Church and State: Beyond the Constantinian Assumption (ala J.H. Yoder)

This is a much longer post than I usually do — a paper written last semester.  I post it today in response to some thoughts and conversations about the political protests happening around the country.  The question it seeks to address, via exploring and explaining Yoder’s theology, is this: what is the relationship between the church and the state?  Obviously, this is a complex topic on which Christianity is not in agreement.  Yoder articulates well a Radical Reformation stance.  Here is my articulation of his understanding, blended with a little of my tradition’s brand of Radical Reformation faith.

Yoder was a nefarious human being in some very particular ways.  And I find much life in his theology.  I leave you to sort that out in your own faith and community, and there are many blog posts that do an excellent job of exploring what we do with a theologian who desecrates his own theology by his human, complex, evil actions.  (By the way, those are conversations I’m also happy to have… just not in this post.)

This essay is drawn from the following books, all of which are very good:

  • Yoder:
    • Discipleship as Political Responsibility
    • Politics of Jesus
    • The Original Revolution
    • The Christian Witness to the State
  • Mehl-Laituri:
    • Reborn on the Fourth of July
    • For God and Country, In That Order
  • Carter:
    • Politics of the Cross

One of the lynchpins of understanding Yoderian thought in regards to the relationship between church and state, as Carter rightly points out, is an understanding of what Yoder names as the Constantinian assumption. His “beef” with the other Christian options is similar to many neo-anabaptists’ problem with the conservative / democratic options (or liberal protestant / conservative fundamentalist options). It is this: both sides understand themselves to have influence over the state by participating in it and by intertwining the church’s self-understanding with the state. The debate throughout modern Christianity has, in general, not been whether or not to be intertwined with the state, but with which version of the state to be intertwined and in what ways.

To use modern examples, Glen Beck and his people want the state (and thereby society) to be Christian, and to that end they participate politically, aiming to make the state conform to church ends. They advocate legislation that seeks to enforce explicitly Christian morality (at least, as they understand “Christian”). On the other side, Jim Wallace and his people do not seem to explicitly say that society should be Christian, but they still seek to enforce their version of Christian morality in broad spheres, assuming that the change they seek will come first at the state level. Both groups lobby, publish, and convince in order to see society change toward their own version of Christianity. Both of these, whether in stated or implicit ways, affirm that the salvation of humans will come through the workings of the state.

Yoder’s problem with this is at least twofold. First, for Yoder, Christ is the Lord of history, a New Testament affirmation that is inherently political. If Christ is the Lord of history, the various lords of history can have no ultimate authority except that which Christ grants. From history, it is evident that lords come and go and represent very different kinds of societies; to tie the church to any particular lord is to be parochial and short-sighted (Yoder calls this the true sectarianism). Second, he sees the church’s mandate as being one of creating an alternative society, a foretaste of the kingdom; central to this belief is the understanding that faith and morality cannot be coerced. Central to God’s nature and the nature of the Kingdom is that all people must have completely free choice about rejecting it. For this reason, Christian morality cannot be legislated, especially on non-Christians who have not chosen covenant with God in Christ and other Christians.

Likewise, central to the nature of the work and enactment of the Kingdom is that humans are only able to attain any sort of Christ-like action by way of becoming conformed to Christ, which, for Yoder, happens only in community and only by way of an almost mystical transformation. Thus, to ask non-Christians to conform to Christian morality and life is like asking a human to grow wings and fly. In Christ and in community, for Yoder, a person is a new creation and the church is a new society. In Christ we are given a new ontological being that, though it is already-but-not-yet in the same way that the Kingdom is, is still very real and strikingly discontinuous with life without Christ. Yoder would caution, I think, against understanding this individually apart from the Kingdom-community.

Yoder outlines four options that Jesus had, in relation to the state, all of which he rejected. These four options then become the paradigmatic choices for the church, which is called to follow the path of Jesus (the fifth option Yoder outlines). First, Jesus was in conflict with Sadducees and Herodians who were the realists of their day; they believed that we must work with what we have and compromise in order to bring about incremental goodness. Jesus didn’t so much reject that as he was rejected by that camp. Second, Jesus could have advocated the withdrawal and spiritualization (or communal purity) of the Essenes, but he did not, chosing a very politically active and controversial course of action instead.

