October 18, 2003
Family style

My post on Andrew Sullivan a few days ago sparked a number of comments in several different directions, but one of them was how much a church resembles a family, or should resemble a family. This to a couple remarks from Rob that I don't really agree with about doctrine: namely, "Personally, I think that to work a church has to be first a commitment to a set of doctrines, and second a commitment to a group of people" and "If you don't think that doctrine was preeminent and primary in the formation of the Catholic church and its first congregations, you must not have read the Acts of the Apostles or Epistles of Paul."

I haven't read all of Paul's epistles, but I don't remember doctrine coming up that much in Acts. The only real doctrinal discussion I remember was in Acts 15, where the church leadership sorted out which of the Jewish laws the Gentiles should follow. And that example, actually, seems to contradict Rob's first point. The apostles didn't set out doctrine, and say, "Everybody who agrees with us, come on board." Rather, they found themselves with a bunch of Gentiles they weren't really expecting, who were quarreling with the Jews, and worked out some rules that would bring peace. It really was a commitment to a group of people first.

Although Paul's letters do include some doctrine-for-its-own-sake, to a large extent he seems to be doing the same thing. In his piece on women's ordination Telford noted that Paul's seemingly contradictory statements probably come from the fact that he was advising different churches with different sets of problems. A lot of the rules, then, seemed to arise from the practical business of people living and working together.

And in reality, I think that all human groups work like that. I think that one problem with this discussion is that we've been acting like there's a sharp distinction between formal social groups like business, church and state and informal ones like families and friends hanging out. In reality, I've never met a social group with any longevity that did not have rules, rituals, and a certain power structure. It may be unspoken and more flexible than more formal organizations, but it's there. And quite often, these features are not set at the beginning, but arise from the social dynamics of the group.

For instance, you might be brought together with some people because you all work at the same office. As time goes by you might develop certain rituals, like meeting at a certain bar after work every payday. You may find you all agree on some things -- like, maybe you all like sci-fi, or you all hate Bush -- and so you bond on those subjects, while subjects you disagree on may be ignored or the stuff of friendly ribbing. Different roles will emerge: one person may act as a leader, another the conciliator, another as provocateur, and so on.

That's a more low-key example than church, but I don't think the dynamics are hugely different. I think it's human nature to structure our social groups. I've remarked before that the whole "let's throw out the old hierarchy and rituals and just be together" attitude of the evangelical movement ironically ended up with a lot of pastoral despotism and theological rigidity. Moreover, when the structure is unsettled it brings dissension, as was the case with the early Church. So while I agree that, generally speaking, any group of people who meet regularly to talk about Jesus (including here on my blog) could count as a "church", I don't totally discount all the "institutional stuff."

Having said that, it's true that an institution as huge and old and hierarchical as the Catholic Church does ... alarm me. It's not just because of the squalling children that I haven't been back there. But I'm also not convinced that Jesus meant us to float around as free agents. For one thing, it's tough to effectively do things like feed the hungry without some organization -- we're not all as lucky as the Good Samaritan. For another, if we're left to float around we tend to gravitate to people who are like us, and don't have to deal with the full spectrum of humanity. I fear I sounded a bit hard on gay male culture in the Sullivan post, but really, I feel that way about any group that gets too isolated. I was no fan of my all-female college environment either. That is, in fact, another reason why I don't like the doctrine-first approach to church: it cuts you off from having to deal with those who might help you grow. There's a certain value to being stuck with people, the way you are with your family.

It's a lot easier to say all this than do it, of course. But I'm not ready to give up on the concept.

Posted by Camassia at October 18, 2003 04:21 PM | TrackBack

I don't want to belabor this point, because I'm hardly an expert. I mentioned the Acts because it deals in part with the conflict between Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, and James and Peter, the Jewish heirs to Jesus' leadership of the Jewish congregation. Much of the doctrinal controversy of those early days (circumcision--necessary, or not? dietary rules, to be followed, or not?) have become obsolete today, since we are all the heirs of Paul, who won. They didn't really work out compromise solutions; they agreed to disagree. Paul was allowed to go on preaching the gospel--elsewhere--so long as he sent material support back to the Jerusalem contingent. Gentiles were not forced to conform to Jewish law, but Jews still had to. Many of the doctrines laid out in the Epistles, however, are still with us.
The early church, which consisted of small groups of people who often met in each others' homes, shared communal meals and owned their property in common, resembled families closely in all of those things. Once the Church became an institution, it came to resemble...an institution; a bureaucracy; a corporation; a state--whatever. Smaller churches today may resemble family in some ways. But even in those cases, they usually have pastors who are sent to them by a central bureaucracy, and who can be hired and fired like any manager, etc. You can't fire the pater familias. That's what I meant.

