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The Church Without Institutions (part 1)

Posted by thethousandmarch on January 28, 2014 at 6:55 PM

It is claimed that young people are leaving the Church at an alarming rate. But this claim assumes that no longer associating with an institutional church equals leaving the Church. However abandoning a formal institution is not the same thing as abandoning the body of Christ, and some may feel it is necessary. I would like to consider whether this trend (if it really is something new) should be embraced rather than feared. And so we must ask the question can and does the Church exist without institutions? I can’t tackle this whole subject in one post. There are many issues we must consider. In this post I will discuss the nature and role of institutions. In future posts I will discuss: the nature and role of churches, ecclesia, and the Church; the benefits of organic and emergent orders; individualism and tribalism; and finally the reasons why the Church should act more like a starfish rather than a spider.


Let’s start by making a distinction between two different kinds of institution. One is an established organization; the other is a custom practiced by a group of people. In regards to this discussion an example of the first would be a specific “church”, and an example of the second would be the practice of baptism. What I am asking is does the Church – that is every individual Christian in the world – need institutions of the first kind? Can the Church exist without these specific “churches”, with their buildings and property, staff, and legal identities? Can the Church accomplish its mission without centralized authority (besides Jesus of course)?


The Church has always made it a practice to meet together in groups for the purpose of discipleship and corporate worship, which includes the practices of baptism and communion. The main word used for the Church, local or universal, in the New Testament is ecclesia. The word means a gathering, yet it was primarily used as a political term which referred to a group of citizens called out for civil purposes. Jesus and his followers believed that they were a group unique from the rest of society – called out to fulfill a mission. And the writer of Hebrews encourages us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (10:25). As Christians we are part of a community which has reason to gather together on a regular basis. But how did we get from the early Church which generally met in houses – granted some of them very large – to where we are today? No longer do we tend to think of the Church as a universal body, or even as a local body in a particular town. But instead we tend to focus on specific individual legal entities which we call our church, and to which we go – in this way identifying them as an entity that is separate from ourselves, administered by the professional clergy.


Instead of tracing the historical development of institutional churches, let’s consider what the purpose and benefits of these institutions are so we can understand why they would develop. They developed to help us function in mainstream society; to function efficiently we adapt. In a modern society it is usually considered necessary to have a legal identity, this necessitates a formal institution. If a church – rather than just an individual member of the Church – is to own property; enjoy special tax exempt status and allow it donors to receive tax benefits; enjoy official state sanction; hire and manage staff; enter into contracts; etc.; it must be a formal institution properly registered with the state. Some of this may be seen as selling out, some may be working the system (can we call that good stewardship?), but it must be remembered that the legal identity is merely a representation of the actual group. The legal identity is abstract and in some ways is really just pretend. Any small business owner knows how this works – they would never confuse the legal identity which has been set up to represent their business with themselves. Speaking of business we often talk about corporations as if they are individuals, but then people get upset when the Supreme Court rules that they are individuals (at least legally). A corporation is not a person; it is made up of people – each acting upon individual motivations and knowledge; each which the shareholders hope is working towards a singular mission. Similarly a church is a gathering of people – it is an abstract entity made up of individuals.


Another important purpose for which an institution exists is the reduction of transactions costs – meaning it acts as a mediator between individuals making it easier and less costly for those individuals to interact. For example, it may be very difficult for me to determine who actually is in need of my help, so instead I give my money to the institution and they can determine how it may be best spent. This can save me time and energy, and possibly keep me from wasting money as I might be tricked into giving it to people who don’t really need it, or who won’t spend it in a way I think is valid. Wait a second, you may say – what if the church wastes my money? But you see it is much easier for me to determine if my church is doing things that make me happy and therefore make me want to give them money than it is for me to determine if a missions organization half way round the world, or the poor widows and orphans in my church are spending the money in a way that makes me happy. I hope you are starting to see how this benefit which a formal institution provides may not be so fantastic for the Church.


This may be great for business, but may not be so ideal for the Church. Because local churches have adapted to modern society in taking on the form of a modern formal institution it has changed the way they act. More and more local churches are acting like businesses, treating their congregations like customers, and we congregants are starting to act like consumers. Institutions reduce friction between individuals. But perhaps in a community like the Church some of that friction is good. Being part of the Church may mean expending time and energy dealing with others, not simply looking for the most efficient means to avoid them. Being part of the Church means we are contributors, not just consumers; and it is certainly not the job of the clergy to perform for us our religious duties in exchange for our money.


But let’s get back to the benefits. A reduction in transaction costs can also mean making it easier for one person to find other individuals with shared values, beliefs, and goals to partner with. And an institution can certify individuals as suitable for particular tasks – if you trust the institution you are more likely to trust the individual it certifies. These are certainly benefits which the Church would enjoy. As the Church has grown, and questionable groups have splintered off, there has developed reasons to more easily identify like-minded believers and trustworthy leaders; institutions help facilitate this process.


Finally an institution can collect and pass on the wisdom of a group. This is the greatest strength and most beneficial purpose of an institution. Collecting, testing, systematizing and passing on the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of the individuals who make up the group. In this way the group becomes less dependent upon the talents and personality of a single individual, which makes the community` more robust and increases its longevity. G.K. Chesteron writes in Orthodoxy (Ch 4),


Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. . . . Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.


Institutions codify and pass on tradition in various forms. The traditions that an institution passes on are the way in which it passes on the values of its members throughout time. If we confess the Apostles’ Creed then we confess that we believe in the communion of the saints as well as the holy universal Church, which means that we respect and value those who came before us. Therefore the Church must have some institutional form, yet this benefit can be enjoyed without the institution being a legal or even particularly formal organization.


An informal community can regulate a communities core values. Human beings are able to work together remarkably well and when we do cooperation emerges amongst those with shared values, beliefs, and goals that does not require any top down planning or control. This organic process unintentionally accomplishes much more than any intentional order directed by humans can ever hope, because it coordinates the knowledge and interests of each individual in the group; something which is beyond the capacity of any individual. Formal regulation and coercion are only necessary when a group is trying to force those who disagree with them to follow their rules. When people enter into a voluntary and open agreement with one another there is no need for coercion. One may want to define the relationship one has with others to ensure shared values and goals are present, or one could simply work together until an unresolvable conflict arises. This is the first step in formalizing an institution, but it must not mean one has stepped onto the slippery slope which leads to becoming an institution like the Roman Catholic Church.


An institution, formal or informal, has many benefits. I have focused on those I think are most pertinent to this discussion, but there are many more. An institution is the most effective way of organizing infrastructure development for example. And if you want to rule an empire you probably need a highly structured military (though an effective resistance can be informally organized). Does the Church require a martial structure? Or can the Church – to be precise, can the individuals who make up the Church – accomplish the mission of the Church without formal institutions? I believe the answer is yes. Those of us who lead the formal institutions, and are paid by them, must accept that the Church is becoming more informally organized. We should embrace the movement in America to deformalize organization and help people understand what is occurring, how it can benefit the Church, and how they can remain faithful to Christ and his body, even if they do not feel at home in an institutional church. The order which will emerge will be organic and voluntary – which will mean it will be purposeful and effective in its mission.


Categories: Church Without Institutions, The Emerging Church