Saturday, November 24, 2012

Optics: Timothy and Church Structure

For many hundreds of years now, Paul's writings to Timothy have been understood to provide for us a template for the structure of church polity and leadership. Overseers, (variously Elders or Bishops) and Deacons are described in some detail, as to their character and reputation and from that we would understandably tend to derive that all churches must have those offices in some form or other. But there is one facet of the text that might modify that somewhat. I alluded to it when I mentioned reputation.
You see, I believe that one of Paul's primary motivations is that the message of the Gospel would not fall into disrepute. And therefore the optics of how the church conducts itself are very important. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, because of his calling as an apostle (read: missionary!) he has an abiding desire that the church should grow. Secondly, the first century church was already being maligned by people who didn't understand their message, (for example, the communion service was thought by some to be cannibalistic) and from that misunderstanding persecution was mounting against us. There is obviously no need to make that situation worse.
So, although reputation (optics) is alluded to only twice, (that I saw) I believe it to be an underlying motivation or theme of much of what he says to Timothy, especially because one of the prominent references is an instruction to slaves. Now from our position in history, it might look as if Paul is endorsing slavery. But what we are really seeing is something very subversive. He's actually treating slaves as people, equals, who are enjoined, for the sake of the Gospel, to continue in their labours, almost as undercover agents, to allow the message to spread --the culture around is not ready for them to seize their freedom. I believe the same underlying concern for optics is at the root of the rather troubling instructions Paul gives about women: this is what the culture around will understand; this is the cost of change that the cultural market will bear.
Fast forward to today. If we used that message to slaves to keep on practising slavery, our reputation in the world would be terrible. Similarly churches that literalistically suppress their women likewise suffer censure from a culture that has evolved (and not by chance either --much of that evolution has come from the Church itself!) past first century values.
Taking it even further, based on the same legitimate desire for good optics, I would argue that even the church structure promoted by the writings to Timothy, comes into question in the present day. In my last post, oh Theophilus (I couldn't resist that!) I complained of the idea of trying to be 'biblical' and adhering to the Societies Act only as window dressing. What I argue here is that it seriously looks to me as if for the sake of good optics, so that the Gospel can continue to spread, we should govern ourselves in a way that is understandable by the culture around us, and not cling to a structure that is rooted in the past. And I think Paul would back me up.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Dangerous Church

I've said before in my musings that much of what we do is based on a story. Try this example. In the early to mid eighties I believe there were stories circulating of church boards and governmental structures "quenching the Spirit" as pastors would experience renewal and want to bring new life to their congregations. These power groups in their church would use all their clout to bear on the pastor to control him and stop him from saying what they didn't want to hear and stop him from leading the church in a direction they didn't want to go. Many of these stories felt very "good versus evil." Will the noble pastor prevail or will the evil board quench the Holy Spirit and stop the pastor from releasing the captive congregation from the spirit of religion? Will God be allowed to continue to transform the whole congregation or will the noble pastor be forced to lead forth the remnant to find some other promised land? Very exciting. And for the most part back in the day, through the perspective of the time, quite true.

And as we looked back to our "apostate" (yes, I'm stretching it a little) churches we thought how horrible to force our leaders to kowtow to such unbiblical structures as boards. The apostle Paul and those he appointed to rule the various churches didn't need boards. Why would we? But wait. What about the cherished tax credits we receive when giving to church? Oh I guess we'll have to still comply with the letter of the Societies Act. Guess we'll have to have a sort of board for that. There. That's done. Now we can be truly free and biblical. And in the flush of a new movement of churches, it seemed to work. With many more people always coming, the people who left weren't really missed.

But, as I've said before, taking the first century solutions to building church in a patriarchal, hierarchical society -- a society which perfectly accepted the idea of the Philippian jailer choosing Christ on behalf of his whole household -- and bolting them onto the twentieth and twenty-first century is not biblical. It's just dumb. We are not the same people. We have not the same worldview. And the safeguards we've evolved to govern societies are there because of values that are actually important to us. And they are there to actually to keep people safe. (Who knew?) I alluded to people that have left this kind of charismatic church. Why did they leave? Well I don't think they felt safe. Ultimately the attraction to be in the centre of the whirlwind of the Spirit (especially after it died down somewhat) wasn't enough to overcome the sickening awareness that they would never really have a voice in this community, built, as it was, on our perception of first century values.

So there's got to be some sort of road back. And I don't really know what it is. I read a helpful book recently; not dynamic, but helpful (A Guide to Governing Charities by Ted Hull.) Maybe we can embrace change. Maybe we can tell a new story...

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What's Your Wish?

I like Netflix. You can peruse old episodes of bygone TV shows and see stuff that maybe you missed when it was current. I ran across a really goofy over-the-top X-Files episode that made me laugh. There was this Genie you see and yes, everyone that unrolled her rug got three wishes. But those wishes always backfired. Of course they obviously backfired for the trailer park boys who first found her. This pair of caricatured idiots eventually blew up their trailer and died from the unintentional side effects of their wishes.

But in the course of the show even Special Agent Mulder becomes the recipient of the three wishes. Talk about someone trying to beat the system! He figures that if only he asks for something altruistically, that he will escape the backfire effect. So he wishes for peace on earth. Instantly there is no one but him and the Genie on the planet. So that was a waste of two wishes, because he had to use up his second wish to undo the first.  The Genie asked him what he expected. Did he think that she was going to change the hearts of everyone? No. She amorally chose the most expedient way of achieving what was asked.

Couldn't help wondering if you could formulate a wish for world peace that would work. Something like, "I wish for a new tendency in governments and cultures to choose peaceful, non-violent solutions to problems, perpetrated by small groups whose influence would slowly spread and permeate their nations..." and then, "Hold on. Isn't there an all-powerful person who is already in the business of doing this very thing?" Yup. and he's no fantasy. So Lord, I do pray all that... because you're doing this already... Amen