Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Glory of Institutional Religion

“I think the reason some people have condemned ‘institutional religion’, wrote someone in a Facebook discussion about my 8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed, “is because they see that many religious institutions are at odds with heartfelt faith, filled with people putting their faith in their religious works rather than submitting their lives to God. Many churches have pushed religion on people, making them feel unsavable if they can't do all the works of their religion well enough. Believing they can never be religious enough to go to heaven they leave the church. Others find that religion without faith is empty and hollow so leave the church. Some churches want those people to understand that religion and works need to come out of a love of Christ, not working to get to heaven. What they are really against is a religious institution for its sake rather than as an outgrowth of believers faith and understanding of the Word. Some churches want those people to understand that religion and works need to come out of a love of Christ, not working to get to heaven. What they are really against is a religious institution for its sake rather than as an outgrowth of believers faith and understanding of the Word.

Certainly there are churches out there that have fallen prey to all these types of sin. I want to address what our response to these abuses should be. But first, a proviso. One has to be careful when talking about religious institutions that are at odds with authentic heart-felt faith, because for many people who have imbibed Gnostic dualism, merely having an institutional apparatus at all is necessarily symptomatic of lack of true heartfelt faith. It is hard to know just what is meant by “institution” when people whine about the institutional church, but it usually includes some or all of the following: predictable worship, hierarchical government, ritual in one’s liturgical practices, local traditions, formal administration of the sacraments, follows a system, traditional music, exclusive membership (meaning that some people are members and other people are not), a church building, and things like that.
This, of course, assumes that things like ritual, hierarchy, traditions, institutionalism, patterns for administering the sacraments, organization, musical traditions, etc. is something we can somehow avoid. I know some “emergent style” churches that have formalized the formal pursuit of informality and who ritualistically pursue spontaneity, building an institution around not being institutional. They are striving for the type of disorganized utopia towards which the authors of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore? (which is available online here) continually strive for with such dualistic statements as: "Just avoid the desire to make it contrived, exclusive, or permanent. Relationships don’t work that way.” The irony, of course, is that such organization is, on one level at least, completely inescapable. Church government is inescapable, even if one exchanges the government of elders for the autonomous self-government of the individual. And as soon as you institutionalize the preference for contemporary music over and against older music, or perhaps a preference for a combination of both, you have thereby just created a new system. Traditions are an inescapable fact of life just as institutions are.  So is exclusivity: the type of disorganized community life that emerges at the end of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore? is clearly and self-consciously at the exclusion of the established visible church. Similarly, we all have our traditions and our institutions, our rhythms for ordering our worship, so that is not really the issue.
Ergo, we cannot tell merely by the presence or (presumed) absence of “institutional religion” whether a particular organization encourages or discourages heartfelt faith. (I am not saying that you have, implied that, I  am just trying to clear away the undergrowth that exists in a lot of people’s minds.) To do so would be just as odd as if someone were to say about a family (like the authors of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore say about church) that The more organization you bring to church [family?] life, the less life it will contain” or that the relationships in a family aren’t authentic or heart-felt because the family observes rituals in mealtimes and chores, has a hierarchy of authority, has certain local customs and traditions,  has a sense of permanents, is exclusive and congregates day in and day out in the same building. Nor would we say that the world is somehow boring and non-authentic because the sun keeps coming up in the same way day after day. My pastor, Stuart Byran, reminds us HERE that it is only when we have sinned and grown old that we become bored and complacent with wonderful monotony. But I digress. 
Now sure, there are plenty of churches out there that really and truly are “at odds with heartfelt faith,” and who have detached the outward motions from the substance from which they were meant to spring – churches that, as you put it, “[make] them feel unsavable if they can't do all the works of their religion well enough.” Such churches even become liberal and stop having any recognizable Christian element at all. And certainly there are churches that become insular, existing “for its sake rather than as an outgrowth of believers faith and understanding of the Word.” And then there are churches where there is not the right understanding of sphere sovereignty and so the elders begin controlling people’s personal lives in the name of “Biblical accountability.” Then again there are churches where the Holy Spirit is displaced by the love of money and power. All these things exist, and I mention it to show that I am not unaware of the problems with “institutional religion.” But I do want to suggest that the response of those who “[finding] that religion without faith is empty and hollow...leave the church” is not appropriate, even though this is the response that is increasingly becoming the new status quo. 
I suggest that a healthier approach to the church’s problems can be found in the intercessory prayers of men like Nehemiah and Daniel. Instead of pointing to the sins of their people and then separating from them, saying that they don’t want to have anything to do with them, they identified themselves with their people and engaged in identificational repentance, pleading with God for mercy.
The Church today, no less than God’s people in the days of Nehemiah, is in a mess. The answer is not to separate ourselves and say, “That’s their problem.” Instead we should be falling on our knees and saying, “we have sinned against you...we have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments...O, Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name.” (Nehemiah 1) That is the attitude that Nehemiah and the great prophets of the Bible. But many modern Christians have taking the opposite approach and talk about “the problems of the Church” as a reason for separating from her. It is become commonplace for people to point to the church’s problems as a reason to become anti-Church or at least anti-organized church. In fact, there is an entire industry of books (such as The Shack or the popular online book So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore?) that revolve around whining about everything that the church is doing wrong. The whole Emergent Church movement revolves around this nexus. Again, this would be like someone who became aware of the problems in his own family striking off on his own, declaring his aversion to the “institutional family” and pledging to have nothing to do with his family and his problems. It’s easier and it feels nicer, because then we don’t have to deal with the messiness of the real world and its problems. It feels more comfortable because then the problems if the church are not OUR problems because we’re not part of that institution. But Nehemiah didn’t take that approach in his prayers in Chapter 1. He didn’t say, “The problems of God’s people back in the homeland are not my problems; I’ve got it pretty well here as cup bearer to the king.” No indeed, he realized that the problems his brethren had were his problems and he could identify with their sins and confess them even though he had not personally committed any of them. Had he taken the attitude of many modern Christians, who separate themselves spiritually from the visible church (sometimes even identifying her as Babylon!), then the walls of Jerusalem may never have been rebuilt.

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