Paul M. Blowers, Professor of Church History, Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee
Presented to the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, Cincinnati Bible College, November 27-28, 2000
Entering into this discussion of ecclesial polity, I am reminded of the extended debates of the late-16th and early-17th centuries among Anglicans and Puritans over church structure and offices of ministry. Puritans for the most part were fixated on recovering a pure apostolic pattern of (congregational) church government, and made polity a virtual (if not actual) article of the faith. For Anglicans, polity was, technically speaking, an adiaphoron, one of the “things indifferent” which might be very important but could not attain to the level of an article of the faith, essential unto salvation. Yet the longer the Anglicans battled it out with the Puritans over church government in the era leading to the English Civil War, the more they too tended to make episcopacy of virtual article of the faith, and were thoroughly convinced that their polity was an embodiment of the primitive episcopacy of the apostolic and sub-apostolic church. Most of us don’t want to think of church polity as of the essence of salvation, and yet the longer the Stone-Campbell movement has been around, the deeper the stake-laying over structural issues has become.
Indeed, the Anglican-Puritan debates in interesting ways adumbrated debates over church government and offices of ministry in our own tradition. They raised the seemingly perennial question: Is there one definitive pattern for church polity among the New Testament witnesses or is there latitude in what can be inferred from these authoritative texts? Advocates of episcopacy, presbyterial structure, and congregationalism, from the 17th century right on into the era of the early Stone-Campbell movement, all grounded their apologies in New Testament evidence. But pressing the issue back into the New Testament itself, one is hard-pressed to argue that from the very beginning, across the board in Jewish- and Gentile-Christian communities, there was one and the same utterly self-consistent pattern of polity. The evidence indicates a process of adaptation in the direction of broad consistency. In the letters of Paul we have a remarkable (unrepeatable?) integration of the freedom of the spirit and the discipline of order, of charismatic function of ministry and regularized “office” of ministry. But we do not have from him a “manual” on church polity (though some have tried to find one in the Pastoral Epistles); nor do we have such a manual in any of the other New Testament writers.
Thus it seems that when we enter into a discussion of what is truly a “New Testament” or “apostolic” pattern of church polity or ministerial structure, we are forced to rely on a sense of the overall consensus of the New Testament writers on this issue. As Alexander Campbell himself acknowledged, there simply is no blueprint. *1 Thus this issue has become in our tradition, and in others as well, one of the great test cases in what our early Stone-Campbell forbears called “reasonable inference.” Indeed, it has been a monumental test case in how we both understand and appropriate the authority of Scripture. The difference, of course, is that our Stone-Campbell forbears were pretty thoroughly convinced, far more than we are, that persons of “common sense” could easily agree on the “self-evident” truths of the New Testament and exercise the discipline needed to judge what “reasonable” inferences were acceptable. History and experience have made us, 200 years into this movement and living in the allegedly postmodern world, more dubious about that prospect. Certainly all of us here are aware that on the issue of polity among representatives of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, and Churches of Christ, there have been quite different versions of “reasonable inference” on structural issues.
The paper presented here by Dr. Hamm on Disciples polity indicates quite well the process of reasonable inference by which the Restructure Design was arrived at in the 60s. I would summarize it in three basic points: (1) Unity is of the essence of the church and is indeed an ecclesiological first principle, whereas disunity is a blatant sin and crippling of the church’s mission. (2) The individual congregation is vital to that unity and mission, but not all by itself—rather, in communion with all other local churches and, indeed, with the global church. (3) There must be, then, connecting structures of ministry that serve the local congregations in their responsibility to this larger global unity and mission of the church.
For Disciples this is a reasonable inference, yet clearly for many in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and the Churches of Christ, it is not a “necessary” inference. Yet for purposes of constructive engagement, I would begin by conceding the reasonableness of the Restructure Plan on its own terms and map out some of the common ground for discussion, before I offer what I hope will be some constructive criticism.
So far as the reasonableness or the strengths of the Restructure design are concerned, I would make four related observations:
1. The presupposition that the local congregation is already, intrinsically, an expression or microcosm of the global church of Jesus Christ—that it is already by nature in communion with the “local” churches and with the global church at large—seems to be a given in Alexander Campbell’s Christian System. Good Campbellites should be able to agree in principle that the local congregation bears a responsibility to the unity and mission of the church of Jesus Christ worldwide.
2. Closely related to #1, congregational-ism is just that, another “ism” which Alexander Campbell himself clearly repudiated (at one point in the Millennial Harbinger blasting some of the old Puritan congregations of New England for letting themselves become miniature kingdoms or empires to themselves *2) *3 This is an area where many (independent) Christian Churches and Churches of Christ stand historically at fault for congregational solipsism and for not viewing the local congregation as intrinsically responsible to and for the unity of the global church.
