OK, I’ll be honest. I’m tired of dealing with this authority question for now. I will, however, look at it from one more angle, and then put it to bed.
The persistent question in the comments of the previous posts on this subject has been regarding authority. In fact, I saw this coming, and hence the title of the series: “Without Authority.” That’s not just a postmodern word play. I am actually giving a nod to the fact that postmodern theorists really did, in my opinion, problematize and complexify the issue of authorship – and the related issue of authority.
So I have proposed in the previous posts a kind of congregational polity – one based on a hermeneutic “from below,” and one that unmasks and marginalizes hierarchies and bureaucracies of all kinds.
That has led some to wonder about the abuse of power possible without the “accountability” of bishops, synods, and presbyteries. Well, I put the word accountability in rhetorical quotes in the previous sentence because I think the empirical evidence is clear: the accountability practiced by American Protestant denominations is a joke. One the one hand, you’ve got the Missouri Synod Lutherans defrocking a bishop for praying with Oprah at Yankee Stadium on the one hand, and on the other you’ve got a communion table in the PC(USA) that’s open to someone “who’s been divorced six times and is having sex with his dog,” in the words of one of my PC(USA) friends.
Now please don’t waste the HTML space telling me that these are rare exceptions to the otherwise utopian denominational structures. I’ve collected so many stories of really good and godly people who’ve been completely screwed by their denominations that I could start a whole new blog just for their stories. As I’ve ranted here before, these things are broken, and irredeemably so, and we’ve got to start to developing alternatives of inter-church connectionalism.
So, how do we avoid the abuse of power that comes in the type of congregational polity that I am suggesting? How do we avoid an emergent version of David Koresh?
Well, I suggest that we pay some heed to Michel Foucault. Some may be willing to write him off due to his bizarre sexual proclivities, but we dare not ignore his valuable critique of Power in human relationships. Power regimes are, Foucault argued, unavoidable when human beings get together.
If we can agree on that much, then I want to suggest that we build systems into the emergent church that are constantly unmasking those power regimes. For instance, it usually take a person with a strong personality to plant a new church with no money or denominational support. That’s good. But strong personalities also tend to censure those with whom they disagree. That’s bad. If an emergent church planter is getting too big for her britches – and there’s no bishop to step in and make things right – then there needs to be another way to unmask that abuse of power. Is it the local cohort? Is there a national or international system of accountability that can be developed?
I don’t necessarily know the answer to these questions, but I am not so idealistic as to think that they either don’t need to be answered or that the answer is going to be easy. Nor do I think we have nothing to learn from the different options that have been developed in the history of the church. We would be silly not to learn from our forbears.
I have a friend, an emergent church planter, who notoriously has problems with the theological concept of the Trinity. I think he’s wrong. Not only that, I think it’s important that he’s wrong, and thus I try to persuade him otherwise. However, I am not about to declare him “unorthodox” (whatever that means), and he is not about to freeze me out of conversation. We are in what might be called a “mutually critical dialogue.” The era of truly ecumenical church councils ended a long time ago, but maybe there’s something between worldwide church councils and a lunch conversation on the Trinity.
Can the emergent church develop a global, mutually critical dialogue in which spiritual friendship is a higher value than doctrinal correctness?