The Pharisees provided a third option, that of religious purity, a society within society that walled itself off through religious ritual. Jesus repeatedly rejected this option as well. The fourth option is the one that Yoder names as the biggest temptation for Jesus, occurring three times in the Gospel narratives: the Zealot option of righteous religious violence. The Zealot option, arguably the most tempting one today, and perhaps the one in regards to which Constantinianism is most culpable, is rejected not because it is too strong but because it is too weak. Violence can restrain and destroy the evil ones, but it cannot build a new world. Violence inevitably makes the victim-cum-aggressor look like the original tyrant. As Wink says, it is not enough to change the rulers – we must also change the rules.

Instead of all these, Jesus creates a community which itself becomes a sign of the Kingdom. This community rejects violence and is always the minority among minorities, seeking the power of yeast and mustard seeds instead of the power of might and the Cedars of Lebanon. This comes back to Yoder’s point that coercion can never be a part of the kingdom – all creatures must have the full possibility to reject the message. The power of the kingdom must be a whispering seduction, not a fearsome roar.

So where does this leave the state in relation to the church? If the church is to be a minority living in an alternative society within the state-sponsored and state-oriented society, how are Christians to understand their participation in the state? Yoder says that in a world of evil, Christ allows the state to keep order, but the state is still ultimately under Christ’s lordship and is only temporarily allowed. The state’s actions are to be judged by Romans 13 – they are acting under Christ’s lordship insofar as they are protecting the good and restraining the evil. As soon as they do anything else, they are setting themselves up as gods and rebelling against the lordship of Christ. That kind of state, historically as well as in the view of faith, always becomes its own downfall.

Meanwhile, the church’s mandate is to live in the kingdom in the midst of this world. This means that the church will go above and beyond the morality of the state. The church will not expect of the state its own morality but it will expect of it (and continually call it to) the protecting of the good and the restraining of the evil. Taken to its end, the implication of this for Yoder is that the church will never be allowed to participate in the functions of the state that perpetuate any kind of violence, even righteous violence. Again, this is not because of a separatism but because the church is the witness, sign, and foretaste of the kingdom, and so the church must be the church. Christians in political or military office will always be faced with the temptations of the Sadducees and the Zealots, and they will not have the freedom to choose the lordship of Christ over practical compromises or righteous violence. Thus, they will no longer be the church.

Given these two mandates, Yoder says that the police function of the state is allowable, and he says that Christians can participate in the parts of the state that do not perpetuate or require violence. This is a very interesting caveat that I think is not very well explored by Yoder. Partly, developments that he may not have noticed or that may not have been present in his time, bring these into question. First, his point about democracy being only relatively better than other forms of government is becoming more and more obvious, as it becomes increasingly understood that government is driven by money and that corporate interests are often honored above individual voters’ interests. This, along with the foul track record of international policing and the glaring and horrendous inequality with regards to policing at home, brings into question even the police function of the state.

Max Weber defines the state as the group that has the power to claim the monopoly on all forms of legitimate violence. William Cavanaugh follows him in this definition. Taken to its extreme (and in the situation of our own government, it is not hard to do), this means that all (or nearly all) functions of the state uphold that monopoly of violence. Thus, the state begins to define who is human and who is less than human, to define what kinds of coercion are okay and what are not, to define whites’ preemptive shooting of blacks as okay but blacks’ stealing of a candy bar as not okay. This can happen in all areas, from state foster care systems that kidnap Native American children to state funding of schools that gives more money to white schools and severely underfunds Latino ones. In this understanding of the state, Yoder’s suggestion is that if a Christian is involved in the state he or she must always maintain the freedom to disobey the state (or leave its purview) in order to follow the lordship of Christ where the two contradict. This way of judging seems more consistent than Yoder’s implication that police functions and non-violent functions of the state are acceptable for Christians. (Yoder himself admits that even the so-called non-violent functions of the state have possibility to be upholding of violence.)

