Glossary

Voluntary Associations


Reformation Reader
Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian
   The cornerstone idea the Reformation is Martin Luther's concept of the "priesthood of all believers." Since all believers are, in religious matters, free from authority or coercion, it follows that authority is equally vested in all Christians. According to Luther, the hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes, in the Catholic church takes this liberty and equality from individual believers and improperly endows it on a select few. The burning question, though, is if there are no priests, who is in charge in the church? Who makes decisions about membership? Who gets to speak in church? Luther resolved this question in part by authorizing only a select few who, for the good of the church, do the speaking in church and make its decisions.


   But the question doesn't go away. How do you create a structure of authority where no one person or group of people are allowed to be authorities over the rest? If all believers are equal, then all should participate in decisions regarding the church. John Calvin (1509-1564) solves this problem in part with the idea of voluntary associations. The individual church is regarded as an association of people who choose to be part of that church—membership is completely voluntary. However, the voluntary aspect of the association cuts the other way as well: people are admitted into the church only if they are collectively approved by the congregation. That is, the fundamental structure of the Calvinist church is, in theory at least, democratic.


Enlightenment Glossary
Rights
Social Contract

The Idea of America Reader
The Declaration of Independence
   This innovation in the social structure of the church was to have dramatic and far-reaching consequences in the subsequent history of Europe and America. It proved to be a small step moving this concept out of the church and into the political world, which touched off a series of crises that steadily eroded monarchical power and inflamed democratic sentiments. This concept of "voluntary associations" would produce several parallel concepts in European thought: social contract, rights, and representative democracy, and form the basis for the National Assembly in revolutionary France and the foundational ideas of Declaration of Independence.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-12-97