Christian Society

Last night in Church History class, our cohort discussed Calvin’s Geneva, the great experiment in Christian society.  The city’s leadership had two governing bodies: a Consistory and the City Council.  The first was a council of church leaders who kept an eye on the morality of the people.  They were to review any questionable beliefs or practices found among the city-dwellers and decide if action should be taken to discipline the erring folks.  The City Council, the legal governing body of Geneva, would carry out punishment and administrate the city.

Our cohort had an interesting discussion concerning the possible merits and dangers of this structure. On one level, it sounds good.  A Christian society, following New Testament models of accountability and morality… who could argue with that?  Being an idealist by nature, one would think I would be all for it.  But my stomach churned at the thought, especially when I heard the stories about the executions and other inhuman punishments these men dolled out.

Power.  Human beings, even redeemed by Christ, do not do well when given power over others.  Inevitably, we fall prey to the abuses. I’m beginning to wonder if any one of us should accept it willingly.

Control.  It’s an illusion.  To think we could somehow control another’s behavior or attitude by simply saying, “This is how you should live. Follow these guidelines.”  It’s a lie.  Life cannot be controlled, nor can people.  There will be exceptions to every rule.  There will be innumerable gray areas in life and relationships that we cannot account for.

Accountability. Clearly Jesus taught that we should, as Christian brothers and sisters, talk to each other about how our faith effects our life, about where we are sinning and falling short.  Paul also had much to say about what should happen in the Body of Christ when a believer is found to be erring.  But it is ALWAYS mutual and voluntary.  It is never forced on anyone.  When believers agree to be in communion, they agree to be vulnerable to and with each other.  ANY believer can hold another accountable.  The least in the Body can call the preacher or pastor or elder to account.  Top-down accountability that only goes one way, is not sanctioned in scripture.  Leadership is service, not power or control.  Leadership in Jesus’ style, sheds the robe and takes up the towel to wash dirty feet… takes on the cross for another…. Calvin’s model is all top-down.  And it was violent.  And it was NOT voluntary, from what I gather.  The leadership of Geneva took action, and the city dwellers had to follow. It was law.

I know I sound very critical of Calvin, and I’m sure I haven’t studied enough to really know what I’m talking about here. It was more in our cohort discussion of the role of Christian leadership, that my thoughts crystallized.  I am the only woman in my cohort, so it might be a gender difference… I don’t know.  But as the men talked about how leaders should govern their people, protect them, teach them right from wrong, set guidelines for them so that they know how to live and believe correctly—- I kept thinking, “Aren’t they as much disciples of Christ as we are?  Shouldn’t they be taught to discern for themselves, to study and think?  What if the elder board is misguided, misjudging?  What if the people see something the leaders don’t see?  Doesn’t God work through children, isn’t He found among the least of these?”  There is always the danger of pride and arrogance in an elitist system where the pastors and elders hold the only decision-making power.  Closed doors and hierarchy create the space for sin to creep in, even where two or more are gathered.

Leadership.  I wonder about Christian society, about church discipline, about what leadership looks like for followers of Jesus.  I wonder if our models of governing are more Greco-Roman and Jesus-like.  Leadership is NOT telling people what to do!  Leadership has a place, for sure.  It is needed. But what is it, exactly, in the Body of Christ?  I don’t think I know anymore.


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