Here is the concept that I wish to put before the church in this musing:
The covenant relationship of congregations IS the presbytery. The “essence” of the presbytery is nothing more and nothing less than the covenant relationship of the congregations. And whatever our structure looks like, it has to express this essence.
Over a half century ago, Emil Brunner wrote, The Misunderstanding of the Church. In a book designed to critique both “protestant individualism” and “catholic collectivism”, he writes, pointedly, “The body of Christ is nothing other than the fellowship of persons.” For Brunner, this fellowship is a reflection of the Triune God whose essence (yes, that’s a Trinitarian technical term) is “agape—that love which the Son brings to mankind from the Father.” And because the essence of the church is nothing less than the essence of God, Brunner declares, “The fellowship of Christians is just as much an end in itself as is their fellowship with Christ.”
(“Just as much an end in itself”… really? What do you think of that? Is your local worshipping congregation “just as much an end of itself” as your relationship with Christ? Really?)
For Brunner, citing John 17 mostly, “fellowship”, i.e. relationship and love, is the “essence of the church” and those of us who reduce it to either a local expression of a larger corporate institution or a shared locale for individual spiritual pursuits misunderstand the church as much as a person who misunderstands Jesus to be nothing more than the patron saint of a worldly system or my own personal pocket-sized totem.
Brunner’s book, written in 1953, has been hugely influential in my life. Exploring his claims led me to write a PhD dissertation which later was edited into my book, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives. Over the past year, as I have moderated the Middle Governing Body Commission, I have found myself in one conversation after another that has brought me back to Brunner’s Misunderstanding. Today, I believe that many Presbyterians, including myself actually, have lived with a deep misunderstanding of the Presbytery as well
For most of us, the mental model of the Presbyterian Congregation is that of “corporate franchise” of the “National Organization” called PCUSA that is administered by the “Regional Office” called Presbytery. And this misunderstanding stems from not clearly grasping the “essence” of either the church or the presbytery.
In other words, if the essence of the congregation is the fellowship of believers who are joined in love for the mission of God in its local context, then isn’t the essence of the presbytery nothing more and nothing less than the covenant relationship of those congregations, (which Darrell Guder helpfully defines as “Covenant Communities of Missional Congregations)? And if this is so, so what?
If the essence of the Presbytery IS the covenant relationship of the churches that are joined together for missional ends, then what practices and possibilities arise from this re-understanding?
If we misunderstand Presbyteries as primarily institutional, we assume the actives of presbyteries are primarily regulatory. But, if we can recapture the essence of a presbytery as the covenant relationship of congregations, we can begin to also re-think the primacy of a regulatory frame for presbytery life. What would happen if congregational relationship, rather than institutional “regulation” was that which bound us together? What would it look like, what would change, how would we reconfigure our presbytery life if the very essence of it was relational, communal and covenantal?
And perhaps, an even more personal and poignant question to ponder: If the Presbytery IS the relationships of missional congregations (and not the budget, the programs, the projects, the staff, or the office) then what is the condition of your Presbytery and what do you need from our Commission to live out the essence of this thing that gives us our name? What do you need to further the health and faithfulness of your “covenant community”?
My Presbyterian friends, the essence of our life together is relational, not regulatory. What can we do together to envision and enact this essence?