Power and Authority within the Church: A Brief Excursion

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 2, 2007

In response to my recent post Church and State pt 6 (initial explorations of practical implications), Jonas Lundström writes:

I would…like you to spell out more clearly how you think power should be used in the (local) assembly of christians. Most of your material in this series has focus about the relationship to the state, but I think the use of power in church should be a top-of-the-list-topic. To me , the christian anarchy of the New Testament seams to favour decision-making through consensus (no majority rule), avoidance of privileged titles (as in Matt 23), an ever-present openess to the free sharing of every member of the messiahs body (1 Kor 14:26-), public discussion of the dominant speakers (1 Kor 14:26- again), abolition of “private property” along the lines of Acts and church-controlled delegation of specific obligations within the church as in the so called pastoral letters.

How do you practise and think about these matters?

Great question…I’ll try to address the issues you bring up:

Regarding Ecclesial Decision Making: I’m not sure consensus is always the best policy. Often, this results in lowest-common-denominator decisions. If left to our own devices, consensus decision-making is the best bet. However, we need to recognize that the Holy Spirit doesn’t necessarily work within the confines of the consensus. In a recent post called On Being Charismatic, I point to the idea that we should have shared decision making since the Spirit can lead through different voices in the community. What this means practically is that there must be ample time given to spiritual discernment in those sorts of gatherings where community decisions are made. The community should discern together what the Spirit is saying. In this context, those with various gifts should share their insights. Those with more experience and wisdom should be particularly listened to. Most of the time, the group reaches a decision. Not always, however. Sometimes the group is at an impasse and has to decide together whether or not to resolve the issue some other way (by entrusting the decision to a few knowledgeable people or to make a vote, etc.).

Most issues don’t need to be decided by the community–like whether or not to be hospitable to a family in need. I think we should decentralize most decisions except the major ones, dealing with many issues as they come up rather than making too many decisions as a group in order to prevent mistakes.

This is basically how Missio Dei approaches things…though we aren’t perfect. And, to be honest, I still have entirely too much say in how things are done. People tend to defer to me–though this is changing as more people take ownership within the community (read more on this transition here).

There are a couple chapters in Gordon Smith’s The Voice of Jesus on communal discernment that I find very helpful.

On the Role of Leaders: Leadership is, as always, an important thing within the church. Let’s face it–the New Testament is written by influential early church figures. We shouldn’t be naive. Nevertheless, we must resist the temptation to use influence to Lord over others (Jesus had something to say about this, didn’t he?), to manipulate the people of God, to secure special honor or titles, or to indicate a privileged role or special holiness within the community.

Basically, I think leaders should be guides-from-along-side–functioning much like spiritual directors function. However, we need to have a fluid, developmental view of leadership (go here for more on this). One of the things that makes Christian Anarchists different from Anarchists is their recognition that Christ has authority of some sort, by his Spirit, within the community. This authority isn’t simply mediated directly to the individual. Instead, it is mediated through the church. This is why we are called to submit to one another. What that looks like is fluid, unpredictable, and messy.

Regarding Private Property: To be honest, I’m really not sure what this looks like yet. Everything we own belongs to Jesus Christ. I believe that we, the Church, should share resources with one another, and the world. We should look first to meet the needs of the neediest among us, and then also look to the needs of those who “are perishing.” I’m open to exploring communal ownership in all things, but Missio Dei hasn’t gone there. Instead, we share some resources (mostly food) but leave most ownership in the hands of individuals. Why? Because there has been a long history of abuse in this area. Also, group authority over the individual can be just as opressive as a dictatorial rule over teh individual. This isn’t to say that we’ve rule it out–by no means. Instead we must recognize our own limitations and ignorance as we “live into” a way of life where more resources are shared according to need.

Currently, we share some food stuff, try to encourage generosity in one another, keep our rule of faith before us, and keep an open mind as we struggle to live in community in such a way as we recognize our debt of love to one another, and Christ’s ownership of all things.

Jonas, does this begin to sufficiently address your question(s)?

for further reading . . .

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One Response to “Power and Authority within the Church: A Brief Excursion”

  1. Jonas Lundström on April 3rd, 2007 3:34 am

    Very interesting. I belong to a very small and new church-like group who are struggling with these questions. And we do need to learn more so I keep a big open ear to you and other christian anarchists and anabaptist.

    To me, it seems that we will often or always have to abandon leadership positions within the established church in order to get to servant leadership. I have no trouble with influence or different degrees of influence, but we should not use titles, moneys or decision-making privileges to influence others, only our example, gifts and bible-based conversation. As I think you said yourself somewhere, even if “the leader” has the right attitude, there might be major problem since the others still give the leader the usual privileged position. I think we should not call anybody “leader”, since this term is to destroyed by the world (as the early christians did not use “lord” or “archån”). As long as there is only a few regarded as “responsible” for the church, we will limit the spirits prescence (too much). The position of leadership and responsibility belongs only to Jesus and his spirit. For sure we do well to in time acknowledge “old ones” in our midst, people with experience and teaching giftedness, but they should be deprived of decision-making possibilities.

    As to decision-making, I think we should be speaking about CHANGES in the life together. We join the church as it is, but if our common practises or way of life will change, everybody has to give their assent (is that the word?). This might be conservative, but it will also create real unity in community and work. So the ones wanting change will have to be the ones practising what they want the others to embrace and convincing the others that this is the best way. If this will not happen I think we should only wait for God´s spirit and stay the way we are. Growth comes only from the Leader anyway.

    Regarding common ownership I think this is a “juridical” fact - our things is not our own. And the church should live this out. (I hesitate calling money and things like that “God´s” as I can´t really see it in the Bible.) To me, this doesn´t mean that we have to administer every purchase or expence in common or live under the same roof (as the hutterites and others do), but we cannot accept great economic inequalities in God´s people (2 Kor 8-9). As we do now.

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