Question: Is there a distinctive process ecclesiology?
Publication Month: April 2013
No. There is no one process ecclesiology. The kind of “church” appropriate for Quakers is quite different from that appropriate for Lutherans or Catholics. These also differ. In other words, process thought does not say that one form of Christianity is the right one for all believers at all times. On the other hand, accepting a process perspective affects the way Quakers, Lutherans, and Catholics think of their church and shape it.
The basic process model is relevant to many people in many situations. We understand people as persons-in-community. That means that healthy communities support the development of healthy persons, and healthy persons create healthy communities. It is not as if we should choose the individual over against the group or the group over against the individual. The fullest development of individuals is in relation to other individuals in community, and the fullest development of community requires fully developed individuality. We think that this understanding is biblical and that it already influences much of ecclesiological thought. But we think that making it fully explicit and drawing out its implications is likely to suggest ways of improving many congregations.
For example, we think that some congregations give too little attention to the individuality of the persons who make them up. They expect more conformity than is necessary for unity and lose some of the potential for richness provided by diversity. On the other hand, in the modern world the church is sometimes considered simply as a voluntary institution. This highlights the individuality of the persons who make up the church but neglects the importance of community. To join a church should mean an involvement with other members and with the overall program of the church that is not conditional on one’s personal enjoyment or even agreement with everything that is done. This does not mean that one surrenders one’s freedom altogether. If it is a healthy church it will affirm and celebrate individual freedom and difference. If the church cannot accept the freedom of the individual members to believe and act in terms of their own convictions, then at times individuals must break with the congregation. But this should never be a casual matter.
We think this was Paul’s teaching. In the church we are members one of another collectively making up a body. The body is composed of many diverse parts. No one set of norms applies to all, but each contributes to the whole and depends on the contributions of others.
This model allows for churches in which one individual plays a quite authoritative role. But if that individual lords it over others or exploits them, then this model should be rejected. It allows for models in which the members have equal authority, but if this leads to chaos or the inability to act decisively in the world, it requires modification. No one formal structure is best for all, but experience has produced workable models.
Process thought encourages a second level. Communities should not be isolated. They need to be in community with other communities. These other communities include neighboring institutions and especially other churches in the neighborhood. But because of the importance of what is shared with other believers elsewhere, the model of communities of communities is important for relations with more distant churches as well. In our world, among Protestants, this typically takes the form of denominations. These are good, but if the sense of shared commitment with other congregations of the same denomination fades, these institutions are not essential. Some congregations may feel that the communities of congregations of which they are a part cross denominational lines. That congregations work with other congregations to meet needs they cannot meet on their own should be an essential part of ecclesiology. But the particular structures that were once very important in Protestant circles may fade and new patterns of cooperation may emerge. This is surely acceptable from a process perspective.
Often house churches become communities of persons in ways that traditional institutions do not. On the other hand, megachurches are sometimes organized in such a way that members experience authentic community. Experiments in both directions are appropriate in a changing culture.
Of course, for Roman Catholics the situation is different. There the institutional unity is of great importance. That, also, is admirable. And the Catholic achievement of institutional continuity through the centuries and over the globe is truly marvelous. Of course, the cost of doing this has been high, and departure from this institution can also be justified. Some Christian values have been achieved through the fragmentation of Christianity that could never have been achieved otherwise.
To summarize, process theology has definite ideas by which to evaluate churches. But on the issues that theoretically distinguish major ecclesiologies, it does not take a stand. In general it supports churches over against purely individualist spirituality, because it believes that people need the support of one another in this aspect of life as in others. But it is open to new experiments in community. Today there may be many people for whom traditional forms of community do not work well, or, at least, who cannot find the sort of community in which they could participate authentically. Process thought encourages experimentation and innovation.