the weblog of Alan Knox

People’s Church

Posted by on Aug 27, 2009 in books, definition | 4 comments

A good friend of mine recently sent me this quote from Jurgen Moltmann:

“The Christian idea of the people which, according to the Gospel of Mark, is defined by Jesus’ relationship to them (the ochlos) was not merely left unimplemented in the history of the hierarchical church; it was actually suppressed. We shall only rediscover it if we rise up with the cry of popular protest–this time on the part of the church’s people–claiming: ‘We are the church.’ This is what has happened since 1994 in Catholic congregations in Europe. Ever since the early Christian development of the manarchical episcopate, we have known the church as a hierarchy ‘from above’ which delegates the universal episcopate of the pope ‘downwards’, and demotes the people of Christ to the status of ‘the faithful’, or ‘the people in the pews’. The distinction between clergy and laity has split the people of God into two. The word ‘lay’ originally meant a member of the laos, the people of God; but beecause the clerics were set apart from the people, the word came to mean the ignorant and incompetent, those with no jurisdiction. A ‘complete layman’ means someone who doesn’t understand what something is about. In the hierarchical perspective, ‘the people’ are only there as the object of ‘holy rule’, of caritative care and guidance by their ‘shepherds’. For centuries, people in the church have reacted to this godless and un-Christian deprival of their responsibility with growing apathy and with silence. Since they are no longer ‘forced’ to go to church, they leave the church altogether. The result is people without a church and a church without people. This is a silent falling away from the church which the church itself has brought about. It is only if this ‘church for the people’ becomes a ‘church of the people and by the people’, and if the hierarchical church for looking after people becomes a congregational church, with many different kinds of participation, that the ancient schism between chruch and people will be overcome.

“What applies to the Roman catholic hierarchy in its estrangement from the people can alsobe said about the Protestant pastoral aristocracy, or its somewhat more modern variation in the form of a theological and pastoral expertocracy. Ideas about a blanket church-management which will cover the religious needs of the people are not enough to create what in Germany is called a Volkskirche, a church intended to meet the needs of the whole population. Even the strenuously promoted programmes ‘church for the people’, ‘church for others’, or ‘church for the world’ do not reach the people, because the word for cuts the church off from the people and makes the people an object–something to be cared for. A ‘people’s’ church which accords with Jesus and the people can grow up only through a congregational renewal that springs from the people and is implemented through the people. For this, the Catholic base communities in Latin America, and the free church, Pentecostal congregations are examples and models.” (Jurgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology, 265-66)

I like some of the distinctions that Moltmann is making in this passage. He is correct that when the church becomes the clergy’s church (either in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Protestantism), the people become separated from the church. The people lose sight of the fact that they are the church in identity, and the church functions only as the people function… not as the clergy functions. In reality, the church does not exist apart from the people, since the church is the people of God gathered out of the world and sent into the world.

So, the church is the people’s church in the sense that the church is composed of the people who are indwelled by the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, the church is not the people’s church in the sense that the church belongs to the people. In the same way that the clergy cannot usurp the church, neither can the people. The church belongs to Christ. We are his, and he is our head – our only head. Just as the clergy should not attempt to pass themselves off as the head of the church, the people must not attempt to pass themselves off as the head of the church in some sort of democratic fashion.

I don’t think this is what Moltmann is saying. However, in our individualized and democratized society, it is easy to read “people’s church” as being an organization belong to and directed by the people. In the same way that the church is not for the people (using Moltmann’s language), neither is the church by the people.

Instead, the church is Christ’s church… the people are Christ’s people. The Holy Spirit works through the people, that is, through the church.

So, while the people should not allow the clergy to usurp the headship of Christ nor to usurp the functioning of all followers of Jesus (the people), neither should the people themselves attempt to usurp the headship of Christ.


4 Comments

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  1. 8-27-2009

    Alan,

    Such music to my ears: “Instead, the church is Christ’s church… the people are Christ’s people. The Holy Spirit works through the people, that is, through the church.”

    Very few want to hear! Even the newer expressions of those claiming to be followers of Christ are maintaining their thinking along the lines of autocratic authoritarian rule and the democratic “vote on it, let the majority rule”.

    You are so right, “Just as the clergy should not attempt to pass themselves off as the head of the church, the people must not attempt to pass themselves off as the head of the church in some sort of democratic fashion.”

  2. 8-27-2009

    That is great stuff, both from Alan and from Moltmann. I would suggest that the reason the church as we see it is so ill and apathetic is that the church has stopped being about Christ and started being about itself. The idolizing of the local church organization, the exaltation of the clergy, the endless divisions, the mute “laity”. Why should we expect anything different?

    Would it be OK if I reproduced large parts of this post on my blog?

  3. 8-27-2009

    Aussie John,

    The difficulty (for me at least) is not in stating or believing that the church belongs to Christ and doesn’t belong to the clergy or the people. The difficulty is in living as if the church belongs to Christ.

    Arthur,

    You can reproduce anything that I write on my blog.

    -Alan

  4. 8-27-2009

    Alan,

    The honesty you exhibit in your reply to me is also music to my ears.

    The problem for ALL of us,who would be true disciples, is that we are not as willing, as you demonstrate, to say, “The difficulty is in living as if the church belongs to Christ.”

    Thank you for setting an example.

    What a difference we would see if all in leadership were to be as transparent about themselves and their own struggles, instead of living the charade of having it all under control.