“Institutional Church” — an Oxymoron?

March 24, 2016

This is intended to be a companion piece to my previous essay which posed the question, “Would Jesus be allowed to join/represent/preach in your church?” Here, I intend to explore a parallel question, just as crucial, but from the opposite perspective: “Can a church become an institution of its surrounding society, and still faithfully represent Jesus?” Like its predecessor, this question needs to be raised very deliberately and carefully by any group that intends to take faithfulness seriously and responsibly.

Also like its predecessor, this question would not have been an issue at all in the first century church, where “Jesus is Lord” was the only “statement of faith”, and where adherence to that statement alone frequently resulted in a death sentence. “Institutionalization” is not an option for a persecuted minority. It can only emerge from a position of power.
Jesus did not come to start – or to reform – a “religion”, or to establish an institution.
Consequently, he never addressed the subject, except in his rebuke to James and John for their jockeying for positions of honor in his “cabinet.” “You know as well as I do, that is how the rulers of this world operate,” he explained. “BUT IT SHALL NOT BE THAT WAY AMONG YOU ALL!” (Please see Lk.22:24-27 and Mt.20:24-28) He was going to do something different.

What constitutes the establishment of an institution? It assumes at least four things, each of which is diametrically opposed to Jesus’ positions and principles.
An institution assumes:
1. power in or over (at least a segment of) society at large
2. making rules or demands of people who have NOT deliberately chosen to be subject to it.
3. some external and easily defined means of judging who is “in” and who is “out.”
4. somebody (person or group) “in charge” to keep things running smoothly and under control.

This necessitates the creation of a hierarchy, or chain of command:
1. to keep people in line, and to be sure that authority is properly delegated and exercised
2. to define and defend the status quo, and impose it on all
3. to exclude or penalize offenders
4. to direct both defensive and offensive activity.

A primary concern of any institutional structure is its own survival and dominance. This is the polar opposite of Jesus’ concern. There is no record anywhere of his being concerned about survival! The primary concern of his followers, likewise, was not survival, but faithfully to represent him. Most of them did not survive very long.

The success/survival of an institution depends heavily upon the manipulative skills of its masters, in squashing the opposition, regulating the membership, and maintaining their own position of dominance. Only from a majority position – a stance at the top of the “food chain” – is an institution capable of forcibly imposing its standards, not only upon its own adherents, but upon society at large. Only from a place of power can an institution enforce by legislation what it may have simply failed to teach.
There is no place for any of this in the Kingdom of Jesus!!!

Institutional attempts to define, analyze, and housebreak some sort of “Supreme Being”, created in the image – or the imagination – of the hierarchy whose power depends upon it, are an exercise in futility, for one simple reason, (besides the nonsensical assumption that such a “being” would be “supreme” at all, if it were so subject to the whims of its “creators”).
That reason is simply that JESUS IS ALIVE!!!!
He cannot be reduced to categories, activities, or principles invented by his own creatures! He himself is superior to everyone and everything! It is in him that “all things exist / hold together!” (Col.1:16-17)

The most cursory perusal of the New Testament gospel accounts makes it obvious that Jesus had not the remotest intention of creating an institution. He rather chose to create a Body, which is designed to continue the purpose of his own Incarnation – to reveal God’s true being and purpose to/for the world by corporately and deliberately demonstrating his attitude and practice of life-giving, selfless service. The subsequent functioning of the whole brotherhood, together, as the Body of Christ, is a major theme throughout the rest of the New Testament writings.

Please refer to Word Studies 84 and 150 for some of the specifics, as well as studies 40 through 49 which deal with some of the functions that need to be included if a Body is to mature and to fulfill its intended purpose. You may also find Part II, chapters 5-8, of Citizens of the Kingdom helpful in this regard.

