Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Church Militant v. The Kingdom of God

The church militant is seldom the church triumphant unless it has the power of the state behind it and so can compel membership to stay with it. This, ultimately, was the failure of the Roman Catholic church in response to the challenge of Martin Luther, who was protected by powerful men in Germany from the militant power of the Church, which at one point wanted him dead.

But that power doesn’t exist at all today, and every church, the more strident it gets, is reminded that its membership rolls are comprised entirely of volunteers, and that what holds a group together is not their enemy, but their common purpose.

The SBC and the UCC are figuring that out again.

After purging liberals from their ranks, Southern Baptist conservatives who won control of their denomination are now taking aim at each other.

The Rev. Wade Burleson, a Baptist leader from Oklahoma, says fellow conservatives who crusaded to only elect leaders who believe the Bible is literally true are carrying their campaign too far, targeting Southern Baptists who disagree with them on other issues.

These leaders, he wrote on his blog, are "following the same battle plan conservatives used to defeat liberalism," and have started a "war" for the future of the SBC.
And what is it about? It is, of course, about boundaries:

"The Southern Baptist leadership is so ideologically driven that it's almost impossible for them not to continually draw lines and narrow the boundaries," [the Rev. Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School in North Carolina] said. "In the early stages, this was publicly evident with the moderates and liberals. Now, when the convention meets annually in June, you wonder who they're going to throw out this year. There's always somebody."
The overall danger in this analysis is the focus on numbers, of course. Church is not about how many people you put in the pews. But there is the Church Ideally, and the Church Really, and every pastor knows it.

Every pastor also knows that, when it comes to a fight in the church, there are no winners, only losers. Every one ends up wounded, and institutions die from those wounds. Only the most egotistical of pastors stay and fight when it is their ministry on the line in the congregation. They stay, and fight, and the church loses, and the wounds inflicted almost never heal.

The Southern Baptist Convention has learned that having an enemy to fight gives the leaders of the fight tremendous power, but it is like fire that burns through wood: pretty soon the fire burns out, and leaves nothing but ashes behind. You can pile up more wood, hoping to keep the blaze going, but it’s a futile action. An institution simply cannot continue on the basis of continually having an enemy to be opposed to. External enemies are too far away, and too soon not threatening enough. Internal enemies are too few, and too soon expelled. And then you start to eat your young.

When the church is all about power politics, the church loses.

When the church insists that the first shall be last, and the last first, the church becomes truly the church; but aye, there’s the rub! When the church preaches humility, it becomes the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, and few are willing to join that church. Better to be the Church of Meaning and Belonging; and the shortest distance between that goal and the present, is to find an enemy.
But that enemy is soon burned up. And you are back to the fight among members, the fight for a new identity, and since fighting is the only identity source they know, fighting is what they will do.

And that's the other thing a pastor learns early in his ministry: nobody joins a church in order to fight. The people who do, are precisely the people you don't want in their church. Because the moment they run out of enemies, they create them. They turn on you, and the congregation. People who love nothing more than a good fight, love nothing more than a good fight. They are the person on fire, but to that person, the whole world looks like wood.

Or a place to practice the tolerance of intolerance:

CLEVELAND, Jan. 19 - Leaders of the 1.3- million-member United Church of Christ are reporting mixed statistical and financial outcomes -- both positive and negative -- during the six-month period that followed its General Synod's controversial decision to affirm support for same-gender marriage equality.

Since July, about 49 churches -- or less than one percent of the UCC's 5,725 churches -- have voted to disaffiliate, according to the denomination's research office. Most, but not all, of the departures appear related to disagreement with the marriage- equality resolution.
Bland statistics hide the bitter reality of this fight. The UCC has a very peculiar polity, one which has lead to an almost absolute division between General Synod and Cleveland (where the UCC offices are), and the local congregations. Resolutions of Synod are not binding on the local church, but that freedom from restraint works both ways, and Synod is often far ahead of, or even far apart from, the local church on many social justice issues. It isn't a matter of social justice so much as it is a matter of pastoral care. As a UCC pastor I had to deal with a family whose only son had been shot to death in a robbery. They learned that the church they had been raised in officially opposed the death penalty, from reading the back of a UCC published church bulletin. The shock and pain was so great for them they left the church, and I don't know if they ever returned.

Freedom is not only "another word for nothing left to lose."

While officially tolerant of different points of view, I know from experience that Associations and Conferences (the sub-groupings of the UCC) put tremendous pressure on pastors (the only group they can pressure) to get their churches to accept the more highly publicized resolutions of Synod, such as ordination of homosexuals to the ministry, and now, gay marriage. Churches which disagree with these positions find their voices ignored and their pastors find themselves between their autonomous congregations (such is the polity of the UCC) and the Conference Minister who has the power to make their move to a new church in the future pleasant, or almost impossible.

To the man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. Which means hammering out justice is not the simple matter it often appears to be.

So the church mlitant is seldom the church triumphant, because the church militant is seldom the church of Jesus of Nazareth. There is nothing militant about an empire, a basiliea tou theou, in which the first are last, and the last first; a kingdom that is announced not by being angry with the way it is presented in the media and reacts as the world would react, but a church that teaches you go to the extra mile, turn the other cheek, offer the coat off your back, and share your food with those who don't have any, without asking into their moral status, their religious beliefs, their personal behavior, or their political opinions.

The biggest problem with being the church is that you cannot define yourself by your enemies, or even by the enemies your actions create. You have to define yourself by God. And that will leave you neither militant, nor triumphant; but merely humbled.

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