control” to enforce their opinions only succeeds in alienating the younger generation. In the congregations of the early church, the people themselves decided on the proper forms of worship and music. This is why the church was so very relevant to the Greco-Roman Civilization of that time. Why cannot Christians today enjoy the same amount of Christian liberty in deciding for themselves on the appropriateness of their music and shape of their worship?
Today the church needs the grace to “let go.” Cannot the Holy Spirit lead in matters of liturgy and worship? Furthermore, if this can be done in Western congregations, why cannot it be done in non-Western cultures? Mistakes will be made. These are inevitable. Yet the corrections to be made should be done by the Christians in that culture rather than by “seminary-trained” officials who might not even understand what they are condemning and controlling.
75. When the regulatory control of a church body disappears, then only will those within and without be able to appreciate both the beauties and faults of that tradition.
If our church bodies die, will we not lose the beauties of our tradition? Of course not! Right now hardly any one outside the denomination knows anything of those beauties. The rules and regulations that go with them put off even those people that are likely to be attracted by the traditions. For example, some of us deeply appreciate the spiritual sacrifice and celibate life of our brothers and sisters in Roman Catholicism. Yet, we hate the legalism that says that these brothers and sisters cannot marry and remain priests and nuns. If the control were to disappear, and the freedom be present for all to marry or remain celibate, we would honor and respect the celibates even more.
The same holds true for the Baptist’s emphasis on personal conversion or the conservative Methodist’s view of personal holiness. Were the control to disappear, all would admire the Pentecostal churches’ enthusiasm, the Lutheran’s concern for true doctrine and Orthodoxy’s sense of mystery. Take away the notion of control from each of these positions and one is simply astounded by the vision of the Body of Christ in all of its fullness and splendor. If we view it, however, through the eyes of church control we see hatefulness, tyranny, and pettiness on every side. From this preserve us, heavenly Father.
76. Real church unity can come about as congregations and denominations die to their own pride and institutional regulations and let the Spirit lead them into a wider fellowship.
Only when congregations and denominations are willing to die can there be a resurrection and renewal of the church in our day. We have tried gimmicks, personal evangelism, and social action. We have tried intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. We have rearranged institutional furniture. We have created special groups for evangelism and social action. We have continually added and added but have not repented of what we are now. God calls us not to increase our activity but to cease from sin. Our divisions are as sinful as our wasted resources of money and manpower. Above all has been the towering pride in the structures we have built to reach into the heavens. From this can only come death. But that death we might welcome if it means the resurrected life of a chastened church.
Church Control through Educational Materials
77. Church control is also exercised through the production and censorship of educational materials with resulting conflicts over the doctrinal content of such materials.
We now move into another method of control, educational materials. Nearly every denomination and group puts out its own materials. This is not only financially profitable, it also promotes denominational loyalty and communication. In other words, it is a vehicle for church control. Of course, as soon as that control is exercised, there will be controversy over that control.
Who writes the materials and who censors them? Is a catechism sound? Can a new one be written and accepted? Is the Sunday school material as good as it used to be? Is it too strict or too permissive? These questions are asked because some people in an official capacity seek to decide for everyone else what is to be believed and how people are to act. Their arrogance is only matched by the apathy with which most people view their publications. Since it is reviewed so many times and censored as well, is usually a bland party line without any of the salty speech of the apostles and prophets.
Furthermore, as soon as one enters another culture, one quickly sees how inappropriate many of these educational materials are. The language is foreign and expressions are different. The moral concerns of middle-class white people may be quite different from those of an urban ghetto. The sins of absentee parents in America may be entirely different from those of African families who hold their children hostage to their families’ economic interests.
78. Christian education, to be most effective, should happen in the context of the family where lessons learned by the mind can be reinforced by the goodly actions of Christian parents.
So much of the rationale of the institutional church rests upon the necessity for Christian education. However, what is meant by “Christian education”? Nearly everyone agrees that Christian education is more than the mere rote learning of facts. It must involve the whole life of a person. Where is such “total” education taking place? It is not in the Sunday Schools, the parochial day schools, or in the public schools. None of these institutions can compete with the lessons learned on T.V., the movies, and the school play ground. Only the home has the potential to counteract the evils in the world around us. Here basic values are formed before the child is five years old. Here the child learns not only verbally but also through the example of what is to be desired or avoided. This is the natural place for Christian education. Without a doubt, the family is the most effective place for Christian education.
