An Institution,or a Body? Conformed, or Transformed?

References:  Rom.12 and I Cor.12:12-27

Solomon raised a number of excellent and very significant questions in his recent message, regarding the function of a faithful brotherhood in our “modern”, multi-cultural society, all of which I would encourage us to explore carefully.  I hope you all kept the list of concerns that he provided, and that we can take a serious look at some of them together.   Far too often, it is easy to say “That is an excellent point/challenge”, and then go off and forget it in favor of “business as usual”.  That does not enhance our faithfulness.
Today, however, I intend to introduce a parallel question, that is related, but from a slightly different perspective:  “Can a church even become an institution of its surrounding society, and still faithfully represent Jesus?”  This question needs to be raised very deliberately and carefully by any group that intends to take faithfulness seriously and responsibly.

Such a 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 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, or with the permission of people who wield power.

Jesus did not come to start – or to reform – a “religion”, or to establish an institution or a corporation.
Consequently, he never addressed the subject, except to rebuke James and John for their jockeying for positions of honor in his “cabinet” or “Board of Directors”.  “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!!!”  Jesus was intending to create something completely 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.  Many, if not most institutions assume:
1. Power in or over (at least a segment of) society at large
2. The ability to make rules or demands of people who have NOT deliberately chosen to be subject to its control
3. Some external and easily defined means of judging who is “in” and who is “out”
4. Somebody (a person or group) “in charge”, to keep things running smoothly and under control.

This last 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 upon everyone
3. To exclude or penalize offenders
4. To direct and regulate both offensive and defensive activity.

A primary concern of any corporate or 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! You don’t need that if you are confident of resurrection!  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 any 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 often upon society at large.  Only from a place of power can a group enforce by legislation what it may have simply failed to teach.  There is no place for any of this, or for coercion of any kind, 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 Jesus 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! Instead, he chose to create a Body, which he carefully designed to continue the purpose of his own Incarnation – a word that literally derives from “becoming flesh” —  to reveal God’s true being and purpose to the world, by corporately and deliberately demonstrating his attitudes and his practice of life-giving, selfless service. If I may quote Brother Solomon again, “Jesus did not come to tell us what to think, but to show us how to live!  The subsequent functioning of the whole brotherhood, together, as the Body of Christ, is a major theme throughout all of the New Testament writings.

Most germane to the impossibility of an institutional option is Jesus’ explicit prohibition 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”,  needing to regulate the opinions, behavior, or loyalty of its subjects, even though such methods may sometimes appear temporarily 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 institutional 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 prospect 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 in the first century as it is in the twenty-first!   This is a culture that does not exist among “the nations of the world” – then or now!  The culture of the Kingdom of Jesus involves a radical difference from ANY culture in the rest of the world – the primary reason being that EVERYONE IS ESSENTIAL!  If you don’t remember anything else that I say today, remember this:  YOU ARE IMPORTANT.  YOU ARE NECESSARY.  YOU ARE NEEDED, if the Body is to function as it should.   But what sort of culture is being advocated and cultivated, when so-called “church leadership” is carefully trained to function as CEO’s, CFO’s, and/or psychological counselors, whose purpose is to maintain, entertain, and regulate the activity of everyone in their assigned institution, rather than as enablers whose responsibility is to encourage and facilitate the unique and necessary contribution to the Body of every faithful person?  The enabler is a rare bird indeed.

I know a young man, deeply committed to the Lord and his ways, who was desirous of serving his people through a health initiative of a denomination to which he had related.  The leader of the project had known and appreciated his skill and faithfulness for a period of years, and requested that he be appointed for service.  That request, however, was denied by their denominational hierarchy, despite his excellent qualifications, simply because of the candidate’s conscientious refusal to sign a detailed “statement of doctrine” that included a number of assertions which, although amply footnoted with carefully arranged and edited “chapter and verse” references, went far beyond any ideas that could responsibly be derived from the New Testament.

Now, it is perfectly reasonable that enlistees in the service of the King be unequivocally committed to him personally, and to the way of life that he advocated and demonstrated.  But if you have carefully consulted Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, it should be clear that Jesus on no occasion raised any theological or philosophical questions with those whom he called.  He asked only for personal loyalty and obedience.  There is no record of Jesus saying, “Peter, I’d like to borrow your boat, please …but by the way, first you need to sign this statement….”

In fact, most of the issues so adamantly insisted upon by avid “doctrine police” – and yes, by officials in the conference with which your group identifies! – deal with subjects which Jesus either chose not to address at all, or tackled head-on to correct popular misconceptions!  Here is a short list of a few of the “required beliefs” that would peremptorily exclude the Lord Jesus himself from the privilege of service or fellowship!  “Let’s start from the very beginning!”

Please note that I am NOT focusing on the truth or falsehood of any of these ideas:  I am only asking, “What did JESUS say?”