3. “Connectional” ministry, pooling the resources of all the congregations in common ministry and mission, is indispensable to the life of the church. (The trouble, of course, is when the “structural rubber” hits the road).
4. Some sort of “episcopacy” or supervisory ministry in an inter-congregational context is inevitable in the church if there is to be any solidarity and common mission. Restructure has tried to address that fact proactively by, among other things, instituting the system of regional ministry. The regional minister is not simply a denominational bureaucrat, but embodies ideally a modern “circuit rider” and servant minister who encourages local pastors and helps to build congregational solidarity in a given region. (Not unlike the circuit riding bishops of early American Methodism). We should remember that Alexander Campbell himself was distressed over the dissolution of the Mahoning Association in Ohio because it would undermine effective circuit-riding ministry such as helped rally the churches evangelistically. Campbell, moreover, while committed to episcopacy being collapsed into the office of elders, nonetheless showed great concern for the need for some kind of inter-congregational ministry, if only on an ad hoc basis *4
There are a number of positives with the regional ministry design, such as the regional commissions on ministry which help to screen candidates for pastoral ministry and to exercise appropriate discipline in the rare cases of pastoral misconduct. These are, in my judgment, healthy forms of “episcopal” ministry which do not impugn the integrity of local congregations. In the Christian Churches, we have episcopacy, we just don’t call it that. We have “charismatic” episcopacy, which means that supervisory ministry on an inter-congregational basis usually defaults ad hoc onto (1) mega-church ministers, renowned missionaries, college presidents, etc., who exercise wide influence among scores of churches; (2) major writers/publishers; or (3) significant groups such as the Executive Committee of the North American Christian Convention, which, while not making “policy” for the fellowship of Christian Churches, nonetheless have an enormous voice in determining what the foci of the national conventions should be, i.e., what issues the individual congregations should be addressing. I dare say, however, that most local congregational elderships do not see themselves as exercising “episcopacy” in any way inter-congregationally.
At this point, let me switch gears a bit and offer two or three points of constructive criticism, areas where we are truly challenged to come to terms with one another over issues of church polity.
1. As even many conservative Disciples pointed out at the time of Restructure, there is in the design a very clear “surrender,” in its vision for Christian unity, to the culture of denominationalism. Thus the means to Christian unity has been mapped out by Restructure principally in terms of denominational integrity in the context of ecumenical witness/partnership. The language of Restructure indicated this quite clearly in speaking of a “covenantal” polity, of “churchly” identity and “wholeness.” Inevitably there is a certain loss of the fundamental intuition of the early leaders of our movement that unity is recovered from the ground up, through the “charismatic” (for lack of a better word) fellowship of congregations in common mission rather than through denominational instrumentalities or structural engineering. (That is not to say that Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, or Churches of Christ for that matter, have perfectly embodied that unity from the ground up, having themselves been caught up in the other extreme of congregationalism).
2. Though the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is clearly committed to political and ministerial structures in the church which serve the congregations rather than simply “trickling down” denominational policy from the top *5 denominational structures are by their very nature lured toward permanency and resistant to continual reform. (I have had conversations with a number of Disciples leaders and scholars who recognize this as an ongoing challenge to the denomination).
3. In the name of openness and a spirit of advocating for the congregations, a delegate body such as the General Assembly tends to create its own denominational culture in which polarization left and right is a constant problem and finding the via media or the basis for consensus is painstaking. This is, of course, the plight of a number of mainline bodies in the United States, most of which are thoroughly aware of the dilemma and seeking to address it *6 To end on a positive note, however, I am greatly encouraged by the way in which the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), since 1995, has undertaken to study and to implement a process of “Discernment” in a variety of areas, in hopes of understanding more fully the way in which sanctified consensus is reached in the church for the sake of effective witness to the world.
*1 See his statement in the Millennial Harbinger (1855): 383: “We have no divinely instituted or formal directory given to us as a program of church constitution, church edification, or church worship, such as we in this age and country desire, and sometimes think indispensable …. We have, at least, the apostolic teachings and examples, if no platform ready to our hand.”
*2 See Millennial Harbinger (1845) : 61.
*3 An excellent study of Campbell’s repudiation of congregational-ism as such is William Robinson, “Did Alexander Campbell Believe in Congregationalism?” Shane Quarterly (1954)
*4 See his article “Isle of Guernsey,” British Millennial Harbinger (1842): 367; surveyed by Robinson in the article cited in note 3.
*5 Thus, the insistence, by theorists of Restructure, that the various ecclesial manifestations — local, regional, national and international — of the denomination be viewed as horizontal and covenantal rather than strictly vertical.
*6 See, e.g., from a Presbyterian Church (USA) perspective, Jack Rogers, Claiming the Center: Churches and Conflicting Worldviews (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995)