79. By replacing parents as the chief source of Christian education, the church, in effect, discourages Christian education in the home and communication between parents and their children on subjects of ultimate meaning and morality.
Some will say that church education encourages rather that discourages Christian education in the home. These people are fooling themselves. As soon as people see that the church spends huge amounts on facilities and teachers, they conclude that the church is a specialist in Christian education. No matter how much Christian educators speak about the responsibility resting on the parents, the very existence of professional church educators says to people, you are inadequate for the job. We have the special training and expertise to do the job for you.
Several tragedies have come about because of the institutionalization of Christian education. The first is that there has come into existence a large gap between Christian knowledge and Christian living. Nearly every child who has gone through Sunday school, or a church school, or a confirmation class, knows how trivial religion can become because it has so little to do with playing ball, going to parties and staying up at night. The latter are the things that make up life. Religion in contrast is pretty much of a head-trip. The applications of the faith are often too stilted to be real; the teachers are far too removed from the real world of the child to be believed. Is it any wonder that Sunday schools are going downhill? Pastors and religious educators cast about for new approaches to confirmation classes. It is not that children or parents are losing interest in religion and things of ultimate value and meaning. It is rather that religious education, tied to the institutional church, has lost its power to move and convert. Unless Christian education gets released from its bondage to the church and gets back into the home, it will be increasingly difficult for the teachers because it is largely irrelevant to the students.
The second tragedy is that questions of ultimate meaning and morality are taken out of the family circle. When the big questions come up on death, suffering, and choice of vocation, few in the family are willing to approach them religiously. Religious subjects, except in the case of a few dedicated families are almost universally avoided. If the Christian faith is ever again to be a powerful force in the world, it must again become a power in people’s homes. Here no one can suppress; no one can control it. In the home it molds and shapes children for this world and the next. If the church is to be active in Christian education, let it teach adults how to teach their own children. Harry Wendt, the notable Christian educator, has said that the difference between Jesus’ educational methods and our own is this: While we educate children and play with adults, Jesus played with children and educated adults.
80. By replacing parents as the chief source of Christian education, large sums are spent on educational plants and buses, rather than providing opportunities for those in need.
Churches spend more money on educational facilities than they do on anything else except church buildings. Roman Catholics are keenly aware of how much it costs them to keep their schools open. Lutherans, Seventh-Day Adventists and the new fundamentalist schools are also learning that lesson. In the United States and Western Europe children have the opportunity to go to a Christian school, a public school, Sunday schools, and have educated parents to teach them as well. At the same time in the poor nations of the world, hundreds of thousands of children have no chance for any education at all. Is this right?
81. By promoting specialized education suited to nearly every possible age or sex group, churches divide families for education and fellowship rather than uniting them.
We sometimes wonder why parents and children have such a difficult time communicating with one another. Age and sex differences are inherent in the human family. Nevertheless, instead of helping people overcome such differences, the church continues to reinforce them. This does not help people grow. Instead it stifles and imprisons people within their own age groupings. Excitement comes from learning about different people and what they think and understand about their world. Here is where Christian educators beg to differ. They use the arguments and theories from secular education and apply it to Christian education. However, in so doing, they are comparing pears and peanuts. Christian education is not primarily about “cognitive” learning. It is a great deal more complex than learning reading or math. It deals with a whole philosophy of life and living. It is about sex and family, and a decent philosophy of life. Might not a grandfather do a better job in communicating this truth than a teacher pushing the memorization of the books of the Old Testament? Dullness and boredom come from talking to your own peers about the problems you have in common. Much is shared, but how much is learned?
82. Where there is widespread literacy, the Bible and a simple catechism should again serve as the chief media of religious education for the whole family, with parents themselves chiefly responsible for their interpretation and application.
