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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A Question on Reformedom and Bureaucracy

Craigellachie from ABC writes "Dear Dr. Gnu, Please define the word "bureaucracy" in your own words and then give us your thoughts on how it relates to Christianity in general and Reformedom in particular."

This is a huge question requiring an essay or a book to answer fully, so I won't do that. But I do have few thoughts about some immediate concerns about the impact of bureaucracy in the wing of Christianity and Reformedom in particular; American Presbyterianism.

Let me define bureaucracy as any organization that is specificly structured and staffed in order to reliably and efficiently accomplish a clearly defined purpose. Accordingly, the guiding logic of bureaucratic design is instrumental or "means to ends" reasoning and the guiding principle of personel selection is their qualification and effectiveness in fulfilling roles within the organization. Such design is best accomplished by those with a certain expertise in doing this. Typically, since people are valued with respect to performing in a certain way and not primarily as persons, they are often treated as means to an end and they are not elected leaders in any broad sense; features which give bureaucracy a strongly negative conotation.

We tend to think of "the (paradigmatic) Bureaucracy" as consisting of the unelected government of a nation (what the British sitcom "Yes, Minister" refers to as the "civil service"). But when it comes to the church, the ethical problem of bureaucracy comes up in several ways: (1) the relation between the church and the "parachurch", (2) the relation between Church Courts and Church Boards, and (3) the difference between the "community-based" church and the "mega-church".

Before those problems can be discussed, we need to say a little about what constitutes church polity. Much of what makes Reformedom what it is is a necessary reaction to the accumulation of bureaucracy in the earlier Roman Church and the problems that it created and perpetuated. The common principle of all Christian views of polity is that Christ alone is the head of the Church. But the church, like all self-governing bodies, has a legislative function to determine by what laws the community shall be governed, an executive function that governs and enforces the laws, and a judicial function which determines when the laws are broken. Episcopal forms of church polity feature a heirarchy of rulers in the church who serve in behalf of Christ. This is traditional for Christian churches but rejected by non-conformist Protestants as presupposing an unwarranted distinction among elders in the church as well as an unwarranted succession of authority from bishop to bishop that claims to be from the apostles themselves but which is not a necessary nor a sufficient mark of an acceptible church. According to non-conformists Christ is the only ruler of the church and the only mediator between her and the Father and no succession or heirarchy of bishops was necessary. Christ rules through the proclaimation of the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit working immediately in each Christian. No legislative function was needed since that same Word was meant to be the Law to the church. The only polity function that the elders were needed for then is the judicial function. It was their business to identify what was Scriptural and to see to it that what the church did was in accordance with the Scriptures, the Law of Christ to the church. Consequently, the basic term for a body of elders is church court. This does not preclude the adopting of documents to facititate this application such as a list of books recognized as canonical Scripture, a statement of recognizied teaching (confession) in Scripture, and/or a constitution determining proper procedures in conformity with Scripture and the principles of general equity presupposed by it (a Book of Discipline or Church Order).

A real source of tension among all Christians but especially Protestant Non-Conformists is the balance between what is explicit and what is implicit in the Scriptures and how much liberty they permit in the framing of Church polity by prudent means. In presbyterianism, the argument is that the church polity must submit to only what is mandated by Scripture for it as God's Law for the church, as opposed to the view that God is primarily indifferent to matters of polity and leaves them to the autonomous common sense and prudence of church leaders. Obviously a middle view is possible, that God is not indifferent and has spoken with respect to how he wants his church governed but all that he needs is to provide a framework of instructions not made fully exhaustive or explicit within which the faithful elder can safely apply according to the assumptions of general equity and benevolence presupposed by what is instructed through the use of his own spiritually enlightened reflection.

So we have two views; (A) a strict rule that says that only what is explicit in Scripture is acceptible in church and (B) a more liberal view that says what is explicit and implicit in Scripture and what may be necessarily inferred from it is the rule of the church. Even though it seems that historic standards of the Reformation seem to hold (B), the fact is that various branches of Reformedom osscillate between (A) and (B). The Gnu rejects (A) and holds to (B). (A) leads to a narrow literalism in the approach to the text that is inconsistent with the paradigm ways the biblical text interprets itself and results in an unacceptible positivism and Phariseeism that is incompatible with Christian faith in general. However, the debate between holders of (A) and (B) is crucial with respect to the question of bureaucracy in the church. The holder of (B) will not in principle be opposed to the use of bureaucracy while the holder of (A) will absolutely forbid it as we shall see.