Most germane to the present consideration is Jesus’ explicit prohibition (see the Lk. 22 and Mt.24 passages cited previously) of any attempt to pattern the operation of the Kingdom after the methods and structures of “the world” and its obsession with being “in charge,” or needing to regulate the opinions, behavior, or loyalty of its subjects, even though those methods may sometimes appear to be “successful.” Paul understood that difference, writing in Romans 12 an eloquent description of the function of the Body, to folks who, living in the seat of the Empire, would have been well (and often painfully) acquainted with the vagaries of the “system” under which they suffered. A Kingdom – a Body – whose only Head was the Lord in whose loving care they had learned to trust, was a thought to be embraced with great delight and hope!

The value – indeed, the necessity – of the contribution of every faithful member of the Body (even more specifically outlined in I Corinthians 12-14) was as unfamiliar to the first century as it is to the twenty-first! This is a culture that does not exist among “the nations of the world” – then or now! The Kingdom of Jesus involves a radical difference!

But which culture is being advocated and cultivated, when so-called “church leadership” is carefully trained to function as CEO’s, CFO’s, psychological counselors, script-writers, choreographers, and “dynamic” speakers, whose purpose is to maintain, enhance and regulate the activity of their assigned institution, rather than as enablers whose responsibility is to encourage and facilitate the unique and necessary contribution of every faithful person? The average “church service” bears little resemblance to Paul’s description in I Corinthians 14:26 of each one‘s participation when “coming together.”

Now, please don’t misunderstand. This is not a call for a situation where everyone is blithely “doing his own thing”, and “anything goes.” That would be just as destructive to a true Body as is the dominance of a single individual (or group) who is “in charge”. Notice the plethora of functions which Paul lists as “gifts” to the church in Ephesians 4:11-16. Notice also that this is NOT intended to define a controlling hierarchy. It is simply the sequence in which these various functions are needed. Apostles were usually the ones who introduced the Kingdom in a new location. The rest were then tasked with facilitating the growth and continuation of the work. Notice also that every one of these listed functions is PLURAL! Not one is entrusted to a single individual. It is only as “we (all) interact truthfully, in love” (v.15) that we “grow up” to perform our intended function in/as the Body of Christ.

Just as the “institutional” model is dependent upon assumptions, so is the model of the Body.
A few of these must include:
1. a voluntary association. The Body consists only of those who have freely chosen to participate.
2. a deliberate commitment, not to a list of propositions, but to a common purpose: faithfully to represent the presence of the Lord Jesus in the world.
3. a common standard against which to measure both personal and corporate goals, behavior, and attitudes: those described and advocated by Jesus and his followers and recorded in the New Testament.
4. a deliberately and overtly acknowledged willingness to be taught, corrected, and guided by the rest of the Body.

The life of the Lord Jesus will not flow through a Body whose fragments are all rushing off in different directions, taking their cues from some outstanding “leader” other than its rightful Head.
Neither will his life flow through a Body most of whose parts are atrophied from disuse.
Until our fellowships are living examples of even former enemies being reconciled together by the resurrection power of God, into a loving family,
until every brother and sister is enriched and encouraged by the ministry of every other brother and sister,
until we allow ourselves to be joined together, built together, grow together, into one Body, enhanced by the contribution of every one of its diverse parts,
we will not – and cannot – manifest the life of our Lord to the world that so desperately needs his presence.

The operation of a Body is not efficient. In fact, it can be downright messy. Just look at a few of the things that had to be dealt with in I Corinthians 6, I Thessalonians 4, II Thessalonians 2, Hebrews 6, and many other situations, whether moral, cultural, or any other kind, in which either groups or individuals needed to be corrected.

An institution could cope with that sort of thing much more efficiently. Just eliminate the offending or inconvenient parties. “My way or the highway.”

But a Body does not amputate a member that is injured, or even one that causes an injury. Only as a very last resort, after all else fails, must the person who refuses correction be excluded. The Head of the Body distributes gracious gifts of healing, or whatever else is needed for restoration, although it sometimes takes a while for the members to learn to cooperate.

No institution can do that. Its dominion and “success” (not to mention the prestige of its masters) are at stake!
Institutions depend on clever human ingenuity and persuasiveness, or on brute force and power.

The Body of Christ depends on nothing but the faithfulness of its members – and the power of God.