When I led workshops for newly elected church officers, I asked them to question the term “church government.” What does government have to do with people seeking to live by faith? People unite with churches for a wide variety of reasons, but many come in search of some form of healing, comfort, hope, or sense of purpose in life. Especially, I think, in the United States, many consider their motivations and even their faith itself personal almost to the point of private. So why would a church need or want any form of government that, of course, puts rules and restrictions upon individual liberty?
It never took the people in such workshops long to understand the need for church government. The questions are, “Who makes decisions for the church?” and, “How are those decisions made?” At the simplest level, “When do we get together?” and “What do we do when we get together?” For that matter, who are those included in the pronoun “we”?
When I opened my seminary textbook on church administration, I immediately saw two principles. The first told me that if church decisions are not made by the people properly responsible for making them, they will be made by someone else. The second, very like the first, told me that if decisions are not made in the way prescribed for them, they will be made in some other manner, through some other procedure. I wish we the people of the United States of America better understood and more reasonably accepted those two principles. We don’t seem to realize that apart from our government, there is no United States of America because government is the manner in which we hold together and make decisions as a nation.
Anarchy, the absence of government, would not mean decisions were no longer made for all of us; it means they would be made by the most powerful for their own advantage without restraint. Democracy is a form of government designed to limit the exercise of power by the powerful so that we the people may have more control over our shared national, state, and local life. The powerful are the natural enemies of democracy because its exercise limits their freedom to use and abuse the rest of us as they please and to take as much of wealth, privilege, and enforced prestige as they can grab.
The non-powerful resent government when it forbids or restricts their doing something they wish to do (for example, drive at 80 miles per hour through residential neighborhoods), when it costs them money (as, of course, it must if we are all to pay our dues for our shared benefits), when it requires them to consider the common welfare and not just their own, or when it protects the rights of some minority they dislike. The non-powerful resent government also when it violates their rights, intrudes upon their privacy, restricts their freedom to no good purpose they can see, or sells them out to the very powerful interests from which it should protect them. So, yes, government itself, usually called “the government,” has considerable power that may be exercised properly or improperly. To regulate this government power, we have a system of checks and balances, and those who govern us under this system must stand for re-election or depart their elected offices. We need also the vigilance of educated and informed people not swayed by fear, prejudice, and ignorance to vote against their own interests. This last part is the hardest.
Folly rules the land when the powerful, who resent democratic government, convince the non-powerful that government is their enemy. If they could, foxes would gladly persuade the chickens that the door on the coop is an unnecessary and unfair restriction of their freedom and that the dogs’ barking in the night (when a fox approaches) is a disturbance of their peace. Foxes do not have such opportunity to fool their victims into cooperating in their own destruction; the very wealthy and powerful do.