Church history has shown time and again that whenever there is reformation, renewal, and revival in the church, there is also a rediscovery of the Scriptures. Church renewal and the study of the Scriptures stimulate each other. The Scriptures, taken in their entirety, are the best curb to a one-sided interpretation of them. They are at once poetry and drama, saga and story, fiction and fact, prophecies and sermons. They are usually more graphic, more realistic, more inspiring, and more practical than the best church educational materials. They only need to be read, studied, and digested. In the process, they will be argued over, disputed, and doubted. But they will be loved and carry with them their own authentication. No one need defend them; they have survived quite well throughout the ages. If a more graphic approach to religious education in the family is needed, there are many videos based upon the Bible that can serve as the center of family discussions on important moral and religious issues.
Where there is not widespread literacy, let us communicate by telling stories over and over again as did the apostles. The oldest ideas of humankind and the richest traditions were passed on in this way. It is easy, convenient, and it says so much. Through stories, even the densest minds can know Christ and his life and love. His life has the power to both inspire and condemn, to tear down and build up. Theology explains and elaborates on that basic encounter between people and Christ, but theology is not necessary for that encounter.
83. Sunday schools, parochial schools, confirmation and instruction classes may be beneficial to children without Christian parents, or as auxiliary agencies to parental instruction, but should neither be the pattern for Christian education nor the vehicle for church control.
It is evident that church schools and other educational agencies will be with us for some time. We could not abolish them with a fiat, even if we wanted to. However, we can change their whole tone if we would seek to make them smaller instead of bigger. Thus, the chief task of church educational agencies should be to go out of business. Declare at the beginning of a term that henceforth children of Christian parents will be discouraged from coming. Chart success by how many do not come, rather than by how many do. Advertise far and wide that you wish to go out of business and why.
If this is done, there is certain to be a mass exodus to other churches. Some churches will even have to buy more buses. They can comfort themselves by saying that they are saving more souls. But some parents will listen and give heed. Others may wish to learn how Christian education can take place at home. Here the seed is planted that will yield a hundred fold. In families like this will be born the church of the future.
84. Denominational educational, evangelism, and stewardship programs are seldom used, are unnecessary, and at times are harmful when they burden the church with busy work.
There are several things clergymen can do with denominational programs and publicity. The first option is to junk it immediately. This hurts the conscience a little at first, but after the first sting, one can get along quite well thereafter. The second option is to file it carefully. Some pastors put such materials in boxes for later reference. This approach saves the conscience at first, but opens it up to hurt whenever one stumbles over such a box in the future. The third option is to try to use them. This means following the 12 to 24 steps outlined. It means endless phone calls and the willingness to make the faithful feel guilty if they have not carried out their assigned task.
85. Increasingly, congregations pay good money for materials that have worked well in other congregations despite denominational differences, thus making most denominational materials superfluous.
Congregations and other groups are always in need of stimulation and prodding. However, this can happen without denominations or their materials. Excellent materials have been produced in areas of evangelism, adult education, and social concern that can be used by a number of denominations. Theological and ecclesiastical problems in the materials are usually worked out quite readily. Often plans and programs such as these have credibility because they have originated in a living setting.
86. Denominational charitable and educational institutions might be better handled by inter-denominational groups of Christians in the surrounding area. This would provide a greater base of support, and also make available these institutions to people whose denomination is not strong enough in the area to sponsor their own institutions.
Despite the denominational pride that elevates one parochial institution above others, there really is not a “denominational” health care. Nor should educational institutions exist to serve people of but one denomination. If Catholic hospitals are better because of the dedication of the sisters, could they not loan a few of their sisters to the Presbyterian hospital on the other side of town? With Protestant chaplains calling on their members in Roman Catholic hospitals and vice versa, why is it necessary to have denominationally-based health institutions?
Nor is it necessary for colleges to be administered in this way. All that we have said in regard to openness and dialogue between Christians on the local level can be applied to colleges and universities as well. Indoctrination in a department of theology is not as important as the chance to discover the “essential” Christian faith with people of other traditions. Thankfully many denominational schools have already moved in that direction.
