Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Institutional "Church" as Dis-empowering; Real Church as a People Movement

As a kid my parents always took me to church on Sunday mornings. I didn't mind it, and I'm glad they did this. But I expected nothing to happen except singing some old songs accompanied by an organ and listening to our pastor talk. Beyond that I expected nothing. I didn't even think God was there. I'm not saying God was absent but that, as far as I could tell, the idea that God might interrupt the liturgy and do something about our situation was not part of the program. "Church" had no movement, no expectation, no real power, no ability to do anything. We were an "institution" (the "institutional church"), not a Movement. The two do not go together well.

"Church." The biblical Greek word, ekklesia, is a put-together of two Greek words; the prefix ek (meaning "out of," like ek-centric, ek-topic) and klesia, from the verb kaleo ("to call'). Ekklesia means "called out." Real Church is a people Movement called out to follow Jesus on his Kingdom mission. Biblical "church," therefore, is not some building that you "go to." You and I either are the Church or we are not. If a Jesus-follower says, "Church is boring," it means that they are boring. If they say 'I get nothing out of church," it means they get nothing from themselves. "I'm not going to church today" is the equivalent of saying "I'm not going to be with myself today." "Church" is people, not a building. It never was a building, and its association with something spatial dis-empowers it.

"Church" as "institution" breeds criticism. When you're not part of the Movement you are in the audience. What does an audience do? It critiques. It gives "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." When you're not in the Movement you are apart from it. You are an observer, watching from a distance, far from the place of institutional power. "Church" becomes "them," the distant "other." The majority are dis-empowered.

Institutions hierarchize; Real Church does not. Real Church is like a human body. All body parts are needed. A Movement needs feet as much as it needs a head. And when one body part hurts, the whole body hurts. The entire body is God-gifted and empowered by the Spirit. Movements are more powerful and effective than institutions.

The church in Corinth was losing its way and heading towards being institutionalized when Paul addressed it. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 4, Ben Witherington writes, “The Corinthians… had imbibed the Roman imperial ideology, which used father-figure imagery to support social stratification and to legitimate a steeply inclined hierarchy of power.” (Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians) The Corinthian Jesus-followers are leaving the foundation of "Christ crucified" and following after rock-star human orators with their human sophia. Church was becoming an entertainment center. Sides were being taken. A few are way more powerful than the many. Great Greek orators and rhetoricians and smooth-talkers performed to Kierkegaardian crowds.

Enter Paul.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power (1 Cor. 4:20). This is the re-empowering of the Church as it abandons the prevailing culture's honor-shame hierarchy that confers status on the few and marginalizes the many. The marginalized, the "least of these," the expendables, all gain the status of Christ by the good news of the cross of Christ. And "power" is viewed differently. Paul writes:

“My message did not come with wise or persuasive words [because wise and persuasive words by themselves don’t change anything], but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” 1 Cor 2:4-5

I Thes. 1:5 - "Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction."

Rom. 15:18-19 - I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.

Paul tells the Corinthian Jesus-followers that he is going to return to them to see what power they really have, or if they are simply "empty, religious windbags" (D.A. Carson). For Paul, the hierarchizing, marginalizing "church" is dis-empowered by empty religious wind-baggyness.
Witherington writes: – “Until we learn the meaning of the words “when I was weak, then I was strong,” until we learn what it means to be empty of self and full of Christ, we will continue to misread Paul’s theology of leadership, status, power, and wisdom. Until then, the ekklesia will continue to play the game of power politics with the ministry, an all too human and too Corinthian game indeed.” (op. cit., 150)