THEOLOGY & A Theology of Ecclesial Change

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 12/22/06.


An earlier ethnographic survey of 12 Christian congregations that were largely led, staffed and populated with adults between the ages of 22 and 35, was designed to uncover synergies and strategies that might inform further research among our master and doctoral students in the College of Graduate Studies at Indiana Wesleyan University regarding how efficacious change was implemented in these environs.

This monolith appropriates Van de Ven and Poole’s four-force model of change (Van de Ven and Poole 1995; Poole and Van de Ven 2004) and applies it to changes the early church underwent in the Acts of the Apostles as it grappled with the assimilation of Gentile converts. A five stage process-model for organizational change is proposed with an accompanying suggestion for a theology of ecclesial organizational change.

Greek Designations For a Theology of Ecclesial Organizational Change

A Scriptural predilection for personal behavioral and cognitive change largely overshadows most investigations into the organizational change that a Pharisaic and Diasporic Judaism was undergoing in a transformation into an in situ Messianic community. Laubach points out that this emphasis upon behavioral and cognitive change is evidenced in both Greek and New Testament authors in their proclivity to employ strepho, hapostrepho and strepho in contexts which suggest cognitive and behavioral changes of philosophic and moral perspectives (Laubach 1967:354-355).

A study of Greek literature suggests that morphe might be helpful. Greek writers debated the dynamic “twilight” between reality and form (Plato 1941), and in doing so they employed morphe to emphasize the outward appearance of inner change (Braumann 1967:705-706). Yet, Braumann’s Scriptural examination suggests organizational change is not encompassed in this word’s New Testament usage either (ibid.)

Metanoia might be the most well known word for change, yet it appears rarely in classical Greek literature (Goetzmann 1967:357). This leaves its focus at the mercy of the Septuagint and New Testament writers, where it too carries the force of personal rather than corporate turn in direction (Behm 1964-1974).

However, one word does come into our view carrying the connotation of outward change in appearance with an emphasis upon the form the change evolves through and into (Braumann 1967:709-710). This word, a cognate of schema, is meteschematizo and occurs five times in Paul’s writings to the Corinthians and once in his writings to the Philippians. Let us look at each, the later first.

In Philippians 3:21 the import of meteschematizo is an eschatological outward change in humankind’s appearance, or as Braumann describes “real participation in the glorified body of Christ (Braumann 1967:709). Synergy with outward organizational change is not fostered here, but rather an emphasis upon eventual and outward personal change (Ladd 1981:563-564).

In 1 Corinthians 4:6 Paul warns his skeptics that he applies (meteschematisa) certain constrictions to his outward teachings, because of his desire to be a faithful and trustful servant of Christ’s message (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). Braumann points out this connotes a thoroughness in transformation (Braumann 1967:709), while Scheider suggests here also lies an emphasis upon an outward appearance that is not the “expected or customary form” (Schneider 1964-1974:958). While this is closer to a description of organizational transformation into an unexpected form, meteschematisa here is applied personally and not corporately. Yet, the use of the term to describe unexpected or uncustomary outward changes in appearance that are due to inner enthuses will be suggested later to describe organizational change in the New Testament.

2 Corinthians 11:13-15 contains the remaining instances of meteschematizo where the word is employed by Paul to describe a fallacious appearance of false apostles. The NIV describes this as a “masquerade,” while the NASB and RSV employ the less animated “disguise.” Yet, the usage here retains an external emphasis based upon an inner adjustment, but again applies it personally rather than corporately.

A scouring of theological summaries provides limited analysis of organizational change beyond the above understandings. And thus we find tantalizingly useful words, but not applied to the organizational transformations we seek to discuss in this monolith. Subsequently, an analysis of New Testament history, especially as reflected in Luke’s writings of the Acts of the Apostles (an intentional delimitation to ensure this discussion is not unwieldy), can provide an understanding of the forces for change and resultant processes employed under the unction of the Holy Spirit within the early church to organizationally transition from a Jewish sect into a widespread force for altruism, faith and change.

Scholarly Discussion of a Theology of Ecclesial Organizational Change

A Scriptural focus upon personal change may have resulted in ecclesial organizational change receiving less than adequate analysis among theologians. A search of American Theological Library Association (ATLA) databases provides less than a handful of journal articles on a theology of change. And, most investigate the personal, cognitive and behavioral change that humans undergo, rather than corporate change. A few however, bear mentioning.