Concerning (1): A parachurch is a voluntary association of Christians from various backgrounds and denominations formed to acheive some common purpose, usually charity or missions. Some missionary theorists (e.g. Ralph Winter) think that the church necessarily and always exists in two forms; the established body fixed in a certain location and as a pilgrim movement moving from place to place. On this view, the parachurch is a normal expression of the church. But other missiologists (e.g. the late Orlando Costas) think that the parachurch only comes into existence when the church fails to perform its mission, which description seems to fit the boom of parachurch organizations in the mid-twentieth century. On this view, the existence of parachurch movements is abnormal and an indictment to the church. On the plus side, parachurch organizations allow the scattered church to function apostolicly as a united body accross denominational lines where there remain unresolved issues between mutually recognized believers. This allows them to fellowship in common endeavors and experince evangelical unity. It also tends to create problems by cultivating indifference to secondary matters and traditioned judgements and leads to a minimalism about doctrine and liturgy. It seems possible to explain the recent movement of many parachurch leaders to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as an action on the assumption of theolological indifference even toward Protestant distinctives and a reaction to the paucity of tradition in the parachurch movement.

Charles Hodge, the great leader of the old Presbyterian Orthodoxy in the 19th Century experiemented with supporting parachurch organizations in his own time (at which they were refered to as "Voluntary Societies"). However, because of problems similar to those just mentioned, especially a problem with a certain arrogance and indifference to Church authority in the parachurch volunters from the Presbyterian church, he finally decided that it was no longer spiritually expedient to support them.

Concerning (2): However, Charles Hodge (a holder of view (B)) still fought hard in behalf of Church boards. A Church board is an executive commitee of churchmen who have been assigned the responsibility of making sure a certain task gets done. Typical Church boards are the Board of (domestic, foreign) Missions, the Board of Christian Education, the Board of Accounting and Church Finance, and so on. The justification for boards is that they take on tasks that require a certain expertise within the church and they can do a far more effective job than individual congregations within the denomination can do by themselves. However, Hodge's defence of boards was opposed by a fellow theologian Dr. Thornwell on the simple argument that Boards (executive commitees) are not courts, they were not mandated explicitly by Scripture, and therefore their existence was a corporate act of unfaith in the sufficiency of the polity determined by God in the Scripture. Hodge tried to argue that the argument was rediculous and had no precedent in Reformed theology. Unfortunately for Hodge (a biblical and exegetical theologian first and foremost), his ignorance of Reformed thought on the matter was made evident by Thornwell citing instance after instance of precedents for his position, mostly from the English Puritans, who like Thornwell were typically advocates of view (A).

Nonetheless, I think Hodge was right and the Puritans wrong and would site other precedents in Scottish and Dutch theologians to support him. But even a defender of (B) will still be cautious. Church boards inherit some of the difficulties that afflict parachurch organizations and which Hodge recognized. This is especially apparant when the calender of disciplinary cases in a church (and remember that biblical church discipline is arguable a mark of the church) is given to the control of a board (like a Standing Judiciary Commitee), then that board can be come a priviledged class within the denominations polity like a star chamber. Every conservative remembers how the program of scepticism was institutionalized into the old church by its own SJC counterpart. One recalls the problems created for teh church court system by failures to manage things within commitees like those for World Missions and for Inter Church Relations and the Standing Judiciary Commitee in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) over the last few years.

Concerning (3): Finally there is the problem of mega-churches which I will define as local churches that are practically all board and no court. Some experiments with this have been very successful, the most famous case of this is the Salvation Army, but see also Volunteers of a America, and the Christian Missionary Alliance. But in the local church we see the drive to develope more by means of boards in response the church growth movement and seeker sensitive services in which everything is adapted to the specific purpose of increasing church membership. In this sense, it seems at times that bureaucracy has overtaken theology and we are back to the days of Finney. But this is not necessarily the case. Some big churches are well run and are a blessing to the denomination, for example Dr. Kennedy's church in the PCA. But they do create similar hubristic problems, usually in the form of conflicts of jurisdiction such as between the college outreach ministry of the PCA and the college outreach ministry of Briarwood Presbyterian Church, a PCA church. There is something odd about the idea of a denomination having to form a comity agreement with one of its own members.

The related effect of the churches willingness to accept uses of bureaucracy like parachurches, boards, and mega-churches is that it creates factional tensions within the church, similar to those faced by Charles Hodge in his own time. On the one side is the defenders of (A) who usually represent small uber-traditional churches with a significant deficit of power other than unprincipled scrupulousity in their appeal to the past and the text to their own detrement inveighing against bureaucratic pragmatists who slip into indifference about tradition and doctrine but who have a surfeit of material resources and political savy which they are tempted to use time and again to circumvent the slower and cautious procedures established by due process of Church polity because of their impatience. Each of these sides continuously eggs the other on. Meanwhile the minority handful of supporters of (B), clinging to the tertiary church document, try to mediate between the court-o-centric and the board-o-centric.

In conclusion, I claim that (B) is the right view to have since we are obliged not only to follow the explicit obligations of scripture but also what obligations are necessarily implied by Scripture and since the Bible mandates certain positive duties for the church as ends, and since ends ential whatever means are necesary (and appropriate) for accomplishing them, and since some form bureaucracy or another in necessary to coordinate means, therefore the Bible does not forbid but in fact requires bureaucracy in principle. But a church board has to be responsible to all its stakeholders just as any secular bureaucracy and some of those stakeholders are the church courts.

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