The last time I posted was November, and I left off with a question to boot! Sorry ‘bout that – kinda cheesy! Rather than make excuses, I’ll finally tackle that question, which was: “So why have an institutional church at all?” Why indeed?
It starts with one of the most basic Biblical thoughts about Jesus: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14). That is what a creative God does – gives form and shape to Will and Presence. So the eternal Son of God takes on human flesh to relate to humanity. More than that, he becomes fully human so he can stand in for the rest of us in the action of salvation. So how does Christ take form now that Jesus is off the scene? Jesus said that we serve him whenever we serve one another – especially the most broken, hurting, etc. (Matthew 25). Paul calls the people of God the “body of Christ” (I Corinthians 12:27 and lots of stuff around it). So Christ is not just an unseen spiritual presence, but also takes shape and form in and through us, as imperfect and incomplete as we are.
Ahh, but because we are all imperfect and incomplete, we need shared wisdom and governance to function together for any length of time. We are in fact designed that way, to need each other, and the cooperative effort is further impaired by our inherent sinfulness. People who try to be the church without any governing or organizing structure just plain fall apart over time.
To go to the book of Acts, the church was first organized through the Temple and synagogue (Acts 2:41-47). As it grew beyond Jerusalem and Palestine that structure became separate from synagogue, and different kinds of leadership offices were created around particular gifts (Ephesians 4:11 ff.). That makes the church an institution. There are any number of ways to organize an institution (and that diversity is clearly what has happened over time), but thinking you can make any lasting difference without some structure is a fantasy.
But what about all the negative stuff that comes with being an institution? A lot of baggage has showed up along the way. How could it be otherwise? If the church is made up of people who are still sinners (if it weren’t, you or I could not be in it!), as an institution it will itself be flawed. An institution that insists that it cannot be wrong is already several degrees away from reality. Further, as the world changed and the church gained institutional authority it responded to different stresses and issues in the culture. Sometimes those responses became traditions that took on a life of their own and froze things in place that were less than necessary or got in the way. (More about that in my next post!)
Something has to keep the institution open to the working of God’s Spirit to correct it and move it forward. But how is that different from all of us as individuals? I decide to follow Jesus and I have the Holy Spirit with and in me, but I also have plenty of attitudes and habits that obscure what God is trying to say and do with me. What will help me with this?
So we are all on a spiritual journey, and it is tempting to think that our spirituality can exist by itself without the frustrations and wrongs that occur when I mix it up with other people. In reality that is a fantasy. That is why we need an institutional church, even though the institution itself sometimes becomes part of the problem. What to do when it does?
These reflections are very incomplete, and they may well leave you with more questions than answers. If so, that’s a GOOD thing. God can use that!
- Rev. Charlie