Institutions for the blind, deaf, retarded, and others can proceed in the same way. Worldwide, we need more educational and charitable institutions and not less. Where there are no colleges, Christians should build them. The same is true for schools for the blind, deaf, and retarded. At the same time we see needs for more of these institutions, we see also that our existing institutions are crying for more funds just to stay alive. If Christian colleges and other institutions were to go interdenominational and become community based, they might well increase both their enrollment and the support from their geographic communities. Boards of control, faculty, and staff might also reflect that interdenominational make-up. All of this sounds absurd given the present denominational loyalties of people. But that loyalty is steadily eroding. What seems impossible now may well become the pattern to be followed in the future.
Church Control through Social Pronouncements
87. Church control over the spiritual lives of people is also sought through church pronouncements on social issues.
For many years such church pronouncements on social issues have been the cause of division between Christians, especially within the denomination that makes such pronouncements. Designers of such pronouncements usually qualify their actions as merely speaking to their constituents. Nevertheless, the widespread anger that such pronouncements often produce indicates a lack of real communication between the speakers and the hearers. The common member of the denomination usually feels like someone is trying to dictate his political beliefs, and this is widely resented.
In the sixties and seventies, many denominations spoke out against the Vietnam war, against racism, and for economic justice. In the eighties and nineties, evangelical churches in conjunction with the Christian coalition and Republican politics took a strong stand against abortion and the persecution of Christians around the world.
There is a strong connection between religion and social issues, including those involving politics. However, that connection does not rest on church pronouncements. The church could stop making statements on social issues and still be able to witness mightily to her concerns for the poor and the oppressed, the unborn and persecuted Christians.
88. History demonstrates that little if any effect has ever come from a council or convention resolution without the prior intense commitment of a large majority of people.
We are not arguing that Christians have accomplished nothing in their social concern. Christians have effectively moved against slavery, child labor, racial discrimination, bad prison conditions, hunger, and a host of other evil conditions. Rather, we argue that neither church councils nor hierarchy are needed to speak decisively to these issues. If a lot of Christians and others are informed and angry about an issue, changes will be made. Periodicals, conventions, councils and hierarchy might be useful in communicating such information, but they are not necessary.
89. Christian commitment to social issues is most likely to come about when Christians see an intolerable tension between the teachings of Christ and the life of the unfortunate about them.
Christians can and do act dramatically when they see a grave problem that needs to be solved. Leaders in congregations and in denominations (as they are presently constituted) have a duty to speak out on these issues. However, let us be clear about what they are doing. They are not speaking for a whole church, nor are they in the process of controlling the thoughts of their members. If they would speak, let them speak as the oracles of God. God’s authority, though greater than that of the church, always leaves people free to accept or reject it. Thus, the prophets of the Old Testament spoke with God’s power and authority but did not have the secular power to enforce what they had urged. God would enforce it in his own time but they could not and would not.
90. This commitment can be acted upon by prophetic individuals, who, at great risk to themselves, call society to repentance, and, in the name of God, demand a change in values and behavior.
The 20th century has been stimulated and enriched by God’s prophets. Kagawa in Japan, Camara in Brazil, Martin Luther King Jr., the Berrigan brothers in the U.S., Solzhenitsyn in the U.S.S.R. and a host of others have awakened consciences. Many have suffered for the words they spoke. But in their suffering they witnessed to a truth that made its mark on the consciences of the world.
91. This commitment can also be realized when Christians in responsible positions make God-pleasing decisions.
In every management position, decisions must be made which affect the welfare of the disadvantaged. Sometimes these are as small as affecting the hiring of an employee. Sometimes they affect nations and the lives of millions of people. In recent years, people calling themselves Christians have been responsible for governing some of the most powerful nations and corporations of the world. If such people make decisions that benefit the hungry, the sick, imprisoned and naked, they have done more than countless convention resolutions. The responsibility for true Christian social work also must rest on the shoulders of those who have the power to make these decisions.
92. The church is also influential when Christians in a given locale advocate and build institutions for charity, education, and health.
