Heatherhope Believes In A Dynamic Church

Easter morning listening to the radio. National Public Radio represents the best of broadcast journalism. But I heard exactly two references to the great Christian Festival Day of Easter. One was an offhand comment, just before the segment with “puzzle master Will Shorts,” in which the host noted that many listeners would possibly be away from the radios at Easter egg hunts. The other was the obligatory quick piece about the Pope’s message to the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City for an Easter message (He’s still for peace, by the way).

That about sums up the popular perception of the church today: a monolithic, authoritarian organization with a bit of superstitious nonsense out at the fringes.

Here at Heatherhope Farm we hope to stand up for the real church: a powerful and ancient dynamic.

This dynamic has many vectors at work, but the two main ones are the power of charisma and the authority of office. The German theologian of the Hans von Campenhausen, who died in 1989, wrote a fine exegetical and sociological exploration of these two vectors in his book, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries. Dairmaid MacCulloch, in his wonderful survey of Christian history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, summarizes this examination nicely noting that in the earliest years of the church there was a rough balance between mobile and local ministries. The mobile was made up of traveling prophets and teachers and had a rather fluid way at looking at functions. There were apostles and prophets and a diversity of “gifts” for ministry. Meanwhile there was a developing local ministry with a “grade known interchangeably as bishops or presbyters, together with a separate grade of deacons” who helped with the Eucharist and carried out the daily routine of the church. The “local ministry” was motivated by a concern for presenting a common front visa vie the critics, competitors, and persecutors of the church. They were the ones who were more and more concerned to define the boundaries of belief and the identity of the church for the sake of this ongoing struggle to survive and thrive (MacCulloch, pp 131-133.) This vector of the church went on to produce what MacCulloch calls a “monarchical, episcopal” church that began to insist on the authority of a single bishop in each large city of the Empire, a defined canon of Scripture, and more closely defined theology.

In the 2nd century, a stream of the “mobile ministry” called the Montanists got caught up in a spiral of conflict with the monarchical, episcopal strain of the church. The Montanists valued wandering prophets and teachers. They championed outpourings of the Holy Spirit. As in the New Testament times they had no problem with women being apostles or prophetesses. They saw real authority coming out of charisma (MacCulloch, pp 138-141).

The bishops of the local ministries saw the claims to charisma-based authority as a threat to the stability they had worked so hard to maintain. With the Roman Empire buffeted by barbarian tribes and increasingly corrupt leadership, and with the church itself experiencing the first Empire-wide persecutions, the monarchical bishops were in no mood for toleration of the wildness and diversity of the spirit-led.

But this back and forth was not a one-off thing for the church. The tension between charismatic power and ecclesiastical authority has really shaped the church of all ages. Of course, history is written by the victors, and the more priestly, status-quo oriented voices of the church have been the victors in the sense that they have managed to shape the chronicles. But it does not take too much acumen to read between the lines. Desert Fathers, monks and nuns, university teachers, humanists and socialists, reformers, pacifists, artists, poets, confraternities–they have all been censured, branded as heretics, and at times burned at the stake; but they have never been silenced. Every “heresy” you can think of lives on today. Today the unbelievers and free thinkers denounce the “organized church;” but they choose not to be honest with just how disorganized the church really is.

There is so much more to Easter than egg hunts and pontification. There is more to the church than constitutions, faith statements, creeds, and official denominational web sites will ever disclose.

The church is what goes on behind altars and pulpits on Sunday mornings, but it is also fueled mightily and constantly by eruptions of the Spirit at food pantries, AA meetings, yoga classes, street protests, backyard fence conversations, and hospital bedsides–twenty-four hours a day and in millions of startling, spontaneous, unpredictable ways, all around the world.

So, Heatherhope Farm would like to go on record as standing with this, the real and the dynamic church. There will never be a static balance of charisma and authority in this church. It will always be a struggle. Always a tension and dialectic.

Connie and I love being part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is a true expression of the church of the ages, even though it takes millions of “man-hours” for it to pass resolutions to do studies and finally to take action about anything important–such as loving our (unlovable) neighbors. Connie and I love our community of faith at Salem Lutheran Church in Sycamore. We are joyful that each week we can kneel at the altar rail and receive the bread and wine and experience the over-arching unity of God’s people that Christ accomplished on the cross. We know that all people are God’s people, and we are thankful that the Spirit has kept this table open to all the poor, the lame, the cripple, and the blind–all the invalid people of the world, for over 2,000 years, despite any exclusionary impulse of priests and pastors. We want that altar to be there. We want that liturgy to be sung. And so we embrace bishops and the “organized church.”

But we also rejoice in that disorganized part of the church with all those invalids that find their way to the altar of the Great Banquet. We rejoice in the messiness that comes with this unauthorized infiltration; and we know it is a godly, creative energy that emerges when we eat and drink with the invalids. But it is worth it, because it is always the misfits who lead the way to the future in the church.

We at Heatherhope affirm feminism. We understand that women have been told to be quiet and obedient, but if they hadn’t been noisy and disruptive the good news of Christ’s resurrection would never have gotten out to the world.

We want to reach out to the poor, and we want to be aware of the ways our own privileges distort the ways we see government and society.

We know the monarchical/episcopal church has not always wanted to see these invalid ones, but we know homosexuals and sexually mixed-up people have always been at the banquet, and have always helped keep the church from rotting away.

And since we know God’s great end-time banquet has places set for all the invalid ones–the ones without papers, we rejoice in the immigrants and refugees that have made our church and our world a rich place.

In order to stand with this dynamic church we take this good old earth seriously. We take history seriously. When people want to cop out and drop out and leave this world by pretending to be “super-human”–by trying to turn to the spiritual, apart from mundane messiness and politics and good gardening and ecology and apart from taking responsibility for the dirt beneath our feet–they are turning their backs on the church. We believe that the church affirms this world. This is the world that Jesus lived and died to redeem.

We believe charismatics and church authorities need each other. The gate crashers and the gate keepers need each other. The authorities have invested in stability, charismatics in the wind of God that blows where it wills. But the Spirit/wind/breath of God has been blowing over the primordial waters from the beginning of creation. She wants to stay here with us as we all struggle and converse and work together. She alone can help us gather and belong to each other as we work things out.

I have been working with a dear friend of Heatherhope Farm, and seminary student, Denise Rode, on a close reading of a potent pericope from Luke, chapter 14. Jesus is teaching us about how to behave as guests when taking our seats at a banquet. He teaches us too about how to be hosts. He tells us that in our race to have standing, we may miss our place in community. He tells us when we invite people we should not aim for a payback that cheapens others, but one that elevates others. We should invite those God is looking for, the in-validated ones–those that many others are looking to exclude, to disqualify, to deem unworthy. Jesus teaches us that no person is unworthy, because all are gifts from God. That’s the way it is in God’s future, perfected reign. That’s the way it is to be in God’s reign among us today that remains all too less-than-perfect. Renounce the scramble for the first seats. Take the last place of belonging. Accept God’s invitation. And accept God’s invitation to be inviting to those who have been invalidated from the invitation lists of others. This is what the Spirit is freeing us to do.

And this is why the church is so much more exciting and vast than egg hunts and Popes.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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