The Gordian Knot of the Institutional Church

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Today I caught up with Steve Bremner's podcast with Dan Dailey.  Steve contacted me about it a day or two ago, since he knew Dan and I were acquainted.  Both Dan and Steve are actually Facebook friends with whom I've had some significant conversation over the last nine months.

Listening to the podcast on the way home from work prompted me to get my some things off my chest about the subject of institutionalism.  I've had some thoughts on the subject I've written down in various places, and they all seemed to suddenly gel in my heart about two hours ago.  A hearty thanks to Dan for using the words institution, institutional, and institutionalism a couple dozen times!  I have intersected more often in the last 12 months with the phrase "institutional church" than I ever have before.  And I've grown quite comfortable with it.  Here's why.

On the right you'll see a screenshot of what I saw when I Googled "institution."  Take a few moments to click on it, enlarge it, and think about it.

Interesting, isn't it?  The very word itself is inseparable from religion, caring for needy people, money, and has a central place in the life of a nation. By definition it is an organization or business, both of which are founded for a purpose.  And it has laws, practices, and customs which govern and maintain it's existence.  Very, very interesting, I'd say.

It actually makes my stomach hurt, to be honest.  When I read this, I see these definitions as gears that are embedded in the true church of Jesus, the ekklesia, the community of Jesus-followers.  And these gears operate in an unquestioned manner as anyone who becomes associated with the institution is along for the ride and is expected to pull their weight and do their part to help fulfill the purpose of the institution.

In churches today, we call that the vision and mission.  And those who want to become a part of a local church are expected to work together with everyone else in the local church to pursue that vision and mission.  If you don't want to do that, then you can't be a part of it...and probably shouldn't be, if we're speaking honestly about it.

The problem with the associating institution with Christianity is that it produces institutionalism.  As you can see from this Googled screenshot of that word, the stomach ache worsens.


A local church is an institution.  There's just no two ways about it.  And a local church is beset by institutionalism.  There's just no escaping it.  Institutionalism is about "established forms" and "organized religion."  Establishing a form necessarily means imposing one on a group of people who willingly embrace and maintain it.  And organizing religion is explicitly about uniting under a common purpose.  When those two are put together, I find them to be inherently opposed to the new covenant Jesus introduced in Acts 2 when He sent the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit imposes and establishes nothing.  He leads and guides and teaches.  The Holy Spirit also doesn't organize religion.  He leads, guides, and teaches each individual believer to conform them to Jesus.  This is substantively the most foundational reason why I hate institutionalism.  It is anti new covenant, and anti Holy Spirit.

What is Institutionalism and How Does it Happen?

After a quarter-century as a leader in the institutional church, and after having been raised and taught to follow Jesus within the confines of the institution, and after spending eight years and thousands of dollars to be educated about church and ministry within theological institutions, and after having left it all behind nine months ago, I have come to believe one thing:  institutionalism is a toxin that is systemic to any group of believers in the community of Jesus.  And it produces this thing I've come to call churchianity which is really a replacement of true, biblical, new-covenant-driven Christianity.

When a group of believers gathers together and decides to adopt the same institutional understanding of church, they unknowingly invite this toxin into their lives.  They don't mean to.  They don't know any better.  Such presuppositions about what church is supposed to look like come from generational assumptions.  These assumptions in the NT church today are about 1,800 years old.  And they are actually older if you trace them back before the coming of Jesus.

Institutionalism is actually as old as Cain, the first builder of cities, whose fear of never being accepted by anyone again drove him away and led him to build cities.  When human beings gather a group of people, the gatherers are called leaders, and those who are gathered are called followers.  As leaders and followers work together toward a man-made vision they build a community. As communities multiply, a city evolves.  Cities are led and grown by human beings who must create policies and laws to govern the people. The evolution of this whole thing is an institution.  The ethos that drives the institution itself is called institutionalism.

Contrast all of this with Abraham, who left his city to follow God's voice to an unknown place.  He followed God because of a promise.  That promise was about building a family.  God would bless Abraham with more descendants than the sands on the seashore or stars in the sky.  The family of Abraham eventually produced the greatest descendant of all time: Jesus Christ.  And those who live in the faith of the family of Abraham are the family of God, brothers and sisters to Jesus Christ.  Along with Abraham, we too are looking for a city.  But it is one whose maker and builder is God Himself.  And as a family we are content to remain a family until God brings us into His city.