Christians can work together to bring about solution to social ills. Historically this has been done when they have banded together to build a wide variety of institutions for education, health and social welfare. Although in recent years this has happened under the auspices of denominations, there is no reason why it could not be done ecumenically in the future. This would not only provide a greater base of support, it would also provide services for those Christians whose denomination is not strong enough in that area to provide institutions for their own people.
93. Christians are also influential in creating and sustaining organizations and movements for raising political consciousness.
In a highly complex world dominated by large bureaucracies in business and government, the root of many social problems is clearly political. Land reform, just treatment of political prisoners, equitable trade agreements, allocations of resources for health care, and disarmament are all dependent upon political decisions. This is also true for issues around more conservative causes such as abortion legislation, protection of Christian minorities overseas, and struggles against pornography and violence in the media. Where citizens still have the right to organize, protest, and petition, Christians can be effective in pleading for just causes.
In America, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was extremely effective in the civil rights movement. Later the Christian citizens’ movement, Bread for the World, was responsible for moving the United States Congress to ship thousands of tons of grain to prevent widespread starvation in Ethiopia, the Sudan, and other nations in Africa. Christians have also been influential in other organizations such as Amnesty International, working for the release of political prisoners. While not necessarily Christian, it has received support from many Christians from around the world.
94. Through teaching Christian morals and values to citizens, churches indirectly support good government and withhold support from bad government.
Why do some nations modernize quickly and others stagnate? Why do some countries throw off tyranny and other nations suffer for centuries under its bondage? Increasingly, social scientists are looking at the basic values and the political culture of people to find the answers to these questions.
If people are taught that hard work to produce the necessities of life is both a moral good and is well rewarded, production in that nation will be high. If people are also taught that corruption is wrong and will be swiftly punished, such activities will be abhorred even if they are practiced. Righteousness does exalt a nation (Proverbs 14:34). When God’s people teach their children to do what is right, the whole nation will prosper.
95. None of the above actions by Christians in the political or social realm requires the existence of denominations, let alone denominational control.
The prophets of the 20th century are not notable for their denominational loyalties. Who cares that much whether Martin Luther King Jr. was a Southern Baptist or that Alexander Solzhenitsyn is Russian Orthodox? In speaking of his own denominational affiliation, Toyohiko Kagawa is reported to have said, “My English is not so good. Every time I say “denomination,” it comes out like “damnation.”
Denominations also are not necessary for making God-pleasing decisions in management, building a school, organizing a protest march, or teaching morals to children. We need more social action, not less. However, we will do better without the denominational boxes in which we now find ourselves.
Will denominational Christianity, as we know it, die? Right now it is difficult to tell. However, should it pass away there will be a resurrection from the dead. Life will again abound in an abundance of forms. Like plants arise in profusion after the broadcast of seed, so will Christ live in the hearts of many whose lives are now cold to his claims. Above the apparent disorder of new forms of Christian institutional life, there will be a higher order. Yes, we will still be governed, but it will not be by people. Once again Christ will be our only Lord and his Kingdom our only home. To his name and glory we will give our chief allegiance, to him embodied in the poor, the handicapped and oppressed, we will give our all.
 See Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours (London: World Dominion Press, 1956); also The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes which Hinder it (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962) and The Ministry of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962).
 Stromman, Brekke, Underwager, and Johnson, A Study of Generations (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972), 13ff..
 Lutheran Brotherhood’s Survey of Lutheran Beliefs & Practices, (http://www.luthbro.com/about LB/survey98.html) Nov. 23. 1998.
 James Kennedy, Evangelism Explosion (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publ. 1970).
 Carl Volz, Pastoral Life and Practice in the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990), 20.
 Roland Allen, “The Case for Voluntary Clergy,” in The Ministry of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1962), 139.
 St. Louis, MO. Personal interview with Chris Reinke, Chairman of the Alaska Mission Committee, July 17, 1998.
 E.J. Bingle and Kenneth Grubb, World Dominion Handbook (London: World Dominion Press, 1957), passim.
 See Abbé Michonneau, Revolution in a City Parish (Westminster: The Newman Press, 1948). This book recounts some of the experiments the Roman Catholic Church undertook to reclaim some of France’s working classes after World War II.