In a previous post (Space…Not Just the Final Frontier), I discussed the significance of space and place. In this post, I want to highlight a separate, but related topic…structure. Core to the analysis of structure are the concepts of structural and administrative evil (see Plantinga’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be and Park’s The Wounded Heart of God for some good thinking related to the former and the work of Adams and Balfour on the latter). These ideas are not core because they demonize structure altogether, but because by evaluating structures critically we can begin to understand how they hinder us from conforming more closely to the image of Christ and how they help us to do so.
In The Living Church, Stott notes, “…our static, inflexible, self-centered structures are ‘heretical structures’ because they embody a heretical doctrine of the church.” Wow…just let that one sink in a bit. The way we organize ourselves tells a story of who God is. As a community (a whole community of diverse individuals joined together through faith in Christ), we convey God to the world.
We can be a compelling community from which the grace, love, and wisdom of God overflows. We can also be a community of another sort from which a muddled, less-than glorifying view of God is portrayed to the world. How do we structure ourselves to be the former sort of community as opposed tot he latter?
First, let’s clear the deck…Christians don’t offer a compelling picture of God by taking on an attitude of superiority. We don’t convey who God is when we view ourselves as being somehow better than others. Christians are not better than non-Christians. Christians have received an unearned gift of grace through faith. There is nothing about Christians that make them innately more receptive to the gospel. We are not better than anyone else. We have received an amazing gift…we didn’t do anything to earn it, it’s not a reward. Rather, we received a gift from a God against whom we rebelled and rejected.
Because we are not better, we interact with the world without an air of superiority. We interact with the world as a people joined to a benefactor with endless, inexhaustible resources who gives us a gift and tells us that he desires to give that same gift to others. We are not excited about our superior acumen…we are excited about the gift given to the undeserving…to us and to all others.
Second, we offer a compelling picture of ourselves by refusing to battle the wrong enemy. In Ephesians 6, Paul’s notes, “…we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12). It is not that we separate from the world completely and devote ourselves to prayer and fasting. Rather, it is that we become known as a community that goes into battle wearing the “full armor of God.” We need to refuse to trade the amor of God for all-to-human weapons that may help us win some battles, but will ultimately lose us the war.
Third, we are a compelling community because we adhere to and promote a hierarchy. Social dominance theory identifies two sorts of institutions: hierarchy-enforcing and hierarchy-attenuating. Christianity is hierarchy-enforcing…but not in a bad way. At the core of biblical teaching about the structure of reality is a simple truth: God reigns. It is that hierarchy…the one in which God is King and His wise order frames the realm…that we as Christians uphold. We do not seek a situation in which our church or theological sub-group dominates, but one in which God’s rule is proclaimed without compromise.
In this way, Christian communities attenuate (or reduce the force of) earthly hierarchy as they enforce the hierarchy over which God presides. Christians can love others and give themselves away for the sake of God and the gospel knowing that nothing is lost when it is given in service to God. There is no scarcity…no need to fear that if we aren’t in control, the world will fall into chaos.
Ultimately, we must take care to remember that our structures are provisional. If we hold too strongly to them, we can be sure that we have created something that will make us sluggish in our response to God. Structures have the potential to provide needed stability or to blind us to God-given gifts that don’t appear to fit within our system. Our structures must be evaluated based on their ability to help us conform more closely to the image of Christ. As soon as they become a hindrance to that pursuit…to glorifying God and enjoying him forever as a unified community of faith…its time for a change.