Recently Baptist News Global ran an article about the utility of congregational polity in the 21st century. The article raised a number of interesting and informative points about the future of congregational polity with respect to Millennials. Certainly the future is important, but the past also reminds us of challenges that are recurring problems in society that have affects and will continue to affect congregational polity long into the future regardless of generational differences.
Today Bernie Sanders may be resonating with young voters by blowing the whistle on the rise of income and wealth inequality in society; however, this is not a problem that is completely foreign to the American psyche. In the late 2000s the top 1 percent of wage earners in America were amassing nearly 25 percent of the total income share, and such statistics are shared with 1920s America.
Prior to the Roaring Twenties, the Gilded Age was also host to a great period of wealth inequality. This period, from the 1870s to the early 1900s, was termed the Gilded Age years later in reference to Mark Twain’s 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. In this work, Twain critiques the period’s thinly veiled prosperity that masked immense societal corruption.
It was the period of the robber barons. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Morgan dominated economic life and monopolized industries including the oil, steel, railroads and banking. Reverberations of their financial exploits continue to have influence on society today.
Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister and leading figure in the Social Gospel movement, served a local congregation in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City during this period in the 1870s. In his best-selling book, Christianity and the Social Crisis, Rauschenbusch identified wealth inequality as uniquely problematic for Baptists particularly because of their congregational polity.
Rauschenbusch noticed that while it is generally assumed that the practice of tithing 10 percent of one’s income can be fairly requested of any and all members of the church, such an assumption could not be further from the truth. Not all necessary expenditures are calculated as a percentage of one’s income. Rauschenbusch explained that certain costs are the same whether you make 500 dollars a year or 5,000 dollars. The assumption that the 10 percent tithe of the rich and the 10 percent tithe of the poor are equal is, according to Rauschenbusch, “a grievous injustice on … poorer church members.”
In addition, income inequality may affect certain churches that may have one or two affluent congregants. These few individuals or families may provide the most significant portion of the church’s operating budget. Should a wealthy congregant become displeased with the direction of the church, she or he may withhold financial contributions.
Baptists typically practice a style of democratic polity — each member has one vote, their conscience. In an idealized world, the Spirit of God would work through the people and decisions would be made as the Spirit leads — the communal conscience. Uneven wealth distribution, however, has an uncanny ability to circumvent such a system of governance.
I wonder how many times a Baptist church has decided to make a decision because of one member who happened to be footing the bill? Perhaps the inverse is truer — how many times has a church made a decision because a member would withhold their monetary contribution?
In either situation, Baptist polity has failed. Congregations have forsaken their belief that the Spirit of God speaks through the communal conscience of the church body and instead speaks through one. Power and authority are no longer granted to the God of the biblical text, but instead to the God of the almighty dollar.
Such problems of wealth inequality do not end here, however. They are seen in denominational life as well. In the same way one member of a church may use their money to usurp the Spirit of God working through the communal conscience of the local church, so too a congregation may usurp the Spirit of God working through the communal conscience of the denomination. Rather than allowing the Spirit of God to speak through the body of believers and their communal conscience, larger Baptist bodies may recoil to maintain their membership.
As Rauschenbusch explains, a “great inequality of wealth injects a monarchical element into denominations with democratic government.”
Such are some of the difficulties of Baptist polity and wealth inequality. While certainly there are times for individuals to withhold their financial support as they follow their individual conscience, larger bodies cannot squelch the communal conscience of the Spirit of God working through the body of Christ for the sake of the few.
As we march slowly into the heart of the 21st century perhaps questions of polity are not solely about what happens within the walls of the local church. Perhaps making sure millennials are not swamped with massive amounts of debt after college and can find decent paying jobs and affordable housing would not only be a moral thing to do, but also could do just as much to benefit congregational polity than anything else.