Friday, February 05, 2016

Should the Institutional Church Dissolve?


This week in my Wednesday Study Group we discussed chapter four of my book Freedom in Covenant: Reflections on the Distinctive Values and Practices of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Wipf and Stock, 2015). Chapter four focuses on the Disciples vocation as agents of wholeness or unity.  I brought into our conversation one of the founding documents of the Disciples tradition: the "Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery" (1804). The document is linked to Barton W. Stone, one of the progenitors of the movement that gave birth to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). 

This is what I had to say in the book about this document: 
From the earliest days of the movement of which the Disciples are but one branch, we have tried to bear witness to the importance of Christian unity. But what is the purpose of this unity? If we shouldn’t compete with other Christian brands for customers, why do we exist as a separate entity? It is a question that was raised by Barton Stone and his colleagues who dissolved the Springfield Presbytery: “We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”8 This act of dissolving into the body of Christ at large didn’t last long, as Stone joined in the creation of another entity designed to connect local congregations for ministry. Nonetheless, the “Last Will and Testament” is an important reminder that our denominational brands do not have ultimate significance. [p. 38].

One of the questions that this document, which Barton Stone had a hand in writing, raises is our reason for existing as a separate body within the body of Christ. The vision that is present in this document is a very strict congregationalism. The authors of this document, all of whom were Presbyterians by ordination, envisioned something very different. In their vision of the church all matters of calling was to be in the hands of the congregation, who were to lift up those from within the congregation to lead and to preach. Though there's no discussion of spiritual gifts, the idea seems inherent in the document that the congregation should discern who is gifted to lead and to teach. 

The final item in the list that follows the declaration that the presbytery be dissolved is this:

Item. Finally, we will, that all our sister bodies read their Bibles carefully, that they may see their fate there determined, and prepare for death before it is too late.  
Those "sister bodies" would be other presbyteries within the Presbyterian Synod of Kentucky. While this might be true in part, the "Will" does raise questions about who we are as denominations. What is  our reason for existing apart from one another? What gift do we bring to the Body of Christ? Are we simply another brand of Christianity? I remember years ago the "Burger Wars" pitting McDonalds and Burger King. Which chain was going to dominate? The one that fries its burgers or the one that grills them. Does it matter? Years later, both are still alive., but if you want a really good burger you're likely to go somewhere else.  

What message does the "Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery" have for us in 2016, two hundred and twelve years later?

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