Churches as Systems

Churches function as systems and so they bring limitation and problems, just like any other system. It’s about time we looked at Churches as Systems and came to some understanding of how they curse their followers and blind us to what God may really want to do.

Systems Reviewed

I reviewed systems recently in a post titled The Curse of Beneficial Systems. I suggest you review that article for insight into how systems, which are created to regulate process and outcome so consistent worthy output can be achieved and maintained, have the side-effect of limiting other possibilities and even blinding people to better options.

If the church is a system then it too is prone to cursing its adherents by regulating due process which is not necessarily ideal or worthy of widespread application to all.

What is a Church?

Church is the Bible term for two general entities: all of the people who are children of God through faith in Jesus Christ (what is called the Universal Church because it encompasses All believers); and the local group of believers in any particular place, as a sub-set of the universal church.

We are told that Christ loves the Church (Ephesians 5:25), speaking of it as a single entity. Yet we also have reference to the “church that meets in his house” (Colossians 4:15). Either way, as the church universal and the groups of local believers, the “church” is not an institution, nor a system of processes leading to outcomes. It is a community of “called out” people, since the Greek word translated as “church” is ekklesia, meaning “called out ones”.

The church is people. Groups of people who are joined by their faith in Jesus Christ comprise the church in any of its expressions. So why do systems have anything to do with churches?

Churches and Systems

While any church is a group of people that group functions as a society. Consequently there are social processes which need to be administered. Some of those processes are expressions of worship which God has prescribed and so they are quite important. Other processes are matters of necessary administration, to facilitate effective social interaction. Things need to be done ‘decently and in order’, so that people are given appropriate opportunity to do whatever it is that they are supposed to do. Then there is the need for people to take and share responsibility. Administration involves all those organisational decisions and practices which enable facilities, programs and resources to be provided, while also adjudicating social interaction when the actions of one or more impact the actions of others in an adverse manner.

Even in their simplest form churches are benefited by the application of systems. Who is to tell who that there is a meeting in someone’s home? What time will they meet and for how long and for what purpose? What will be done about catering, or cleaning the room? Who will lead the meeting and how will it be directed? Are we to bring along friends or is this meeting for those who are already involved? Will there be singing? Who will provide musical instrument or vocal leadership?

If there are several meetings, at different times and with different focus, some elemental systems will begin to emerge.

The New Testament Church Had Systems

The initial days of the early church were quite organic and unstructured. But issues arose, demanding attention. Provision was being made for the needy, but one group, the Greek widows, was neglected in the daily handouts. Appeal was made to the Apostles, who were the natural leaders of the movement, for a solution. They decided to appoint administrative people to oversee the process and they gave instruction to the fledgling church about how to identify appropriate candidates.

“Wherefore, brothers, find from among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, who we may appoint over this business.” Acts 6:3

Leadership was established, through elders and deacons. Letters of introduction were used to certify a person’s bona fides. Councils were called to resolve issues in dispute. Key people were sent to specific locations to deal with specific issues. Letters of instruction and doctrine were sent to various churches to clarify beliefs and process.

So the early church had systems. And churches have systems today. But, as I have already pointed out, systems have an inherent risk element. That was seen in the early church and it is seen today.

Dangers in the System

As early as New Testament times there were disputes and abuses of process. Some people used letters of introduction, being commended by one another, but were intent on opposing the work of Paul the Apostle. Paul warned that trouble makers would come forth from the group of appointed leaders. Jude described the activities of certain teachers who exploited the churches. Peter compromised the gospel message when he was intimated by one of the Christian groups.

Within a few centuries the church was beset with heresies, power struggles, competing doctrines, fake documents, deception and so on.

Since the early church experienced such things it is foolish to imagine that today’s church is immune from such abuses of the systems which it employs.

Audit Your Systems

So, what systems do you operate by? How does your church protect you against systems that frustrate the call of God on your life? Are you helping to perpetuate systems which are ineffective, but which you give undue credence to? Are you bound to what you know, as if has divine imprimatur? Are there better ways for your group of believers to function together? What is being limited by your set of processes and your targeted outcomes?

