In the 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts, John Adams wrote (Part the First, section XXX):
In the government of this Commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: The judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men. [emphasis added]
That phrase, “a government of laws and not of men,” is one of those things that has become cliché through repetition, but is neither cliché nor trite. It is deeply and importantly meaningful. Yet I notice that as our culture grows more focused on self, our politics grows more personality based than idea or policy based. The last presidential election cycle was consumed with personality, as is the continuing media coverage of the presidency. “I like” or “I don’t like” has replaced “I agree with” or “I do not agree with” in most political discussions I encounter anymore. (Hmmm, do I detect a Facebook contribution here?)
This trend is troubling – and it is reflected in far more than our politics. I see it in our churches as well. I have seen way too many churches built around a pastor die when that pastor moves on in some fashion. For institutions to survive, whether they be churches or governments or something else, they have to be about more than the people involved at the moment. There is little doubt in my mind that many of the radical changes that have happened in our culture in my lifetime are due to the fact that our institutions no longer stand as they once did. They are now often fickle and transient things, driven by a personality rather than something greater than any one person, standing as a bulwark in support of some ideal.
Consider this odd BBC story about the current president of very dictatorial Turkmenistan. Like North Korea, the nation is only as strong as its leader appears to be. This necessity to maintain appearances can results in all sorts of issues. Hence personality driven churches often die in scandal and dictatorships are found, after their death, to be built on tissues of lies. Simple fact of the matter is mere humans are too frail and too unreliable to base an institution upon. We need more.
This problem has plagued mankind throughout history.
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.
For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.
These stories occurred thousands of years apart, yet the represent the same basic problem – people placing personality above the thing the institution is meant to preserve – in this case the worship of God.
I remain astonished at the parallels between church and government; how their health as institutions seems tied in some fashion despite the much discussed “separation of church and state.” I also am astonished at how their health as institutions is a function of how we conduct ourselves and view such things. If we want to improve these institutions, and they are sorely in need of improvement, then we need to begin by improving ourselves.
So this Sunday morning I will endeavor to go to church with different eyes. I will look past the building, the music and the preaching – even if I do not care for it – and try to focus on the reason the church is there.