Yoder also undergirds all of his understanding of the role of the church and the state with a very clear and particular eschatology that has a kind of spiritual warfare undergirding it. He talks about the overlapping of the two aeons, with Christ inaugurating but not yet completing the new aeon. He draws an analogy to the time between D-Day and V-Day. Now, in Christ, the end is inevitable. But the battle is not yet won. This is very difficult imagery, however, because the lordship of Christ, for Yoder, clearly comes about through seduction, attraction and love, not power over, violence, or coercion. This also depends on a very particular understanding of evil – a kind of macro-level spirituality that sees powers and principalities (in NT language) as having corporate spiritual lives that can either be good or evil. If this spiritual warfare understanding of evil is misused or misunderstood (as it easily is in Constantinian paradigms), there is a great danger of mapping evil directly onto human faces and understanding Christians as the warriors of God with the mandate to eradicate evil by killing humans. This is a gross perversion of this eschatology, but it is common nonetheless.

Yoder has an extremely high view of God’s ability to transform humans (which is different, notably, than an extremely high view of human nature, which I would argue Yoder does not have). As mentioned above, he has an almost mystical understanding of what happens to a human community that is in covenant with God through Christ – a transformation that results in Christ-likeness and grace-given ability to commune with Christ. This is not a works righteousness theology, but rather is closer to an Orthodox view of theosis. Anabaptists are often (rightly, sometimes) accused of a moral perfectionism that seeks to earn salvation through works, but this is a misunderstanding (from without or within) of this theology. As believers, Christians enter into covenant, a covenant that must be chosen (again, the theme of coercion!), and once chosen, a dynamic process begins wherein the church becomes part of Christ, a sacrament of the kingdom. Yoder does not use these words – perhaps the Anabaptist spirituality sounds too much like practicality to Constantinian ears for many readers to detect any of this kind of devotion – but this is a necessary underpinning for Yoder’s theology.

Obedience is important for Yoder, and is often misunderstood in our culture of individual freedom and autonomy. Obedience is often seen as power over, often oppressive. However, the quality of the obedience depends on the character and intent of the one who is being obeyed. In a movie I watched last week, a drill-sergeant father, injured on a hostile world, sends his young son out with tracking and communication devices to find an object necessary for their survival. The father says to the boy, “I will be able to see everything you can see and more. Do exactly as I tell you, and I will keep you safe.” Not to obey in this case is not freedom – it is foolishness. The father’s motivation is love and he has more information and better decision-making experience than his son does. This is the kind of obedience that Yoder calls for in following Christ (really, it’s the New Testament that calls for this kind of obedience). The father in this scenario may give orders that do not make sense to the child, but the boy must follow them anyway. Thus, effectiveness and practicality can never be our primary aim. Obedience must be primary, trusting in the will of One who loves us and to whom we are committed. And even in this obedience, there is no coercion because it is chosen in every moment. God always leaves the possibility open for his creation to reject him.

Another unstated necessity in Yoder’s theology is what I have started calling a hermeneutic of humility. He is strident in his beliefs to the point of seeming arrogant at times, but his theology falls apart without a deep sense of epistemic humility. There are subjects that Yoder does not speak of, like, for instance, whether or not God works outside the church or in and through other faiths. I think this is the reason: I think he cannot speak of these because he must hold onto the belief that God is inexorably and mysteriously working to bring creation to herself. In this theology, there are things that are better left unsaid, better left to God’s inscrutable judgment. This is not relativism, but rather a continual unveiling of Truth. We follow a divine person and engage in a covenant relationship.   We do not follow laws and prescriptions and engage with a dead text. Thus, in every moment, the relationship has the ability to deepen and change, to be particular and universal at the same time.

This is why, for all Carter’s brilliance in creating a systematic theology of Yoder’s theology, the book is, in some ways, subtle blasphemy. Yoder’s theology, indeed all theology whether we admit it or not, is for and from a particular context in space and time. It is an outworking of a whole network of relationship. Relationships are not systematic and entail many logical contradictions. To systematize a theology like Yoder’s is like this: Seeing a beautiful butterfly on a hillside, you try to figure out why it is so beautiful. You watch it, but you can’t figure it out. So you catch it and take it home with you. You still can’t discover the formula for its beauty, so you pin it to a board and examine it closely. This still does not capture it, so you dissect it. At this point, far from figuring out the reason for its beauty, you have destroyed its beauty altogether. Although I would not go so far as to say that Carter has destroyed the beauty of Yoder’s theology – in fact, I think he did an admirable job of describing the butterfly’s beauty under a microscope – theology done in the way Yoder does it has a spirit about it that is not decipherable.

