Writer's Note: Apparently, when I noted my intention earlier this week to do some reading and lessen other duties, some interpreted that to be my obituary. I will now paraphrase Samuel Langhorne Clemens, to wit: The reports of my demise have been grossly exaggerated and gleefully accepted.
I did threaten, late yesterday, to spend some cyber-moments this morning on the coming fate of some of our institutions, political and religious, and to speak to their defense, in part. If not for the malfunction of typepad.com, I would have that chore done already.
Still, perhaps better late than never.
Hence, let me start with the obvious, to wit, humans are cooperative, socializing beings. We immediately see the possibility for larger organization of worthwhile local endeavors. In almost every instance organizers lose sight of the over-keening importance of their local group, without which the evolving larger group has no reason (or support) for its existence. Inevitably, the larger group comes to exist for itself, at which time the smaller (local) group begins to seek representation elsewhere.
The degeneracy (and final destruction) of political or religious institutions is perhaps more easily seen in a democratic society than under a totalitarian form of government where powerful forces can rule by fiat. Still, history is littered with the corpses of dictatorships and (variously shaped) democratic institutions that began to exist for the sake of their own existence.
Democracy has its companion problems. Who is the ancient Greek who reportedly said, "When the voting started here, the democracy died.?"
Democratic institutions include, along with their polling issues, a variety of other problems. There is no record of a democratic institution existing apart from serious controversies over their provision of services, resentment at taxation (even in the form of voluntary dues) and the concentration of power in the hands of persons skillfully adept at appealing to the baser instincts of the masses of voters, so to inflame passions, which, once stirred, often have unintended consequences.
Still, even as polyglot a group of philosophers as the Christian Realists (set aside the Liberals, who only mince words for their socialized pie and the Fundamentalists, who long ago decided on pathos as their metier) concentrate on the confusion of a race created in the image of God but so obviously unable to overcome their own cussed ornery-ness. For such a race, democracy is almost a requirement, give or take a benevolent monarchy or two.
So, good Reinhold Niebuhr would have to write: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."
This is no less true in religious institutions than in the secular political arena. In fact, religious institutions may understand they owe a great deal of their rationale for existence to the undeniable depravity of individual men. The Free Church tradition, out of which come baptists of various stripes (and smells), seeks to explain the fate of man in relation to Original Sin, but never tries to deny the sin itself.
Free Church baptist Christians (note the only un-capitalized word in the preceding descriptive phrase; the others are nouns, while the one is an adjective only) organize as democratic institutions, but on a local, congregational basis. That is, each local body is able to succeed brilliantly or fail miserably according to market forces and the presence or damning absence of meritorious leadership.
The congregational system is an uneven one; as close to democracy as one can find in institutionalized religious life but constantly shifting with the population. In one place a program of ministry succeeds brilliantly, such that it must then be aped by all, regardless of how well or poorly it fits a new locale. In short, congregational autonomy (democratic in nature) partakes of all the various problems of any other democracy, noted above, and a few others to boot.
The larger institutions (para-church groups, colleges, seminaries, various ministries, associations and conventions themselves) ebb and flow with their local constituencies but with (at least) one great difference. That is, a local congregation may die. Many do, every year. The larger bodies do not have the choice to die. They may be changed, weakened, strengthened, even killed by lack of participation but they cannot simply die. Death is not an option.
Take a break; energy enabling and typepad willing, I will come back tomorrow and explain why the larger (I did not say greater, just larger) bodies cannot die, why some of them are waning now and make a clear (I hope) rationale for some form of organized cooperation.
I promise you will not like it.
Opinions expressed here are mine alone, not those of the church I serve or any other person.