The Local Congregation as Embodiment of Christ
Humans never lack, it seems, a sense of crisis. Alarm bells ring all the time; hearts and minds are forever ill at ease. The new thing, just now, is a widening belief that religion gives no help, or makes things worse. Polls show it. Falling participation in religious life underscores it. Nor has any Christian body found an easy formula for contesting this indifference and disdain.
Many of us still believe that the absence of Jesus at the core of human sensibility portends, or is already producing, disaster. Secular orthodoxies—certainly those at the furthest remove from the Judeo-Christian vision—tend to stigmatize self-restraint, glamorize power, belittle enemies, and pay small or no regard to humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation. But thinking like this, whether from the left or right, seems, at least so far, to be no protection against social disintegration and despair. Equally worrying—and likely itself contributing to secular advance—is the diminishing of Jesus in much of Christianity. Unscrupulous preachers constantly announce a cheap grace that, in its indifference to actual peacemaking, overlooks the prophets Jesus upheld, the sermons he preached, and the life he led. Jesus becomes no more than a ticket to survival (or “prosperity”), faith in him only self-interest in religious guise. Here too, Jesus is effectively absent, and the absence, I would say again, portends, or is already producing, disaster.
I have long held that three main convictions could give Adventists fresh opportunity for relevance. The opportunity would be far from easy. It would require, painful as this might be, the end of doctrinal self-satisfaction—both the demise of compulsory fundamentalism and the full-hearted embrace of the Holy Spirit’s corrective guidance. As for the convictions themselves, the first is Christ-centeredness. Another is the Bible Sabbath, with its grace-charged benefits and persistent reminder of Christianity’s Jewish roots. The third is the Advent hope—hope transformed, however, from mere escapism into moral energy toward fulfillment of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
The first of these, the sense of Christ as the Center, redeeming lives and (not least) Bible study, entails a sweeping reconception of our experience together. With particular regard to local congregations and the question of hierarchy, that experience is my focus here. All else, whether words, gestures, or institutions, fades into insignificance except as Christ is actually embodied in authentic Christian communities. Christ locally embodied, and nothing else, truly addresses the world’s indifference and disdain. In that light, my purpose now is to prompt fresh perspective on congregational life followed by reflection on a single, Christ-centering passage in Philippians.
The Congregation and the Hierarchy
We Adventists have long lived under the sway of hierarchy. By hierarchy I mean administrative structures, backed up by administrative conviction, that support not only centralized coordination but also centralized direction of local congregations. Not one jot or tittle of Holy Writ, however, gives support to this idea. Jesus declared: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42–44).
Two clarifying points pertain. First, when the Gospels were written, the church was in its infancy, and today’s greater institutional complexity requires, certainly, difficult judgment in the application of these words. Second, the New Testament does envision cooperation among congregations and does speak of leadership roles both within and among these congregations. Still, no command-and-control bureaucracy exists in the New Testament, and anything resembling it today seems, at a minimum, problematic. From the beginning, congregations did, of course, answer to persuasive authority—Paul’s, say, or Titus’s, or that of the Jerusalem Council—but they answered to no authority that could, or even sought to, enforce conformity.
The New Testament records no case of coercive authority over a local congregation because this would have contradicted the essential spirit of the gospel. Over time, however, Christianity did bend organizationally toward Caesar; hierarchy came in, leaving behind not only pomp and pride but also hypocrisy and discord. The Radical Reformation—the expression of Christian life that at the time of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli upheld Christocentrism, separation of church and state, and adult baptism—not to mention congregational freedom—reclaimed much of the New Testament ethos.
Historians now understand our link, as Adventists, with these Christians. But the pioneers lived before this was known. And even if they were initially wary of church organization, they drifted into varying degrees of hierarchy, at one point even agreeing that both the General Conference Executive Committee and the General Conference meeting “in session” constituted the “voice of God” on earth. Although Ellen White and others became critical of hierarchy, our church, as theologian Stanley Patterson, now retired from the Seminary, has repeatedly argued, never fully agreed to New Testament-level integrity for congregations. Efforts toward “representative” governance have, in this regard, fallen short. Within living memory, moreover, General Conference leadership has instructed attorneys to describe our church in court as a “hierarchy.” Today, when such crisis stalks Christianity as might reasonably provoke humility and new thinking, we still have to deal with top-down efforts to enforce uniformity in doctrine and practice.
