August 7, 2009 / David Fitch

Ordination and the Lord’s Table: PROVIDING SOME “SHAPE” FOR “THE THINGS TO COME”

There is for better or worse, an anti-institutional bias that simmers in some parts of the missional church. This can be seen in books like George Barna’s Revolution and Neil Cole’s Organic Church. Many think the same of Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways and Hirsch and Frost’s The Shaping of Things to Come. On “The Shaping”, I applaud this book, love it and see it as the first off my shelf when trying to guide someone into the missional literature that unfolds what missional church is all about. (BTW for a new groundbreaking guide to missional church, don’t miss this book coming out shortly). And of course, I consider Alan Hirsch the best of allies and a good friend. But I have to jab a little (good-naturedly of course) that perhaps “we could use a little more shape for the things to come.”
In this regard then, I offer two principles concerning organization and ecclesiology to all missional church planters that can clarify the “incarnational” implications of the form of  church practice and its organization.
1.) Structure/organization should always be an “after-development” and inextricably connected to the “gifts of the Spirit.” Yet we still need it and we should never avoid it. Structure actually grounds the “charisma” (gift) into day-to-day historical life which is another way of being incarnational (not fleeing the day to day).
2.) Ecclesiological form – certain core practices – serves to ground the church in history, i.e. preserves its continuity with Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son. In this way – church form is actually incarnational preventing the church from becoming a mystical society of individuals all into their own thing even if it might go by the name of “Jesus.”

Throughout the entire history of the church, there has always been a tension between the spontaneous and organized. And if there is a swing too far to one side or the other, bad things happen. If a church does not rely on authentic Spirit driven contextualized ministry it will become rote, dead and unengaged with the local context. If a church, as Spirit filled organism, does not provide sufficient organization enabling what the Spirit is doing, it is doubtful whether it can ever gain traction in the context. The lack of organization will frustrate and produce a never-ending chaos. The individual gifts of the Spirit (charismas) will eventually implode in their own narcissism  (read 1 Cor 12,14 as Paul’s corrective). Likewise, if the church retains no historical continuity with those who have gone on before, it becomes arbitrary and so syncretistic that it is hard to recognize anything that might be Christian. If a church adheres to historical form to the exclusion of contextualizing, it becomes so separated from the culture to which it has been called to minister that it becomes incapable of participation in any Mission.

My observation is that among missional churches, house churches I have visited over the past several years, the impulse has been anti-institutional, so that there is even angst in doing the minimal organization work they allow themselves to do. Some get too anti-institutional, too afraid of organization, too detached from the historical questions. Indeed I get accused of this often by people in the church I serve as I continually push for organic forms of organization that keep the church de-centralized and attached to various forms of ministry taking shape in the locales where people actually live.

All this to say, it helps if we must understand how organization and historical form can indeed be incarnational. I think the two principles articulated above help in this regard. I think “ordination” and “the Lord’s Table” illustrate these two principles well. So here goes with my two principles.

1.) Structure/organization should always be an “after-development” and inextricably connected to the “gifts of the Spirit”: The Case of Ordination.

Alan Hirsch – in his recent book with Michael Frost: ReJesus p.75f. – uses Max Weber’s famous “routinization of charisma” to illustrate the fact that there must be a passing on of the charisma from the founding gifted leader to the resulting “organization.” “The link between the Founder to the Found” must be preserved at all times for the health of the organization to be preserved. Within NT scholarship, Bengt Holmberg back in 1980 IMO, did the best job of appropriating Weber to Paul. Holmberg showed (among many things) how the spontaneous gifts of the Spirit breaking out in the Pauline communities became routinized through a process of the recognition and formalizing of the gifts and their functioning in the church. Routinization was a positive development as long as the giftedness, the actual empowerment of the gift for authority in the church by the Holy Spirit is never separated from the office itself.  The danger is to avoid all routinization saying, “we need no structure because we daily depend upon the Spirit!!” This is an over realized eschatology believing we are already in the new age entirely instead of the anticipation of it proleptically before the end of history. This is what was happening in Corinth and was the occasion for the writing of 1 Cor 12-14. Instead we need this “formalizing” – this recognizing of the gift to facilitate its flourishing in the community. This testing, recognizing includes its testing for character and orthodoxy and then blessing it. This is the function of ordination. This keeps the church grounded in history (apostolicity). This keeps the church from a Gnostic mysticism where individuals all by themselves seek to become individual Jesus’ without the historical embodiment of that in a community. At the same time however, church structure can become ossified and somehow ensconced in the church – no longer an outflowing of the life of Jesus Christ and His Lordship becoming manifest by the Spirit in a local place and time. This happens as the result of a futurist eschatology that sees the Spirit and the Kingdom as wholly future. “Jesus died, forgave our sins and will return for us in the rapture. Until then let’s live as good as we can and bring as many with us when the rapture comes.” We are therefore just biding our time until he returns. Let us organize for efficiency.  Either avenue is a failure to live in the “already-but – “not yet” tension of the Kingdom breaking in through Christ’s Lordship as manifested in the Spirit in a context, place and time. I feel the false reliance on business leadership is frankly another example of a leadership notion based in a futurist eschatology.

