L-WIKI COLUMN 3.7.08
The Social Contract and Its Impact on the Church
Churches in America are all about preserving their liberty from being controlled by the government. That is certainly a valid concern. Churches should be controlled by God through his word alone, not be the government. Obviously, there are different forms of control. There are obvious ones, and there are not so obvious ones. An obvious one would be if the government, quite apart from God's word, told the churches what they ought to preach by sending out master sermons every week. Everybody sees the problem in this practice.
Yet here we want to take a closer look at a way the church might be controlled by outside forces that is less easily discerned. Modern American democracy is, in principle, based on the notion of a "social contract." This political theory, developed by John Locke and others in the 17th/18th century, holds that states come about, not by divine institution or in some natural way, but by individuals banding together based on a mutual agreement, a contract. They band together in order to end the natural state of ceaseless warfare of one against the other. They band together by relinquishing some of their liberties for the common good, that is, to protect their lives, possessions, and most of their inherent liberties. Government under these circumstances will, by necessity, be a limited, even weak government. It exists to protect the liberties etc. of the individual citizens. It serves at the pleasure of the people, that is, government officials will be voted out of office if they fail to do their duties, especially by overreaching and intruding into the privacy and liberties of the individual citizens.
Living in such a political system would, by necessity, shape the hearts and minds of the people. Given that the political aspects of life are powerful forces, the way one lives and acts politically, that is, as a citizen, would, over time, also influence action and thought in other areas of life. The family and the workplace come to mind, but also the church. How would a consistently democratic family look like, that is, one shaped by notions of a social contract? How would a marriage look like that is defined as a contractual relationship? How would a church look like that is shaped by such thought that, given its pervasiveness, easily and powerfully lodges in the hearts and minds of men without being recognized as such?
A church that is the result of an "ecclesial contract" would, first and foremost, understand itself as a volunteer organization that exists -- regardless of mission statements to the contrary -- to protect the freedom of the individual members to believe and behave as they see fit, so long as this does not infringe on the similar rights of their fellow members. If members are forced to give up too much of their freedom of faith, they might feel compelled to end the ecclesial contract. By entering this contract they intended to relinquish only a minimal amount of their freedom, not their whole life, in order to reap certain benefits such as spiritual care in emergencies or family situations (baptisms, marriages, sickness, funerals, etc.) or belonging to a social group for human support. What holds these churches together is not commonality of convictions but utility of convenience.
"Government" in such churches would by necessity be weak, being borne by the consent of the governed. It would, more often than not, operate as an honest broker between individuals and their freedoms when in conflict, so that all get along in peace and harmony without having to give up their freedom of opinion entirely. Different theological positions are, as a rule, downplayed in their importance: they are considered to be non-church divisive and need to be tolerated, so long as they do not question the church's basic mode of operation, namely, the ecclesial contract. As the secular government has long since ceased to attempt to make citizens better (however defined) -- as proposed by classic Greek political theory -- so the ecclesial government in a church based on an ecclesial contract will not seek to force "its" notions of right and wrong, true and false on the governed. For it really does not, and cannot, have its own notions of right and wrong, since it is entirely of the people, by the people, and for the people (or a majority thereof). It will just provide services to individual members that are considered helpful by them, such as emergency counseling, entertainment, or wholesome child care.
The big prize of being a church organized based on an ecclesial contract in a society based on a social contract is evident: compatibility. People can move effortlessly from one area of life to the next. There is no fundamental difference between church and world anymore. Both function based on the same basic egalitarian and democratic principles. Even, and especially, unbelievers will feel welcome in an ecclesial-contract church, since they do not have to change their basic mode of operation. A near-total congruence of church and society is, based on this model, within reach.
The fatal flaw of being an ecclesial-contract church is also evident: while we can tame governments by social contracts to have it our individual way as much as possible, we cannot tame God and his word by ecclesial contracts. He calls us to life-long and total repentance, not just to superficial adaptation. God is not the president of the church whom we can vote out of office or whose terms in office are limited anyway or whose powers in office are limited by a constitution. His word is not a constitution we could amend as we see fit or regard as a "living document" subject to our interpretive whims. He is the absolute Monarch of the church. And he rules his church in certain specific ways that are also not subject to popular consent or majority decisions: his eternal biblical word and, under this word, his ministers.
As we said, churches can be controlled by any number of obvious and less-than obvious forces. It is important to recognize these to counteract them in a conscious, biblical fashion. Christ's kingdom, after all, is in this world, but it is not of this world and its ways.