Do You Really Think We Have To Dump Everything?

Photo by Courtney Perry (All rights reserved)

So asks Mariann Budde, my friend and the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C. to Wednesday’s post, Why Liberal Christianity (Too Often) Sucks. There were lots of great comments to that post, and some other questions that I hope to answer, but Mariann’s was the most pointed, and it’s one I want to respond to.

At the end of that post, I wrote,

Finally, mainline Christianity is committing suicide, plain and simple. By gathering every summer at their national conventions and killing each other with friendly fire, they are rapidly precipitating their own demise. No one gives a shit about the survival of your denomination.

By “no one,” I don’t mean the people who go to those meetings and fight and argue and vote. Those people care. But they can’t see the forest for the trees. No one back at home cares.

No. One.

So the faster that progressive Protestants can give up on their denominations — like conservative Protestants did 20 years ago — the more likely they can turn things around before it’s too late.

I really do believe what I wrote there. I may be prone to overstatement, but I think that my predictions about the death of progressive Christianity being precipitated, in part, by denominational infighting is profoundly accurate.

I’ve said it repeatedly, and I’ve written it in books: Bureaucracy is bad for the gospel. And denominations are nothing if not bureaucracies.

Now, I have to swallow hard before I stick with that line of reasoning when questioned by Mariann. She’s one of the good guys, in my estimation. She also has a lot of power, insofar as Episcopal bishops have power — actually, they don’t have much, compared to Methodist and Catholic bishops. But she does have a bully pulpit. In other words, she has the potential to do some real good for the gospel in her position.

Nevertheless, all the good that she can do cannot possibly tip the scales of dysfunction in her denomination or any other.

That’s the problem with bureaucracies: they’re full of good people, like Mariann. But the total is more than the sum of its parts.

The other weird thing about bureaucracies — something that can be verified by reading any one of a number of books on modern bureaucracy — is that they foster a level of loyalty that is completely irrational. (Just see the comments that are sure to follow this post as an example.)

Bureaucracies do not deserve your loyalty. No one is loyal to the DMV. We respect it, and those of us who drive cars live under its auspices. But you’d be hard-pressed to find someone willing to raise their voice in defense of the DMV. That’s because the DMV is functional, but it’s not an ideal.

Democracy is an ideal. The DMV is a way that our democracy works on a daily basis. So, you might wonder, isn’t a denomination simply the Christian version of the DMV? That is, the gospel is our ideal and the denomination is that way we make it work.

Not really. First of all, the gospel is a higher ideal than democracy, and so it demands that we push harder against those things that grow up around it.

And secondly, we have a choice.

A few weeks ago, I was at a meeting sitting next to a guy who told me that he works at the Pentagon. He went on to gripe about how many of his days he spends in meetings about meetings and filling out report after report. I asked him, “What if we could wipe out all of the tradition and bureaucracy in the American military and start from scratch?”

“It would be amazing,” he said, “And we’d have a far better military defense than we have now.”

The military in America can’t change.

The church can. There’s nothing stopping a revolution in the American church, except American Christians.

  • Keith Rowley

    Good post but my cynical side wonders if the church has any more chance of changing than the military. I think both are doomed by their own weight.

  • Charles

    I agree, Tony. Our small church is attempting to neutralize the bureaucracy of the institutional church. We have NO committees. EVERYTHING is by consensus. Our new pastor is stunned by the change he has to adjust to. It can be done.

  • tom c.

    As a disaffected Presbyterian, I am an unlikely defender of denominationalism; yet denominations at resources of tradition (among the other less desirable things you mention). Ours is a moment when traditions that are not adaptable are dying off. Maybe it is inevitable and even a good thing (when making room for new traditions), but it is also a little sad. (So maybe I’m not a defender, but I am also not a booster of abandoning denominations.)

    As for “turning things around” which might follow on giving up on denominations, what might that mean? Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see a resurgence of progressive Christianity, and I think the kinds of conversations that take place here and on similar forums are a good start. The thing is (at least in my experience in the cities where I have lived), so many progressives have been wounded by churches, and they remain understandably skeptical of the efforts of progressive Christians.

  • Alex

    Give me more, damn it!

    With all due respect, this just strikes me as a “Yeah, my last post was right” update. Where is something we can go on? How do we move forward? What happens in the wake of your scorched earth?

    Don’t mistake me as one of the comments you predicted would follow: I looking for you to give me more. If this were a sermon (which, I understand, it’s not) I would leave it feeling inspired but lost.

    Tony – what is your charge? Simply revolution? It doesn’t seem enough. You don’t have all the answers – I get that. Maybe I’m being overly critical or placing too much pressure on you to solve something. Yet, with you strong language choice (which doesn’t sound much different than what we’ve been hearing for more than a few years now) I can’t help but ask for more. We’ve heard the rallying cry – now what?

  • Ed

    Tony, I’m wondering what you mean when you say we should “give up on [our] denominations.” As someone in the mainline Protestant tradition I feel I’ve done this to a certain degree by not expecting my denomination at the local or national level to provide much leadership to help congregations pursue their mission well – I think this is up to the leadership and people of a congregation. What did you have in mind with that phrase “give up on denominations?”