Yoder’s way of doing theology is in keeping with his message – the beauty in the theology Yoder posits is not a logical consistency that you must believe or be wrong (which might almost be a kind of coercion). Rather, it is a beauty that resonates and summons and evokes. This is the kind of beauty in Jesus’ parables, a kind of beauty that is dangerous because it is so immeasurable and so unrepeatable. There is true, not just imagined, danger in this kind of theology because without the Spirit’s breath (and who can control the Spirit’s breath?) it can be worse than dead – it can be deadly. But where the Spirit is present in it, this kind of occasional, devotional, provisional theology offers a drink of life-giving water.

Peacemaking: being like a child

In the class I’m TAing, we have talked much about Jesus’ injunction to the disciples to be like a child (Matthew 18).  Many of the students have brought up the difficulties of this image.  Usually it’s talked about in regard to our current understanding of children and vaguely psychologized — children are (and so we are to be) constantly learning, dependent for provision, trusting, vulnerable, enthusiastic, innocent, naive, etc.  This is a possible (if very challenging) interpretation, one that, when fleshed out carefully, can be fruitful.

But here are some of the questions that have come up for the class:  This assumes a lot about children that, especially in situations of violence in their society or home, is not always true or even ideal.  A child in an abusive home may be vulnerable and may have no choice but to “trust,” but would we want that vulnerability or coerced “trust” for them?  Is that what Jesus is asking us to imitate?  In Jesus’ time, children were akin to slaves.  Are we to literally become people who have no power and live on the handouts of others?  Paul tells us to put off childish things in regard to faith.  Can we be like a child and at the same time not childish?

I think these are not unanswerable questions, and they may not, in the end, negate the call to vulnerability and trust that many people read in this passage.  However, I don’t want to stop there in considering this passage and its meaning… Here’s another possibility:

Margaret Urban Walker, feminist philosopher and ethicist, explains that human interactions work on a pyramid of privilege along lines of race, class, gender, ability, age, sexuality, and many other factors.  The more of these factors you have in your favor, the higher you are on the pyramid.  She goes on to say that we tend to know a lot about the people who are above us on the pyramid and almost nothing about the people below us.  This very fact tends to perpetuate the pyramid — we can step all over those below us because we don’t know them or see them as quite human (in fact, we barely know they’re there), and we do step all over them because we are working to somehow get higher on that scale.  If you need an example of that, think of how much you know about movie stars and CEOs of major companies… and how much you know about the janitor who works in your building or the migrant worker who detassels corn nearby or the worker who made your clothes.  For Margaret Urban Walker, this not knowing of people below us on this pyramid is directly related to the dehumanization that makes space for violence.

In the mean time, Renee Girard (along with many others) says that we humans are mimetic beings.  One of the most basic facts of our identity is that it is formed by imitating others.  We imitate all the time… in everything (or nearly everything).  In Girard’s view, this system results in “successful” imitation and jealousy becoming a threat to identity and then an incitement to violence and scapegoating.

(Side note — the system of mimetic violence that Girard puts forth is one of the foundations of the theology of the cross called Nonviolent Atonement… if you haven’t heard of it, look it up.  It’s pretty awesome.  Now back to the main point…)

So the disciples are looking to each other and the people around them and saying “hey, Jesus — who’s going to be greatest in heaven?”  And Jesus shows them a little child and says — be like this one.  Do you hear it?  Jesus is saying “imitate this one” — this one who is below you on the pyramid.  When you want to know who to imitate, stop looking up.  Look down.  Get to know the janitor and the migrant worker, or whoever is below you on the prescribed social hierarchy, so they can teach you to be more human.  If you have to imitate (and Girard would say, if he were Jesus, you have to imitate because you’re human…) — if you have to imitate, look for someone who doesn’t seem to matter or who you hadn’t even noticed before, and let them teach you.

