The Barnabas Ministry

The Institutional Church
At Christmastime, perhaps more than any other, that the institutional church is thrust into the forefront. Christmas services and celebrations stand out-- it is a well-known fact that most people who don't normally attend church will do so at Christmastime and Easter. I myself have spent a fair amount of time in the last few weeks working to help behind the scenes with one Christmas show at church, and my wife and I did some babysitting to help someone else participate in all the rehearsals for another show. In addition to the shows and Christmas parties, there have been toy drives and gift baskets for the needy-- all institutionalized through the church (though the toy drive was in conjunction with the Toys for Tots program, and the gift baskets were through some government agency and HOPE).

But it wasn't long into my own rehearsals that I asked the question, "What would Jesus be doing?" Would he be involved in a Christmas show, spending all day putzing with lights and sound equipment, enduring rehearsals in all their tedium? Never mind the origins of Christmas-- this actually raises a broader and deeper question, that of the institutional church itself. So on the back of my production copy of the show script I took the initial notes for this article, and proceded to give it some thought.

Each extreme has its attractions:

Before we go too far down this path, let me say that the fallacious form of argumentation known as the "law of the excluded middle" comes into play here. A dilemma can be presented as an "either-or" situation, but the reality is that few things in life are truly "either-or." Relating to this topic, I suppose the institutionalism of the church is not "either-or" but rather a point on a continuum. On one extreme there is no organization and no institution, and on the other extreme complete organization and institutionalism. So where on the continuum should we be? Where does God want us?

Where did the institutional church come from? More importantly, did God ever sanction it as a religious institution? If so, why? The answer to the former question is relatively easy, but the answer to the latter question is not quite so obvious, at least not to me.

A Bible Perspective
Well, I think the place to start is Abraham. Heralded as the father of the faithful by Jew and Christian alike, his initial religious involvement was not about starting an institution but about obeying God: God told him to go to the land he would show him, and he went (Genesis 12:1-5). He has no idea he was doing anything other than obeying God. He had no idea he would be written about, nor did he write his own story as history while he was living it. The song "You're So Vain" with its criticisms of a man who has "one eye in the mirror" as he lived his life certainly wasn't about Abraham.

From Abraham's time until the time of Moses, there was apparently no insitutionalism sanctioned by God. But then Moses came along, and God spoke the Law and its institution to him. God went away from the "walking with God" approach and created an institution, within which people were required to obey him. Why did he do it? If you answer this question, you define what kind of institutionalism God accepts. But let's let God answer the question:

So you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land which the LORD your God is giving you for all time (Deuteronomy 4:40).
So the Law was given, and the institution was created, to bring blessings to men: that it would "go well with them" and that they would "live long" in the land. Numerous studies have been done on the health benefits of the dietary and sanitary aspects of the Law, and yet I think it is clear that God is referring to more than just these aspects. Yes, they would receive the benefits of improved health and hygiene, and learn practical ways what "love your neighbor" meant in social and business life-- but they would also receive the blessing of God through their faithfulness to God expressed in obedience to the Law, within the institution. It was an avenue to receive the blessings of God, created for man's benefit and not the other way around. That sounds a lot like what Jesus said back in Mark 2:27: The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.

So then Jesus comes along and sees an institution that he had a role in creating as the Word, but now that institution has a life of its own and its leaders have put it (and themselves) above the people for which the institution was created. Consider the case of those who would neglect caring for their needy parents in the name of contributing to the synagogue (Matthew 15:1-9), or how the leaders expected to be treated by those under their care (Matthew 23:7). He rightly criticized them as practicing the ordinances of men and casting behind them the commands of God, as well as a host of other infamous indictments. In spite of their religious devotion and austerity, their institution no longer bore a significant resemblance to the one God designed and revealed at Sinai.

Jesus harbored a plan to build his church (Matthew 16:18). As the gospel spread near and far in the first century, Jesus built his church. But what of the institution?

All of the evidence in the New Testament points to a "lean" church. No buildings, no tax-exempt status, no choir robes or "Sunday best" clothes. No services on television, no book and tape ministry, no sound and lights. Missionary preachers risked their lives to carve out beachheads for the gospel. The believers endured scorn, shunned worldliness and patiently waited for their redemption. Their lives were driven  by a desire to be faithful to God and bring his gospel to people. There was no St. Peter's basillica (or sprawling suburban megachurches); the believers were the building materials for the church (1 Peter 2:5). True to Jesus, people were more important than the institution-- just as in his ministry.

So what happened? Well, I suppose it is easy to blame Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. Or we could blame all of the bishops who went along with the whole "Holy Roman Empire" concept. And before we praise the Reformers too much for trying to straighten out the institutional church, recall that many had their own benefactors amongst royalty and usually retained the institutional aspects of the church.

Institutionalism Today
The exact causes of the institutional church are impossible to identify, as this was a process that took generations. But, it is pretty safe to say that the primary reason institutionalism crept into the church and made itself at home was through worldliness, through the mistaken notion that the building is the ekklesia or the institution is the ekklesia.

We may know that the church isn't the building, but then some say that "seeking first the kingdom" (Matthew 6:33) means "seeking first the institution" and "seeking first the kingdom" becomes "attending all of the scheduled events." The end result is priority in scheduling instead of devotion to spiritual priorities in the heart of man! How many people go to all of the services but still don't "seek first the kingdom?" This placing of the institution above the Lord is not only a trap, it is the exact same mentality Jesus rebuked in Matthew 15:1-9.

While individual Christians need to consider others better than themselves (Philippians 2:3), this is not the same as considering the institution and its agenda better than themselves. The institution is impersonal.

So do we eliminate the institution? To the extent that God instituted it, not necessarily. Get rid of the leaders? No, God appointed some to lead. But we need to follow the Biblical imperative that God and the people come before the institution. Almost anything in the institution can be OK, provided it puts God and people ahead of itself. This is a matter of the heart, not a matter of the actions. We can track growth and record every conceivable statistic into our databases, and plan programs until the coming of the Lord-- but if the purpose is "helping the institution" and not "following the Lord" and "helping the people" we're strayed from the path of righteousness.

OK, enough already-- so what about that Christmas show? Well, it could be good, it could be bad (don't you hate answers like that!). What matters is the people, not the show. Those being entertained, not the production. Those putting it on, not the agenda. A healthy perspective on this sort of thing goes a long way towards making sense of all sorts of projects that weigh on the soul. People count ahead of the agenda, ahead of the institution. The people aren't "opposed" to the institution, they are the  core of the most legitimate aspect of the institution.

There will be other institutional things-- workshops, campaigns, programs, other products of creative minds determined to be faithful to God and advancing his work in the world. But in order to have the kind of institution Jesus will approve of, the institution and its agenda can never come ahead of the people for which it exists. The institution is the servant of the people, it is an avenue of God's blessings to them, and a facilitator of the righteousness God desires in their lives. Its leaders need to steer the church in that direction, or it is in line for the same rebuke of Jesus from Matthew 15.

We should grade our spiritual institutions with the criteria God provided:

So you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land which the LORD your God is giving you for all time (Deuteronomy 4:40).
Is it "going well" with us? Is it bringing "long life" to the people? And more fundamentally, it is advancing the statutes and commands God gave for the benefit of his people? That's the kind of institution God has created.

Copyright © 1999 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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