Open Source Church – Part 2

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Ok, so the farther I get into Landon Whitsett’s book, Open Source Church, the more I think I’m beginning to see the vision he is proposing. But I wonder if there needs to be a balance between honoring the traditions that have informed our way of being the Church and seeking new ways of living into God’s vision for the Kingdom here on earth.

He writes: “I can edit the worlds biggest encyclopedia, but I can’t edit the church.”

Well, yes and no. When someone walks through the doors, they have no way of knowing the reason behind the things a community does or how it functions. I am certainly not saying that all those ways are good and healthy. But, often before a therapist can fully understand how to help someone to move beyond their stuckness, the therapist has to have some idea of how that person (or system) got stuck in the first place. In any case, the goal is to move beyond the stuckness which will require some “editing,” to use Landon’s term. But the editing must be educated editing, rather than self-serving (or self-preserving) editing.

We have seen again and again what happens when we humans are allowed to try to shape the world according to our own whims and desires: the golden calf of Exodus, the accumulation of wealth on the backs of the poor railed against by the Hebrew prophets, the terrible oppression of entire peoples in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, let alone the abuse and destruction of the natural world. We have also seen it in the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler and many other tyrants and dictators over the centuries. We have even seen these delusions of grandeur rear their ugly heads in the United States under Senator McCarthy’s reign of terror. The Church has not been immune as scripture was used in defense of slavery, segregation, and the subjugation of women. One thing, in my mind, seems to bind all these human experiences: fear.

In order to keep our fears and selfish desires in check, we need a community to help us discern, from the diversity of thought and practice, what practices are best for the health of the whole system, not just one or two or a few members of the system. So a new person walking into a church and starting to make demands or suggestions without knowing the system is not only rude and offensive to the established community, it can be very dangerous. This is one of the foundational elements of the denominational heritage Landon and I share: Presbyterianism.

Landon goes on to write:

I think of the gospel as roughly equivalent to software and computer programs in that it exists to accomplish a certain goal: to ensure our freedom. Whether we are bound to outmoded ways of thinking or self-destructive behaviors, held captive emotionally or physically, or crippled by personal struggle or systemic injustice, the gospel of Jesus Christ exists to set us free. . . . I believe that as the people of God, we have an opportunity to proclaim a timeless truth: To proclaim Jesus Christ is to proclaim freedom, and to proclaim freedom is to proclaim Jesus Christ.

I have to say, he’s got a point here. One of the points of Jesus’ gospel was to set the people free from feeling like they have to either be in control or under the control of those things that stifle their ability to truly commune with God and all of God’s people and God’s creation. Landon is clear, though, that even in the world of Wikipedia—his primary resource upon which he bases his idea of what an open source church might look like—there are guidelines, called “The Five Pillars”, or guidelines by which all contributors to this open source online encyclopedic community will function. He outlines these pillars extensively in his book. They are not a set of detailed rules or technical procedures, but true guidelines—broad rules by which all entries and edits will be judged and corrected. In fact, the rules and procedures will and have changed based on the changing landscape of the information being presented. The first pillar clearly states what Wikipedia is, and in doing so, clearly states what it is not. What if our Churches were to “specialize” their purpose and, rather than creating all sorts of vision and mission statements, create a clearly defined statement that would not only state what they are but indirectly state what they are not?

I think the idea of making broad statements of purpose and function makes sense in the Church. In the past the Church established general rules and guidelines that helped move our work forward, but also allowed room to discover and discern new and exciting ways of being Church. There was heated debate about how we abide by the general guidelines laid out by Jesus, which resulted in a good portion of what we now call the New Testament. The issues raised by Paul, Peter and others were not settled for hundreds of years. And even then, many of the same issues are still debated today.

However, since then we have added to our Book of Order, our ecclesiastical rule book, we have added all sorts of other criteria for ordination to the point that nearly no one is able to satisfy all of them. I am reminded of the book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs, where he tried to live by all 613 in the Torah. In the end, it was impossible.

Even when the church held to the “Westminster Standards” of the 1600s, there were movements to change the language of the original confession and subsequent catechism to better speak to the standards of the day. Over hundreds of years many parts of the original confession were added to, significantly altered, and even deleted, in order to more accurately reflect the faithful understandings of the people over time. Our faith in and understandings of God changes, so why shouldn’t the way we talk about and act out our faith change? I think (correct me if I’m wrong) Landon would agree with this. Then, in 1967 the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) added a number of other confessions to their confessional standard, creating an incredible diversity of confessed faith spanning thousands of years that became the Book of Confessions that year. Each included confession sought to respond in faith to particular circumstances in particular times. In other words, they are finite and limited in their scope. For instance, there is no way the most recent confession at the time, the newly crafted Confession of 1967, could have predicted the prevalence of media that exists now and how that shapes and defines our culture for good or bad. In other words, there is diversity (something I hope to bring up in my next post).

In Matthew 22, Mark 12, and Luke 10, Jesus outlines that all the laws and even the prophets can be summed up in two commandments: Love God with your all you are, and love your neighbor as yourself. These are guidelines. From there, we make all sorts of other laws, rules, and procedures that so often bind us from being able to move into new eras and new circumstances. I’m wondering if there is something to this “open source” idea as it applies to Church.

Here’s a radical idea: Throw out the Book of Order, follow Jesus’ suggestion and live only by these two simple rules/guidelines, and allow them to rule our life, and let’s see what happens! Too radical? Maybe. But sometimes it just feels good to say.

In any case, I can appreciate Landon’s attempt to help our denomination, and all faith communities, push ourselves out of our ideological, theological, and sociological boxes, and make some room for God’s ever expanding revelation to meet us where we find ourselves. However, I believe, in order to thrive and fulfill our calling as a denomination, the PC(USA), and most other churches and denominations, will have to discern a balance between lifting up our traditions for what they are—namely, faithful responses in particular times and places to particular circumstances, limited by time and space—as we continue to discover new and exciting ways to engage in what God is doing in the present time and in response to current circumstances.

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