The Church: Structure and Authority vs. Freedom and Personal Experience

People often speak of the tension between what some call the Priestly vs. Prophetic strains of religion.  This is where the priestly class controls the “temple worship”; Scripture, material, structures, creeds, laws, liturgy, and ritual.  This is opposed to the prophetic strain which, in the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, “was working for social justice, making a difference, solving problems, fixing the world, and bringing about the Kingdom of God.”  I understand this concept of Priestly vs. Prophetic on a broad intellectual level, but how does this apply to the Christian Church?  And more specifically, to the Christian Church at the beginning of the 21st century?

I think Fr. John Meyendorff, Orthodox theologian, captures the essence of the problem in the Christian Church both historically and currently.  In discussing the Orthodox theology of the Holy Spirit, he observes:

“Thus, the theology of the Holy Spirit implies a crucial polarity, which concerns the nature of the Christian faith itself.  Pentecost saw the birth of the Church – a community, which will acquire structures, and will pre-suppose continuity and authority – and was an outpouring of spiritual gifts, liberating man from servitude, giving him freedom and personal experience of God.  Byzantine Christianity will remain aware of an unavoidable tension between these two aspects of faith: faith as doctrinal continuity and authority, and faith as the personal experience of saints.  It will generally understand that an exaggersted emphasis on one aspect or the other destroys the very meaning of the Christian Gospel.”

“The life of the Church, because it is created by the Spirit, cannot be reduced to either the “institution” or the “event”, to either authority or freedom.  It is a “new” community created by the Spirit in Christ, where true freedom is recovered in the spiritual communion of the Body of Christ.”

So, I object to the use of the Priestly vs. Prophetic model for understanding the Christian Church on the grounds that it tends to obscure the real issue.  The real issue is “Structure and Authority vs. Freedom and Personal Experience”.

So, what is the state of the contemporary American Christian Church?  I think that it can pretty well be summed up with a 2009 Barna Group poll of self-proclaimed American Christians.  This poll disclosed that most American Christians do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a living force. Overall, 38% strongly agreed and 20% agreed somewhat that the Holy Spirit is “a symbol of God’s power or presence but is not a living entity.”  The mere fact that nearly 60% of avowed American Christians do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a living force speaks volumes about the state of the contemporary institutional Christian Church, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike.  Clearly, the “Structure and Authority” people “own” the contemporary American Christian Church, as they have convinced 60% of Christians that the Holy Spirit doesn’t exist as a living force. This precludes the possibility of exercising the personal freedom to experience a close personal relationship with the Holy Spirit!  You can’t experience a relationship with a dead person.  This is tantamount to the Church teaching its members that “God is dead”! Long live the Church…

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