Featured: DOOMED EDIFICE – P.W. Baker. [Vol. 3, #7]

February 27, 2010 — 4 Comments

 

Crippled by Bureaucracy?

A Review of
Doomed Edifice:
The Eclipse of the Prophetic Ministry And
The Spiritual Captivity of the Church
by P.W. Baker.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.


Doomed Edifice:
The Eclipse of the Prophetic Ministry And
The Spiritual Captivity of the Church
P.W. Baker.

Paperback: Wipf and Stock, 2010.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

DOOMED EDIFICE - PW BakerThe new book, Doomed Edifice: The Eclipse of the Prophetic Ministry and the Spiritual Captivity of the Church by P.W. Baker piqued my interest with its promise of reflection on early Church history from a viewpoint influenced by the late social critic  Ivan Illich (click here for a delightful introduction to Illich’s life and work).  Baker is primarily interested here with the institutionalization of the Church: “the fruit of the human attempt to remedy what is considered imperfect or vulnerable… Christians [thus] chose predictable order, rule and authority instead of the spontaneous, convivial and organic” (123).  The power structures of the Church therefore came to overshadow shadow what Baker refers to as the “prophetic ministry”, a role he traces back to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament era.  Prophecy, Baker notes was the role of providing divine guidance to the people of  God.  He emphasizes that prophecy was balanced by the crucial work of discernment, a responsibility he argues that rested squarely on the local church congregation as a  whole, and not on “any single individual or to any select group of spiritual leaders” (21).

Baker spends the vast majority of the book describing this shift of authority – from that of God as communicated through the prophets and discerned by the local congregation to that of a hierarchy of human leaders –which occurred over the first centuries of the Church’s existence.  Baker defines his terms in clear and simple language—“prophetic ministry,” “institutional church” and even “church” itself – and his call for a return to churches rooted in the prophetic ministry is compelling.  However, the history books which provide the structure for his arguments are mostly from the early twentieth century.  Foremost among these is the sadly obscure The Church and The Ministry in the Early Centuries by Thomas Martin Lindsay (See the brand new ebook version below, available for free download!).  In fact, one of the greatest assets of Baker’s work here is his revitalization of Lindsay’s work, and Doomed Edifice could be understood as an annotated introduction to Lindsay’s text for today.  However, it is peculiar that Baker makes no reference to more recent works that build similar cases.  In particular, Hans Von Compenhausen’s renowned work Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries makes nearly identical points and goes completely unmentioned by Baker.

As one who shares Baker’s deep appreciation for the anti-institutional ideology of Ivan Illich, I am very sympathetic to the case he is making here, and would recommend his book as a poignant reminder that the church was not always as crippled by bureaucracy as it is so often today.  However, I was disappointed in that his guidance for how we might return to the prevalence of the prophetic ministry struck me as vague and rather feeble.  He is clear that it is God who will bring us out of captivity, but has little to recommend other than prayer in terms of aligning ourselves in preparation for God’s liberation.

Baker makes a compelling case against the legitimacy of hierarchical structures of authority in the Church, but does little to help us envision the direction from which liberation form these institutions might come.