Sunday, August 06, 2006

Ways to See the Church

The concluding part of my "theology of decline" will be devoted to ecclesiology, that is, the doctrine of the Church. I feel this subject is extremely difficult, for it is my belief that if the present problems in the Christian Church is based on doctrine, it is in the notion of the Church that the heart of the problem lies. I can only hope that the 21st century will be the century of ecclesiology, much like the fourth was the century of discussion on the trinity, the fifth on Christology and the 20th was the century of discussion of the relevance of history for theology.

The problem of the Church is in theory very simple: We have this group of people. And we have this theological concept of the Church. How do we relate this group of human beings to the theological concept? This in essence in the ecclesiological question. In this first post I will approach the question negatively: I will point out the - rather obvious - problems with the current models. If there is anything left of my blog and theological self esteem after that, I will try to bring something positive to the table.

Now, I know that the below discussion is very simplified, it is not to be read as an accurate description of how the different denominations understand themselves. The names are of lesser importance, it is the ideas that count.

1. The Roman Catholic Model
The Church consist of people who belong to the worldwide institution of the Roman Catholic Church. You are a member if you are baptised and accept the authority of the hierarchy of the Church from the pope down, including in matters of doctrine and teaching. All those that confess unity with this organisation, personified by the Bishop of Rome make out the "people of God".

Now this model is in crisis today because people do not see the reason to accept this authority. People in our culture are thought that the right thing to do is to think for yourself and to make your own mind up about matters of faith, and it is thus difficult to see the reason that people belonging to the priesthood would have an inherent authority in such matters. Since the Roman Catholic Church has lost most of the "worldly" power it once had, people do not understand why they should submit to it in "spiritual" matters.

2. The Eastern Orthodox Model
The Church consist of all those people that express the true faith through the traditional liturgy that is more or less the same everywhere and always. The organisation that exists to uphold this tradition can look a bit different in different nations, but as long as it upholds the tradition from the fathers expressed by the continuity of the hierarchy it is considered part of the true Church. The authority in matters of doctrine lies in the hands of the entire Church: not even a synod of all the bishops of the Church can make a decision in a doctrinal question unless the Church as a whole (the believers) accept the decision.

I must confess that I'm partial to this model. However, history has shown that the autonomous "state churches" that make up the Orthodox Church do risk to become pawns in the hands of ruthless worldly rulers. Also, to make doctrinal decisions today is practically impossible, which may be a problem in face of the difficult questions that face believers today. Also, there is a tendency in the Orthodox tradition that shuns contact with culture, which makes it difficult for the Church to react to times of sudden change in the cultural climate.

3. The Protestant State Church
Far from being one model, this system has worked out different ways in different countries. At the core is at any rate a kind of opt-out system of membership as opposed to the opt-in of the other models. In other words, in countries such as England, Sweden or Finland, you belong to the State Church unless you decide not to. Of course, signs like baptism are present, but in reality you belong to the church in most cases based on the nationality of the land on which you happened to be born.

Since this is the predominant system of the my country I have obviously thought about it a bit, but I'll try to keep it short. The model has some clear advantages: Since the vast majority of the population are members, the servants of the Church can assume that all people they meet are members, which means that there is no "us and them" mentality, and all people will thus be treated with the same respect. However, the system has lead to a situation where ceremonies such as weddings and funerals are often seen as more important in the life of the Church than the services where the Eucharist is being celebrated. This is already a very serious ecclesiological problem. But it has also lead to a situation where a vast portion of the members do not feel related to the Church at all, even though they are members, and essentially see the Church as a kind of institution that offers services at certain times in life, without any sense of community at all.

4. The free Church model (traditional)
There are new models for being a church cropping up every minute, but this is the more traditional Congregational model. You belong to the church if you chose to accept the doctrine and lifestyle of the particular group you wish to join. The emphasis may vary, but usually there has been a rather strong emphasis on how ethics rather than dogmatics.

The model has the advantage that it very easy to say who is in and who is out. That's very practical. But the model has many deep flaws. First of all, the actual criteria that decides if a person is deemed acceptable can be almost arbitrary and often based on more on cultural prejudices than biblical teaching. The model often fosters an ugly "us vs. them" mentality and a black-and-white worldview to accompany it. Since the groups can be pretty isolated they can easily turn into sect-like scenarios if a person with an inflated ego becomes the leader. Finally, it seems that these kinds of congregations have a surprising difficulty to adapt to the changes of culture, and they thus tends to become pockets of backwards thinking in areas such as ethics, leadership and gender roles.

