The Church as Democratic Model

From the beginning of the Christian movement the role of the church in society has been not only to proclaim the message of the reign of God but to seek to be a sign of that reign within its own ecclesial life and structures. Hence, in the course of Christian history, canon law and the polity of the ekklesia have had a considerable influence on the shaping of Western constitutional law (Berman 1983). Furthermore, in many situations, such as the Third Reich, the structure of the church became a matter of considerable theological and political importance. As the Barmen Declaration of 1934 indicates, ideological critique of Nazism on its own was insufficient; there was also the need for an ecclesiology of human sociality and solidarity.

As mentioned previously, from a theological perspective the church is not simply another NGO, though it is part of civil society. NGOs are essentially voluntary organizations called into being to serve a particular role at a given time in society, and generally composed of like-minded people. Once their purpose has been served, and sometimes once their founder or leader is no longer involved, NGOs tend to dissolve or are disbanded. The church, on the other hand, is a community of very diverse people who have been baptized "into Christ," that is, they participate in an organic life that exists beyond themselves or their own choice, and for a purpose that derives from God's purpose for the world. The church, then, is not a democracy, that is, a community that is governed by the people and for the people, for Christ is the head of the body that exists to serve the purposes of God. This understanding of the church is, as already emphasized, a theological one, but it is essential for the church's own self-understanding, that is, in order for the church to understand its particular and peculiar role in society. The church exists both as a means to an end that has to do with God's justice and shalom, and as an end in itself, that is, as a community in which human divisions are transcended in the "unity of the Spirit."

The issues regarding the relationship between the church and democracy are complex, not least because of the various church polities that now characterize the different denominations and confessions. For some traditions hierarchy is of the essence of the church, whereas for others the goal is an egalitarian community; and there is a range of options between these ends of the spectrum. But all church traditions would insist that the final authority for the church is not the will of the majority but the will of God as revealed in Jesus Christ "according to the scriptures." This allows for the possibility of the prophet who is seldom in the majority but often the authentic voice of revelation. Indeed, for the church to be a prophetic witness in society it has to be careful not to become the mouthpiece of any majority will which might well contradict the Gospel. Take, for example, the way in which the Reich church in Nazi Germany became captive to the national will and the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

But if the church exists to serve God's purposes of justice and peace in the world, and if democracy is the best polity for approximating that goal, then there is a clear connection between the church's life and witness, and the struggle for a just democracy. If democracy should promote human fulfillment and flourishing within the body politic, how much more should the life of the church enable its members to discover an even deeper fulfillment and freedom in Christ? If the church is a key institution within civil society, and in some ways the handmaiden of democracy, is it not important that the church itself should emulate democratic values? After all, the participation of the "whole people of God" in the life of the church, not least though not always in the governing structures, is an important element in most forms of church government. This is symbolized by the sacrament of baptism, which declares that all those who are baptized, irrespective of gender, social class, or ethnicity, are united as equals within one body and share together in the mission of the church in the world.

The debate about the democratization of the church is really about the implications of baptism. From this perspective, the holders of hierarchical offices should be regarded as those who serve the people of God rather than dominate or rule over them. This was certainly the understanding of the Second Vatican Council, which Latin American liberation theologians began to express in their "base community" ecclesiologies. A similar development took place within feminist/womanist theologies, whose critique of the dominant paternalistic structures of the churches led to an alternative ecclesiology related to the wider democratic transformation of society. Some African indigenous churches have also found ways to combine hierarchy and participation that have potential for developing the relationship between traditional culture and democratic transition in Africa.

It is difficult to determine precisely to what extent such ecclesiologies have, in fact, contributed to the democratization of societies at large, but at least they have given embodiment to the democratic vision and raised issues that are of considerable importance for both church and society. Among these is the question of the relationship between equality and difference, an issue that has become critical both for democracy and for the public witness of the Christian faith today. The recognition of gender difference in the life of the church, and how this impacts on the ordination of women, is clearly of fundamental importance in raising questions about the relationship between patriarchy and hierarchy. Should women allow themselves to be co-opted into the hierarchical structures of the church rather than bring about the transformation of the church as a whole in ways which express human solidarity, enable equal participation, overcome patriarchal domination, and promote justice within society? From this perspective, ecclesial vision is directly related to the heart of the democratization process: that is, to the sharing of power within the life of the church and society.

A further issue of ecclesiological significance is the globalization of democracy. This has now become essential because a "global interconnectedness" has created "chains of interlocking political decisions and outcomes among states and their citizens, altering the nature and dynamics of national political systems themselves" (Held 1993: 39). Thus, while the focus of democratization in the past shifted from the city-state to the nation, so its future focus must be the ecumene as such. Ecumenism is not primarily about the church, but about a just world order; the search for the unity of the church, and its mission within the world, are bound up with a vision of the world characterized by justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.

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