This is the fundamental theology behind how the community of Jesus escapes the snare of institutionalism.  We stay committed to the truth of family over against the temporary pleasures of the lies of the institution.  The Spirit gives life.  Man-made institutions suck it away.  This is because institutionalism is really just a toxin.  And like any toxin, even in small doses, it infects and saps the energy and power of the people of Jesus.  Why is this?

The DNA Strands of Institutionalism: Fear & Legalism

Institutionalism is a toxin with two DNA strands: legalism and fear.  Institutions can only exist through written documents, teachings, and unspoken rules that express the rules, principles, laws, guidelines, vision, mission, and philosophy of the organization.  Problem is, the new covenant teaches us that God Himself will write His law in our hearts and invite the Holy Spirit to live inside of us.  This means that walking with God comes from inside of us and not from outside of us.

Legalism is an attempt by human beings to create concepts, ideas, systems, and structures that are supposedly helpful to us in following Jesus.  It is contradictory in every way to grace, which trusts the Holy Spirit within the heart of a believer to lead him or her in following Jesus.

Legalism is fed by and produces fear.  Fear intuitively tells us that what Jesus did for us is not enough.  Fear tells us that God cannot be trusted, that we will probably not be accepted.  Fear tells us that there is too much wrong with us to be embraced by God and others, and that what's wrong with us needs to be fixed in order to enjoy peace, joy, life, and fellowship.

Legalism is born out of such fear, as we listen to the fear instead of Jesus, and turn to man-made concept and ideas of how to get and stay right with God and follow Jesus.  However, since the two are in cahoots with each other, fear produces legalism, and legalism produces more fear, creating a cycle that is seemingly impossible to get out of.

The Function of the Institutionalism Toxin: Self-Preservation

The DNA of this toxin is such that it cannot help but do what a virus normally does: protect and sustain itself.  It is parasitic.  Institutionalism attaches to its host - the community of Jesus - and begins to slowly and surely reorient a group of believers toward activities that are simply sustaining and preserving the life of the institution itself.  The thing is, they don't know it.  I didn't.  The institution is assumed to be the real ekklesia of Jesus, when in reality it is actually a replacement.

In my experiences, as well as the experiences of others, a group of believers who have unknowingly embraced this toxin experience, over time, a slow drain on their spiritual energies as they commit themselves so faithfully to something that they so genuinely believe is what Jesus wants.  Because we believe the institution itself is the community of Jesus, we throw ourselves - our time, family, and money - into it, not realizing that we are actually being slowly drained of the real, life-giving power Jesus promised in the Holy Spirit.  Consequently, we are also slowly turned away from true, biblical ministry as we unknowingly end up redefining it.  That redefinition comes in a subtle manner, over a long period of time usually, as we allow ourselves to gravitate toward activities that, in reality, simply sustain and preserve the institution itself.

Ladies ministry, men's ministry, children's ministry, nursery, youth ministry, college ministry, sr. citizen ministry, marriage ministry, Sunday School, Bible studies, coffee team, worship team, leadership, volunteers, etc. are all created by gathering and educating believers according to a generational-accepted idea of doing church.  Money is collected in order to pay for the overhead of the building and salaries, things which become deemed necessary in order to successfully maintain and grow the institution.  These are just a few of the examples in my history.  I'm sure you have just as many.

Institutionalism Lives on Through Generational Confusion

All the while, this way of doing church comes from a generational-confusion about the new covenant, the life and role of the Holy Spirit, and the very concept of biblical ministry itself, as the following generations make the same assumptions about church.  So we all go to church on Sundays and participate in the many activities in the church with a deep and unquestioned assumption that it's what Jesus wants us to do.  Over time,  we lose connection with the True Vine as the connection with this institution we call church gets stronger through the deep investments of time and money that we've made.

