Monday, January 14, 2013

How Jesus Runs the Church

I recently read this book, which is an interesting manifesto for Presbyterian church government.  I was hooked by the title, and the way in which the title is presented.  The cover is set out as if it was meant to say 'How to Run the Church', but has been scribbled on to give the actual title.  In that respect, it's a great rebuke to the way many people Christians think about the communities to which they belong.  The church is not a human creation, and it is not up to us to decide how it should be organised or run.  This is something I've felt pretty strongly about for some time, so I was excited to get a look at this, even if it was going to be arguing for a form of ecclesiastical polity which I knew in advance I was not likely to find convincing.

Alas, I find myself disappointed.  On the one hand, my disappointment derives simply from the fact that this is a book very much in the Reformed tradition.  Don't get me wrong, I love that tradition.  But far too often during this book there were points when I wanted argument based on Scripture, and instead I got the Westminster Confession or the Book of Church Order of the PCA.  I understand that this was not intended to be a polemical book, but a manual of instruction for Presbyterians.  Still, the approach concerns me.  It seems to be standard amongst the Properly Reformed to produce works which pay lip-service to the idea that the Westminster Standards, being human productions, are of course not infallible as are the Scriptures; and yet there is rarely any indication given that this is taken seriously in practice.  In fact, the various documents stemming from Westminster are cited with absolute authority, as if somewhen in the 17th Century the Bible was clearly and perfectly understood and its teaching distilled once and for all into perfect form.  Disturbing.

The bigger problem(!), however, is that the book does not describe how Jesus runs the church.  A more accurate title would be 'How Jesus provides a constitution that will allow the church to run itself'.  It seems to me that Christ plays the role of an ecclesiastical Lycurgus here; he gives laws, creates offices, provides structures - and that is all.  The actual running of the church is completely handed over to 'church courts', which frankly sound terrifying.  (As an aside, I am sure it is not coincidence that the 17th Century in England was all about constitutions.  The church here sounds a lot more like a Commonwealth [the author uses this word, in fact] than, say, a family).

I wonder whether we can actually see a set of connected problems in the Reformed theology of this era.  I think I see parallels between the ecclesiology and the doctrine of Scripture - a thing is set in stone, and then left to work itself out...

I realise this is all getting rather grumpy over something most Christians don't care about - namely, church government.  But it is because church government is something that Jesus does that this really matters.  Maybe more on this shortly.

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