The Pentecost Essay 2 – A necessary grace

“The Church is of God,
and will be preserved to the end of time,
for the conduct of worship and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments,
the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline,
the edification of believers,
and the conversion of the world.
All, of every age and station,
stands in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies.”
– The Baptismal Covenant (III), United Methodist Book of Worship, 106.

“The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
– An Outline of the Faith (Catechism), Book of Common Prayer (US and Philippine editions).

In my last essay, I noted that some Pentecostals have slowly retrieved something that has been latent in their heritage, the idea of an ecclesiology. The work of the Spirit, as previously noted, happens within the Church, and both an early concern with ecumenism and a later concern with, for instance, liturgy, shows that some circles in the movement are aware of this idea.

One of the questions that has always bothered me since I left the charismatic movement more than a decade ago has to do with whether the Spirit works within the sometimes complex structures of the different communions. Another way of putting it is whether a purely charismatic form of government is possible for our Christian communities.

These questions came to a head recently in the context of a story a friend of mine told me. It is tragic, if only for the fact that the outcome left him and his family unchurched.

As was told to me, this community had worshipped in his place for quite some time. It was a small house church, which like most evangelical fellowships, originally had all the structures like elders and committees. Eventually, the pastor removed all these structures “at the prompting of the Spirit.” (The pastor was deposed from his earlier posting by the trustees of his last church on the grounds of administrative incompetence, and the family had offered to help him during that difficult time.)

One night, the pastor and some of the leaders went over to his place and told the family, without warning, that the Spirit had led them to get out of here. There were all sorts of reasons given, but the sense was that the community would move out but not the family. In short, the family was unchurched. It was, apparently, a unilateral decision on the pastor’s part, only telling the leaders after the decision was reached.

Behind this account was one serious question raised by my friend’s father, as to whether the gift of administration could best be exercised or delegated to some other person. Both father and son believed that the Spirit works through forms and structures, but the pastor felt that he could do everything without anyone’s help. It did remind me, on second reading, of John Wesley and his early Methodist conferences, where discussion was held between the preachers in conference and then Wesley decided. Of course, there was not even a discussion in the case of my friend. The pastor was, in the eyes of his followers, the repository of the Spirit’s revelations and the sole interpreter of Scripture.

What struck me though was that the same could be said of other supposedly powerful people within the earthly Church. One example would be that of the Pope, whose authority is somewhat misunderstood. The doctrine of infallibility, which itself is quite controversial, has often been misinterpreted to say that the Pope cannot be wrong. However, a careful reading of how this is understood by the Roman Catholic Church shows that this is not the case, as infallibility can only be exercised under certain circumstances and with certain conditions.

My concern though was that, precisely as raised by the now-unchurched friend’s family, the cult of personality neglects the reality that the Spirit does work through structures and forms that may appear to us as slow and inefficient, or (as in many instances) unwilling to do what we want. And yet, can the structures we have be more flexible to allow the Spirit to work?

I think this is why Roman Catholics are very uncomfortable with synodical government as Anglicans, for example, practice it. There is the possibility that necessary decisions are not made, necessity being in the eye of the beholder of course, and sometimes the imperfections of democracy creep in, especially in the election of bishops. (Here, I speak of the American, Philippine, and to a lesser extent Canadian Anglican electoral processes.) Is it not better that one man decide, with the necessary mandate from the Church as a community guided by the Spirit, than having to wait for a synod to act on it?

Yet I can imagine the discomfort some Anglicans have about how Roman Catholics choose their bishops, a process that in many cases is not very transparent. Or how decisions have been made in Rome and elsewhere without some degree of public consultation. Is it not better, on the other hand, that the Church in synod assembled, guided by the Spirit, make up its mind rather than having one man decide and get it off-key?

Every system has its flaws. But that is where the Spirit comes in. In the creeds of the universal church, the Church is always mentioned right after the Spirit. We believe, as Christians, that the gift of the Spirit is what enables the Church to come into being, to keep it from going astray, and as the first epigraph says, to ensure that it is of God. We also believe that the Spirit works through the community, through the sometimes difficult processes of decision-making, and through the everyday work of ministry.

I would also argue that it is the Spirit that allows people to possess and use different gifts and it is our role as a Church to discern these gifts. For this reason, no Church needs a superman. This is why I often hope that more Pentecostal Christians become aware of the need to be Church, a church at once particular and universal, local and interconnected. This awareness should bring them to create the kind of ways of governing best suited to their situation, having in mind the example of the First Council of Jerusalem. And I hope that all Christians recognize not only the work of the Spirit in each other’s communions, but also that they are ready and willing to speak the truth in love when the Spirit’s work is hindered.

Veni, creator Spiritus,
Mentes tuorum visita,
Imple superna gratia
Quae tu creasti pectora.

Next up is my recap of a trip to Baguio.

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