More seriously than these questions are the issues touched by the following questions. Is your church a dynamic expression of the Kingdom of God or a self-serving institution? Do people become empowered to serve God or are they expected to serve your programs and processes? What evidence do you have that your church liberates and empowers people to become effective functionaries in God’s Kingdom? Do you entangle your members in maintaining process for your prescribed outcomes, so they are unable to love God and love their neighbour?

Programmed Up to the Eyeballs

I recall reading of one chap whose family was religiously devout about attending every meeting held at the church. They would walk, single file, down their front path, dressed in Sunday best, black Bibles in hand, heading off the to the church, multiple times each week. They saw this parade as a public testimony to their faith and commitment.

Yet their neighbours saw it as religious slavery. Their whole life was consumed by an institution down the road with its peculiar set of meetings and events. They had not other life. They had no real contact with their neighbours, because it was more holy to be at church than socialising with heathen.

Has your church created anything like that kind of environment? Are you intent on locking your people in to more confirmation of their commitment to your program, or are you freeing them to take Christ out into the world?

We’ll look at this issue again.

Charles Finney Waking America

This is the day that … Charles Grandison Finney was ordained to Christian ministry, in 1824.

Thus began – or “continued” might be a more accurate word – a mighty moving of the Spirit of God through this converted lawyer. Immediately the winning of the lost had become his one purpose in life … as he expressed it – he had been given a “retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead His cause”.

Elmer Towns sums up one of Finney’s revival campaigns: “During his meetings in Rochester, New York … 1,200 people united with the churches of the Rochester Presbytery; all the leading lawyers, physicians and businessmen were saved; 40 of the converts entered the ministry, and the whole character of the town was changed. As a result of that meeting revivals broke out in 1,500 other towns and villages” (Hall of Fame, page 102).

It is estimated that “over 500,000 responded to his public invitations to receive Christ” (ibid).

In 1835 Finney became president of Oberlin College, introducing a curious blend of Calvinism and Arminianism into his theological teaching. The Second Great Awakening in America moved away from the Calvinistic focus of men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, to a focus on man’s responsibility for his sin and man’s need to take moral action in the face of his sin. This could be called practical Arminiansm.

Finney’s autobiography has been republished in paperback (Bethany Fellowship, 1977, 230 pages), and his Revival Lectures are still a classic in their particular field.

“The pastor who ordained Finney later said he regretted this ordination,” writes Jack Hyles in his book Today. “Finney became known as somewhat of a fanatic, embarrassing his old pastor. God give us more fanatics!!”

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

The Magna Carta Changes England

This is the day that …the Magna Carta was signed, “an ever memorable day to Englishmen and to all nations descended from Englishmen!” It was AD 1215!

Few Christians realize the spiritual significance of this landmark document.

Pope Innocent III had placed England under an interdict. (That could be compared to excommunication, not just for an individual, but a whole nation!) And it meant no more masses, no more Christian burials, no more confession, no more priestly absolution of sin … and more. For a people who had believed these unscriptural practices to be ‘gospel’, it was a matter of the gravest importance.

King John had rejected the papal Archbishop and appointed one of his own choosing!

The interdict had its desired effect. King John gave in – accepted the Pope’s choice of Archbishop of Canterbury, and surrendered the British Empire to Rome – and promised to pay annual tribute into the Roman coffers (English Church History, by C. Lane, page 207).

But by an amazing twist of circumstances, Stephen Langton (the Pope’s choice for Archbishop) then sided with the English barons – against the papal demands! It was he who had the Magna Carta drawn up – a charter that stated among other things, “The Church of England shall be free, and hold her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate!” In other words, there would be no interference or domination from the Pope.

Thus it was, at Runnymede, Archbishop Stephen Langton and the barons compelled King John to sign the document against his will! (New Guide to Knowledge of Church History, by M. Bloxam, page 156).

Because the actual document bears no date, some historians have suggested 19 June was the day it was signed.

In the Making of the Magna Carta (page 9), it records how “by 15 June it … had been completed and could be laid before the King for his formal acceptance… The date, 15 June, may well be that on which the sealing took place” (pages 7, 9).

The Pope fumed … condemning and annulling it in a Bull (24 August, 1215). “We do utterly reprobate and condemn this agreement … whereby the Apostolic See is brought into contempt.”