  • Patrick Oden

    I’m not military, but I’ve read a lot of military history and it seems that while the military can’t change and is a massive bureaucracy, one of the key factors of American military success is that the bureaucracy isn’t everything. In the field, where it counts, there is significant creativity and innovation–with our non-commissioned officers corps given a level of leadership that most countries don’t have. This allowed the US military to respond to on the ground situations in ways that other countries–like Germany or others, couldn’t. Overwhelming might coupled with a leadership structure that trains all participants as leaders, then gives space to exercise that leadership in the field, is a huge key. Yes, this is always struggling against the bureacracy, but it’s at least there is a struggle.

    Far too often, churches are run more like medieval armies–where knights and officers are the heroes, while the great mass of people are really just spiritual cannon fodder, and we sharply restrict the leadership potential for the non-ordained.

    What’s especially interesting to me is that those who break out of bureaucracies aren’t necessarily progressive in theology. I think there’s a significant assumption that being progressive in ecclesiology is accompanied by being progressive in other aspects of theology. The reality is often just the opposite. Progressive theologians are often hyper-conservative in their ecclesiology. Studying the Anglican church over the past four hundred years shows this is nothing new. It was the most theologically conservative folks who broke out of the ecclesiological mode because they were the ones who saw the bureaucracy as restricting free spiritual expression.

  • Curtis

    But bureaucracy is an ideal. At least Max Weber made it one. He viewed bureaucracy at “the most efficient and rational way of organizing”.

    If the church were to toss away its bureaucracy, who would decide who is in charge? Who would decide how the money is spent?

    Bureaucracy is essential to the rational, orderly operation of any organization, including the church.

  • Bob

    Did Jesus come to establish a new institution? That is the very question at the heart of the opposing worldviews (traditional vis-à-vis emergent).

    My personal belief is that he did not.

    I see Paul struggling mightily trying to establish an institution with its incumbent rules, and hierarchies. At almost every turn Jesus seems to be trying to tear down the religious institution of his time, which stood in between a broken people and their God.

    • Curtis

      Would the world even know Jesus, as Christians understand Jesus, without Paul’s work, and the institution that Paul built?

      Bureaucracies are the way people organize themselves to get things done, ugly as they are. People are messy, imperfect things sometimes, so we sometimes need unattractive, seemingly irrelevant structures to handle that messiness.

      Without Paul’s institution, we would not even have the currently agreed-upon understanding of who Jesus is. We would have dozens of millions of house churches, each with a different definition of Jesus, and each with a different definition of God.

      Maybe that is where we are heading. Maybe that is even desirable. But I don’t think that would be considered Christian (and maybe that’s okay?). The definition of orthodox Christianity, itself, depends on some kind of bureaucracy to keep that definition somewhat consistent across the globe.

      • Bob

        So Paul is the real savior of mankind?

        Jesus by himself is incomplete; we need Paul to interpret and augment Christ.

        • Curtis

          No, the church that Paul started is what makes us aware of the savior of mankind.

          Of course, even Paul allowed that people may come to know Christ without the help of the church: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” But such knowledge of God and salvation certainly wouldn’t be considered “Christian”. As I said, maybe that is okay. Maybe knowledge of God and salvation gained outside of the Church is just as valid as knowledge of God gained through the church.

  • Cole J. Banning

    As proud as I may be to be an Anglican–very!!–I am not loyal to the bureaucracy. A denomination is an instrument of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, no more. But I am loyal to the Body and Blood, i.e. to a sacramental understanding of the Eucharist as an ex opere operato means of grace in which Jesus is Really Present in the elements. To a lesser degree, I am loyal to the historic episcopate as an exceptional sign of the unity and catholicity of the one Church of Christ despite the fragmentation she has suffered, and to apostolic succession via the laying on of hands. I am loyal to the creeds which speak of the Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

    If someone can come up with a way for a post-liberal mystic like me to respect these loyalties without a denomination, then that’s great. But in the meantime, denominations seem if nothing else a necessary evil, and I’ll remain a proud member of the Episcopal Church.

    • Curtis

      “I am loyal to the creeds” But those creeds would not exist without intense loyalty to bureaucracy. In some cases, loyalty to death. What would we believe without the bureaucracies of the Council at Nicaea, the Council in Milan, and the bureaucratic battles that ensued to hammer out the details?

      • Tony Jones

        Curtis, those were by no means bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is a thoroughly modern enterprise, a modern invention.

        • Curtis

          Bureaucracy is the modern term for what was going on back then.

        • Frank

          Tony you mentioned this before and it was proven false. China had what we would consider a bureaucracy in 600 AD. Look it up so you won’t continue to post a fallacy.

      • Cole J. Banning

        But those bureaucracies don’t exist anymore, so being loyal to them isn’t quite the same as being loyal to the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England or whatever. The question is, to what degree does being loyal to their truths require us to perpetuate those bureaucracies in the present day? And the answer to that seems less than obvious.

