By Swedenborg Project | November 19, 2006
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
for people to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 131: 1)
So what’s the deal with church organizations? They’re meant to help people work together to accomplish more than they could on their own. However, much of the history of organized religion has been just the opposite – a tale of individuals and groups trying to gain dominion over others, either within or between organizations (see, for instance, The Kingdom of God is at Hand and Block’s book, The New Church in the New World.) The hot-button issue typically involved is status in the church hierarchy and the control of doctrinal interpretation, personnel and finances that goes with it. And this despite Jesus making it clear that He does not compel conscience (Arcana Coelestia 2881, 6472) and we shouldn’t either (Matthew 20: 25, 26; Divine Providence 71ff., 97, 129, The Last Judgment and Babylon Destroyed 54).
There is a better way:
“Jesus summoned them, and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them? It shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.’” (Matthew 20: 25, 26; 23:11, Mark 10:43)
“[N]o one in heaven is given commands or orders. On the contrary, one shares his thoughts and the other freely acts in accordance with them…. [I]n [the angels'] conversation there is nothing of command from one to another, for no one desires to be master and thereby to look upon another as a servant; but everyone desires to minister to and serve the others.” (Arcana Coelestia 5732)
“[T]he way in which one person is subordinated to another in heaven is completely different from the way it happens in hell. In heaven all people are as equals, since one person loves another as one sibling loves another; yet one exalts another above him or her self as that other excels him or her in intelligence and wisdom. A genuine love of what is good and true causes each one, spontaneously so to speak, to make themselves subordinate to those who have a wiser discernment of good than they have and a more intelligent understanding of truth.” (Arcana Coelestia 7773)
And on the importance of reading the Word for yourself: “…[M]y friend, do not place your trust in any Council, but in the Word of the Lord, which is superior to Councils.” (True Christian Religion 489, 634, 176)
Some thought-provoking reflections on the consequences of these Second Coming teachings on organization are found in the comments of groups following those teachings a century and a half ago:
“[Boston] called loudly for church government and regulations. On this subject we differed from them and left every society to govern and regulate themselves. ‘The Lord has made you free, why will you have bonds?’”
“[I]t is thought here that no Convention ought to have or exercise ex cathedra authority in the Church. We believe that forms of faith and rules of practice are to be derived solely from the Lord in His Word, and each individual receiver of the New Jerusalem verities is accountable directly to the Lord, and to [H]im solely for his belief and conduct, except so far as he, acting in freedom according to reason, intentionally binds himself by the decisions of any collective body which he helps to constitute, and even these decisions he is not bound to abide by, if in his conscience he solemnly believes they are contrary to the Lord’s will, for the Lord flows into him immediately, as well as mediately through heaven and from the church as a collective body.”
“Under the leadership of men like Barrett greater freedom was accorded to all, and an important change was made in the Rules of Order. Rules which concern societies and associations are hereafter to be printed merely as recommendations. This change originated in the deep and universal conviction of our body that we cannot too scrupulously respect or too religiously guard the freedom of societies and individuals.”
In more recent times, Brian Kingslake has noted that “There has been a healthy movement in recent years to get back to true Christianity stripped of all accessories, away from what is called “ecclesiasticism,” away from professionalism in the ministry and all the paraphernalia of organized religion. Christianity is essentially a layman’s movement, a people’s movement. Jesus himself was a layman, in contrast to the professional Scribes and Pharisees; so were the early disciples and apostles [and so was Swedenborg - ed.]. The present drift away from the churches – loss of members, empty theological colleges – is largely a reaction against a religion tied to an Establishment, with elaborate church buildings, an ordained clergy, a choir, and so on – all utterly irrelevant, it would seem, to everyday twentieth century life.
“How did our Establishment come into being? I think it originally grew up in imitation of the secular state, the Imperial Civil Service by which the Roman Empire was administered when Christianity was first adopted as the official religion. And there it has stuck, despite the fact that the Roman Empire has long since disappeared from the pageant of history.” (from B. Kingslake, Out of This World, Great Britain: Arthur James, 1978, pp. 160ff.)
George Barna and Frank Viola, in their heavily documented book, Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, identify an extensive list of traditional Christian practices that in fact have little to do with scriptural mandate or apostolic application. See reviews at Amazon.com for more specifics.
Kingslake continues, “What are we to do, then? Scrap all our churches, abolish the ministry, and go back to the Book of Acts, concentrating on lay-led meetings in one another’s homes? This could be good, and we may well come to this when the world is more spiritually advanced than it is today. I can foresee that this will be what Christianity will look like in, say, a hundred years time. Every vital spiritual movement in the world today seems to be working in that direction, towards a New Jerusalem with no temple therein, but with the Lord’s Divine Humanity as the tabernacle of God with man.” (from B. Kingslake, op. cit. pp. 160ff.)
Confirmation of Kingslake’s predictions are found in a variety of contemporary Christian church practices. (e.g. See Barna’s Americans Embrace Various Alternatives to a Conventional Church Experience as Being Fully Biblical and House Churches Are More Satisfying to Attenders Than Are Conventional Churches.) But do even less-structured forms provide the ideal? What about Kingslake’s comments about getting”…back to true Christianity stripped of all accessories, away from what is called ‘ecclesiasticism,’ away from professionalism in the ministry and all the paraphernalia of organized religion. Christianity is essentially a layman’s movement, a people’s movement. Jesus himself was a layman….”
What about, then, ending the formalism of having any ecclesiastical organizations and instead having “Every believer is a priest” so that “You are a priest” and “Everyone has a few little keys to the Kingdom“? All relationships would then be personal, and a meeting of equals, as we are all equally loved by Jesus. There would be leading, as in heaven (Arcana Coelestia 7773), arising from one person learning from the insights of another who is better informed on a given subject. But there would be no constraining structure, no priesthood claiming special spiritual status, let alone hierarchy, that separated people. Instead there would be a shared experience, an assembly (ecclesia) so that all our lives can be organized “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6: 10).
For further reading
2. A dialogue between Mac Frazier and Steve Simons on the evangelization implications of this issue: See opening post at “My Life’s Purpose, and following Comments #9-13 (particularly #13) and “Church Planting Seminar: Day Two” #5 and 6.
1. M. Block The New Church in the New World. ( New York: Henry Holt 1932; reprint New York, Octagon 1968), p. 190
2. ibid., p. 194
3. ibid., p. 202
4. ibid. pp. 297-8