Posted by: ken98 | November 20, 2009

The Romans, Mormons, St. Francis and Church Government

Day 71 – Ken here
(DEF v.1, ch.15, pp.480-490)

The Story

Reasons for Success of Christianity

4. Virtues (cont)

  • Early Christians could not participate in war or government without being compromised (not sure why this is an advantage – think it’s here for shock value
  • Early Christians held all property in common, no land, communist-like cells of community property
  •  
    5. Christians create a church hierarchy

  • Brief psychological tangent: the passion for active political life (denied to Christians) resulted in a turbulent and elaborate church hierarchy, and turbulent and elaborate struggles for power within the hundreds of various groups within the early church

  • Development of Church – tale of freedom degenerating into a copy-cat Stalinesque hierarchical empire

  • (1) Primitive church enjoyed absolute freedom and equality – had generic offices prophets, elders and presbyters or bishops
  • (2) Bishops separate, become presidents of colleges of elders in each independent church (before 100 CE)
  • (3) Expansion of duties of Bishop in overseeing church
  • (4) Churches in provinces get together in provincial synods (Bishops of each church attending), loose democracies, promulgate Canons, begins in Asia, Greece, held every Spring, Autumn (end of 100’s CE)
  • (5) Bishops begin to sharply distinguish laity from clergy and begin to defend the exclusive rights of the EPISCOPAL OFFICE (emph. Gibbon)
  • (6) Bishops of large cities given preeminence (perpetual presidency over the Spring/Autumn synods) over other bishops (some bishops more equal than others) they are called Metropolitans or Primates
  • (7) The biggest cities (Rome, later Constantinople) claim preeminence over all the other large cities – beginning of Papacy, Metropolitan of Constantinople in the East
  • Modern Day Primitive Churches
    Interestingly, there are modern day churches that consciously mimic the early church’s absolute equality, and independence – (ie the Independent Churches of Christ). Gibbon wouldn’t have known of them as they arose in America in the 1820’s (50 years in the future) during the Restoration Movement (2nd Great Awakening) that gave birth to so many new American protestant denominations (including the Mormon church: see Wiki -the Latter Day Saint Movement, here and here). The history of the the Independent Churches of Christ and the Mormon church show two different ways of growing a new church – and strangely, end up displaying many of the growth characteristics of the early church, 1800 years before.

    Church of Christ - sign in front of the Fremont Ohio Church of Christ - note the "meets here" part of the sign - not an accident - the church of christ is not the building, but the group of people that meets there - a primitive hierarchy-free church

    Church of Christ - sign in front of the Fremont Ohio Church of Christ - note the "meets here" part of the sign - not an accident - the church of christ is not the building, but the group of people that meets there - a primitive hierarchy-free church

    The Independent Churches of Christ have maintained their independence, and have the same primitive government as the 1st century church (elders, lay “preachers”, no higher hierarchy), but have fractured into literally dozens of movements over very American cultural issues (admissibility of Sunday Schools, instrumental music, etc), not unlike the hundreds of “sects” that sprouted up in the early church over doctrinal/procedural differences.

     

    Mormon Temple, Temple Square, Salt Lake City Utah - a massive, centralized, hierarchical church

    Mormon Temple, Temple Square, Salt Lake City Utah - a massive, centralized, hierarchical church

    The Mormons (admittedly, with a much different set of goals in mind than just mimicking the early church) have evolved gradually over the centuries out of a primitive simplicity into a massive church hierarchy (not unlike the early church). However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints grew out of the same 2nd Great Awakening, Primitivist Restoration Movement as the Independent Churches Of Christ (sharing baptism by immersion, a call to reclaim the “original” church – through the Bible, or the newly-translated Book of Mormon, etc). Joseph Smith’s original name for his new congregation was “Church of Christ”.

    There must be some socio-psychological reason to explain human behavior repeating itself (first with the primitive church, and later for instance with the 2nd Great Awakening in America). The two modes of evolution of church government (ie fracturing into smaller and smaller pieces, or growing and accreting power into massive hierarchies/bureacracies) seem to be set patterns for us. Is it that we can only move forward and change the groups we grow – either becoming more and more individual and isolated, or more and more homogenized and unified?

    Saint Francis of Assisi painting by Jusepe de Ribera from the 1600's - Francis questioned private property unfortunately at a time when the wheels (and forces) of capitalism/business were just beginning their frenetic turning again in the mercantile city states of Italy

    Saint Francis of Assisi painting by Jusepe de Ribera from the 1600's - Francis questioned private property unfortunately at a time when the wheels (and forces) of capitalism/business were just beginning their frenetic turning again in the mercantile city states of Italy

    The Development of the Church Government
    Gibbon (and myself) will continue to press home the point that in the development of church government, churches (as group organizations) tend to form structures that mimic society at large (ie democracies develop more democratic churches, empires, more monolithic churches).

    To test this look at the early church. It started out as a communist, egalitarian, property-less society (although St. Francis got in trouble making this point 1100 years later), but quickly mimicked the city states/senates in setting up provincial councils, and the empire in setting up bishops like governors. Eventually, the most important cities (Rome, Constantinople) assumed a religious precedence that corresponded to their political precedence. The heads of church had absolute/imperial power over the “flocks” they tended. I suppose it would be difficult to form a government out of thin air, and so it is natural that the church would mimic the state.

    In the U.S., our churches look less like empires and more like federated states. Assemblies hold more power, and the groups look more like republics than empires.

    This is Gibbon’s point also – another “shocker” intended to provoke complacent 18th century English readers into questioning (to a limited extent) the inevitability of the form and content of 18th century Christianity in England. Gibbon was again on the near-cutting edge when saying a portion of their Christianity was not divinely inspired, but a cultural, socio-economic growth – and therefor relative opinion, and not absolute truth. Not a very popular view I’m sure back then, and still controversial today (although we ought to know better by now).

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