September 23, 2020

What Will It Be For The Institution? Blind Loyalty or Naive Criticism?

This may be one of those posts that ought to appear over at JSS, because it has a lot to do with what Jesus was doing when he was on earth and how it continues today.

BTW, I’m not criticizing the defenders of institutions. I love mine and defend it all the time, but I have also learned to know what it is and what it isn’t.

I’ve been reading some of my collected reviews of The Shack and it’s apparent that the recent reviewers have detected the anti-institutional church message that’s part of the dialogue between the main character and God. I’m glad that’s on the table, because while it may not be the focus of the story, it is part of what many people are going to take away from the book: God, as presented by William P. Young, is pretty negative on the institutional church and advises real Christians to not become too dependent on it.

Another book by the same publisher, So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore? by Jake Colson, is strongly critical of the institutional church from cover to cover, and gives the same warning: a relationship with God shouldn’t be seen as automatically nurtured in the institutional church. Your mileage may vary.

Those of you who join me in listening to The God Journey podcast are familiar with this point of view and why The Shack communicates it so well. You probably also join me in being very ambiguous about the institutional church and some of the kinds of defenses that appear when critics say the sort of things you read and hear from Young and The God Journey guys. You also may, like me, be occasionally annoyed and irritated (as well as truthfully confronted) at the negative attitude toward the institutional church from the same voices.

What one almost always hears from the defenders of the institution is that relationships occur in contexts and that radical individualism has all kinds of problems. I tend to believe that most of the critics of the institutional church know this, even if they frequently fall short of fairly stating a balanced case.

Let me suggest a few things I thing we should keep in mind when the institutional church is criticized. (Assuming, as I said, that the criticisms may be less than convincing.)

1. Many of us conduct our ministries from within religious institutions. We’ve seen most ministry in the context of what institutions do. We feel the need to defend those institutions for a lot of reasons, some Biblical, some theological and some quite personal, even financial. We’re very sensitive to critics who have left the church because we’ve chosen to stay.

I remember having lunch with a co-worker who was leaving the institutional ministry where I serve for reasons that were, in my view, less than convincing. During the lunch he made a ridiculous criticism that he “wasn’t allowed to pray with students” at our ministry. What he meant was we didn’t allow him to pursue his desire to do exorcisms on students. He knew that prayer was not only not prohibited, but encouraged and practiced.

This conversation made me very angry, and my anger showed in what I said as we parted. Upon reflection, I was angry that he was leaving and I was staying. I felt abandoned and rejected. My response to his criticism was deeply influenced by my decision to remain- to this day- a person ministering in an institutional church setting.

2. The criticisms that are brought against the institutional church often contain valid concerns that we have, because we are loyal to the institution, processed in a way that allows us to move past the objection. We resent those who “dwell” on problems we’ve learned to deal with, process, solve or ignore.

For that reason, I think we have to admit that institutional critics push our buttons, and that sometimes means we are not giving the criticisms a fair shake.

I’ve done this many times when I worked at wealthy churches. There were valid criticisms because of what was spent on facilities, salaries, amenities and so on. But I had my own point of view on these things. When someone pointed them out- whether in a mature or a juvenile way- I was seldom at my best.

Every time I see the Pope receiving and communing with groups of victims of clergy sex abuse, I admire his example in how to receive critics, how to be humble and able to admit error, yet continue ministry with fallible ministers.

3. If you look at the church throughout time, cultures and history, I believe you will conclude there are three aspects to the church. (Consider this semi-original with me.)

The church is a movement started by Jesus; a culture crossing, church planting movement that proclaims the Gospel in the power of the Spirit.

This movement takes on institutional forms at particular times and places. These institutions are basically conservers of the Jesus movement in particular places and circumstances. For example, denominations conserve the Gospel, the mission, the compassion of Jesus and channel the movement in particular ways.

Finally, the Jesus movement, both institutionally and not, is a community of persons in particular relationships. We see this in the New Testament itself as Jesus makes the development of leadership for his movement a priority, and Paul’s letters show how the movement, once it has taken particular form, presents challenges to the life of the community.

Now these three aspects of the church are not identical, in my opinion and experience, in their responsiveness to the Holy Spirit or imitation of Jesus. Clearly, institutional values are often at war with the values of a movement and the experience of a community.

But this doesn’t have to be the case, Institutional responsiveness to the Spirit and institutional renewal and reformation have all been a historical reality.

But I say all of this to point out that critics of the institutional church may go too far, but they also are usually telling us a good bit of the truth.

