Each baptized member participates in the priestly, prophetic and kingly ministry of Jesus Christ. We have been called to creation stewardship, Kingdom service and employment of gifts. Our primary focus and locus of work is as the diaspora, the church in dispersion throughout the community. While we are all directly connected to Christ as individuals we are also called to be a Kingdom community. That at least implies layers of connections beyond our immediate circle of believers. What are these connections to look like and what is their purpose?
What I have to say here may be controversial to some, but my read of scripture is that it gives no transcendent structure to the Church. I have read and heard people make passionate cases for this or that form of church government from the New Testament. I find many beneficial aspects to various forms of church government but I am thoroughly un-persuaded of an ordained transcendent structure in the New Testament.
Please do not interpret what I have written as saying that there is no need for structure or that one structure is as good as another. I am not. I think scripture gives us some important instruction. Here are a few thoughts.
The single biggest mistake we make about Church structure is in what we assume to be the most elemental institution of the Kingdom of God: the congregation. The family is the elemental institution of the Kingdom of God, not the congregation. Marriage, and implicitly family, is the only institution established by God prior to humanity’s fall from grace. Thinking in terms of subsidiarity, the family is the default institution for every type of creation stewardship and Kingdom service. Any institutions that exist just beyond the family level exist only to do those things that families cannot do for themselves. The next layer of institutions beyond that exist only to what families and the more localized institutions below them are not be able to do. The central institution of the Church is the family.
Marriage is the institution established by God for creating the ultimate in intimate human community. We are drawn into other-centered relationship between intrinsically different (male and female) but complimentary people. Just as humanity was born out of the three-in-one complimentary community of the Trinity, so is human life born out of a two-in-one union of male and female in enduring community. Even in a fallen world, it is to be assumed until proven otherwise that parents are the two individuals most likely to have the best interest of their children at heart and have the greatest devotion to their welfare.
The family is not a creation of the state. It precedes the state. It is an enviable institution. The state may solemnize a marriage to give it legal standing in the eyes of the community for civil purposes but marriage and family do not exist at the pleasure of the state. Family is the institution that ensures the best nurture and socialization of new generations. They also serve as a check on the totalitarian impulses of both state and church. It should be instructive that whether we are talking about Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot or Kim Jong-il, the universal necessity of totalitarians is to dissolve the institution of the family so that the state has unfettered access to the control and socialization of individuals.
As a side note, it is not possible to have a same-sex marriage. It is an oxymoron. I am saying nothing here about the morality of same-sex relations. I am saying that joining two people of the same sex is a grouping or a pairing, but it is not a marriage. A same-sex union may involve acts of mutual sexual stimulation and emotional bonding but it does not provide for a union of two complimentary beings uniting as one with the potentiality of birthing life. Society may choose to create alternate institutions, and the state can call these institution whatever it wants to, but a marriage is only between a man and a woman. The only question for the state is whether or not it chooses to use language that has correspondence to an external reality or whether it chooses to officially confound differing realities and thereby undermine the institution of the family.
Let me be clear about something here. About 40% of adults over the age of 15 in the United States have never married, are divorced, or are widowed. I am aware of these circumstances and it is not my intention to in any way demean single people. What I am talking about is institutions and individuals are not institutions. The church and state need to nurture intermediary associations and institutions of people that are not in families. But the alternatives will not be literal families.
As I read the New Testament, it appears to me that most “gatherings” probably had no more than two or three dozen people. This is smaller than many of our modern congregations. From a subsidiarity viewpoint, the modern congregation should often be considered two or more steps away from the family. Just above the family might be something similar to what is called a small group, cell group or house group in current ecclesiastical lingo. (These groups might be the alternative associations or institutions created to incorporate people not in families.) The congregation may exist at a level above the cell groups, linking and nurturing them, doing what cells or families can not do for themselves. Cells would exist to do what families can not do for themselves. Any level above the congregation would exist to do what congregations, cells or families cannot do for themselves. I think you get the picture.
The problem is that congregations tend to bypass the family as an institution. They segment the congregation by any number of demographics and seek to provide comprehensive programming that speaks to individuals at each stage of life. This is not entirely bad unless it is done in the absence of a larger vision to equip and empower families. The tendency is to become personal religiosity marketers instead of family equippers. In so doing, they are undermining the most effective institution that God has established for raising up generations of priests, prophets and kings in the world.
Now clearly we live in fallen world. While we are all eikons, we are all broken eikons. We have to be formed and transformed more fully into the image of God. Where does this formation come from and what is the role of the structure and leaders in nurturing it?