Christian Science Polity in Crisis

By Gottschalk, Stephen | The Christian Century, March 3, 1993 | Go to article overview

Christian Science Polity in Crisis


Gottschalk, Stephen, The Christian Century


IT MAY SEEM ironic that in 1992, the centennial year of the founding of the Mother Church, Christian Scientists were more deeply divided over fundamental issues than at any point in their history. At the same time, a denomination that some saw as fading continues to show unexpected signs of life as it struggles over issues critical to its future. Of these, none is more pivotal than the question of authority--specifically, the authority of the Christian Science Board of Directors and its relation to the church's constitution, the Manual of the Mother Church.

As in many denominations, the polity of the Church of Christ, Scientist, reflects its central teachings. Mary Baker Eddy spoke of this teaching not as her own personal opinion, but as her "discovery" of the fundamental truth and continuing law undergirding scripture. Her work as founder of the denomination was also a matter of discovery--experiment, trial and error--through which a church polity gradually took form.

The distinguishing feature of this church lies in its emphasis on spiritual experience over religious tradition, denominational adherence, creedal confession and public worship. Eddy was acutely aware of the potentially inimical effects of institutionalism and religious hierarchy on the spiritual life. The church she founded is wholly a church of laypersons with all offices open to men and women. Neither practitioners, teachers nor readers in church are invested with any kind of special status or personal power. Nor is church membership indispensable to salvation. The only criterion that defines the purpose of the church she founded is rousing what she called "dormant" spiritual understanding of humanity and empowering the healing of sickness and sin.

Other traditions that emphasize the primacy of religious experience redefine religious truth in ways that reflect changing experience. But in Christian Science, healing experiences are seen as confirmations that permanent spiritual truth has been understood. This truth, Eddy insisted, revolved around the scripturally revealed primacy of one sovereign God as all-inclusive Spirit. Finite limitations and human suffering must thus be seen as effects of the limits of human mentality, not as the creative will of this supremely good and loving God. Once we accept without reservation God's infinite reality and goodness, Eddy maintained, we can begin to think out from the standpoint of spiritual existence, rather than up from the standpoint of belief in matter as the final arbiter of life. As we adopt this new standpoint, it becomes more reasonable to seek the spiritual healing that Jesus urged upon his followers as a natural and necessary phase of Christian discipleship.

The Mother Church serves to rouse the spiritual understanding that brings forth this healing and to ensure that the truth upon which this understanding rests is preserved and made available. The offices and functions of the Mother Church were intended to be practical aids in achieving these ends. The church as Eddy conceived of it acts through its Publishing Society, Board of Lectureship and other instruments to strengthen the Christian Science "field" and to reach the public. She entrusted the responsibility for administering these activities to the Christian Science Board of Directors, a self-perpetuating five-member body which transacts church business.

AS OUTLINED IN the Manual, the board ensures that the work entrusted to various church officials is done properly, applies Manual by-laws relative to the discipline of members, and passes on credentials of various applicants for church membership and recognition. While the Manual gives the board considerable leeway in fulfilling these duties, the board's role does not include the broad leadership functions that Eddy reserved to herself. Indeed, she left in the Manual some 32 by-laws that require her consent. Given the enormous labor she expended on refining the church's organization, it is absurd to argue--as some opponents of that organization have--that she intended the Mother Church to go out of existence at her death. …

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