Ellen Charry posits an interesting contribution to her reflections upon Jurgen Moltmann’s work, titled “Reviving Theology in a Time of Change” (Charry 1996). Though designed to address the task of theology in the elastic world of postmodernity, she none-the-less argues for new workings in theology while hinting at the importance of studying the dynamic tension between theology and changing contexts. Charry opens the door for more study on the synergies created when contextual change intersects theology. She leaves the reader standing with the door ajar, perhaps wishing her reader or students to cross the threshold. However, her contribution is not just in the observation that contextual change is a force unfairly neglected in theology inquiry, but also in her conclusion that postmodern generations eschew broad systemizations in favor of fluid and elastic understandings where change serves as a force to be reacted to and embraced (Charry:118)

In a similar vein, Martyn Percy pens a hopeful “A Theology of Change for the Church” in his contribution to a book on Anglican ecclesial management (Percy 2000). However, the result is a less than satisfying theological apologetic for Anglican polity and practices as responses to change (2000:177-178). A theology of how ecclesial organizational change occurs is not evident, overshadowed by a defense of denominational polity and actions. Nor does a Biblical theology emerge from this discussion, rather Percy tenders an apologetic for Episcopal-based structures and hierarchical controls (2000:177). Not unexpectedly, the result is better labeled a theology of changing (see my upcoming explanation), and still bears greater resemblance to a theology of leadership, with sub-sets of control and administration.

However, it is de Jongh van Arkel who hints at the potential for a theology of change in his insightful article “Understanding Change as Practical Theologian” (De Jongh van Arkel 2001). Though discussing a theology of personal change, he observes that “in theology we often talk about change as if there were little to explain or understand” (2001:31). This tendency to avoid what on the surface seems pedestrian and self-explanatory may also be the malady of any investigation of theology and its relationship to ecclesial organizational change. De Jongh van Arkel argues that “religious change …. is still an open field for research” with a potential to result in a more complex, yet holistic view of humankind and its actions (2001:58). He thus sees a requisite duty of theologians to analyze this theological step-child to elicit “a more informal understanding and theory of change (that) would become part of our basic theories in practical theology” (2001:31). While de Jongh van Arkel is making his arguments largely targeted at crafting a more holistic theology of personal change, the same should be true of the construction of a theology of ecclesial organizational change; where both are subsets of a practical theology.

A contributing factor to what de Jongh van Arkel describes as a modernist neglect of a theology of change, may be because change is a messy, uncharted and muddled arena. It has been observered that a modernist Christendom likes to have its concepts tidy and neatly packaged (Dockery 1995:14-15; Oden 1995:27-31; Grenz 1996:71-81). Yet, postmodernity seems to have no apprehension toward tackling the shadowy-side, of Christian life and community (Whitesel 2006:108-123). Mike Yaconelli penned a book popular among postmodernal young people that eschewed Christianity as a nice, codified set of principles, and rather acknowledged it as unclear, ambiguous and even sometimes hazardous to personal mental peace (Yaconelli 2002). Brian McLaren’s summative title, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/protestant, Liberal/conservative, Mystical/poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-Yet Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian (McLaren 2004) alludes to this multiplicity. Hermann Hesse’s protagonist may have said it best, when he insinuates modernist man longs for the regimentation of the Middle Ages, by stating “a man of the Middle Ages would detest the whole mode of our present-day life as something far more than horrible, far more than barbarous. Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matter of course, puts up patiently with certain evils” (Hesse 1957:22).

Subsequently, there may be little hesitation for postmodernal thinkers to closely examine and conjecture on the relationships between change, theology and organizational behavior. De Jongh van Arkel’s avoidance hypothesis, is hopefully no longer required by a generation that sees and welcomes both beauty and ugliness in God’s creation, including the church and its theology.

Even over a quarter century ago these tensions were shaping the mind of Michael Ryan (Ryan 1975). While contributing to a volume he edited on The Contemporary Explosion in Theology, Ryan suggests that life-cycle forces are causing a reevaluation of modernist institutions and their beliefs by younger generations (1975:1). Though embracing a postmodernist viewpoint, Ryan does not utilize the term postmodern. Instead he prefers to call for the contemporary theologians bursting upon the scene to contemplate the dynamic tensions inherent in change and craft an understanding (1975:10-16). Due to its inevitability, Ryan encourages that change be embraced by the church, because there are “vital forces and new institutions around them demanding that they change, that they adapt to new conditions of life” (1975:1).

Toward this cultural and theological demand, the remainder of this monolith will seek to inaugurate a discussion. While theologians such as Percy, de Jongh van Arkel, Ryan and others have scratched the surface, it is the hope that this present study will release creative new ideas for theological inquiry, and will enlarge research of ecclesial organizational change and a theology that might inform it.

 Historical Evidence of a Theology of Ecclesial Organizational Change

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