If we defend institutionalism without a healthy self-critical attitude, we’re likely to be too loyal to what doesn’t deserve all of our loyalty.

Institutions come and go, and we need to be more loyal to the movement and the reality of community than we are to institutional concerns. Where I work, there are the empty campuses of many schools just like ours all throughout Appalachia. Most are empty and not being used for ministry. Our school changed its way of doing ministry to stay with the Jesus movement and the Jesus shaped community, so we have survived.

The recent President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Frank Page, said that half the denomination’s churches would be dead by the middle of the century. I don’t consider him a carping critic. He is setting the table for new churches and new life in the denomination, because he is refusing to tell the institutional lie that institutional churches always deserve to survive and will survive. That’s not true, and God bless him for saying so.

4. The Biblical material backs up a critical engagement with institutions that purport to be the church or represent the Jesus movement.

Jesus didn’t destroy the temple. He turned over tables that represented institutional betrayal and compromise.

But Jesus replaced the temple and fulfilled its function. The people of God are the living temple in this covenant. Whatever institutional “temples” come into being in the Christian movement, should be treated as secondary to the realities of the New Covenant and subject to the prophetic critiques of the Old Testament and the Jesus shaped critiques of the New.

I agree with most of these critics that institutions that have wandered far from the central concerns of scripture, refused to critique themselves in the light of Jesus shaped spirituality and that are simply wrong in the claims they make about their ability to create community and produce disciples should be engaged with great care. Some of what institutions choose to stand by must be opposed by those who follow Jesus, just as he turned over the tables in the courts of Gentile prayer.

I do not condemn anyone for choosing to leave the institutional church when it is killing them spiritually or otherwise. At the same time, I am deeply concerned about how any person is continuing in the movement and the central message of the movement, and participating in Christian community. Institutions vary greatly in how much they are on message, in the movement and concerned with real community.

The defenders of institutions are often well motivated, and the critics of institutions are sometimes extreme, even as they are often partially truthful. We need to listen carefully to both and not be too loyal to either.


  1. Good balance. Constructive tone. Fair evaluation. That’s how Jesus did it in Rev 2-3, and that’s why you get read. Keep up the good work!

  2. Question, Micahel.

    Is there such a thing as a “non-institutional church?” I can imagine a believer running off to an isolated mountain somewhere to worship God in seclusion, but would that person really be a follower of Jesus? And other than that, do we not all “institutionalize,” in one form or another, to one degree or another?

    Just wondering.

    Grace and Peace,

  3. Great post. It’s interesting, and encouraging to see that the conversation about organic vs. institutional is developing further on – and I see this post as part of it.

    One thing that have troubled me in the most harsh critique of the more traditional churches and institutions is simply the fact that most of what I’ve learnt and grown as a disciple has happended in the context of their ministry, and although I might see many things that could be different – I really don’t know where I would be without them. Shouldn’t we keep some kind of loyalty to the ones who “raised” us?

  4. I find the responses to critiques of the institutional aspects of the movement to be much like the response to critiques of public education. Those who are closely identified with the institutions- and that includes me- are probably pretty deeply involved with the problems that are endemic to these institutions. We are used to them and their limitations and processes.

    This is why it’s so hard for those of us doing ministry in the context of institutions to admit that the critics are right. In education, the critics are generally very right, but those identified with the institution are convinced they can solve any problem that does exist with their own resources.

    We are in a box, and we do need to listen to those outside of it.

  5. Jeremiah Lawson says

    The tough part for me about criticisms of the institutions that are churches is that either the people making the criticisms can’t themselves provide what the church lacks, or they effectively are planting a new church around their own cults of personality. I got dragged into the home church/alternatives to church fad in the 1990s and noticed that either the alternative to “organized religion” had the same problems as organized religion written on a smaller and less accountable scale, or it was what you might have to call disorganized religion, where ostensibly people said they were getting fellowship or being what the church wasn’t but not even doing what churches, in all their flaws, manage to do–stuff like singing praise to God, announcing the coming of Christ’s kingdom, helping the sick and needy, and providing a place for individual and corporate confession of sin before God and humanity.

    Criticism of the church is always necessary yet it seems that sometimes the disenfrachisement of at least some of the critics can be because they didn’t get what they wanted. I’ve met some people who seemed happy with the power, influence, acclaim, and respect they had within a church until things didn’t go their way and then they got bitter about the church as an institution. Understood, but that’s my worry, that some people who complain the most were people who in some sense coveted having power to throw around within a given church community, threw it around, and then got angry that it backfired on them when leaders made decisions (good or bad) that they disagreed with. It introduced the frustrating paradox that I felt as though the critic of the church was guilty of the same abuse or misuse of reputation and authority (real or presumed) that they saw in others but not themselves. Sometimes, at the risk of being obvious, we can complain about in the church what we can’t see in ourselves.

