A recent article today in Charisma News by Brooklyn minister, Joseph Mattera, raises some important questions with extraordinary ramifications.
The author is concerned with the proliferation of evangelical and Pentecostal megachurches that reflect a Roman Catholic model of church leadership, especially in Latin America. Churches become empires with numerous departments and programs staffed by an army of “professional” Christians under the command of the CEO.
The fact that these questions are raised by an overseeing bishop of a church within a coalition that affirms the ongoing office of apostles, and in an article published in a charismatic magazine, is especially significant. It’s a hopeful sign that leaders like Mattera argue for a more biblical view of the church and ministry, with officers mutually accountable instead of making unilateral decisions.
The Lure of Unaccountable Power
Joseph Mattera puts his finger on a very big problem in the global church today. It’s not only in countries with a Roman Catholic history where “papal” models proliferate. They are well known features of U.S. church life. Perhaps “papal” isn’t the right analogy. The pope today has little authority over renegade teachers and bishops. The communion that he leads at least in theory is as internally divided by countless factions, schools, and personalities as Protestantism is more visibly. A better analogy might be the founder and CEO. After all, popes at least are elected by the college of cardinals.
Even in our circles, there is a tendency to create stars whose models of “doing church” divide the ordered life of local and wider assemblies of mutual accountability. Few actually set out with that purpose.
It begins as an experiment; then, if it’s successful, it becomes a model. To preserve its success and the ongoing creativity and innovative potential of the leader/model, the church tends to isolate itself from the wider assemblies of the church (presbytery, general assemblies or synods, etc.). A network emerges with ties to the leader/model that are stronger than the bonds between ministers and elders who have taken oaths to a common confession and church order.
Before you know it, factions arise in opposition to and in defense of a particular model and spokesmen and the court of public opinion (especially blogs) replaces the courts of the church for fraternal discussion, debate, encouragement, and correction. Churches that needed the visionary insights are able to reinforce their prejudices unhindered by face-to-face engagement and the more experimental churches that needed wisdom and correction are able to pursue their agenda without interruption. Instead of listening to the multiplicity of voices (“wisdom in many counselors”), churches actually become more narrow, insular, and independent. We may belong formally to the same denomination, but our deeper affinity is the tribe—the church-within-a-church to which we belong. Eventually, the church-within-a-church becomes its own denomination, and so on.
This is the legacy of pietism, reinforced by a few centuries of revivalism. If Reformation churches were too closely tied to the state, the danger is that evangelicalism is too closely identified with the democratic egalitarianism at the heart of modernity. It’s the danger of looking upon the world as a market instead of a mission-field and upon the church as a sales force rather than sheep to be looked after.
I’m not suggesting at all that the pietist-revivalist tradition of Protestantism encourages the lure of unaccountable power. That is already in us, part of our sinful condition. Much less am I saying that a biblical form of church government (presbyterian, I’m bound to say!) saves us from arrogant self-assertion. What I do believe, however, is that the system of checks and balances that it sets up can at least make it more difficult for us to have our way in that regard.
Calvin: No Fiefdoms!
One of the striking take-aways from Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors is the extent to which the Genevan reformer resisted the cult of personality. Insisting on a plurality of ministers and elders, with decisions falling to the mutual consent of officers in local and broader assemblies, Calvin never saw St. Pierre’s as a personal fiefdom. He never spoke the way we often do today about his church or his pulpit or his ministry. In fact, ministers rotated to the various parish churches each week, so that the people would be attached to Christ rather than to men, to the ministry rather than the minister. Pastors have to remember, Calvin said, that they are friends of the bridegroom, not the groom. It’s their job to lead them to Christ, not to themselves.
Many in the orbit of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” today seem to be drawn to extremes: either the independent egalitarianism that ends up creating many popes or the older top-down hierarchy of Rome. In case after case that I’ve witnessed, the moves have been made by leaping over biblical models of church government. There are of course many in the past and today who have given careful consideration to the case for this covenantal ecclesiology. Yet the greater tendency, I suspect, is rash (restless) hastiness. Those looking for a visible pope on earth dismiss it as too democratic, while those who want to build their own fiefdoms dismiss it as too stifling and, ironically, “hierarchical.”
Christ is still fulfilling his pledge to build his Church regardless. As we look at the actual state of the particular churches and denominations to which we belong, we may feel compelled to make that choice between a “wild west” evangelicalism and an ahistorical idea of “Camelot” that the longing for Rome and Constantinople represent. No form of government will guarantee the existence of the true Church; that is lodged in the true preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Yet the form of discipline is not thereby made unimportant, when after all our only Head and King mandates not only the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, but “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” And whether it always looks like it or not, we have his promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mat 28:19-21).