As I have suggested, this is plain disregard of the New Testament, where persuasion and love reign as undergirding ideals for shared life. It also overlooks the teaching function of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s presence today. According to chapter 16 of the Gospel of John, the Spirit, allowing all the while for present spiritual condition, guides the faithful toward a deeper comprehension of the gospel. The Spirit helped Paul meet the varied challenges in the varied churches he founded or advised. Now the ever-wider reach of Christian witness and the ever-starker complexity of church culture have only increased that variety. More than ever, the Spirit’s guidance must address specific Christian needs in specific Christian circumstances. More than ever, efforts toward sheer uniformity can only get in the way, only stifle the ongoing experiment, or faith journey, of small-group Christianity embodying Christ against the wider culture’s indifference or disdain. Given the place of Christ in Christian life, congregational freedom cannot, of course, be absolute. But neither can it be substantially denied; top-down command-and-control only assures spiritual decline.
Consider people close to the problems of the Adventist pastorate. They will testify to the persistence of our hierarchy-affirming culture: an “office” job—away from congregational challenges—is a “promotion,” accompanied by a status-signaling salary increase; movement from the pastorate is widely sought, but not movement back; the “church”—its heartbeat, its essence—is the General Conference. In 2015 in San Antonio, just before the General Conference’s up-or-down vote on equality for women, a pastor from Europe was in my hearing gloomily anticipating the outcome. He suddenly said: “The church is leaving us.”
Wouldn’t that sentence be inconceivable if we upheld congregational freedom and integrity? We could still agree on the importance of a (suitably chastened) coordinating infrastructure. The congregational cooperation afforded through such an infrastructure could help us say, for a wider audience, what we collectively stand for; it could help us work together on new initiatives in service and evangelism. But the coordinating infrastructure could not—if it was responsive to the New Testament—come across as the church’s heartbeat and essence. It could neither allow nor encourage the sense of levels “higher” than that of the local congregation or of spiritual authority superior to that of the local congregations. Under New Testament values, local Christian communities would be the embodiment of Christ. Adventists and Adventist pastors frustrated with failed thinking and stunted spiritual growth in some sectors of the church could take encouragement from trailblazing congregations. The coordinating administrative infrastructure could tell stories about such congregational initiative—as much to encourage it as (what might now and then be necessary) to raise alarms. Again, however, administrators would never claim theological authority over the gathered few (Matthew 18) who meet in Christ’s name.
Conversation-stopping pronouncements suck away local energy and inhibit Christian growth. For what ails Adventism today—or Christianity today—there can be no antidote but the embodiment of Christ in small-group faithfulness. And freedom to experiment is crucial to that faithfulness. We will learn this or our movement will fail.
Christ and the Congregation
An email from Nancy Lecourt (former academic dean at Pacific Union College) came to me in early January. Nancy leads a Sabbath School class, and she reads me as asking Adventist communities, however defined, to put Christ “at the center of their life together.” So, what would it mean, she wondered, for her class to be “more Christ-centered?” She thought members should consider this question and aim to come up with examples of right practice.
I agreed to teach the class down the road, partly because her question challenged me. I think it may challenge any Adventist group. If we say that God has given “all authority in heaven and on earth” to Christ (Matthew 28:18), or that whoever has seen Jesus “has seen the Father” (John 14:9), or that Christ, by contrast even with the prophets, is alone “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:1-3), how might this claim affect the way we conduct our shared life? And can we give examples?
