Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Regionalization and Connectionalism: The Early Church

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. It is the first in a five-part series based on a presentation by Dr. Scott to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The Book of Discipline introduces the Standing Committee thus: “Section XVI. Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, ¶2201. General Provisions¬¬--1. The General Conference recognizes the differences in conditions that exist in various areas of the world and the changes taking place in those areas…” This introduction raises two questions: How should we understand “the differences in conditions that exist in various areas of the world”? And, how should we understand “the changes taking place in those areas”?

This series of posts will be talking about regionalization, or how the church responds to “the differences in conditions that exist in various areas of the world,” especially as this practice is shaped by “the changes taking place in those areas” – that is, current events within and beyond the church.

Questions about regionalization in today’s United Methodist Church connect to two related problems in church history that go back to the early years of Christianity: How should Christians uphold the local relevance of the church and the unity of the church (or, we might say, connections among local churches) amid cultural and regional diversity? And, how should Christians preserve connection among churches in a way that avoids control of the weaker by the more powerful?

Related to the question about local relevance and trans-local connection, Andrew Walls wrote about the “indigenizing principle,” that impulse in Christianity which pushes Christians to relate to their surroundings, and the “pilgrim principle,” that impulse in Christianity that reminds Christians that they are part of something broader than their local surroundings. For Walls, these two principles stood in dialectic tension with one other and have since the early days of the church.

Indeed, while we often think of the early church in idealized terms, it was a church with a great deal of cultural diversity, which mapped onto geography and theology. There were Jews from Judea and from the Jewish diaspora in Jerusalem at Pentecost, Jewish and Gentile believers in the time of Paul, Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking theologians among the so-called “Church Fathers,” and five major episcopal sees by the fifth century, each leading a branch of the church. Each of these geographic differences reflected varying cultural, linguistic, and theological traditions.

Amid this cultural, linguistic, and theological diversity, how did the church maintain its local relevance and its broader connection? First, it must be said that diversity helped ensure local relevance. Diversity meant that believers in different locations could not only worship God in their own languages but also bring their own cultural traditions to their practice of Christianity and use the resources of theology to speak to the issues around them.

At the same time, there were various means of unity that connected these local or regional expressions of unity with one another. I will mention five, and I will return to these five means of connection throughout my posts.

The first means of connection is itinerants, those who travel. Obviously, Paul and other early missionaries did much to knit the very early church together. Later, itinerant teachers and eventually monks would take up similar tasks of traveling from one region to others to build up the church. Migrants, either temporary or permanent, also created linkages among regions.

We know Paul not only from his travels but his letters, which point to another form of linkage: writings, whether these be letters or the exchange of theological essays. Writing allows people to be in conversation with one another, even when not face-to-face.

Money also connected Christians across cultural and geographic differences. Paul’s collection from among the Gentile churches for the poor of the Jewish church in Jerusalem is the most notable instance, but it gets at something important: money can be a form of connection and potentially a way of uniting different Christian groups.

As the church continued to develop, bishops became important symbols of the unity of the church, its connection across geography. Through their collegial recognition of one another, bishops recognized that their churches were not merely local institutions but part of a broader community of faith.
Eventually, the church began to call together bishops and theologians for church councils, first on local or regional bases, and eventually on a much broader basis starting with the council of Nicaea in the fourth century.

Interestingly, these means of connection could also be means of ensuring local relevance. Itinerants could help each church they visited speak directly to its setting, as Paul did at the Areopagus. Paul’s writings were writings to specific communities, intended to help those communities address specific issues in their lives of faith. Money was shared not only across churches, but at least occasionally among the rich and poor within local church communities. Bishops not only upheld the unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church throughout the world, but also worked to ensure the unity of the church within the local areas under their supervision by mediating a host of day-to-day conflicts. And while we think of the grand ecumenical councils, councils happened in local areas as well. Thus, means of upholding the connection of the church may also be means of upholding the local relevance of the church.

While these five means of connection and local relevance have recurred throughout church history, there is no one permanent or normative solution to the question of how to ensure both local relevance and trans-local connection. This is a question that each generation must answer for itself, a driving tension throughout church history.

The second question I raised—How should Christians preserve connection in a way that avoids control of the weaker by the stronger?—is deeply related to the first question about relevance and connection. Too often, connection has been achieved by the exercise of power. The more powerful dominate those with less power, forcing them into unity on their terms.

In this way, questions about relevance and connection are deeply tied to the secular settings of the church. We may think, of course, relevance is about relating the church to its secular setting. But we must be aware of how secular power also impacts the practices of unity in the church.

We see examples here in the early church as well. Cultural chauvinism drove the Judaizers to try to insist that Christian unity be achieved through the imposition of Jewish practices onto Gentile believers. Economic power in the church in Corinth turned the practice of Holy Communion, perhaps the deepest expression of the unity of the church, into an exercise of class distinction. And political empire under Constantine ensured that the edicts of the Council of Nicaea were promulgated not just as teachings but with the force of the state.

Thus, as we consider how relevance and unity are to be achieved together, we must pay attention to how cultural, economic, and political power—in the church and in the world—influence the development of the church itself.

One last framing comment is in order. Note that connection or unity can be understood in various ways. For most of the early church, the concern was with spiritual unity, that is, mutual recognition of one another as siblings in Christ and fellow members of Christ’s body, the church.

With the gradual development of the hierarchy of the church, alongside this concern for the spiritual unity of the church arose a concern for the structural unity of the church – that is, not only recognizing one another as fellow members of the body of Christ in a spiritual sense, but recognizing one another as belonging to the same church organization or structure.

In modern times, the rise of the concept of denomination as a means for understanding the nature of Protestant churches tends to put the emphasis of the question of unity on structural or organizational considerations, since denominations are themselves organizations. This has implications not only for the connection of the church, but for the relevance of the church as well, since structure brings with it questions of authority and decision-making, which have an impact on relevance.

But this structural side of questions of connection and relevance is only one side. When I discussed the means of connection and relevance, at least two of them—itinerants and writings—are largely relational and not structural. Money may be an expression of either structure or relationship. We must keep this relational dimension to the questions of relevance and connection in mind.

In the remaining posts in this series, I will look at how these dynamics played out in the history of Methodism and continue to play out in the church today.

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