Of course, Christian faith also tells us to imitate Jesus.  But Jesus himself tells us that he is to be found in the midst of those who are below us on the social ladder.

Also notice that it is imitation Jesus is calling for, which requires learning and knowing.  This is not the charity that pulls another up the social ladder, though maybe there is also a place for that.  This is the knowing and seeing that requires stepping down a rung or two and looking at the world from that view.  Because we might find (we probably will find, in fact) that the ladder itself is overrated — or downright destructive and dangerous.  Because we might be called to a different way of being together, stepping off the ladder entirely, where with feet on the ground we find ways of caring for one another that are so much richer than pulling and pushing and squashing others on our way up to a Babel-like “kingdom” that can never come.

Jesus is preaching a solidarity that reshapes our very identity and shakes up our current way of being.  If it doesn’t do that, you can bet that you are still just offering a hand up rather than engaging in true solidarity.

I wonder if we did that kind of looking and knowing and imitating and identity-shifting, if Margaret Urban Walker’s pyramid might come crashing down.

Your turn… what are you connecting this passage with these days?  How are you interpreting it in this world of ours?

Sabbath Hymn #4

To the tune of “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”

  1. O God, we come to you this day / With tension, fear, and worry. / Our minds can scarcely slow their pace, / Our bodies cease their hurry. / Repent, Beloved, turn to me. / On six blessed days you labor, / But this, the seventh, bids you cease; / Find purpose in my favor.
  1. O God, our bones ache for repose; / Our spirits long for silence; / Emotions, intellects are worn; / Relations marred by violence. / Have faith, Beloved, come to me, / And find my yoke is easy. / The rest that fills and makes you whole, / I offer to you freely.
  1. O God, we long to be content, / To choose your ways with fervor, / To cherish and engage the world, / To live in You forever. / Embrace, Beloved, all my ways; / Delight to find your freedom. / Intend my love in all you do. / So shall you know true wisdom.
  1. O God, we seek you and rejoice, / Through music, food, affection; / The beauty all around us shows, / In splendor, your reflection. / Here feast, Beloved, and draw near; / In prayer and praise be constant. / My kingdom is among you now, / In this eternal instant.

(As always, feel free to use and share… just give me credit and talk to me if you want to adapt it.)

Sabbath Hymn #3

To tune of “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness”

  1. This is the beginning of all the creation. / This is the day life burst forth. / God sang into being all that is around us / In east and west, south and north.

Refrain:  Sing praise to our God with wonder and rejoicing. / Sing of God’s great glory and deep care. / Creation, redemption, wisdom, liberation, / Here now are the gifts we share.

  1. This is the great journey into our new freedom; / Our God today brought us out / From Pharaoh’s oppression, into our new homeland; / God frees us despite our doubt.
  1. This is the day angels rolled back the grey tombstone. / O, death, where now is your sting? / For Christ is arisen and comes to feast with us. / All robed in new life, we sing.
  1. This is the new advent of the Holy Spirit, / Red tongues of flame now descend. / Ever she is with us, comforting and guiding, / Our advocate and our friend.
  1. This is the grand banquet of Jesus’ new kingdom; / Here is the abundant feast. / All nations together join in joy and justice. / Binding all are cords of peace.

(As always, feel free to use and share… just give me credit and talk to me if you want to adapt it.)

Sabbath Hymn #2

To tune “Ellacombe” (“We Sing the Mighty Power of God”)

  1. On this blest day, the Queen of Days, / A palace built in time, / We come, O Holy One, to praise / And cherish things sublime. / All that we have is Yours alone. / Without You, who could stand? / So we delight in all that is, / All offered by Your hand.
  1. Yet as at Babel, we forget / That we are not as gods. / The storm is not calmed by our will, / Nor earth moved by our prods. / We scurry through our anxious days / Afraid to slow our pace. / Our schedules packed, to-do lists long, / Leave little room for grace
  1. So come to us, remind us here / Of love that makes us whole. / Come, gently pry from our firm grasp / The impulse to control. / Replace it with the gratitude / And certainty of life / That finds in you a resting place, / A respite from all strife.
  1. Your precious gift of Sabbath time / We long to fully know, / That we may find you everywhere / And all our lives may show / The strength of our conviction / That You, our God, are true – / The freedom of the living / That gladly trusts in You.

