Why Church Reform is (Almost) Impossible (Rethinking Church # 25)

Models of the Church

In every age the church takes form in the world as an association of people, and it borrows a model of organization from the surrounding society, modifying it according to needs. In the early days, the church adopted the Jewish model with the central authority vested in the apostles and elders at Jerusalem and locally in household patrons and elders that presided over the church in a particular city. Sometime during the second century, elders became priests and a single bishop asserted rule over each city.  After the church became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it began to model itself after the imperial administration. In the East, powerful bishops or patriarchs ruled over the main cities—Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople—and the surrounding districts. In the West, the bishop of Rome began to model himself after the Emperor to become the single head of the whole church and all the bishops. The church developed a huge and complicated bureaucracy to administer the imperial church.

The Protestant churches of the Reformation era in breaking with Rome became national or city-state churches. As I pointed out in the previous post, Protestant churches in the United States still preserve the basic form acquired in the Nineteenth Century. Some denominations adopted a centralized and bureaucratic administrative structure. Others remained a loosely associated family of local congregations. Still others choose some level of centralization between the previous two.

However they organize themselves formally, at an informal level certain styles characterize most contemporary churches. (1) The church as a business. Church leaders, whatever their official titles, administer the affairs of the church in the way chief executive officers and boards of directors administer businesses. Churches have products, marketing strategies, strategic plans, shareholders, customers, and hold market shares—all by other names of course. (2) The church as a school. Schools have administrators, teachers, classrooms, lectures, and curricula. (3) The church as a charitable organization. This type too must be organized to receive and distribute goods and services to its target recipients. (4) The church as a theater. Theaters need administrators, theater halls, actors, musicians, and directors. (5) The church as community center. Community centers offer gathering places for socializing, meetings of various interest groups, recreation, and organizing for political activism for one cause or another.

Two Big Problems

Reform is Impossible. Though these non-theological models and styles dominate the actual running of churches, churches still use the religious rhetoric of the kingdom of God, family of God, or body of Christ. Apparently, they don’t see the irony in this. For they don’t resemble a family at all. Nor do they hold everyone accountable to the ethics of the kingdom or work like the body of Christ. And when an individual actually urges the business, school, charitable organization, theater, or community center type church to return to the family or kingdom or the body model, the deep logic of these models absorbs, overwhelms, and neutralizes every effort at reform. I do not doubt that churches adopt these models in good faith and for practical reasons. But hidden within each of these models is an irresistible logic fundamentally at odds with the essential nature and mission of the church. All species of star fish can regrow a lost limb as long as the central disk remains, and a few species can regrow the central disk and all other limbs from just one limb. I learned from experience that you cannot reform a church by tweaking this or that program or renaming an office or an activity to sound more biblical. It changes nothing to start calling a church secretary an “office minister.”  True reform begins with abandoning the foundational logic of alien models and all their outward manifestations. The problem is in the DNA not in the name.

Assimilation is Inevitable. The irresistible logic, the DNA, of such models as businesses, schools, charitable organization, theaters, and community centers—even if they are adopted by churches—demands assimilation to the archetypical, secular form of the model. When churches look and operate like other institutions in society, the logic of the model demands that they place themselves under or be forced to assimilate to the ethics, laws, and social expectations applicable to analogous institutions. By law and social expectation our society expects all employers and public accommodations—theaters, schools, hotels, restaurants, etc.—to treat every individual equally regardless of ethnic origin, religion, physical ability, gender, and sexual orientation. This logic seems as compelling to insiders as it does to outsiders.

Until recently, most churches ordained and employed men only as clergy, and even roles open to laypeople were reserved for men. However with recent changes in public expectations, many people are asking such questions as “If women can be senators, professors, heads of fortune five hundred companies, actors, singers, world-renowned athletes, and police officers, why can’t they become preachers, bishops, and elders…since the church in all other ways looks and acts like businesses, schools, and theaters?” This irresistible logic is powerfully working its way through all churches in the western world. And, just as it will inevitably drive most churches to assimilate to feminism, it will surely drive many churches to assimilate to the gender revolution.

The pressure to assimilate to a culture hostile to authentic Christianity cannot be successfully resisted merely by stubbornly refusing to change. It can be dealt with only by uncovering and repudiating the subversive logic at play when we adopt the model of the church as public accommodation or business. It is not the church’s essential mission to provide the public with employment or places of honor or social services or social acceptability or recreation or social networking—or any other worldly good or service. I don’t think we yet realize how much freedom to pursue our essential mission we give up when in good faith and for good reasons we adopt models designed to pursue other ends. Nor have we yet realized how costly our liberation from the relentless logic of assimilation will be—nothing short of death and resurrection.

To be continued…

8 thoughts on “Why Church Reform is (Almost) Impossible (Rethinking Church # 25)

  1. nokareon

    Dr. Highfield, I have been following your argument and learning a lot! I am interested by the idea that the Church cannot reform adequately unless it restructures as well—I need to do more thinking on that. I do wonder whether the employment slide will be as inexorable as you indicated in your last two paragraphs, given the recent Supreme Court decision on Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. In the decision, the court set forth a policy of non-intervention in hiring matters for any religious institution for any position involving the communication or representation of faith beliefs. In other words, the Supreme Court applied the ministerial exemption to hiring laws widely to give religious institutions “broad latitude” in managing their own personnel affairs. Acknowledging that the cultural ground may shift over time, even in churches, would this decision mitigate your fears of government and church entanglement at all?


  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    i understand and applaud past and recent Supreme Court First Amendment wins. I think it is fine for us to take full advantage of the freedoms and legal protections we have. Still, we should use them for good purposes and be willing to give them up if we have to do so to remain faithful. But I fear insiders’ evolving views as much as I fear government overreach. Assimilation does not always happen because of coercion. The logic of public or quasi-public institutions is very powerful and relentless.


  3. Rahul Barmanray

    Thanks for your posts Dr Highfield, I and my small group have been deriving a lot of food for reflection on our own church’s structure (which is firmly a parachurch business/school/charity/theatre as you’ve described!). Looking forward to your thoughts on how we break free from the pressure to assimilate to cultural structures; as you say the ‘relentless logic of assimilation’ is irresistible, so any attempt to assimilate appears doomed to corruption.


  4. ifaqtheology Post author

    Thank you for this encouraging note. I want to be constructive and faithful. And if in any small way my thoughts spur you and your brothers and sisters (and mine!) to deeper thoughtfulness and faithfulness, gives me joy. I hope to make some observations and suggestions for dealing with the negative effects of parachurch logic. I do not claim to have the wisdom to see this path forward clearly. I too am walking by faith and not by sight. I am trusting that the Lord will guide us. Whatever thoughts you have please share them. Blessings!


    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Sue: In this case I meant the general thesis that women are the equals of men, with which I agree. And in the case of the church, it implies that all offices and functions of the church should be open to men and women on an equal basis. I was not using it in a perjoritive sense. However the logic used to achieve women’s equality, if it is merely the logic of autonomy and freedom, can be used to erase all gender lines. Some people may be okay with this. I am not. But in this essay my point is merely to uncover the logic. Thank you for asking this question. By the way, I wrote a little book related to this question. Look in the “About Ron Highfield” part of this website or on Amazon.com.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. ifaqtheology Post author

    Sue: Noticing your time stamp, I realized that Sue J is Susan Jeffs! I did not realize that. I hope my reply did not sound cold. Feminism covers lots of viewpoints, and when you get into the nuances of viewpoints, feminists disagree with each other. That is why I gave an general definition. I was not trying to be evasive. Pax. Ron



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