Open Source Church: Chapter One


What would happen if Christianity was like open source software (prominent examples are Java and OpenOffice, as well as the Firefox browser)? What would happen if the church was run like Wikipedia? The answer to this question is found in Open Source Church.

Landon Whitsitt is a Presbyterian minister in Liberty MO and the author of a recent book entitled Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All (Herndon VA: The Alban Institute, 2011). He asks these questions, and then goes on to describe what might be the result. The book builds upon the ideas behind open-source software programming and crowd sourcing projects such as Wikipedia. It is deeply influenced by James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds (New York: Anchor Books, 2004). Whitsitt’s claim is that not only can Christianity be “open source”, but that it should be, as it is the faith in which “the truth shall set you free” and that grace and salvation are granted freely by God. For Whitsitt this double idea of freedom – freely given, free to act – is at the core of the good news of Jesus Christ.

The basic idea behind open-source programming and crowd-sourcing is that the collective intelligence and knowledge of a group is greater than that of any one individual. For example, in the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire the contestant has a choice of four answers to a question and has to pick the correct one to advance to the next stage. In the course of the game she had three life-lines – call a friend, eliminate half of the incorrect answers (“50/50”), and ask the crowd. The friend was as often as not worse than useless, and the 50/50 still left an incorrect answer on the board, but the audience was brilliant, getting the correct answer virtually all the time. As the answers were solicited by simple, secret, electronic votes – no time for discussion or “group think” to emerge – it really reflected the collective wisdom of the crowd. And it was usually right.

Open Source technology uses the wisdom of crowds to collaboratively build great software. To do so it requires that software code is available to anyone and can be modified for anyone, subject to certain protocols of the Open Source Definition (“OSD”). OSD was created in 1989 by an American named Bruce Perrins. OSD sets ten criteria which  should be required for anything to be considered “open source.” Whitsitt calls these the 10 Commandments of Open Source, and he has adapted them for use by Christians.  He has also elaborated on the practical way in which these work. So here they are:

Open Source Definition (Perrins 1989) Gospel Commandment (Whitsitt 2011) In Practice (Whitsitt 2011)
1. Free Redistribution: one can make as many copies as one wishes, and sell as many or give away as many as one wishes. Thou shalt freely give what thou hast freely received. (p. 12) The gospel is freely received and freely given; you do not have to pay for it. The gospel sets you free. There is no requirement to receive the gospel, and one can freely proclaim it.
2. Access to source code is unrestricted. Thou shalt not restrict access to Jesus Christ, the Word of God. (p. 14) No one can claim to speak unequivocally for God or offer the last word on biblical interpretation.
3. Derived Works: Anyone can modify the received program and they can redistribute the modified program under the same terms by which they have received it. Thou shalt celebrate the gospel by celebrating contextualization. The gospel needs to live in and draw on real communities, which may be different from each other.
4. Integrity of the author’s source code: modified works must carry a different name from the original. Thou shalt respect the integrity of the person and work of Jesus Christ. No one person or group is in possession of the original, correct, or sole understanding of Christ’s person and work.
5. No discrimination against people or groups. No one can be excluded from receiving or proclaiming the fullness of the gospel. (p. 20) No exclusion, an acceptance of diversity.
6. No discrimination against fields of endeavor. You are free to use the software for any purpose. A commitment to neither restrict nor inhibit the actions of any person or group working to bring about freedom. Acceptance of diverse theologies. Conversations about freedom.
7. Distribution of License: The license accompanying the program must grant that the benefits of that license apply to all to whom the program is redistributed. The faithfulness of God in the covenant of freedom granted in Christ does not depend upon requisite behavior of the one who receives it.
8. License must not be specific to a product. A specific configuration of the program is not required for the OSD to be transmitted. The freedom promised in Christ’s gospel does not depend upon a particular understanding of that theology. No theology, creed, confession, doctrine, or statement of faith can claim, or can be said to be vested with, a total embodiment of freedom. The totality of the gospel will never be found in a particular, contextualized expression of it.
9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software. No terms and conditions for other software interacting with it or on the same system. God’s covenant with the body of Christ does not deny the truth and benefit found in other religious and wisdom traditions. As freedom is the primary concern of God in Christ, our bold proclamnation is always tempered with humility.
10. License must be technology neutral. Not restricted to any individual technology or interface, such as computer or operating system. The covenant of God is not restricted by the existence or actions of a particular church or gathering of believers. All gatherings of God’s people have the potential to actualized the freedom promised.

These protocols make up the first chapter of Whitsitt’s book. I’ll take up his description of “Church as Wikipedia” in another post.


About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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