(As always, feel free to use and share… just give me credit and talk to me if you want to adapt it.)

Sabbath Hymn #1

This and the next 3 posts are hymns I wrote a couple years ago for a final project in a class on Jewish and Christian understandings of Sabbath.

To the tune of “O, The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”

1.  Sabbath sweetness fills our beings / Wrapping us in cloaks of love. / Full of grace, we practice freeing / All our time to reach above. / No more must our worth be measured / By our products, wealth, or skill; / But we each are known and treasured, / Called “beloved,” urged, “be still.”

2.  Though the work is never finished, / Though the road is long and rough, / With God’s vision in this Sabbath, / We have faith it is enough. / As God rested from all labor, / So we cease our livelihood. / As God basked in new creation, / So we say, “Yes! It is good!”

3.  Sabbath feasting calls us deeper / Into all eternity. / Set the table for the nations; / Bind our hearts in unity. / Here we glimpse the feast that frees us. / Here we taste of justice bread. / Here we journey on together / Toward that day when all are fed.

4.  God, be with us in this Sabbath; / Be our strength, our joy, our peace. / As we rest, come rest within us; / Let our frantic worry cease. / As we feast may our rejoicing / Mirror your delighting way, / Till we find that all our living / Is made richer by this day.

(As always, feel free to use and share… just give me credit and talk to me if you want to adapt it.)


Last weekend a stunningly varied group of people gathered to say goodbye to and honor a very dynamic and life-filled woman. I knew her as an amazing high school English teacher who tutored me (her student teacher) in her craft, and I knew her as a pilgrim with whom I had the privilege of walking on the Camino. What I kept hearing Sunday at the memorial service were all the ways in which Susan was oriented toward beauty — in writing, in loving, in teaching, in fashion, in travel, in life experience. And because she was so oriented toward beauty, she also fostered and created beauty around her.

As I remember her with gratitude, I offer a couple of poems I wrote almost 10 years ago. I pray there is yet a word of life in them. (I include them as links because the format is as important as the words. Please excuse the inconvenience.)


How can there be beauty in such destruction?

Marco-Polo and Crisis Care

Most of you probably know the game Marco-Polo… one person is blindfolded in the middle of a room or a pool, the others are moving around them not blindfolded. When the blindfolded person says “Marco,” the others must respond “Polo,” with the eventual aim that the Marco person finds the Polo people by following their voice.

You will not know my cat Talia, most of you, but you may have met cats who do this – if the house is too quiet or if she isn’t sure where her sister is, she’ll wander around the house meowing, “Hello? Anyone home?” until someone responds. Then she’ll run to them and quickly go back to exploring.

Recently I’ve been finding these images to be helpful ones to share with people trying to figure out how to respond to friends and loved ones in crisis. In the midst of my own health and spiritual crisis, it has happened repeatedly that I will disclose some of my struggles in writing to someone who I know cares deeply, and I will not hear back from them. What I later find is that the person was waiting until they had the right words to say in return, and those words never came. I know that feeling. I have waited for the right words myself.

Here’s the thing about crisis – there rarely are words to say that feel adequate. Crisis is much better met by presence, touch, and service. But if words are what you have, don’t wait for the perfect words. By far the more important thing is the fact that you are listening.

So here’s my suggestion… instead of thinking of crisis communication as a treatise that needs a fitting and eloquent response, think of it as a “Marco.” Trauma or crisis blinds and isolates, and most often (at least at first), what a person needs is as simple as a, “Polo.”

“Anyone out there?”
“I’m here. I see you.”

And sometimes trauma or crisis takes away voice and words, too. In that case, there may be no “Marco,” but it may still be your job to intuit the “Marco” and respond, “Polo.”

My sense is that people fear saying something wrong. That’s a good fear to have – there are lots of unhelpful things to say. People also have a sense of respect for privacy, and the urge to look away from another’s vulnerability, pain and shame is strong. This is a good hesitation, too, in some cases – there can be many ways to be too intrusive.

