I’m reading through Charles Taylor’s book Modern Social Imaginaries which is one of those thick reads akin to running a race waist deep in mud. Nevertheless, if I understand Taylor correctly, he describes how modernity brought about the notion of a modern-state as the means of establishing civility among European society where much savagery existed at the time. Of course, the idea that that morality and civility can be brought about by legislative governing is a modernistic idea and an anthropocentric one too. That is, the capacity to generate a well ordered life for people is an activity of human power.
Now I might be making too much of a leap here but given this modern notion that centralized authority could establish and regulate civility, this also gives some understanding of how the modern church denomination became so popular. A denomination provided structure that could regulate beliefs and practices of the Christians who belonged to the various churches within the denomination. Even among the Churches of Christ, though not structured with the typical polity of most denominations, the editors of various journals along with the popular “gospel meeting” preachers served to regulate the local church.
The Limitation of Regulation
Like the modern-state regulated civility with establishment of new laws, the drafting of statements of faith and church by-laws by denominational boards helped regulate the beliefs and practices of local churches. Sometimes this regulation, as in the case of the Churches of Christ, was predicated on a legalistic reading of scripture that turned the Bible (and particularly the New Testament) into a constitution that served as the foundation for the regulation. In the end, the objective of such regulation was faithful Christians and faithful churches.
However, even though the modern denomination remained a strong presence throughout the twentieth century, it was during that time that we began to see the impossibility of regulating civility by legislation. Despite such coercive power, the twentieth century proved to be one of the most deadliest in history (if not the most) with numerous wars and conflicts that have now spilled into the twenty-first century.
Few believe that governments can maintain lasting peace, though without a doubt they will continue trying. I also suggest that like the inability of governments bring about civility, church denominations cannot make faithful Christians by regulating the beliefs and practices of a church (and that includes appealing to scripture as a legalistic text). Despite written and unwritten creeds, church’s still struggle to live on mission with God and Christians still struggle in remaining faithful to Jesus.
Nothing can replace passion! When someone is passionate about something, they will pursue that passion vigorously and good will come of that provided that the said pursuit is based upon a health passion. So it also seems that local churches flourish when there are a core group of people with a passion that is rooted in Jesus and his gospel and that individual Christians are most likely to remain faithful when they have this passion.
And where does this passion come from? A living encounter with God and what he is doing in Jesus by the power of his Spirit! It is a spacial-jouney whereby a new core identity takes shape, one that is in alignment with the kingdom of God. This is why Jesus announces the gospel (cf. Mk 1:15) and then invites us to come follow him (cf. Mk 1:17), which is an invitation to come learn how to live the kingdom life as an embodiment of the gospel he has announced. The fulfilling of this passion is then brought into fruition by the Spirit rather than enforcing regulation, which is exactly what we read of in the book of Acts.
If the fulfillment of this passion could be achieved through regulation of law, we would have a different story to tell about the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ own day. But that won’t work and I think we are coming to realize this with what we see happening in many churches across various denominations and fellowship. If ministers of the gospel and other church leaders want to form people with a passion rooted in Jesus and his gospel, a passion that results in people serving as God gifts them and calls them to do so, then we must, as Alan Roxburgh suggests in his book Missional Map-Making, cultivate that passion as an artisan working soil (p. 138).
This cultivation involves, I believe, preaching, teaching, and leading people to see what God is doing in life. Doing this requires presence among the people while simultaneously having the ability to ask good questions as a listener of both the people (the church you serve) and culture. Scripture is still very much involved but the aim is more than just pointing people to scripture. Ministry points people beyond scripture toward that living encounter with God.