The first in my typology of views on “charismatic movements” deals with a perspective I’m calling “charismatic opposed to institutional.” This viewpoint basically sees the charismatic element of the church as the “true” or “original”church, and the institutions as a corrupting, stifling force that squeezes out the charismatic life. According to this perspective, then, “charismatic movements” would represent the re-emergence of primitive, Pauline Christianity.
In scholarly circles this discussion begins with debate over the constitution of the earliest Christian communities. Rudolph Söhm was responsible for bringing the discussion of charisms into modern scholarship (found in his Kirchenrecht, published in 1892). Söhm was a lawyer, and the original reason for his investigation of primitive Christianity was occasioned by a dispute with fellow jurists regarding the status of civil law in Christian marriage ceremonies. This set him on the path of researching the history of canon law, and the necessary corollary discipline of church history. Söhm argued against the prevailing “voluntary association” consensus among protestant scholars in the 1880s, positing instead that the earliest Christians viewed their communities as drawn together and constituted by the charisms of the Spirit, meaning that they understood the Church as a spiritual entity which was beyond all human law. The contrast here is between the church constituted by the consent of the members in a democratic “free association” sense, and the church as constituted by the charismatic action of the Sprit.
According to Söhm, leadership and direction of the community was provided by charismatic leaders (preachers, teachers, and bishops), and was not formalized into offices. In Söhm’s views, such formalization of charismatic authority into offices came later as a failure and a retreat from the original organization of the Church. Leonardo Boff characterizes Söhm’s view by saying “Faith in the Gospel gave way to faith in divine law” (Church, Charism and Power, 68).
Söhm’s interpretation of the early Church had a profound influence in the early twentieth century, though it was not blindly accepted. Adolf von Harnack agreed that the primitive church was charismatic, but proposed that there had originally non-charismatic leadership as well, identifying the charismatic leaders with itinerant preachers and prophets who exercised a universal ministry, and the non-charismatic with the local presbyters, bishops, and deacons (primarily in The Constitution & Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries). In the final analysis, Harnack followed the same line of thinking as Söhm in proposing that the non-charismatic leadership eventually overtook and excluded the charismatic leadership, thus pushing aside the originally charismatic element in the Church.
Hans von Campenhausen provided a variation on this thesis, by identifying the non-charismatic leadership with Jewish Christianity, and the charismatic leadership with the Pauline communities. The two models were later merged, and the error in Campenhausen’s reading of primitive church history was the investment of the offices with sacred significance, a move which, in effect, led to the exclusion of charisms (Ecclesastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries).
For the most part, later 20th century scholarship has taken a more nuanced view of the relationship between the institutional and charismatic in the church (more on that in later posts). But the idea remains common in the popular Christian imagination. Of course, revivalist groups, and charismatic movements would often read early church history in this way. Inevitably a new movement that does not fit well with established leadership structures will interpret those structures as a stifling form of opposition to the Spirit’s work.
The problem with this perspective, of course, is that no purely charismatic movement can exist for any period of time without developing stable institutional structures. Once you set a time and place for a meeting, and decide who is on set up, who is leading the singing, etc., you have begun the process of institutionalization! So, if this is true, what kind of a reading of church history does it provide? The church’s history is one of continual decline, interrupted sporadically by spontaneous irruptions of real Christianity, which themselves inevitably degenerate into spiritless institutions. The result is that much of Christian history, and the majority of Christians in the world at any given time, are written off as being part of a spiritually dead Church.
Are “institutional” structures completely devoid of the Spirit’s leading? That cannot be, if a) we believe that Christ has promised to be with his Church to the end, and b) historical continuity of any kind involves institutional structures. It is true that there often are tensions and struggles between charismatic movements and established structures, but setting up such a clear dichotomy between the two seems to oversimplify the situation. Therefore, conceiving the institutional aspect of the Church as fundamentally “opposed” to the charismatic is not satisfactory.