It’s one of the most intriguing concepts, if not contradictions, central to the Community of Christ. It’s referenced in the very front of the “Church Administrator’s Handbook.” It is the reason the church upholds the rule of common consent. It is why church leaders emphasize the importance of consensus. The tension in this idea is why the church feels like a hierarchy, even though it tries to say its not. The idea is central to our polity and how the church functions as a body. The idea is theocratic democracy.
Theocratic democracy makes more sense in the way its lived out. In the church, the “theocratic” portion of the church’s body is its priesthood. Denominationally, the theocratic structure is comprised of the church’s leading quorums: the First Presidency, the Presiding Bishopric, and Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Next is the Seven Quorums of Seventy, the Order of Bishops, Quorum of High Priests, and so on. In congregations, the theocratic structure of the church-body is the local priesthood: the presiding Elder, Elders, and Aaronic Priesthood. The democratic structure of the church is its voting conferences. Conferences operate at the congregational, judicatory (mission center), and International church levels. Every Priesthood call must be supported by these conferences. Church policies, legislative functions, theological issues, all are handled by church conferences. Conferences have tremendous power, if that power is organized and executed well. But, like every democracy, it takes time, effort, and grass roots work.
Why bring this up? Consider a comparison. In American democracy, the government is organized in three branches with specific functions. Of course, these are the executive branch, which consists of the President and the various offices and departments of government. Next, there is the legislative branch. This branch makes the laws of the land and consists of Congress and Senate. Finally, there is the judicial branch. This consists of judges and court systems.
When we do a comparison, it is fairly easy to see some parallels. Community of Christ conferences carry out the legislative function of the church. World Conference, Mission Center Conferences, and congregational conferences all have the power to pass legislation pertaining to that level of church function. And, the impact of these legislative actions can be significant. They can remove a Pastor from office or vote to sell the building. They also can take positions on theological, political, ethical and social issues – provided these actions are not judged to out of order as in conflict with scripture or contradict the good of the order. Denominational Headquarters (World Church or IHQ) recognizably operates as the executive branch of government. The World Church carries out the will of the conference. In addition to its leadership functions, it carries out the collective will of the church on matters of denominational level budget allocations, programs, and initiatives. What is left if the judicial branch.
The judicial function of the church is a little less apparent. But, aspects of judicial function are provided for by church law. According to church law, the First Presidency is the final interpretive authority on scripture. The First Presidency and leading Quorums (now called the World Church Leadership Council) and Standing High Council interpret matters of church policy. My understanding also, though one has not been called for some time, is that church law also provides for a body called “Bishop’s Court.” Bishops Court provides for disciplinary action.
So, why make the comparison? It seems to me that there is fruit in considering how the Community of Christ historically functions. To cut to the chase, in any other democratic organization, it would be a problem that the executive and judicial functions of government are consolidated in the same offices. And, by in large, this seems to be the case with the Community of Christ church. The theocratic structures of the church have supreme responsibility to not only lead and execute the policies and purposes of the church. It also carries far and away the right and responsibility of interpreting scripture, tradition, and the meaning of church law or policies as they are approved by conference. This leads to a “top heavy” organization.
It is also why the church is a theocratic democracy and not a democratic theocracy.
We can look to other denominations to see that there can be other forms of church polity or government. One I would propose for discussion is this:
Other mainline denominations add a another component that adds and balances the important functions of church polity. And, those are theologians. Now, before anyone gets too cynical and blames me for simply making a case for theological-types like myself, simply consider this from a democratic perspective. In the church, theologians function similar to the judicial branch of the American government. Unlike the U.S. government, theologians generally do not finally decide matters of theological dispute or church policies or church law. But, they provide an important interpretive function. It is the responsibility of the church theologians to have a detailed understanding of the church’s scriptures, its history, and theology. In the Community of Christ for the last forty years or so, first historians and later theologians have begun to function in this way – offering interpretations and reinterpretations of church history, scripture, the process of scripture, and meaning of its tradition and identity. In fact, the Community of Christ today would be unthinkable without the important function theologians and historians had provided in the last 40 years of the church.
While I’m not for turning over authority over matters of church theological or scriptural interpretation to theologians (any more than I am to a single prophet), I do think the church must continue to develop this aspect of the church’s life in the future. Seminaries, in particular, provide a powerful balance to the role of church authorities and the legislative power of the church membership. They do so by offering critical educational, exploratory, and interpretive functions in the life of a faith movement. In fact, seminaries and theologians are often the only safe place contentious and volatile issues, vital to the church’s sense of purpose and identity, can be arbitrated and explored. Think of issues such as the function of extra-biblical scripture, such as the Book or Mormon, human sexuality, or positions on war. Without a seminary or theological tradition, these issues get battled from the perspective of denominational leaders, who have a fiduciary responsibility to the future of the organization. Or, they tear at the fabric of the church membership and local priesthood by being battled either from the pulpit or conference floor. When positions become polarized between church leaders and membership, like issues often are in any dualistic system, critical issues can literally halt the church’s sense of movement. Developing a theological tradition and seminary life can provide an important function in providing creative space, as well as buffer, for thinking through specific issues and weighing the influences of contemporary science, theological tradition, historical perspectives, and the like.
Theologians, of course, don’t do alchemy. I don’t pretend that theologians are a silver bullet or simple solution to the church’s current theological and ethical challenges. To be sure, theologians (and historians) were, in part, responsible for creating some of them. Theological inquiry has got the church this far. And, divesting ourselves of theologians or the importance of theological exploration in a rash turn to organizational schemes or management paradigms to “save the church” won’t help the church fall into some sort of sustainable “functionalism” that will solve our dilemmas or ease our concerns for the future.
The Community of Christ is amidst transition. I believe, it is in the throes of death and rebirth. Whether it is successful birth or miscarrage is a matter of present decision-making and ultimately for historians to sort out. On the way, I think theologians, historians, and other disciplined thinkers are critical for the church’s future. Socrates’ model of the philosopher is instructive. The role of the philosopher is midwifery! Theologians, seminaries, and other teachers of critical disciplines (Psychology, Sociology, Peace Studies, Economics) are just the same. They should not rule the church, but bring it balence. They provide basic function…..
….a decisive function basic to any wrothwhile theocratic democracy.