In defense of the church, part II: The institution

I had been intending to go a different direction with the second post in this series, but then Jared posted on “The Institution-less Church,” and posted a chunk I’d forgotten about from the interview Eugene Peterson did a while back with Mark Galli in CT, “Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons.” Consider this, from Eugene:

What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand this naive criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it.

Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.

So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.

Then put that together with this comment from the Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman’s sermon to our presbytery, on which I posted a couple days ago:

God’s Word is also oblivious to cherished structures and institutions we have created in our own image and then attributed to God—like denominations, and presbyteries, and congregations, and sessions . . . These institutions seem very real to us. We even mistakenly call them “church.” But not one of them exists with their own set of adjectives and attributes. There is no such thing as a “faithful” congregation or a “faithless” denomination. The structures that “organize” organized faith are simply that—organizing systems devoid of characteristics except what individual people bring in to them. This presbytery is only a gathering of individuals who are more or less committed to living as God’s faithful children—working for God’s shalom in God’s world.

Then let me add one other reference, this more of a personal one. My father grew up in the Church of God (Anderson, IN), which arose under the leadership of D. S. Warner out of the Holiness movement. Convinced that denominationalism was a source of bad things, he intentionally founded a “movement” rather than a denomination. Now, they have a college and a seminary, they have a headquarters, they have a structure—by any definition, they’re a denomination. By any definition except their own, that is; they’re still firmly “anti-denominational.”

I think one problem in all this, and one reason for the criticism Eugene doesn’t get, is that we expect too much of the institution, whether it be the local congregation, the denomination, or anything in between. We expect the institution to reflect God, to carry out the ministry of Jesus, to attract people, and so on and so forth, which is a set of expectations it just can’t carry. Dr. Detterman has the right of it—the institution is just a structure to organize our activities to help us function. Eugene has the right of it—the institution is a dead thing that protects and gives form to the live thing underneath. But that points us to the reality that the structure isn’t going to do the work of the church, because the structure isn’t the church; we together are the church, and the structure is there to enable us as we do the work of the church. To avoid facing that, though, we tend to pile those expectations on the institution instead, and then when it fails, we blame it, and denounce it, and set off to find a better way.

But what better way is there? Jared got it right when he noted, “the dudes most passionate about killing ‘church institution’ aren’t exactly institution-less . . . their institution is just sexier.” The example of the Church of God (Anderson) shows, I think, that the best we can do is replace one institution with another, because true institution-less-ness would be anarchy, and anarchy doesn’t work; as Eugene says, a church without an institution is like a tree without bark, soon to stop functioning properly due to disease.

I also suspect that we object to the “institutional church” because it gets in the way of us doing what we want; but in reality, that’s part of its purpose. Yes, there is a tendency for institutions to become self-justifying and self-serving, and that’s a bad thing; but is that the fault of institutions, or of the people in them? That’s a human sin, and attacking institutions won’t change it. If anything, doing that makes it worse, because the existence of the institution, for all its faults, reminds us that it has a purpose. We can still do all the touchy-feely “spirituality” stuff that’s all about us without any kind of formal structure, but a congregation that never really goes beyond that is about as self-justifying and self-serving as anything can be; what we need the institution for is to do the things that take us beyond ourselves, the things that actually require work and effort and need organization and structure to support them and keep them going. You know, all the “go into the world and make disciples of all nations, teaching and baptizing” stuff that Jesus commands us to do that we don’t always find wonderfully comfortable and congenial. The institutional church cannot be just about us. Maybe that’s part of our objection to it, too.

Posted in Church and ministry.


  1. One of the areas in which Bro Warner had a greater understanding then ourselves was in the area of church government. Scripture clearly shows that the local New Testament assemblies were governed on a day-to-day basis by multiple elders, rather than the single pastor model that we have today. Warner recognized this and put it into practice, but today we have gone back to the traditions passed down by the Roman Catholics (Pope, Priest) and Protestants (Priest, Pastor). This has caused great harm to our churches today.

  2. I would say that on the biblical evidence, the assemblies were overseen by elders, led by apostles or leaders whom the apostles designated (such as Timothy in Ephesus, or Titus in Crete), and governed collectively by all of the apostles. That’s one of the reasons I believe in presbyterian church government–I think of the systems we have, it’s the closest match to the structure of the early church.

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