Posted by: Rob on October 18, 2003 05:05 PM

I forgot to mention above that in the history of the church, the doctrines came before the congregations. The teachings of Jesus consisted of a set of doctrines which he preached and which he sent his disciples out to preach. These teachings attracted adherents, who eventually formed into groups, and finally "churches". How could the groups have proceeded the doctrines around which they formed?
It might be easier to see this if you think about the various Protestant denominations, rather than the Catholic Church. First you have a Luther, or a Calvin, or a Wesley who develops a novel doctrine, then you get a new kind of church.

Posted by: Rob on October 18, 2003 05:39 PM

I was using 'doctrine' the way Telford (and, apparently, Catholics) defined it: '...the teaching of a particular community. It is authoritative for them and not to be taken lightly, but it is not necessarily binding on all believers everywhere. It might be reversed, so there is room to disagree with an established doctrinal position even of one's own community.'

I think the definition of the word is a lot of what's crossing our wires here. Clearly there are some core beliefs -- 'dogma' -- that Christians have to agree on to consider themselves part of one Body. That was indeed what originally brought the believers together. But after that, a whole lot of rules got worked out by regular old group politics, and those are doctrinal. As I understand it, not a huge amount of the Catholic rules are actually dogma. I don't think the sexual rules are (though I'm not positive, which is why I asked). So, when you said Sullivan shouldn't say he's Catholic if he isn't following Catholic rules, well, it depends on which rules you're talking about. It's like if you have a kid who breaks curfew, he broke a rule, but he's still your kid. If he tries to kill you, though, you might feel like he's not really your son.

Posted by: Camassia on October 18, 2003 05:53 PM

Yes, it had occurred to me that the definition of "doctrine" might be hanging us up here.
As for Sullivan, I'm not a Catholic, and I don't know if his beliefs, or life-style, are in fundamental conflict with that which is sine qua non for all Catholics. If they are, he should probably leave, for the reasons I stated. I have been informed that he will still always be a Catholic anyway, so if he has a change of heart, he could "repatriate" at any time, I guess.
Groups are always organized around some raison d'etre, or another--a common hobby, or interest, a workplace, even a shared disability. You are quite correct that there always develop group dynamics and "rules"--but the organizing principle that is equivalent to church "doctrine" (whatever we call it) necessarily comes first.
As for "church", I think what most appeals to me right now is something like Quaker meetings, a few of which I attended many years ago, when I wasn't free enough to appreciate the experience.

Posted by: Rob on October 18, 2003 07:06 PM

Interesting discussion. A couple of thoughts, probably not well expressed, to throw into the pot:

Church, including the glorified church (and by church I mean the body of believers) is supposed to relate to each other as family, the household of God, under God the Father. But the pattern comes from God to us, meaning earthly families are bad copies of the true original, not that we use earthly families as a poor analogy for church relationships.

The church cannot exist apart from Christ. It exists because of Him and for Him and to Him and is a witness of Him to the world. Even doctrine is meaningless and of no value apart from Christ. Perhaps it is better to think of doctrine in those relational terms. It seems to me that that is the way the Bible teaches it.

Also I agree with your original Sullivan post. Good thoughts. I think your observations on the isolationism of gay culture are spot on. A thought (again probably not well expressed):
Homosexuality and lesbianism are the exact opposite of what God intended - ultimate gender-consciousness, self-consciousness, self-living instead of the self-giving expressed in the unity and complementarity of the male-female one flesh union of Adam and Eve, who are placed in the garden and mandated to push out the boundaries of Eden. In the same way, the gay culture's isolationism is just a form of running away in the corner and hiding....sin at work.

Which would make for some interesting comments on the tribalism amongst some Christians who building kingdoms instead of engaging the world and discipling the nations. (And no, that doesn't give us a mandate to become 'worldly'...)

Posted by: saint in a straitjacket on October 20, 2003 05:45 PM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?