Friday, July 4, 2014

Structure and Organization: From Heaven or Hell? (Acts 1)

A century ago, the founders of the Assemblies of God feared becoming a denomination. Our first General Council voted as much. Oh the irony. The word "denomination" is still a dirty word, but we have bigger fears. We fear becoming institutionalized (pun fully intended), losing our authenticity, and missing the experience of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, pastors are under increasing pressure to become less of a shepherd and more of a CEO in order to create the mythic mega-church. And this despite our congregants revulsion to corporate culture.

I appreciate these fears. I share them. The casualties of treating the church as a business are the burned and disgruntled people they produce. I'm curious as to the proportions here. As a Spirit led movement we value the kind of freedom and spontaneity that makes space for experiencing God and responding with the core of our being. We fear that too much structure and organization will fossilize and extinguish the vibrancy that we feel. At least one scholar agrees. Eddie Hyatt makes that case that miracles waned as the church became increasingly structured. Hyatt's book is a great survey of the Church's changing attitudes toward the miraculous, and proof that spiritual manifestations have never really vanished. Unfortunately, I believe his central thesis is wrong.

We have mistakenly treated the Holy Spirit as an emotionally chaotic ecstasy tailored for the disenfranchised and disempowered of society, the way Robert Anderson does in Vision of the Disinherited. The Spirit's challenge to the our traditions may be an affront to the corporate powers that be, but that does not mean that structure is the enemy of the Spirit. The background to the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts is not only favorable to organization, Acts 1 suggests that Pentecost is dependent on it.

Most of us skip over much of Acts chapter 1. We see little relevance between its formality and the outpouring of the Spirit in chapter 2. This is because most of us are unfamiliar with the rabbinic backgrounds to the Holy Spirit, on which Acts 2 plays.

The giving of the Spirit is always associated with the giving of the law (Ten Commandments) at Mt Sinai on the festival of Pentecost (Shavuot). In Rabbinic literature, Israel had to assemble in unity as a nation before God would give them the Torah.[1] The numbers and elections and formalities of Acts 1 play upon this notion of "nationhood".

One hundred twenty people was the minimum cultural requirement for a group to be considered a city.[2] The majority of "cities" of the ancient world were quite small by modern terms, little more than a what we might consider a small rural town. There was also a cultural expectation that the minimum number of people to have a synagogue and leader was ten. One hundred twenty people, but only eleven apostles demonstrates the need for the election of another leader, which is what they do. The point is that the church has become a bonafide city/nation of people complete with leadership. They are ready for a new Torah to descend from heaven. This sets the stage for a Sinai like experience in Acts 2, full of fire, wind, and miraculous languages.

Because the Spirit is associated with the Torah, it is the perfect capstone to the "nationhood" of the church. They have enough people, they have enough leaders, and they have God's ordained rules to live by, now inside of them. The presence of people with leaders who follow a set of instructions is a pretty good case for there being structure among the Spirit led church of Acts.

One might argue that this type of Spirit led leadership is not so corporate or authoritarian, and instead organic and relational. Nothing suggests it can't be so. Otherwise we run the risk of re-arguing for the consolidation of catholic papal power as the Church Fathers of the Constantinian era did. I wonder if Protestants have argued that Roman Catholicism is corrupt for so long that we have mistakenly convinced our culture to be suspicious of all institutionalized religion. In demonizing our bothers and sisters we have shot our selves in the foot. Or as the Corinthian analogy goes, maybe the head.

Jesting aside, there is reason to think that the Spirit induces this structure. Outside of Acts, we find the Spirit gifting people with the talent and wisdom to speak and lead. This is true in 1 Corinthians 12:1-28 with apostles and pastors, and also of Moses, David, the artisan commissioned to build the tabernacle, and probably every other leader God has set up over the years. There is no way to get away from how God invests people with authority, as much as my post-modern, individualistic, Protestant, American self may dislike it. Maybe it makes me feel better to call them pastors rather than priests or bishops, or maybe I don't even honor them with the title pastor. Does my casualness change what they are or how they guide and influence me?

If the biblical model is that the Spirit is given to communities in order to shape them into a coherent and unified whole, why do we glorify chaos as if it is "spiritual", and why are we so fiercely individualistic in our experience? It was God's Spirit which set up the priesthood, the sacrificial system, and the temple system. These organizations where not impervious to corruption, but this has little to do with the system and everything to do with the greed of the people in it. This greed is there whether the system is there or not. In fact, it was seen as a punishment upon God's people to have this system suspended or taken from them.

Do God's people need more organization or less? Everything suggests this depends heavily on whether this organization is Spirit led. I think what the Bible advocates is a giftocracy, which theoretically can take many forms. My hope is that we don't demonize "big" churches merely because they are business-like and that we don't give small but emotional churches a free pass. Neither is automatically "spiritual". In fact, the evidence suggests that the Spirit is pleased to be with these churches only when they can both come together as one people of God.


[1] Derekh Eretz Rabbah, minor tractate of the Talmud, Zuta XI 5. This text compares the Hebrew verb tenses of Num 33:5 and Ex 19:2. In Numbers, the verbs paired with the people are plural. Yet in Exodus the verbs paired with the people are singular. This causes the rabbi to speculate that the tenses indicates the dissention of the people in the wilderness, but their unity prior to receiving the Torah. This understanding seems to underline Acts 2:2.

[2] Keener, Craig. IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. IVP Press, 1993. see comments on Acts 1.

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