I have been an advocate for the new Presbyterian Form of Government since before its inception. I agree that it is time for us to move beyond the more regulatory polity of the past, and allow presbyteries and churches considerably more flexibility in carrying out their mission. Our post-Modern context requires it. The Emergence Christianity of the future will be considerably more open-source, decentralized, and less regulated; it will be more distributed, non-hierarchical, local, fluid, and network-based. Christians will be bound together in trust and love, rather than law and coercion.
But there is a dark side to this flexibility. Some of the social justice folks warned me about it in the debate over the new Form of Government. They feared that, without sufficient regulation, ecclesiastical polity would degenerate into a libertarian nightmare where the strong habitually oppress the weak. We would be kicking away the egalitarian, communitarian, regulatory Torah/law, and moving to the exploitation of a regime like that of Pharaoh.
In the name of this new “flexibility,” free of regulatory restraint, powerful forces in a presbytery can easily steamroll over the rights of congregations, especially small and poor ones. We have to realize that flexibility is only creative when presbyteries are able really to witness to the trust and love without which Presbyterian polity simply does not work.
That means that we have to lose several bad, but central, habits in the way we live together. Within a framework that still includes these characteristics, what we espouse as a positive flexibility can easily become oppressive and destructive of God’s mission.
1. We have to lose our addiction to corporate-style hierarchies. Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s our denomination had a catastrophic infatuation with models based on those of a business corporation. It must have seemed like the thing to do at the time.
But such a structure was wildly unbiblical, and it crippled our ability to move forward once it became obvious how idiotic it was. It has taken us 30 years to pry out of our minds the ideas that having “executives” is a good thing, and that congregations exist to serve the denominational brand and bureaucracy. To the degree that there remains any shred of this top-down mentality in the church, any move in the direction of “flexibility” is toxic.
2. We have to get over our adversarial style of decision-making. Robert’s Rules has its place in deliberative bodies where business has to get done, decisions have to be made, and a group has to act as a unity. (It’s use would greatly improve the workings of the United Stated Congress, for instance.)
But Robert’s Rules assumes an organization bereft of trust and love. Perhaps it worked very well for the Christendom church, which was more about patriotism, social and economic stability, moral conformity, and maintaining the status quo, than discipleship of Jesus Christ. For Presbyterians, our devotion to Robert’s Rules is right up there with predestination as our stereotype in the popular mind. As long as our mindset remains centered on success, institutional preservation, and cultural relevance, we’d better keep using tools like Robert’s. For under a more flexible system, I have grave fears about where the majority would take us.
3. We must jettison our loyalty to Capitalist economic values. When money, “sustainability,” investments, and what is called “responsible stewardship” are our main concerns, or concerns at all, the church is disregarding its mission. When the church is an apologist for Capitalism, or living off the dead or off other people’s work (ie. through endowments), or when an interest in what amounts to profitability determines the character of our mission, then we may be successful by some measure… but we are surely not disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Form of Government pushes mission as the priority, and touches upon finances barely at all. When we have that backwards, then we are met with the specter of presbyteries closing churches doing vital mission just because they are poor, and praising churches doing unsubstantial, counter-missional, but flashy and profitable, things just because they can afford it.
4. We must correct our chronic inequalities in the distribution of power and money. With the gap widening between rich and poor in and among our churches, flexibility actually diminishes our interdependence, and encourages an attitude of every-person/church-for-themselves. Big, rich churches do what they want, and small, poor churches get closed. Some ministers live in mansions, while others put up with dilapidated manses that sessions can’t afford to keep up.
Until we achieve some kind of parity and balance whereby the ones with the resources willingly support the ones doing the most effective mission, increased flexibility will mainly mean increased short-sightedness and selfishness.
I still enthusiastically favor the new Form of Government. But at the same time we have to do more to cultivate the trust and love that is necessary to make it work. As a Stated Clerk, I understand that it can take a lot of very specific regulation to create and maintain flexibility. Unless a jazz musician – even the most “free” – has a thorough grasp both of technique and the chordal structure of a piece, and trusts and respects the other players, improvisation becomes chaos.
The foundation of the new Form of Government remains our commitment to the inclusiveness, justice, and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. That is the rather inflexible ruler that guides our flexibility. He is about things like being the slave of all, losing one’s self, taking up a cross, loving enemies, releasing anxiety, and acquiring a different way of thinking.
In other words, when the Form of Government talks about trust and love, it means radical discipleship of Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit. Until we care more about discipleship than institutional preservation, our flexibility is always liable to sour into tyranny.