Despite the Pope’s indignation the Magna Carta prevails as a landmark of political and spiritual advancement. It was a stepping-stone toward the Reformation days when the ties with Rome would be finally broken.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

Genetics – Nurture or Nature?

A long-term debate has raged on the question of whether we are ‘born’ a certain way, such as happy, lucky, blessed or successful, or ‘made’ that way by our circumstances. Are we who we are because of the ‘nature’ of our being, such as something built into our DNA, or because of the things we are taught and the ‘nurture’ we receive in our formative years? This is the debate over whether it is Nurture or Nature that forms us.

Expert opinions and diverse theories have spoken to both positions. Life experience also argues both ways. We see people who seem to have innate advantage over others in the same situation. We also see how the right input makes a profound impact on people.

Elizabeth Kotlowski, in her book on Australia’s early history, points out that the convict parents of the colony’s children seemed irreparable in their nature, yet their children were recognized by an early judge as being of the highest integrity. This transformation was not embedded in the genetic ‘nature’ of the children, but came from the ‘nurture’ they received from the colony’s early church schools.

Similar transformation was noted by Charles Darwin on his second visit to Tierra del Fuego. He originally deemed the natives of that area to be so reprobate as to be incapable of nobility. On his second visit there, some years later, he discovered that the simple process of taking the Bible to these people had positively transformed them. Nurture, external impact from a quality source, has undoubted profound effect.

Recent genetics research now indicates a synthesis of the ‘nurture or nature’ ingredients. The science works like this. While we each have a unique DNA specifying our genetic potential and influencing all the many features of our being, we also have a unique set of control switches that activate or de-activate those underlying genetic choices. So there’s a double stream of genetic dice rolling that impacts who and what we are.

While the underlying DNA may prove to be strictly a matter of ‘nature’ – passed to us by our parents and resilient to the conditions under which we are raised – the genetic switches prove to be influenced by the ‘nurture’ we receive.

Recent scientific findings were reported in the Public Library of Science Journal, ‘PLoS ONE’. Moshe Szyf of McGill University in Montreal studied the brains of men who came from abuse or neglect backgrounds and who later committed suicide. These brains were compared with the brains of men who died of natural causes and who did not have an abuse background.

The genetic material of the suicide victims displayed changes in all 18 cases. While the genes were unchanged the related genetic material functioned differently. A cellular process called methylation, involving the RNA within the cell, is engaged in turning the genes ‘on’ or ‘off’. The observed changes in the cell indicate that the genetic function was being switched differently as a consequence of past abuse.

So, nature and nurture work together, not independent of each other.

Now that some discernible physiological change at a genetic level can be associated with nurture it will be interesting to see where science takes us in our further confirmation of what God’s Word says.

St Dunstan – England

This is the day that … St Dunstan is remembered by some churches.  He is one of the 68 saints mentioned in the Anglican Prayer Book.

He is “the most famous of all Anglo-Saxon saints”, according to Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints (1756-1759).

Dunstan was born in Somerset, England, in the early part of the 10th century.  During his education at Glastonbury he alarmed the monks by sleep-walking on the roof of the church!  (Stars Appearing, by S. Harton, page 208).

He eventually became an abbot at Glastonbury and set about reforming the morals of a scandalous clergy.  This zeal for purity continued when he later became Archbishop of Canterbury (Butler, page 149).

But as was to be expected, there was plenty of opposition.  Especially when he rebuked King Edwy for his unseemly behaviour.  As a result Dunstan’s property was confiscated and he was sent into exile.  After Edwy’s death, King Edgar assumed the throne and Dunstan was re-instated.

And it was Dunstan who instituted bellringing on festival days, and who re-introduced organ playing into the church – “even taking a personal hand in their actual construction” (Harton, page 207).

The story is told (believe it or not!!) that on one occasion, whilst working at his forge, he saw the Devil peering through the window.  “So he pulled the red-hot tongs from the coals and pulled the Devil’s nose with them” (Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem, page 147;  Days and Customs of All Faiths, page 127).  Satan ran and dipped his nose in Tunbridge Wells to cool off – and “that is why the water in Tunbridge Wells, to this day, is sulphur water!”  (page 127).

In the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus at Mayfield they even have St Dunstan’s tongs!  (Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem, page 147).

And the dear old Archbishop is still regarded as the Patron Saint of blacksmiths.