5. The free Church model (recent)
Under this heading I'd like to lump together a whole bunch of more recent ideas, that are being tried around the globe right now. The actual criteria are similar to the ones in the above model, but the actual group can look very different. For instance, some kind of network model can be used, thus combining the free church model with a catholic like hierarchy, where the unity of the church is guaranteed by the formal or informal connection to some leadership figure(s). These new models do not really escape the traps of the more traditional model, they are usually developed for different reasons such as church growth.

Well, as I said, these are all caricatures, so please do not be too offended. My point is just to illustrate how important this question is in the Church as a whole today.


Looney said...

I like the neo-Adam Smith model: There are many church models that must compete. It is natural for churches to flourish for a while, and die when their candel is removed from the lampstand. The Bible doesn't give us one model, and with a variety we can sharpen one another. The competition in the US is usually amicable, although the splits are always painful.

Paul and Barnabas fought and went separate ways on their missionary trip. Presumably many more people were touched than if they were together.

WTM said...


You have offered us a very fine ecclesiological overview, for which I am very grateful. Allow me to make some rather unimportant comments. These are more tiny little quibbles than anything terribly substantive.

(1) Your account of the Roman church is confusing to me on one point. You say that to be a member you must have been baptized in the Roman church AND accept the Pope’s authority. I doubt that they would tack on this rather modern second condition, preferring to stick to talking about the baptized. However, from a sociological standpoint, you are correct in that any persons not wishing to submit to this authority are free move on down the road.

(2) This is less a comment than a question: does the success (or lack there of) of any given model in any given context confirm (or deny) the veracity of that model? In other words, is ‘how church gets done’ a matter of pragmatism or of dogmatics?

Patrik said...

looney, I'm not sure competition necessarily brings out the best in anything, it merely brings out what is best at competing..

wtm, good points. As I said my description of the various models may not correlate with the official teaching of the particular organisation I have named the model after. That said, I'm baptised in a manner deemed correct by the Roman Catholic Chruch (that is where I to convert I would not have to be re-baptised), but I still do not belong to the Roman Catholic Church.

Your second comment is a very good point, which I will return to in my next post, I think.

D.W. Congdon said...

A nice sketch, Patrik. Are you familiar with the Ekklesia Project that Stanley Hauerwas and others have endorsed? You might want to check that out.

Michael Joseph said...

Quick points on the model of the "Roman Catholic Church"...

My experience as a young Catholic has been quite positive and, if anything, among young Catholics I have noticed an increasing trust in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church without compromising two other Catholic (and just as important) views of the Church: Church as Mystery and Church as the People of God (cf. Lumen Gentium 1 and 2). I think the Catholic Church you are referring to is more descriptive of Catholicism in Western Europe and the U.S. during the '70's and '80's.

Another point...the term "Roman" has been dropped in our official documents. It tends to leave out the Eastern Catholic rites, which are still quite strong and very orientated toward the hierarchy.

Finally, there is no such thing as one "model" of the Catholic Church, nor is there a predominant one (consider John Paul II's emphasis on the Kingdom of God and Benedict XVI's emphasis on the Church as communion). Avery Dulles touched on this plurality in his seminal Models of the Church. And let us not forget Vatican II's Lumen Gentium. One reason I have been comfortable with Catholic ecclesiology is the freedom it allows in understanding the Church.

Aliocha said...


I have just found your blog, and I completely agree with the need for a "theology of decline".
As a Catholic, I have to completely disagree with the sketch you have made of the Catholic model of the Church.
Have you ever read: "Meditation sur l'Eglise" (don't know how it was translated into English), by Henri de Lubac?
You wish that the 21st century can be a century of ecclesiology, but from a Catholic perspective, the 20th century was already the century of ecclesiology. So much so, that it was from the renewed sense of ecclesia, that the subjects of Ecumenism, the relationship with Judaism and inter-religious dialogue were given new relevance.

Patrik said...

Aliocha, I'm aware of the width of thinking about the Church that has taken place within the catholic Church during the 20th century and appreciate the openings that happened during the second Vatican council. My sketch is not an attempt at an accurate description of the ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church, it is just a model, just like the others. I think the Catholic church, like all the other churches still have many problems to face in the area of ecclesiology though.