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How We Organize Ourselves

23 June 2008

Let’s face the aesthetic question squarely:  questions of community structure are big-time yawners.  The conversation is always hard to get started; it seldom sustains itself except by way of pitched battles about utter minutiae; and people seldom clear their calendars to accommodate discussions of community structure.

Let’s also affirm this:  how we organize ourselves as a community of faith is peripheral to the gospel.  Jesus did not live, get killed, and rise from the dead to ensure that we organize ourselves a certain way.

But then let us also be honest:  structure is important.  Here’s why.

1.  The way we structure our community embodies and reinforces our theological assumptions, or at least the ones that were dominant at the time we structured it.  If our central idea of God relates to authority and power, we will structure our community to reflect them; if freedom and creativity, then just so.  

The framers of our Constitution had a specific counter-image in mind (i. e., King George) when they designed our formative documents, and their world view embodied and reinforced their cynicism about arbitrary exercises of unbridled, centralized power.  So they gave us a profound separation of powers, relying on checks and balances to ensure that individual liberty was adequately respected and that the “consent of the governed” was the operative currency of power.  Simply recreating a monarchy and hoping it would be benevolent and wise would have been self-defeating.  Quickly.

As our beliefs change, and as our theological understandings and assumptions evolve under the administration of the Spirit of God, it’s reasonable that we would allow our community structure to change as well.  This is similar to Jesus’ idea of putting new wine in new wineskins rather than old:  a people constituted by a law of grace would not be well served by a community structured around a law of fleshly observances and external conformity to a prescriptive code.  Which suggests, therefore, the second reason for being concerned about structure:

2.  Structure provides methodological guidance to ensure that our living-together is coherent.  In other words, if our community is to be a compelling, prophetic voice testifying to the goodness of God’s active grace in our midst in the person of Jesus and the indwelling of his Spirit, then our living testimony – our actual words and deeds, and the beliefs that they inevitably express to onlookers – ought to show that it has been guided by precisely those kinds of considerations.  

If we believe that we all constitute a holy priesthood of believers, and if our lives are to testify to the kinds of divine grace that make such a priesthood viable and vital and effectual, the way we go about ordering our lives together ought to help us walk in that direction.  If our community life ultimately pits us against one another and fosters the emergence of a pecking order, then it’s possible that our structure has guided us in that direction; it’s possible that the outcome was in large measure predetermined by power-oriented decisions up front.  Modern business theory (*ahem*) says it this way:  “your system is designed to yield precisely the results you’re seeing.”

3.  Structure gives us short-cuts to the goals we adopt in community.  Many of the common questions that arise when we attempt new initiatives can be answered in advance by due attention to structure.  We know this implicitly in relationships such as marriage and family!  When it is time to move from one town or job or school to another, an agreed structure helps us bypass much, or at least some, of the emotionally laden, preparatory conversation about what we believe and why, both of which come into play when we make decisions about which direction to go.  If a marriage under stress comprises two people who have voluntarily submitted themselves to one another in an indissoluble union, then there is no need to discuss whether or not they should stay together in the first place; they have decided that.

Structure is boring, and it is peripheral.  But it is also unavoidable.  If we neglect it, its absence will still impose on us a range of outcomes; and without divine miracles, those outcomes will not be too far from chaos and division.  We should therefore be wise and give it due, though not primary, consideration.

By the way, that means we must engage in politics, which Richard John Neuhaus defines as “free persons deliberating the question, how ought we to order our life together?”  As we think about how our churches should be organized, we cannot avoid politics, so we are better off simply asking the question, “whose politics will we adopt:  Paul’s, or Jesus’s, or Anthony Robbins’s?”

R. J. Neuhaus, “The Politics of Bioethics,” First Things 177(11):23-31, 2007.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 June 2008 10:33 pm

    Found your blog via a Google alert on New Wineskins. Thanks for your thoughts. I am going to send your link to a couple of house church leaders I pray with. We’ve had some pretty good discussions about the issue of organization.

    It’s a bit off-subject but I remember a line in “Lucifer’s Hammer” [Larry Niven Sci-fi] which said, “A culture adopts the ethics it can afford.” In some ways I believe that’s true of organization as well.

    Alan Wilkerson

  2. queueball permalink*
    24 June 2008 1:05 pm

    Alan, thanks for popping in. I hope you and your group have found something useful. qb

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