Wednesday, October 06, 2004

BOSS ME AROUND (or, thoughts about church authority)

(N.B.: I’ve been musing about this idea for a while. Modifications/alterations/retractions may or may not follow. Thanks for feedback/thoughts.)

In the fantastic collection of Stanley Hauerwas’ essays, the Hauerwas Reader, William Cavanaugh tells a wonderful story about Hauerwas’ encounter with a Methodist minister in South Bend, Indiana.

I think that Stanley, like the proverbial Italian soldier, spent many years looking for someone to whom he could surrender. He developed strong ties to Broadway Methodist (his church in South Bend, Indiana) precisely because his pastor, John Smith, took his ministry seriously enough to boss Stanley around. When Hauerwas expressed his desire to join Broadway Methodist, Smith asked about his membership status in the Methodist Church. Stanley told Smith that he had been ordained a deacon years ago, but wasn’t sure what had happened to his membership in the meantime. Without blinking, Smith told the famous theologian that he wasn’t much of a churchman, and he would have to attend classes at the church for a year. So he did…what Hauerwas continues to teach is that the church must take seriously the authority given it by the Holy Spirit if it is to save people from the tyranny of their own individual wills.

For a lot of reasons, combining ‘authority’ with ‘religion’ makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Usually people (and I include myself) hear ‘authority’ or ‘authority of Scripture’ as shorthand for a wide variety of theological positions: ‘no women in church leadership’ or ‘gay people = bad’ or 'evolution is incompatible with Christianity' or other, mostly conservative, positions that we’re not fond of. And, frankly, much of the time, that’s fair. Christians misused the idea of church authority for a long time, and that abuse continues in many quarters of the church today. (One’s thoughts turn immediately to the Catholic Church, of course, where bishops used their authority as leaders of the church to protect child-molesting priests and shield them from the law.) But, like the church’s views on sex, I think a lot of churches are in reaction to one kind of church—an authoritarian, bossy, judgemental church—and in their reaction throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think some churches (in practice if not in principle) abandon any idea of speaking authoritatively to people at all, and that is disastrous.

I think this problem is most prevalent in liberal mainline churches, but I’d imagine it’s pretty widespread. One of my professors (the awesome John W. Stewart, not to be confused with the other Jon Stewart, who is also awesome) told us a story in lecture last week. He attended a Presbyterian church service at which a deacon was being ordained. They were proceeding with the service, but right before the ordination, the deacon stopped, and turned to address the congregation, and said, “I just want you all to know, I don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ.” And the minister looked at him, and said, “Well, that’s OK. We accept all kinds of people here.” And they ordained him as a leader in the church.

Setting aside for a moment the obvious illogic of ordaining as a deacon in the church someone who does not believe the central tenet of the church (Welcome to the Springfield Golf Club! What’s that? Hate golf? No problem!). [I’m pretty I borrowed that example from Camassia, though I’m not sure…], my question is: what kind of message is the church sending by doing something like that? The church is more than a voluntary association; it’s more than a place to hang out Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. The church has to stand for something, has to be willing to say, “This is what we, Christians, are about.” Unfortunately, the nature of saying “this is what we’re about” also requires you, at some points, to say “this is what we are not about.” If the church tries to be about everything, it’ll wind up being about nothing.

Saying ‘the church needs set boundaries’ and ‘the church needs to speak authoritatively to people’ does NOT mean that the church needs to be more authoritarian. That’s quite the opposite of what I’m saying. It’s just that, even if the church has a very clear sense of whom it serves and what its hope is in, unless it is willing to correct people, to steer them towards that sense, it doesn’t matter.

As another of my professors (the great Paul Rorem) is fond of saying, the church is an inclusive community (everyone is welcome) with an exclusive creed (Jesus Christ is lord). It’s always a tenuous job to try to keep those in balance, and many times the church has erred on the ‘exclusive creed’ side. But this does not relieve us Christians of the need to demarcate some kind of boundary for the church.

John Stewart again: a couple came to him. They were not Christians. They hadn’t darkened a church door in years. But they were married, and they’d just had a baby and wanted the baby to be baptized. And Stew says to them, well, do you consider yourselves Christians? And they say, well, no. And he thinks about it, and says, look, I’d love to baptize your child, and I want to, but I cannot do so. Not unless you give me some concrete indication that you yourself have some kind of commitment to the church. And, of course, the couple blew up at him and got quite angry.