To further underscore why an exercise like this may matter, let me share a story. On August 1, 1914, a young Swiss pastor who had studied theology at several universities in Germany learned that 93 distinguished German intellectuals had issued a manifesto in support of their country’s aggressive war policy. To his dismay, this young pastor saw that “almost all” of his theology professors had signed the manifesto. He was stunned. Thus, he later wrote, “a whole world of exegesis, ethics, dogmatics and preaching, which I had hitherto held to be essentially trustworthy, was shaken to the foundations.” Soon Karl Barth, the young pastor, wrote a commentary on Romans that stressed the difference between God’s way and the human way. A decade and a half later, with Hitler’s Naziism now a rising threat (and German intellectuals again signaling their support), Barth wrote the following words in the Barmen Declaration, a manifesto from a very small minority of German Christians: In this time of “common need and temptation,” the manifesto said, we declare that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”
Notice two things: first, here the Bible is authoritative and crucial; second, here Jesus Christ receives the status accorded him in the Gospel of John, that of the “one Word of God” we are called “to trust and obey.” This was the unmistakable Christocentrism of the small band of German-speaking Christians who, unlike most others, could identify radical evil when it was unfolding right in front of them.
So, the issue here—how to be Christ-centered—seems actually to matter. With this in mind, read and reflect on the famous “Christ hymn” of Philippians, the letter’s “centerpiece” and yet another expression of New Testament Christ-centeredness. Just below, following three verses from chapter 1, is chapter 2, verses 1–11.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing [koinonia, partnership] in the gospel from the first day until now.” [Notice that Paul is familiar with the names and circumstances of at least some (Philippians 4:2) who will read his letter.]
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing [koinonia, partnership] in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [or grasped], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The best-known interpretation sees this poem as an incarnation hymn: the pre-existent Christ willingly sheds his divine status for our sake. Another interpretation, which may be even older, sees the passage as describing Jesus’s growth as a human being: like Adam, he is in the image (“form”) of God, and he resists the temptation to “grasp” equality with God and to become, as the devil suggests, a power-wielding king. These interpretations would themselves deserve discussion. The point here is that on either view, Christ is the Center, or God-exalted Lord; his true followers aspire to a “mind”—a way of thinking and living—just like his.
Before restating Nancy Lecourt’s specific challenge, let’s notice some key themes in Philippians: fundamental accord among members, the Spirit in its unitive function instilling the love and compassion of Christ; church life as partnership, intimate, prayerful, and bracing; deliberate thought toward self-emptying humility and affirmation of others; joyfulness even in the face of suffering; character-formation through (chapter 4:1–9) pondering the praise-worthy and living by Christ’s example.
What we say of a Sabbath school class may apply, of course, to a congregation. The challenge is to gain both clarity and resolve concerning how Christ-centeredness may shape who we are. As Paul says to his readers (Philippians 2:12–13), the challenge is to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”—all the while empowered by grace, empowered, that is, by God “at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
So, there’s the assignment. It is best taken up where two or three gather in Christ’s name—in a Sabbath School class, a home study group, or a meeting with your pastor. Again, the assignment’s urgency is that no bureaucracy can now seize the secular imagination. The only plausible argument against the world’s indifference and disdain is cells of Christian flesh and blood, welcoming all and living the Christian way together.
Some starter questions for discussion follow, and a list of main themes in my remarks that may prompt other questions. There’s no end of things to talk about, nor any end to reasons for confessing that Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Some Starter Questions
· Why does congregational life matter? Can a community that thinks its heart is its hierarchy long survive as a Christian community?
· How does the mind, or story, of Christ illuminate the challenge, joy, and point of shared, or congregational, Christian existence?
· What shared strategies—of prayer, worship, Bible study or service—could strengthen the self-emptying and other-centeredness the Christ story enjoins?
· How, if at all, does this essay address our own (and Christianity’s) present crisis?
Themes to Explore
· Facing disdain: new crisis, new thinking
· NT: hierarchy or congregational integrity
· Radical Reformation as Adventist heritage
· Holy Spirit: guidance tailored to need
· Congregational freedom: energy for pastors and members
· Christ: protection from moral collapse
· The mind of Christ: defining, self-emptying, other-focusing.
Charles Scriven is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
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