But in my experience in both offering and receiving support, “Marco? – Polo” is always okay. Or just “Polo.”

“I’m here. I don’t know what to say or do, but I’m here.”

And as in the game, sometimes the “Marco? – Polo,” might end up needing to be repeated over and over. Or you might find that when you say “Polo,” the other person rushes into your arms for a good cry. Or perhaps the other person will ask something else of you. Or you might find that they walk away from you. Be aware that you may need to accept or respond to any of those… and trust that you will be given the resources to respond when a request comes.

But mostly, in the midst of the blinding, isolating, terrifying aftermath of trauma or crisis, when the person feels like there just might not be anyone out there at all who sees, what your friend needs from you is a “Polo” – “I’m here.”

NuDunkers Hangout on Worship and Authority

Here’s the youtube video of today’s conversation on worship and authority. In the next few days we will be posting follow-up reflections (and somewhere in there someone will recap for you the 10 minutes of discussion that happened after the technical glitch kicked us off the youtube feed). It was a very enriching conversation to be part of, and we hope you find it similarly challenging and inspiring. Please comment here or on the google plus page with anything you’d like to critique or add or wonder about…

NuDunkers: Worship and Authority

A smattering of thoughts, in absence of anything that seems to hold together much…

Last night I heard an Orthodox monk speak of the seed of the Spirit that lays dormant in each of us until we choose to nurture it and cultivate it. He spoke of authority in the Orthodox tradition as coming from a life of practice that is recognized by others. Authority, he said, has little to do with titles or learning or articulateness, and everything to do with the shining of God in and through a person’s actions over a lifetime. “Deep calls to deep,” he echoed the psalmist, saying that we know when we are in the presence of deep wisdom; something within us resonates with that wisdom. I most often see it in people’s eyes — I can tell who has seen much suffering and experienced its transformation into abundant life, most often, by looking at the ineffable but subtle glow in their eyes. Similarly, good Anabaptist / pietist folks like to talk about “knowing a tree by its fruits.”

Worship is close to my heart and at the center of my calling. I find it hard to express the joy of seeing a worship planned with tender care, spun out into the world with anticipation, caught up in something holy and often unexpected, breathed into life in a community, and echoing through eternity. The way in which God meets her people in worship is precious. Worship realigns our priorities and teaches us how to value the good. Worship helps us become enthralled with life and breaks our fascination with death. Worship knits us together and sets us ablaze with love. But like any beautiful and holy thing, the very experience of worship itself is far greater than any list of its “side-effects.”

We humans are worshipping creatures and authority-following creatures. The question is never “will we worship?” or “will we follow?” but rather “whom or what will we worship?” and “whom or what will we follow?” The answers to those questions begin, bit by bit, to claim and reorient our lives. It strikes me that in worship (as in life), all authority in the church comes directly from the One we worship but is manifest through the many joined in one body. Here, we seek both to express the best gifts of our community and also to offer the many voices just as they are. And in that expression and offering we are met and formed. So, though we must never worry that God’s realm will rise or fall based solely on our worship, we also must honor the power that flows through our worship: power to nurture, challenge, equip, and equally power to wound, destroy, or lull into apathy.

The questions this leaves me with are these:
How do we call out and form leaders in this area?
How do we hold them accountable to us and ourselves accountable to them in creating robust opportunities for encounter with God — opportunities that open us up and avoid the myriad pitfalls that can close us off from God?
How do we turn worship from a consumer activity led by a professional purveyor of all things holy (or alternatively from a social club with very little vision and direction), into something more communal and sacramental, something that points more to God than to our own safety zones and preferences?

NuDunkers will be talking about this topic in a Google hangout this Thursday at 10am EST. You can find more information here. Also check out the other blogs on this topic:

Travis Poling, The Body of Christ as Liturgical Authority
Dana Cassell, Worship and Authority
Josh Brockway, Whose Authority, Which Worship
Matt McKimmy, Respect my (lack of) authority

PS — I wrote another post on this topic a while back: “Let us pray” and authority