In any case, formalized leadership (and its structure) is always an after-development of the manifestation of the gifts. It must at all times stay directly connected to the gift as empowered by the Spirit. This is how the Founder stays linked to the Founded (Eph 4). Perhaps this then is what could be meant by the phrase missiology precedes ecclesiology. If so, then I can agree with/and encourage that!

2.) Ecclesiological form – certain core practices – serves to ground the church in history, i.e. preserves its continuity with Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son: The Case of The Lord’s Table.
There are certain “things” that form the church that DO NOT CHANGE FROM CONTEXT TO CONTEXT. Instead, we do them and the shape and language of these “things” are translated to accomplish the function. These “things,” call notae or marks of the church within church history, are seen everywhere the Body of Christ comes into being. In this sense, ecclesiology is not determined by missiology. It is missiology. By becoming a people of Jesus, His Very Body, in the context we inhabit, we are sent as an apostolic community into a context to bless the world with God’s salvation in Christ.

In order for this “body” to take shape, there are these “marks” that must happen. I won’t list them now, but one good example is the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table. Kudo’s to Frank Viola and his post on Out of Ur about the post church generation. I agree with him on several things. He offered various tests in part 2 here. I might suggest that the Lord’s Table to be such a test. Here is a “ritual” that we learn that ever grafts us into the history of Jesus and Israel that shapes our lives into the Triune God and His Mission. Like the Jews and the Passover Feast, the Lord’s Table is a well-defined practice, and takes the Passover into the next dimension (in salvation-history). It keeps us in essence grounded in the incarnate Christ. It actually, through practice, forms us into a reconciling community, members of one another. It keeps us in history instead of again, becoming individualist trying ourselves to be little Jesus’ as individuals in the world. Such “little Jesus mystics” in the end, apart from His Body, eventually turn in on themselves. They seek Jesus for themselves and it usually turns into each individual’s own version of Jesus. Instead, we need the corporal existence of the Body organized for growing and shaping people into His mission in history in the world. Missional disciples (Christians shaped to participate in God’s mission in the world) do not grow on trees, they are shaped via the church through practices like the Lord’s Table into the stature of Christ (Eph 4:11-16) To reject so-called “rituals” and formal organizing principles of the church that define our very sociality, is not following the principle of incarnation, it defies it… for it pulls us out of history into self generated ecstasy. This is why I wince when I read Alan and Michael Frost say something like, “The more one replaces a fresh daily encounter with Jesus with religious forms, over time he is removed from his central place in the life of the church. The result of this removal (by whatever means) is the onset of dead religion in the place of living faith.” (p. 71 ReJesus). Now Alan and I have debated this in front of a group before. And of course Alan is right! But we shoudn’t forget that the problem isn’t the form; it is the rote and detachment from the Founder that has been allowed to happen that is the very foundation and basis for the rite in the first place.
In summary then, I want to argue that ordination and the Lord’s Table (as an example of a “ritual” which is universal for all churches in all places) make “incarnational” church possible. They do not work against it. They ground us in history, which is the essence of incarnation. Of course, in each case, these things can become dry rote. But instead of throwing them out with the proverbial bath water (for the sake of either contextualization or ridding the church of dead rote), we should seek to reinvigorate them, connect them again, and contextualize them. We are ever working at Life on the Vine to make the Eucharist the powerful grounding shaping forming event of the week that sends us out for participation in His Missio. We are ever looking for ways to make the processes of leadership recognition communal, servant oriented instead of positional, and yet historically grounding. I contend that this facilitates our participation in the Mission of God. How do you navigate this tension, between institutionalizing and spontaneity, between Spirit and form, in your own missional context? What other examples of these principles have you encountered?

P.S. on another ecclesiological vein, Bob Hyatt’s posts on video venues are a must read. To me, he illustrates the ways video venues defeat the local incarnation of a church into its immediate context. They turn a practice of the church meant to ground us into history, into a mystical Gnostic experience that detaches us from the local context. Nice post Bob! Perhaps I’ll comment on this more next time.