Decades ago, tagging along behind work done on grass roots opposition movements by Luther Gerlach (U.of Minn.), I learned how grass roots movements, if they survive at all, gravitate toward becoming institutionally organized, finding their place in a sociopolitical equilibrium they helped establish out of whatever preceded it. Sociopolitical equilibrium never lasts long, a few generations, not much longer, often less. It means grass roots movements are always afoot, opposing or promoting change, and causing trouble among those who favor the peace of the status quo. The early church, illuminated by Paul’s letters, is a good example of how that works.
The first several generations of Christians formed a grass roots movement anchored in a shared understanding of who they were in relationship with God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Emanating from Jerusalem, but taking root in widely separated parts of the Roman Empire, each group took on locally appropriate ways of expressing the shared belief, but they couldn’t be easily synchronized with each other. It led to conflicts, and resolving them led in turn to more institutionalized discipline meant to codify and preserve the movement’s most important beliefs, preventing them from corruption. A good idea, but sometimes more institutionalized discipline is another source of corruption.
An example of the process is Paul’s letter tot he churches in Galatia. “You foolish Galatians,” he railed, “who has misled you?” The Galatian churches, desiring a more orthodox worship practices structured to be reliably passed on to the next generation, had adopted rules and regulations about how to worship, and who was in and who was out that imitated traditional Jewish practices, while no doubt also having some resemblance to the pagan practices surrounding them. Paul recognized two parallel threats. First, in using old models to define a new orthodoxy, they were surrendering the most important elements of who Jesus is, and what that means to follow him. Second, they were closing doors that Jesus had forced open, and erecting walls that Jesus had broken down.
New moons and sabbaths, circumcision and ritually acceptable foods were anathema to Paul’s version of what it meant to follow Jesus. The Galatians had to be reminded forcefully that for followers of Jesus there can be no Jew or Greek, no free or slave, no male or female. All are equal in God’s presence, and they are to be equal in the community of the church as well. The Galatians were rebuilding the walls of separation that Jesus had given his life to tear down. By his resurrection he revealed that it was God’s will and by God’s doing that they were torn down. An outraged Paul demanded to know by whose authority they were being rebuilt.
Grass roots movements tend to follow the same pattern, no matter what their origin or cause. If they mature, not all do, they work on ways to sustain themselves, and that requires rules, organization, and hierarchy. Can it be done and yet preserve the foundational values of the movement? It isn’t easy because a part of the pattern is to ossify under leadership that aspires to power and authority exercised through rules and rituals of exclusivity.
Galatian churches are the rule, not the exception. Congregations, synods, denominations, they all follow the Galatian model. Maybe that’s why reformers like Luther called for the church to always be in the process of reformation. It’s not that they turn their backs on following Jesus, but in defense of following him with greater purity of word and deed, they craft rules and rituals that rebuild the walls he broke down. They’re rules and rituals that borrow heavily from the sociopolitical customs of the time and area, justified by a supposed connection to something biblical. It’s religiosity taking the place of religion, which is why grass roots efforts of reform, such as today’s Reclaiming Jesus and the revival of the Poor Peoples Campaign, are so important to the future of the church writ large.
The usual objection is that without the current rules and rituals there are no rules and rituals, so anything goes, and how disgusting is that? It was the accusation leveled at Jesus, and it’s the accusation leveled at those who seek to renew a core focus on Jesus within worship practices that facilitate it. If they are successful, they’ll help break down the old equilibrium to make way for a new one in which they will become institutionalized members. In time, a new grass roots movement will rise to shake it up again, and that is as it should be.