  • Marshall

    If someone can come up with a way for a post-liberal mystic like me to respect these loyalties without a denomination, then that’s great.

    No idea why this would be a problem. Us Evangelical types can just go out and plant a church with a recognizable Evangelical order of worship, sermons in traditional conservative style, community projects with a predictable flavor, and so on, with ties of lineage to other churches but in a formal way not beholding to anybody.

    I don’t see anything in the world that would prevent a liberal preacher from renting a room somewhere and building out a space dedicated to worship as he personally sees it. Except getting people to come … are liberals basically wedded to the name-brand experience? I guess that’s what Tony is deploring. It may be that liberals are so committed to the notion of individualism that the only justification for community they can think of is the preservation of an antique relic.

    • Tony Jones

      Bingo, Marshall.

    • Cole J. Banning

      Us Evangelical types can just go out and plant a church with a recognizable Evangelical order of worship, sermons in traditional conservative style, community projects with a predictable flavor, and so on, with ties of lineage to other churches but in a formal way not beholding to anybody.

      Well, yes, of course. That’s part of what it means to be an evangelical.

      I don’t see anything in the world that would prevent a liberal preacher from renting a room somewhere and building out a space dedicated to worship as he personally sees it.

      The problem isn’t with the liberalism. Of course a liberal evangelical can do exactly this–and many have. But a liberal–or, for that matter, a conservative or moderate–with a more catholic ecclesiology and sacramentology? That’s much less clear to me. How do you preserve historic features of catholic Christianity like the threefold ministry? How does one determine if a sacrament is valid and operative as a means of grace? Asking such a person to just go and start their own church might end up being more than asking them to abandon their loyalty to an organization–it asks them to abandon their theology itself.

      Except getting people to come … are liberals basically wedded to the name-brand experience?

      No. The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America are in full communion with each other. We can swap pastors at will and officiate at each other’s sacraments. That’s because our loyalty ISN’T to the name-brand itself, but to the liturgy and praxis and to the theology behind them. So if I’m visiting a new city, I don’t care if the church I go to says Episcopal or Lutheran next to the door. I care if I can receive the Body and Blood of Christ in a valid sacrament.

      It may be that liberals are so committed to the notion of individualism that the only justification for community they can think of is the preservation of an antique relic.

      What is more individualistic than “renting a room somewhere and building out a space dedicated to worship as he personally sees it”? The way I see it, the central tenet of mainline Protestantism, what separates it from evangelicalism, is that there is no such thing as a strictly personal relationship with Jesus, but that religious truth is always mediated through community.

  • Mariann Budde

    Thanks, Tony. I hope it isn’t impossible for a bishop to be more part of the solution (or revolution) than the problem, but it is my lfie”s work to try.

    • Nate Ferrell

      I stand with you there, Bishop Mariann. And the truth, as always, lies somewhere between the extremes. This is not an either-or scenario (though the extreme views are the sexiest and thus most noticeable). As an Episcopal priest, I am committed to being part of the revolution in the church while working with an actual community of Christians who exist right now, rather than having to create “my own thing” as the evangelicals do. IMHO, starting from scratch in that way inevitably leads to historical amnesia and the cult of personality around the pastor. That is not a sustainable path in the long run.

  • Steve Seely

    I think I understand what you are saying and I would offer another view; a strength to your description of dysfunction in denominations.

    I am part of the Episcopal Church. (Diocese of Washington DC to be specific) I joined the Episcopal Church and was confirmed at age 38. It was a choice for me. I grew up in the evangelical community and have attended church my entire life and worked hard to have a true relationship with God and faith.

    Here is my point. In organized denominations, you are part of the church. Your church is the one you go to on Sunday. Your church is also other churches in your region or diocese. Your church (in the Episcopal structure) is other churches in your province or other provinces. To put it more simply, I can worship at my parish. I can worship, and have, at the Ash Wednesday service in Garden City, Kansas. And, I can worship in the majesty of the Washington National Cathedral and it is all the same, it is my church…and everyone else with whom I share that space. It is the strength and beauty of being in a denomination.

    Christianity’s challenge is not so much bureaucracy as it seems to me, but rather is instead getting all of us to live into the Gospel and love one another, in spite of our differences. And, if we can accomplish that, does it really make any differences if we did that by holding a convention or by gathering in the living room with friends?

  • Evelyn

    Individuals within a community have to have a communal ethos and set of mores – that is what makes a community. A community where “anything goes” is anarchy. A community where the only rule is “love” tends to become anarchy because, first of all, no one has a good concept of what love is and, second of all, people have a habit of rationalizing their actions. You can always rationalize a particular action (even murder) as motivated by “love” for someone and hence could call it good when there will always be a group of people, at the same time, who would call that action bad.

    I think a good solution would be theological liberalism but political moderate-ism. This would foster the personal relationships with God that progressive theology pushes for but allow for enough rules that a community of politically like-minded but intensely spiritual individuals could function together.

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  • ronald

    No mirar el bosque por los arboles,es bueno ,ya que desde arriba no siempre se ve lo que esta mas abajo.

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