As readers of this blog know, I’ve increasingly come to believe that the church needs some serious reform.
This is not a very radical idea these days. How often do you meet a theologian or church leader, of any stripe, who is satisfied with the status quo, and wishes to defend it? The polarization we are seeing across denominational lines testifies to this. Everyone feels that something is wrong, possibly seriously wrong. Everyone has a different assessment of the problem, and a different solution: neo-conservatism, radical pluralism, neo-traditionalism, radical reconstructionism, more cultural assimilation, less cultural assimilation, more bible, less bible, more church, less church, etc. But whatever the case, most people feel that the church somehow needs to move to a different place from where it now is. Something has to change.
But what about the how of reform?
Can We Do Reform Kindly?
“Reform” tends to conjure up thoughts of disruption, conflict, and pain. It’s a threatening proposition.
But can reform take place in a way that is humane? That is respectful? That is gentle and kind? To put it differently, what are the ethical considerations of reform?
This question is particularly pressing if you think, as I do, that the level of reform that needs to take place is fairly dramatic and penetrating, reaching right to the roots of the so-called “Great Church” synthesis itself.
Three Obstacles to Reform
On a very basic human level, I see three major obstacles to reform:
1) Identity. This is a huge one. It can be almost insuperable. The basic problem is that our very identity gets so intertwined with this or that church structure that putting a question mark next to the church amounts to putting a question mark next to us. To say “this whole church structure is wrong” amounts to saying “we are wrong, our whole life is wrong”. Our lives become so bound up with the structures that, if someone threatens to take away these structures, or in any way seriously question them, it leaves us with (it seems) nothing; it takes away our whole sense of self, of meaning, of purpose.
This identification with the church is especially common among those who make their living from the church, either as clergy or as teachers/academics. Church professionals spend their entire life shaping their persona, friendships, social circles, reputation, relationships – even physical looks! – around a certain church structure. They become truly part of that structure.
Obviously this makes reform extremely difficult. It especially compromises the possibility of “reform from within”. If our identities become deeply enmeshed in an institution, do we become incapable, on a psychological level, of engaging in critique of that institution beyond the most superficial levels? Or are we almost compelled to promote and defend the church? And do we do this even if, on other levels, our beliefs tend in a very different direction? I myself have experienced this struggle, and seen it in others many times.
Sadly, this phenomenon of “identity enmeshment” is very widespread. Yet do we ever question it? I think it is in fact among the most insidious aspects of the old system – a kind of unconscious means of institutional self-preservation. Churches everywhere have become extremely adept at co-opting people’s personal, ethnic, and community identities. These identities get woven so tightly into the fabric of the church’s institutional structures that these structures soon appear completely indispensable.
What a mess! But given this reality, how can one reform the church, root and branch, without crushing people?
2) Money. This obstacle is an obvious one, and probably faced to some degree by most people reading (and writing!) this blog. Financial control acts as a huge brake on reform. If people are financially and professionally dependent upon an institution, how can they ever be expected to engage in deep, open, searching criticism of that institution? How can you credibly speak for – or even credibly discuss – reform when your livelihood depends on the status quo? Small critiques are conceivable, of course, but is root-and-and-branch reform truly – again, almost psychologically – possible? Do people “on the inside” lose the ability to consider reforms profound enough to upset their socio-economic existence? Conversely, can people “on the outside” responsibly ask them to even consider such reform? When is it simply too much?
3) Few things are completely bad. Here’s a subtler one, but one that I feel very keenly.
Rarely is anything totally corrupt – and people’s experience of different structures and institutions differs considerably. As a result, while we might criticize, for example, the old tendency to Christianize and control every aspect of society, we must acknowledge that many people have had a good experience of that “Christian society”, and genuinely regret its passing. Or we might now be very critical of the clerical and parish system, but we must admit that many people have excellent memories of clergy-people and the traditional parishes.
The reality is that, on a human level, reform is always ambiguous. It is never simply a matter of “casting out darkness”. Most things that need to be reformed are also, on some level, genuinely cherished by someone, somewhere, by some actual human being. And probably, more often than not, this was for a good reason!
So given this complex texture of human experience, how do we proceed with reform in a kind and caring way?
Next Post: Surmounting the Obstacles