The Starfish and the Spider: P2P Networks and Spiritual Nant’ans

[Editor’s Note: If you’re just joining us, we are in the middle of reading through “The Starfish and the Spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Each Monday and Thursday I’ll summarize a few important principles from a chapter in the book. Each Tuesday and Friday, I’ll apply those principles to the starfish-shaped church I believe the Lord is building in the Earth.]

Yesterday we spent some time looking at peer to peer (P2P) file sharing networks and how they were able to not just take on but thrive under opposition from large corporations like MGM. The secret, as Brafman and Beckstrom point out, can be found in the decentralized nature of the movement. They learned this from learning the history of Apache’s long fight against the Spaniards, who were a larger, more centralized army. The key to remember here is that decentralized movements, when attacked by larger and more centralized opponents, spread further and grow stronger.

So…how does this apply to the church?

First, the church of Jesus Christ is a peer to peer network. What does that mean? It means that Jesus encouraged us to look at each other as never being above another. He calls us in Scripture to mutual edification, mutual submission, and mutual sharing in ministry (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Ephesians 5:19-22,1 Corinthians 14:26). Jesus Himself told us that we should see ourselves as equals, not superior to each other (Matthew 23:8). Paul wrote the book of Romans to a group of believers who needed to hear his message, but also hoped to grow by receiving from their spiritual gifts (Romans 1:11-12).

This equality in Christ creates a peer to peer network that we call the church. As the church lives its life together and meets together for encouragement, giftings emerge that help form the body into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).  This happens on a micro level within individual churches but also on a larger level between churches. Each individual church relates to other existing churches as peers that help each other and encourage each other into the ways of the Kingdom. We see this in Scripture in the way the Antioch church takes up offerings for the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11) or the way in which the Philippians partner with Paul for the advance of the Gospel in other places (Philippians 4:14).  All of this can and should happen without a person directing it, but by the leadership of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Am I saying there’s no human initiative or leadership that happens within the church? Absolutely not. However, I think where we see leadership in Scripture, it is much more like the Nant’ans of the Apaches than the CEO of Starbucks or Walmart.

Who were the Nant’ans? They were spiritual and social leaders. They had the respect of those around them for their spiritual lives and for the wise choices they made.  Apaches weren’t told what to do by the Nant’ans. Apaches decided to follow Nant’ans based watching their lives and seeing the outcome from it.

Who are the leaders in the body of Christ? It’s not those with a title that tell people what to do. It is those that have a true walk with Christ. They are those who give their lives to serving the body of Christ. Over a (short or long) period of time, the body sees the wise example in their lives and give themselves to following the examples of these believers (see Hebrews 13:7-8, 1 Timothy 3:2-7, 1 Corinthians 11:1).

Why is all of this important? Centralized leadership can cause a society to thrive. It certainly did for the Aztecs and the Incas and to a certain degree, it has worked for the legacy church. But take out a King or an Emporer and often the whole society falls apart. Over-dependence on centralized structures can look like a blessing until it’s not.  How many mega churches have been devastated by the fall of their charismatic preacher? How many denominations with bishops and seminaries have fallen into grave heresy?

Most importantly, the testimony of our brothers and sisters in other countries tells us that a decentralized church not only survives under persecution–it thrives. Leaders can and are often jailed or killed. The decentralized nature of the church in those places allows for new leaders to step up into their place immediately. House churches that are split up because the threat of persecution multiply into more house churches and reach more people. They stay small enough to be undetected which means they stay small enough to care for each other like a family.  Like a starfish torn in two that becomes two starfish, a church ravaged by persecution often multiplies into more than one house church. It’s why we say the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

This decentralized nature of the church will take on more importance as we begin to understand the difference between starfish and spider organizations. These two are often at war with each other.

More on that on Monday…

Other Entries in this Series Include:

The Starfish and the Spider: Introduction

The Starfish and the Spider: Introduction II

The Starfish and the Spider: On Napster and Apache Leadership


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About traviskolder

Travis Kolder is a follower of Jesus, a husband, a father of five, an organic church planter, and a writer. He lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he serves as part of the Cedar Rapids House Church Network.

7 responses to “The Starfish and the Spider: P2P Networks and Spiritual Nant’ans”

  1. gunnarlarmstrong says :

    This has been an interesting series. I appreciate how you are careful to support everything you say about the church with scripture. Sometimes, when we use a metaphor, like the starfish, P2P and the Apaches, we can start interpreting scripture in light of the metaphor. But I think you are being careful to base your discussion in scripture and just use the “metaphors” for illustration. I, personally, am not too keen on the two groups the authors are using — the P2P music pirates/thieves (my bias is showing) and the Apaches — who, if I remember my history, were very warlike and cruel and violent. Their “success” could be attributable to their flexibility and decentralization, or it could be attributable to how difficult it is to stamp out troublemakers (I don’t want to offend Indian apologists, but my memory is the Apaches had a reputation for thievery and cruelty). But, I still think your main point is well taken. If you look at the Jewish people at the beginning, God set up a very decentralized system — based on tribes, but really governed village by village. It was only when they refused to have God be their King that they got a human king and centralized government. It was more efficient, but really didn’t make them seek God any more wholeheartedly.

  2. Marshall says :

    the starfish metaphor can in use mis one HUGE aspect: if something should happen to our One Leader — the arms and body as are we, frankly, all dead.

    The body & ekklesia of Christ remains most hyper-centralized of anything a man can know. (also, most unlike any business model popularized on earth.) To reference: the prayer from John 17 pushes centralization so far above as being “one” with the One at Center. Member ‘peer-to-peer’ connection vitally depends upon direct connection with The Head — even to thrive.

    Where centralization had become “relocated” or presumed as to be divvied up, such is where churches or groups become tiered or “2-headed”, and-so in conflict with the One Head of all; so-then becoming weak, sickly, near-to-dead.

  3. gunnarlarmstrong says :

    Marshall: I agree with what you are saying about how the church is dead if it loses contact with the Head. I think Travis was saying that these models had to be modified to take into account the fact that Jesus is the head. You talked about churches becoming “tiered” or “two-headed”. Are you referring to “leaders” and “followers”?

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