With the unquestioned assumption that the way we "do church" today is the way Jesus wants us to, we inevitably interpret the Bible through institutional lenses.  We don't know any better.  It's all we've known, after all.  Whatever we read in the Bible, we inadvertently interpret with a mindset and understanding that supports our current understanding of the institution we are involved with, thus sustaining the institution itself.

Here's where things eventually get worse.  We bend, warp, and wrap the Bible around our institutional experience, flavor, brand, branch, or whatever, and begin to teach other believers and be taught by our church's institutional leaders that God wants us to do certain things.  So as the institutional lenses inform and interpret the Bible, things that are not actually in the Bible begin to formulate in minds and hearts of leaders and take root in the group to build its ethos.

Institutionalism Leads to Spiritual Abuse

Enter spiritual abuse.  Because the DNA strands of institutionalism are fear and legalism, people are conditioned to believe that the extra-biblical philosophies, principles, guidelines, and distinctives are things God Himself wants them to do.  This in turn breeds fear, as the very people who have given of their lives and resources are now expected to fall in line and do what's necessary to sustain the institution since it's what God wants.  Like I was at one time, they are scared of disagreeing, questioning, or thinking differently.  They are scared because they know it will cost them dearly.  This is spiritual abuse.

The abuse always seems to culminate in two responses.  On the one hand some believers will just be quiet and deal with it.  They go on with it and rationalize the trouble their gut tells them is really there.  They tell themselves that they are the real problem and that they just need to follow their God-given leaders.  Or because they do not really understand grace they convince themselves that they need the institution in order to spiritually survive.

On the other hand, some believers will ask questions and express frustration.  They see what's wrong, talk about it, and voice hard questions.  They want discussion about it.  This thing they've invested so much of their life into is now infected, and they want to continue to invest of themselves in the repair or healing process.  But these people are often the minority in a church.  And as such they are eventually marginalized and/or disciplined, excommunicated, or asked to leave.  And this will happen in the name of Jesus, of course, as the principles and guidelines and distinctives that have replaced the new covenant are cited as the "biblical" reason for maintaining the purity and unity of the church.

Institutionalism is a Demonic Principality and Power

Add all of these things together and what I have come to see is that institutionalism is more than likely a demonic principality and power that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 6.  It is rooted in things that do not flow from the life, death, resurrection and ministry of Jesus Christ.  It is guided by legalism through extra-biblical, man-made rules and guidelines that seek to fence in believers in order to guide them toward a preconceived space of ideas and beliefs.  It is driven by fear of God and of one another.

Satan and his demons are real.  And they are horrified by Jesus Christ, the cross, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the new covenant.  Any notion of liberty, freedom, joy, peace, and creativity in the new creation life of the Holy Spirit cannot be tolerated in the demonic world.  Colossians 2 tells us that Jesus commanded victory over the forces of demons on the cross.  The cross destroyed all hostility between people, and forgave the sin we've committed against God, ruining our friendship with Him.

It makes sense then that one of the forces that demonic powers will use against the community of Jesus is a constant attempt to lie to them about real peace and divine forgiveness, and then herd them toward a man-made structure or system that will make them feel safe and secure.  Little do we know, however, that in allowing ourselves to be drawn toward such things that we will end up actually becoming servants to those systems and structures as our souls become almost inseparable from them, thinking God has given them to us to help us.

And that's just like the devil.  He takes the precious promises and truths of Jesus and repackages them in spiritually, biblically, and churchy sounding concepts and ideas that somehow appeal to that unredeemed part of us.  He takes biblical concepts and redefines them with institutional concepts that have a biblical feel to them.

The more of our life we give to the institution, the more the devil takes, sucking us dry of life, joy and peace, only to psychologically punish us with false guilt about not being committed to Jesus or faithful to God when we feel utterly exhausted from it all.  This is the thing, I believe, that bothers most believers, deep down inside.  This is the thing I was unable to put my finger on until I finally saw it all for what it really was: a machine that demands life, blood, money, family, children, and resources in the name of Jesus while draining the life of Jesus from us...and demanding even more.

