Open Source Theology

Posted on March 28, 2012


Admit it, when you first heard of Wikipedia your reaction was, “An online encyclopedia that anyone can edit? That will never work.” I was even tempted to go in to some obscure entry and make bizarre changes. Twinkies were invented by Shirley Temple. Or The Great Wall of China was actually a gift from France. You get the idea because I’m sure you thought the same thing.

Of course, now Wikipedia is not only a part of our vocabulary, it’s a regular part of our lives. We use it to verify trivia and as a starting point for serious research. With the announcement that The Encyclopedia Britannica is going to stop printing physical volumes, it looks like Wikipedia will be around for awhile.

Open Source Projects

Wikipedia is an “open-source” project. An open-source project is a project whose code, inner workings, or structure is developed collaboratively and is open to public changes, suggestions, and critique. Essentially, a lot of different people all contributing to a single project. Webopedia explains the trend toward open source:

The rationale for this movement is that a larger group of programmers not concerned with proprietary ownership or financial gain will produce a more useful and bug-free product for everyone to use. The concept relies on peer review to find and eliminate bugs in the program code, a process which commercially developed and packaged programs do not utilize. Programmers on the Internet read, redistribute and modify the source code, forcing an expedient evolution of the product. The process of eliminating bugs and improving the software happens at a much quicker rate than through the traditional development channels of commercial software as the information is shared throughout the open source community and does not originate and channel through a corporation’s research and development cog.

To sum: open source projects harnesses the power of thousands (potentially millions) of people, all around the world, to work on a single project. Some examples of popular open source computer programs are the web-browser Firefox, word processing software NeoOffice, and Google Android. Even the blogging software I’m using to write this post, WordPress, is itself an open-source project.

Open source projects are not limited to computer software. There are open-source projects in science, medicine, music, art, and education. While there is an important debate about the value vs. cost of open source projects (digital rights being the clearest example), open source projects, when uncoupled from financial gain and battles over ownership, are doing amazing things.

Proprietary Projects

The opposite of open source is proprietary. I don’t really need to define this because this is how most business is done. We made it. We own it. Don’t touch without paying us. If you do, we’ll sue your socks off. Fair enough. There is a place for proprietary models. Apple is notorious for being proprietary to the point of frustrating their customers. They can do this because they make products that people want so much that they are willing to give up their ability to do something as simple as change the battery in their iPod.

But if the day comes when Apple no longer delivers the best product (as they currently do), or their customer service weakens, or another company offers a product just as good/beautiful/integrated and you can change the battery yourself, then Apple is going to have to change. It won’t matter how much they insist on proprietary ownership because no one will want what they are selling. It won’t matter how loudly they chant: We made it. We own it. Don’t touch it. Because people will simply respond with, “Don’t want it. Don’t need it. You can keep it.

Open-source Theology vs. Proprietary Theology

The tension between open source vs. proprietary is in churches right now. For most of history, what I will call proprietary theology was the norm. A few experts (priests, monks, bishops, pastors, kings, queens, merchants, etc.) were in control of Christianity. In fact, for a long time these people were the only ones who were able to even read the Bible (or read at all). They controlled everything having to do with knowing Christ. They controlled the sacraments. They interpreted the scriptures. They sanctioned marriages and granted divorces. They wrote doctrine and decided upon dogma. They were community leaders at the local level and occasionally wielded power equal to a king’s on the national level. They could do this because they had access to God at a time when there were no other options. You had to buy what they were selling or you were going to burn in hell for all eternity. They had the monopoly on the market.

Now, there were many Christian leaders who used their power (for it really was power) for the greater good. I am not saying that this was merely a period of antiquated patriarchal hierarchy, there were some good things. While it was a time of sexism, racism, and class-ism, there were occasions where church leaders used their influence to lead the charge for change.

However, while these church leaders were arguing against slavery, for women’s rights, for civil rights, or for human rights, they were able to participate in these debates because these leaders still operated within the system of proprietary theology. They were listened to because of their privileged position. They had a voice because of the role they played, not merely because they had something to say, not merely because they had value as human beings.

Which is all a preamble to say: we (and I must include myself) are now being forced to realize that the days of proprietary theology are gone.

All the reasons why open source projects are blossoming in various sectors of human endeavor are there in the church too: globalization, increased mobility, and easy access to information. The open source movement may be slower to ferment, but its there and church leadership is going to need to adjust they way they operate or become obsolete.

Where to Begin: An Open Source Theology of Homosexuality

Let me digress to illustrate. Last week our Classis heard an overture (a communication from a church within the Classis). It suggested that at our next yearly Synod, the denomination consider requiring that any minister who performs a same-sex marriage “the form of discipline imposed shall be either “suspension from the privileges of membership in the church or from office,” or “depositìon from office”. 

I would not usually make an issues like this public knowledge but this overture is being brought forth in the same form by several different Classis and may become a debate at the synodical level. I will also say that it was voted down by my Classis. I cast my “nay” vote on the grounds that all disciplinary actions are carried out by the Classis and that currently no offense has a prescribed punishment in our denomination. When charges are brought against a minister there are actually several options open to the judicial committee.

But is the attitude of the people who brought this overture that I want to focus on and that attitude could not have been more clear: proprietary theology. “We, as the leaders of the Church, as those people who have gone to seminary and are in full-time salaried ministry, we decide what the Bible says and how it is lived out. We are the definitive authority on all things Christian.”

The problem with this attitude is that we live in an open source society. Proprietary theology worked when you had the social means of enforcing your authority. But people are highly mobile, incredibly educated, unwilling to sit passively at your feet. They have thousands of churches they can attend if you try to pull rank and tell them what’s what when it comes to the Bible. It doesn’t matter how right you are. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how many languages you know, or how well you can cite you Bible, chapter-and-verse.

If you’re a theological jerk, or a spiritual snob, or a doctrinal bully then people are going to run away whenever you open your mouth. And while you might feel self-righteous because you took a stand for something you believed was moral and just, the only response you are going to get when you share your version of the good news is “Don’t want it. Don’t need it. You can keep it.”

Church leaders have two choices.

1. Maintain your quest for control under the guise of biblical fidelity.

2. Open the table to other voices and actually listen to them.

Right now the Church in America is the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s not that we’re under assault, it’s that we’re dangerously close to being useless. And like the experts at the Encyclopedia Britannica probably thrashed around against the trend toward open source, and as they felt pride in their expert opinions and critical opinions,I suspect that many people in the church will think this is a crazy idea (which it probably is). But as the experts at the Encyclopedia Britannica debated, more and more entries were being added to Wikipedia.

I do not want to lose the voices of educated biblical scholars and teachers. I do not wish for anarchy within the church. But I also realize that it is less and less effective to use proprietary theology in an open source world.

I know that the future (if there is to be a future) will require that we who benefit from proprietary privileged welcome a greater diversity of opinions and perspectives to be heard in our debates. Further we will need to welcome those who hold these opinions and perspectives to be as much a part of the decision making process as we are.

This would require us let go of what we feel like our privilege, our right, our duty (let’s be honest, its really our ego). This would require us to trust the Holy Spirit more than we trust our institutions. It would be a wild and messy ride. Mistakes would be made. But as I sat in that Classis meeting listening to people debate, and as I cast my vote, I could see no other other way.

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