A few years ago in a used book store - not sure if it was in Alaska or Arizona - I picked up a well-worn copy of Tolstoy's "On Civil Disobedience and Non-violence." I must say, I know very little of Tolstoy, but picked up the book because it sounded interesting. I thought Tolsoty was Orthodox. I mean, Tolstoy=Russian, Russia=Orthodox, ergo Tolstoy=Orthodox. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. And wrong again. I pulled it off the book shelf last week for want of something to read (I've been reading even more than I usually do in the last month or so; its one way I deal with the tension & frustration we're feeling right now. Yesterday I finished a 700 page book I bought Thursday night, so I'm quickly running short on reading material. I need a library card.) This piece is from an essay called Church and State:
"Religion cannot be forced and cannot be accepted for the sake of anything, force, fraud, or profit. Therefore what is so accepted is not religion but a fraud. And this religious fraud is a long-established condition of man's life.
In what does this fraud consist, and on what is it based? What induces the deceviers to produce it? and what makes it plausible to the deceived?...In Christianity, the whole fraud is built up on the fantastic conception of a Church: a conception founded on nothing, and which as soon as we being to study Christianity amazes us by its unexpected and useless absurdity.
Of all the godless ideas and words there is none more godless than that of a Church. There is no idea which has produced more evil, none more inimical to Christ's teaching, than the idea of a Church."
The essay continues thusly, charging that the Church is actually a fraud perpetuated by the clergy because of their desire for power primarily, but also wealth & comfort. It is, of course, a rather old argument, so what surprised me was not its content, but its unfortunate similarity to some Protestant currents of thought about denominations.
The church I recently departed was part of a smallish denomination of 39 local churches. Its grown considerably over the last decade or so, adding several church plants and accepting existing churches into its organization. While the local churches are, for the most part, doing quite well, the denomination itself is in a bit of a crunch. Churches are giving less as part of their general funding and many are starting to strike out on their own international-missions wise (those that care about IM, anyways) and so are reducing their direct funding for that as well. The main motivator for this decline in funding is a strain of thinking that says denominations don't matter, that its all about the local church. Bill Hybels and the Willowcreek Association are big contributors to this thinking; for them, the local church is really the only thing that matters because it is the primary vehicle for reaching the masses with the Gospel. In its utilitarian ecclesiology, denominational structures are essentialy useless and are therefore jettisoned, or at least jettisonable.
The heart of this matter is, of course, ecclesiology. How are we to understand ecclesiology, and the related issues of authority and structure? Despite Tolstoy's claims to the contrary (claims predicated mainly on a rejection of Paul and pretty much the rest of the NT), the Bible does give us a good basis for answering these questions, particularly in light of Holy Tradition. I think I may turn this into a little project - partially for the sake of my own sanity which is imperiled by the increasing tedium of near-constant home improvement projects over the last month, and partially because I'd like to answer the question for myself: what is the proper ecclesiology? No promises though, since I don't know if I'll have the time.