Ekklesia and Institution Can't Coexist

It's clear to me now that the real ekklesia of Jesus cannot coexist with the institution.  They are light and darkness.  And that's for one essential reason:  the new covenant will not allow it.  The new covenant promises us so much, all of which is fulfilled for us through Jesus Christ in the life of the Holy Spirit.  The old covenant produced that constant drain of death.  The new covenant produces new creation and new life wherever the Holy Spirit pleases.

Peter tells us in the second chapter of his first letter that the community of Jesus are like living stones.  We are a building, but we are spiritual one.  God does not live in literal buildings made by man.  He's too big to be contained in any one location.  This means He's also too big to be contained in any institution.  And therein lies the problem with institutionalism: it believes it is not only capable of but responsible to contain God and His truth.  It attempts to do so through doctrinal, theological, and/or ecclesiastical principles, guidelines, laws, regulations, policies, processes, procedures, systems, and structures that are said to be from God but in reality are a man-made, man-driven control mechanism over our walk with Jesus.  And the problem is obvious: Jesus doesn't live there and in fact, cannot ever live there.

What Should We Do Now?

The civil government of men is undoubtedly an institution.  Yet it is one that Jesus never told us to tear down.  Instead, He told us to submit to these earthly powers and to try to live peacefully within its boundaries.  Jesus taught us and showed us how to live in such an institution with an unwavering trust in the God who ordained and orchestrates it all for His purposes.

However, when it came to the religious institution of His day, He himself tore it down in His Father's name, with His own nail-scarred hands.  The Father did this when He tore the temple curtain in half when Jesus said "It is finished."  Jesus finished the destruction of that horrid institution when He came in judgment on Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Jesus life, death, resurrection and the subsequent life and growth of the ekklesia meant the end of the old covenant institution for the family of God, as well as any hint of it.

When some have asked me in the last nine months what I recommend being on this side of things, I've offered some suggestions that are just so mind-numbing that they're unthinkable.  If you're in the institutional church, what I suggest would mean the beginning of the end of it.  And since institutionalism is a toxin that seeks only to sustain and preserve itself, can you start to see how any suggestions about the institution only serve to ultimately threaten the very existence of the institution itself?  Here were my three suggestions.

First, settle in your heart that Jesus is your shepherd.  Then "fire" your pastor, including all salaried employees of the church. See them for who they are, according to Ephesians 4: leaders given by Jesus to help you do the work of ministry and to lead you into unity with other believers so that everyone can follow Jesus.

Second, sell the building and all of its assets and decide how you will distribute the cash to the poor.  Then stop giving money to your church.  It's counter-intuitive to the new covenant, and to love itself, to put the currency of the gospel into wood, hay, and stubble.  Money is for meeting the needs of human beings, not for propping up buildings people only meet in once or twice a week, nor for sustaining a group of leaders or staff members to study the Bible, read books, do administrative work, play golf, and talk to people.  If leaders equip the saints to do the real work of ministry, then church leaders have done their job and they can go somewhere else and do it.  God doesn't want His leaders to breastfeed off the community of Jesus.  Every reference to money in the NT...every single one of them without exception...reflects people giving money to other people in need.  That's it.  And in the two or three places where people gave money to an apostle, the apostle turns around and gives it to those in need, to the poor and needy.

Third, meet on another day of the week other than Sundays, and while you're meeting don't do what you're doing right now any longer.  The meetings 99.9% of churches around the world have are counter-intuitive to the new covenant.  The Spirit of God wants to be in charge.  And we give Him little room to do so when we build schedules for our Sunday morning gatherings...and when we believe we have to meet on Sunday mornings.  Giving the Spirit room to do what HE wants is allowing JESUS to be in charge of HIS people.  Creating a space, context, and environment for the saints to actually do the work of ministry with one another is how the new covenant flourishes in the community of Jesus.

These suggestions are eye-popping, which turns to jaw-dropping, which turns to gasping for air, which leads to running away for dear life.  It's a horrific death blow to the institution, right?

But guess what it will do?  I'm convinced that it will reset that community of Jesus-followers toward a context and environment that turns their gathering into a new covenant family.  I believe lives will genuinely be changed as everyone practices the "one anothers" of the New Testament, as the poor are served, as sin is forgiven, as relationships are healed, as the unconditional love and embrace of God and one another invites transparency, vulnerability, peace, and joy.


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