Systems, Church and People (Part 2)

It’s been a week since I started the thread about the difference between church systems and the body of Christ. I need to finish my thoughts before you conclude that I’ve got a gripe against the church.

I see a gulf between the church and the way she is organized. Systems, even ecclesiastical systems, are man-made structures. If left to accumulate, they can squash the life of the church. To challenge them can have a similar consequence.

Just because organization is put in place to govern a group of Christ-followers it doesn’t mean it is sanctified in the process, even if we try to make it Biblical by finding precedent in the New Testament. By some estimates, that quest to sanctify our organizations has produced over 10,000 denominations. If the scriptures had been definitive about structure, it seems we would have found more common ground than that.

So much for sanctifying traditions.

The point is that a system is not the church, though it winds up being so much a part of our Christian experience that the two seem inseparable. When that happens, questioning the system, organization, leadership or tradition becomes tantamount to challenging the core of faith and is grounds for breaking fellowship. Moreover, it can be interpreted as an attack on the body of Christ, the church—as with my friend, people take it personally.

A friend and mentor, George Patterson, has put it this way: There are three levels of authority in the church (the body of Christ, the people). First, there are the commands of Christ. These may never be prohibited and are required of believers. Second, there are the instructions of the apostles. These may not be prohibited, but neither are they universally required, as is the case, for example, with head-coverings, which were prescribed for the women in the church at Corinth. Finally, there are human traditions. We are free to adopt such traditions, but since they are of human origin they may never be required of Christ-followers, and not infrequently, they ought to be prohibited. And they, most assuredly, can be modified or discarded as needed—but, oh baby! Tread softly here.

So, this is where I occasionally get in trouble with my believing friends. When I diminish a tradition of American evangelicalism; criticize organizations or question established authority structures I become “guilty” of rebellion (‘seed of witchcraft,’ you know) and worse, people assume that I’m throwing the baby (them) out with the ecclesiastical bathwater. I don’t want to give that impression. No, what I am saying is that the constraints of many congregational systems need to be loosened and shouldn’t be confused with the church, the Body of Christ. What this means for me is that I have to be careful to remind my friends that when I talk about paradigms, systems and structures, I am not talking about the church, communities or the people of God; and I am definitely not talking about them.

(Next: Unbiblical, non-biblical or anti-biblical)

One thought on “Systems, Church and People (Part 2)”

  1. Got some comments on Facebook. Here’s the thread:

    Donna wrote: Don’t people make the church systems?

    Anthony wrote: Dan, aren’t the 3 levels of authority written by humans and therefore are as much a system as the description you provide?

    And I wrote:
    The main issue here is whether systems, structures and traditions can, even should, be questioned without damaging the core of faith. As Donna observes, people make church systems. Precisely. As I pointed out in the previous post (Pt. 1) structure, organization and a “system” is part of community life–we create them and use them. But when those things become synonymous with faith; when they become so tightly woven into what we call “church” that they become dogma, they are toxic to liberty in Jesus. That is George’s point: the further you get from Jesus, the more prone we are to canonizing our own ideas. My point is that too much stuff gets piled on what is central to Christian faith, namely Christ. Organization is not church. The church is people.

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