Anarchists, Iconoclasts, and Reformers in the Church

“Anarchist” is a pejorative label for many people, a designation implying lawlessness and amorality. “Iconoclast” is a milder designation, implying a particular vendetta on a volatile issue. “Reformer” has a positive aura, but can imply hopeless and unending do-goodism, talk without resuAnarchylts.

My understanding of anarchism’s core impulse is the belief that the current state of affairs is hopelessly corrupt and irredeemable. Therefore, it is best to tear down or destroy all governing institutions. The opportunistic anarchist hopes to prevail in the resulting chaos, rebuilding a new society with limited government. So the idea that anarchy=chaos is essentially accurate, for temporary chaos may be to the advantage of the eventual winners.

iconoclastIconoclasm is a term arising from the church’s icon controversies, a time when some feared that religious art might be inappropriately worshiped. The term literally means “image-breaking,” and now implies a targeted destruction of certain institutions or persons deemed to have grown too powerful and/or corrupt. Once the offender is destroyed (or at least neutered), the iconoclast will move to the next target.

votes-for-womenA reformer sees the inefficiencies and offensiveness of a system and seeks to repair or replace corrupt elements, thereby revitalizing the whole. A reformer does not see the current state as irredeemable, but also knows that reform is a never ending process, that we can always do better.

A political example might serve to illustrate these differences: the Internal Revenue Service. This is the tax gathering arm of the U.S. government and it seems reasonable that something like this is necessary if government is to be funded.

The anarchist move is to abolish the IRS. This is proposed without alternative, either oblivious to the consequences of the resulting chaos or desirous of the result of defunding government in general.

The iconoclastic move is relentless attack on the IRS as a symbolic boogeyman, a convenient focus for one’s frustrations with government. The IRS might be “broken” by lawsuits, hearings, and cuts in funding, but there is no serious attempt to eliminate this source of tax collecting altogether.

The reformer recognizes the inefficiencies with the IRS and the general frustration with the current tax system. The reformist call is to redo the entire tax code, eliminating its labyrinthine layers of privilege and penalty that have accumulated over many years of tinkering. The reformer will want to retain those things deemed positive, eliminate sections that are oppressive or corrupt, and perhaps add new ideas that will increase fairness and productivity for the IRS. But reform is difficult, especially in a representative government.

For many in the church today, there is a feeling that things are not right, not as they should be. Those who seek to change this status quo may follow one of these three pathways.

The anarchist impulse is not so much to destroy the current institutional church, but to abandon it altogether. It will then die from neglect and lack of support while new churches are planted, new buildings are built, and new leaders are empowered. But what will be the fate of these new things when they become old? Will the next generation of church leaders, having learned the techniques of anarchism from their mentors, abandon them just as quickly?

The iconoclast is on a more focused search and destroy mission. Get rid of those pews. Disband that choir. Eliminate adult Bible classes. Quit supporting traditional missionaries. Tear down that antiquated thirty-year old building. The iconoclastic focus rarely notices that all of these things have constituencies, because the people who love them are old and irrelevant, and not in positions of power.

The reformer’s agenda is never-ending. Tough questions are asked and hard answers are given. Why are we putting energy into a traditional event that is poorly attended? Are we doing church in such a way that honors the past but ignores the present? Are we getting desired results for our budget expenditures? Yet as with government, reform is slow and can be frustrating to impatient folks (like me).

I will admit that in my 30+ years of ordained ministry, I have functioned in all three of these roles.We need all three to a degree for the church to be healthy. But are there dangers here?

Karl Barth wrote, ecclesia semper reformanda est, the church is ever-reforming. The church we grew up in was not the church our grandparents grew up with. Change is inevitable. Our choice is to be agents of change (having a say), to be observers of change (watching as others do it), or to be self-understood as victims of change (mourning the past and rejecting the present).

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College