  1. Creation. Neither the Old Testament nor the New (except for editorial footnotes added in the 19th and 20th centuries!) makes ANY statement regarding the “when, where, or how” of creation.  Everyone assumed that “God did it”.  Paul, in Eph.3:9 and Col.1:16, credits Jesus himself as the creator. Jesus himself uses the word only three times:  the discussion in Mt.19:4 and Mk.10:6 regarding the creation of male and female, and Mark’s version of the destruction of Jerusalem.   In the epistles, much more attention is given to the NEW creation, which begins with one’s identification with Christ, and HIS purposes. They didn’t reference the “old” creation at all!
  2. The “inerrancy” of both the Old and New Testaments. Repeatedly, Jesus made serious corrections to the OT – “You have heard it said…But I say unto you…” He consistently referred to “your Law”, and not once to “God’s Law”.  There are six such corrections in Matthew 5 alone, and many more scattered through the Gospel accounts. I would challenge you to count them!  Do you really want to say “Sorry, Jesus – our “doctrine” doesn’t allow that”?
  3. “Original sin”. This extremely prevalent idea is mentioned only once in the entire New Testament – and that was not by Jesus, but by his Pharisee opponents (Jn.6), as they scornfully rebuked a man Jesus had healed as having been “born in sin”. Even Paul, the hero of the “doctrine crowd”, spends the two first whole chapters of Romans, (the letter which folks most love to “cherry-pick” for “proof-texts”) establishing that the depraved condition of people was their deliberate choice, not their original condition.  Jesus himself never mentioned the issue at all.
  4. “Virgin birth”. This one at least is true, being asserted in both Matthew and Luke’s accounts, but Jesus himself never commented at all upon the circumstances of his birth. He repeatedly referred to God as “Father”, but plainly was not overly concerned with his own pedigree. None of the epistles mention it at all.
  5. “Penal Substitutionary Atonement”. This subject was never mentioned by Jesus. When repeatedly challenged on his right to forgive, neither he nor his challengers ever said anything about his death.  It was his identity with God that was – and is — the source of his authority to forgive, and also of the officials’ fury at him.
  6. The “fate” of nonbelievers. At the rare times when Jesus spoke of “eternal consequences” (Mt.25, Jn.5), they were predicated upon the behavior of the people in question. There is no reference to their theological opinions.
    The erroneous translation of the word “pistis“as “faith” – or “pisteuo” as “believe”, has spawned a lot of mistaken creativity.  A more accurate translation would be “faithfulness/loyalty/or trust”.
  7. Jesus’ promised return. Two things –and only two – are certain. 1. He IS coming, to assume his rightful role as King of Kings and Lord of Lords! And  2.  By his own testimony no one knows when that will happen.  Just as significant, and maybe more so, is his explicit warning NOT to follow people who pretend to know the details!

And those are just a few of the most obvious discrepancies.  I stopped at 7 because some folks get all excited about “numbers”, another thing that JESUS NEVER ADDRESSED.  But in light of that record, would the Lord Jesus himself be accepted as a “credentialed leader” in your church?  Very probably not!

Now, please don’t misunderstand.  This is not a call for a totally unregulated 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 being “in charge”.  Notice the plethora of functions which Paul lists as “gifts” to the church in Romans, Corinthians, and Ephesians.  Not only do these NOT describe a controlling hierarchy, but EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT is mentioned in the PLURAL.  It is only as “we all interact truthfully in love” (Eph.4:15) that we are enabled to “grow up” to perform our intended functions in /as the Body of Christ.

Just as the “institutional model” is dependent upon assumptions, so is the model of the Body.  A few very different principles include:
1. A voluntary association. The Body consists only of those who have freely chosen to participate.  It does NOT impose regulations upon society at large.
2. A deliberate, personal 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. An overtly acknowledged willingness to be taught, corrected, and guided by the rest of the Body, with the New Testament as the only standard.

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 Cor.6, I Thes.4, II Thes.2, Heb.6, and many others, where moral, cultural, self-centered, or other issues had to be addressed and corrected.  An institution could cope with that sort of thing much more efficiently.  Just eliminate the offending parties.  “My way or the highway”.

But a Body does not amputate a member just because it is injured, or even one that causes an injury.  Only as a very last resort, after all else fails, must a person who refuses correction be excluded.    No institution can operate like that.  Its dominion and success, not to mention the prestige of its “masters”, are at stake!  Institutions depend on either clever human ingenuity and persuasiveness, or brute force and power.  The Body of Christ depends on nothing but the faithfulness of its members – and the power of God.

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 every one of its diverse parts,
We will not, and can not, manifest the life of our Lord to the world that so desperately needs his presence.
We can never do this perfectly – but that is a sad and lame excuse for not trying.

It is long past time for faithful followers of the Lord Jesus to quit sniping at each other over their favorite theological constructs, and get about the business of accurately representing him to a world that so badly needs his touch.

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