Going backwards in the New Year

Years ago a read a little book called, “The Torch of the Testimony”, and after traveling as a tourist during this past trip in Europe, I’m committed to re-reading it in 2010.  It’s a church history book filled with biases and lacking footnotes and documentation, so from a scholarly perspective, the material would be a waste of time.

The thesis of the book, however, is both true and sorely needed in our day.  Kennedy asserts that, throughout the history of the church, there have always been those who have stood outside the institutional systems of Christianity, eschewing the Protestant/Catholic wars that ravaged Europe (and this blog recently, as well), opting instead for more primitive expressions of the faith; organic expressions of Christ’s life whose sole agenda was to be the presence of the resurrected Jesus in this world.  The Waldenses, John Huss, and the radical reformers are among the groups mentioned.

As Kennedy says so well, “The history of the working of the Spirit of God is not the history of any organization, and what usually goes by the name ‘Church History’ is only too often a sorry tale of bigoted quarrels and selfish intrigue. Yet the history of the two, the spiritual movement, and the earthly institution, are sometimes so closely intermingled that it is impossible to give an account of one without referring to the other.”

Normally, my annual time in Europe is primarily devoted to teaching (and a day or two of skiing).  But this past trip included vacation time with the family.  Touring castles and cathedrals allowed me to see first hand the effects of these bigoted ecclesiastical quarrels and some of the misery that inflicted.  When faith is coupled with the pursuit of political power, military might, and the expansion of one’s ‘interests’, be they Protestant or Catholic, history tells us that what ensues will invariably be violent, ugly, and contentious, all in the name of Christ.

But always, in the midst of the institutional Christian insanity, there have been little bastions of greater light.  Of course, history also tells us that these bastions of light, as they grew, faced their own trials and challenges.  Success, we come to see, is dangerous. Still, the groups of which I’m thinking were convinced that if they were going to be a testimony of Christ, they’d need to release their institutional ambitions, leaving their preservation and growth to God.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in prison while the war against Germany raged, he began envisioning what would be necessary for Christianity to survive in post-war Germany.  In letters written from prison, he envisioned churches that were cut free from state, and even pondered the end of denominationalism, believing that autonomy and locality of churches loosely tied together through fellowship rather than formal ties, would ultimately create a healthier testimony of Christ than institutional interests could ever hope to achieve.

As the church I lead grows larger, Bonhoeffer’s observations and contemplations are helpful.  We’re in an age and culture where the franchise is a very real possibility for growing churches.   But before spreading our non-denominational logo, we’d be wise to, at the very least, pause and listen to the words of Bonhoeffer:

“The clergy should live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.  She must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over men, but helping and serving them.  She must tell men, whatever their calling, what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.  And in particular, our own church will have to take a strong line with the blasphemies of hubris, power worship, envy and humbug, for these are the roots of evil.  She will have to speak of moderation, purity, confidence, loyalty, steadfastness, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty.”

Nothing could be truer… or more timely, at the start of a new decade.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Total aside, but what WordPress plugin do you use to provide an iPhone-compatible comments form?

  • Richard Dahlstrom

    I don’t even understand your question; that’s how tech challenged I am.

  • Peter Rengstorf

    Fantastic post richard I have been a part of a couple churches that have suffered from this effect and I pray it doesnt at Bethany because I love it so much. Are you back at bethany this sunday?

  • Richard, always a joy to read your thoughts.

    Welcome home!

  • jpothen

    Richard, are you going after the pursuit of political power that is coming from the religious right? Or is it a broader concern about the church in general? I’d be interested to hear you expand on the who and what you are concerned about, and what the remedy is for selfish ambition and bitter infighting.

  • raincitypastor

    Thanks for the question, and congrats on graduation. I’ll keep my ears open for jobs. I’m concerned mostly with the franchising of mega churches because I think this has the effect of stealing the localization and autonomy that’s needed for most churches. Having said that, I’ll note as well that it does seem possible to do satellite campuses within proximity of a ‘home base’, where campus pastors still participate in the staff. But as one moves farther away from the home base, I think we need to move towards autonomy.

    Of course, your thoughts are appropriate as well regarding the religious right, though I think theirs is a tired song at the moment. Regarding the selfish ambition and infighting, it seems that we need to all take a deep breath, recognize that God is our sustainer and provider, and receive what he gives us with gratitude without lusting for more. It’s terribly easy to sanctify lust for power in religious circles… “we need to expand the kingdom” etc. etc. Those who say it might well have a word from God to expand… but they might just want more. I’m not judging anyone, I’m just asking that we all seek God and recognize the danger of selfish ambition that wears a veil of religious zeal. The veil’s been there throughout history, and we’re fools if we think we’re above it today.

  • jpothen

    So is there a difference between franchises of megachurches and denominationally-aligned churches?

    And I suspect that a lot of the power-lust is unonscious. Our model of a successful church involves growth, building facilities, etc.

    I think what is needed is a new model that is based on humility and depth versus celebrity and expansion.


  • Kevin

    Are you comparing organization size with power-lust?

  • Really Good Articles/posts that you have on this site. Thanks