Now, I suppose someone could look at that story and just see a hard-hearted or controlling minister. Or worse, someone withholding the grace of God from a helpless infant. I’m open to people making those cases if they want to try. But, in my opinion, I think Stew made the right call (or, at least, a call that was well within the range of acceptable responses). Baptism, for Christians, ought not to be just a ‘thanks-see-ya-at-easter-and-christmas’ kind of commitment. Baptism is part of being ‘born again by water and the spirit,’ and for parents of children being baptized, it entails both a confession of Christian faith on their part and a commitment by the parents to educate their child in the Christian faith. By doing things like, oh, I don’t know, bringing them to church? Teaching them to pray? Reading to them from the Bible? None of which those parents were willing to do.

I like that example partly because it re-frames the usual discussions of church authority. The church is feuding within itself, of course, over many issues relating to authority and Biblical authority—on ordination of women, on sex and homosexuality, even (in some quarters of the church) on evolution. These issues are still open wounds, and for many people (myself included) they’re still quite raw. I find examples like the one above helpful because they show that, even outside the quite contentious questions that all of us know about, the issue of the authority of the church remains quite important and worthy of our attention.

Look, I’m a lazy person. One of the central questions I ask myself (sometimes jokingly, other times not) when I visit a church is, “Is this worth getting out of bed for?” Sometimes it feels like a relief to practice a religion that doesn’t make any demands on you, that doesn’t ask you to be different from the way you are now, or the way you believe now, or the way you think now. You get all the good stuff—God exists, God loves you—without any of the hard stuff. But in the long run it feels disappointing. It feels like you’ve invested in a religion that’s just not worth getting out of bed for. The real Christian message is both “God loves you just as you are…” AND “…but not enough to let you stay that way.” Parts of the church (the parts I’ve been in, anyway) need to recover the second half of that message. Maybe other parts need to recover the first. Both are necessary.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, It's Hannah
(I'm not posting as Matt anymore, because I think it confuses him... and I'm too lazy to sign up for my "free!" blogger account - I already have a xanga account I never use except to comment, and I don't think I need another empty blog to my name...)

Anyway, Great Post! On one level I've been struggling with many of the "fringe" issues you've mentioned here (i.e. ordination of women, homosexuality, etc.) but I've never thought of it in terms of Church authority before... that's a good way to think about it!

So, since we obviously haven't figured exactly how the Church and the Bible should stand on these controversial issues, than how can we extract authority from them (in these issues)? OK, I think I'm sleepy, so this question might not make much sense... but I guess I'm wondering if I'm a heretic because my gut feelings about certain issues are against what is plainly written in the Bible (in a literal sense). I mean, when is it OK to question authority (and find truth in the process)?

By the way, the parents' attitude in the Stewart story about the baby baptism is basically why Matt thinks that Baby Baptism (as opposed to Baby Dedication) is wrong... another thing we argue about (I was baptized as an infant...)

By the way, I don't know if you still read the comments on your previous posts, but I finally did answer you "why worship" question. Check out my blog... :)

Good Night - This late night blogging stuff is NOT for me! I have to get up at 6:30am... eek!

9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! I was born in and still attend a liberal mainline church, so I agree that we do not have any sense of church authority. They might think they're being inclusive, but I worry about cheap grace. Also, de-emphasizing authority in the church ignores the fact that our culture (thinking here of the Pope's phrase "culture of death") often has a negative authority over us, and without any other authority to counter that, we're lost.


3:04 PM  
Blogger Camassia said...

Yes, that was yours truly who compared church to a golf club. (Reminds me of an old Mad magazine version of the 23rd Psalm: "The Pro is my shepherd, I shall not slice. He leadeth me to drive straight down green fairways...")

Anyway, great post. Just a couple days ago I formally broke with the church I've been going to for this reason, among others. I'm going to do my own post about it once I get more sleep. One thing I was thinking about the baptism story though: did he ask why it was so important to them to have the infant baptized, if they weren't going to raise him Christian? The answer might have led to a more fruitful discussion.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I don't know if I like authority or power in the church. I think the words Lord and Spirit should be taken out of that 'exclusive' creed. I do vote for rubber toys and maybe pastors could through out koosh balls periodically like Rosie used to do on her TV show.

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We live in a society where equality and freedom are THE supreme values. Anything that threatens either is rejected and so the father, as a representative of authority, is naturally unpopular. (On television shows he is portrayed as clueless at best.) Given the climate, figures in authority must be perfect or the validity of their office is rejected. Is that what God wants?

5:56 AM  

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