  6. Defenders and critics both have agendas and “glasses,” but that doesn’t mean that either shouldn’t be heard because an agenda or problem is identified.

    And I don’t see why a critic has to also supply the answer. That’s another issue entirely. Maybe seeing the problem is the answer.

  7. I’m puzzling over why churches which claim to be the greatest defenders of free will seem to be addicted to using emotional and psychological tricks to pummel, brainwash, and sell people into making “decisions”, as if in the end free will is an obstruction to a successful altar call. I don’t think churches want the laity to make decisions for themselves but to robotically do what they are told. As denominations fight even more for their very existence, they will become even more authoritarian and will accelerate their demise.

    How can an institution be comprised of autonomous, free-thinking individuals without disintegrating into anarchy or becoming dominated by those exercising the “will to power” (Nietzsche)? I think the answer is in the cross, that each individual lays down his or her life out of the “will to love” (Schweitzer), as Jesus did. I think that is at the heart of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17 and Paul’s exhortation to serve in Philippians 2:6-11. The ideal that church-growth guru’s extract from Acts 2:42-47 isn’t possible without free, loving individuals. That can’t be accomplished through authoritarianism. But because it depends on love, it can’t be bottled in a set of principles. It has to be allowed to grow (back to the kingdom parables!).

  8. @Raffi,

    Check up on the Japanese Non-Church movement. There’s a wealth of info out there, but you can start here:ōkai

  9. Sorry, the link didn’t publish properly. Copy and paste the whole thing into your browser. : (

  10. Jeremiah Lawson says

    I’m not saying criticism of the church isn’t important, but I have a more Pentecostal/charismatic background where theology and grounding in Scripture isn’t always awesome even in the “organized religion” wing. I got dragged to home fellowships and alternatives to official church where a self-proclaimed prophet predicted around 1992 that California was going to sink into the sea. 🙂 So if your background is Baptist, Michael, my Baptist is more like, say, Jesse (BHT, of course). So as you said in another context, our personal histories play a role here and my personal history was having family drag me to alternatives to church that seemed worse than the problem they proposed to solve.

  11. caucazhin says

    God utterly destroyed the temple and all of the tradition that went with it because it was utterly dead and vain.That should tell us something about all our institutions. Basically that over time they become top heavy & top down and serve themselves instead of the people they where intended to.
    There is nothing new under the sun and human nature hasnt change an ioda over the centuries.And so our houses will be left desolate also because we substitued tradition,ritual,education,wealth,privelage,pomp and culture for the true living God.
    They dont call it cemetary I mean seminary for nothing.
    “Because of you Gods name is a laughing stock amongst the gentiles”

  12. Wow! This is great. I really think that we have to be careful that we differentiate between churches (note the lower case “c”) and The Church (note the capital “C”). I personally don’t think that the word Church should be used to describe man made institutions, just like you shouldn’t name your child Jesus. Some things are sacred… but that is just my opinion.

    IMonk – your use of of the word institution is great and really helps us start to get a clearer view of the issues/arguments.

    I will want to go back and read that post a few times, but have a few comments to participate in the dialog.

    At the end, you state… “The defenders of institutions are often well motivated, and the critics of institutions are sometimes extreme, even as they are often partially truthful. ”

    I don’t like the way that you identify the critics as partially truthful and the defenders as well motivated. I am a critic and yet am well motivated. I am motivated by trying to live out what the Scriptures say so that we can represent Jesus in a way that impacts people to move towards a relationship with Him.

    I find that it is the defenders that are partially truthful and often motivated by the need to control in the name of Jesus.

  13. The idea of “non institutionalized” religion seems to reflect our society’s Burger King mentality (“Have it your way”)–we pick and choose what we like best and ignore scriptural truths we don’t particularly like. In a perfect world, a church would be a community of open discussion and discernment about where God is leading people today. Sort of a checks and balances system, if you want to relate it to our government (another institution we can’t just easily opt out of.)

    Change happens from within. If we don’t believe our churches reflect Christ’s teachings, that is the fault of the people, not the institution.

  14. Deb:

    >If we don’t believe our churches reflect Christ’s teachings, that is the fault of the people, not the institution.

    You mean institutions are always right?


    Institutional racism was an evil for centuries. An institution crucified Jesus. Institutions have done incredible evil in the name of Christ throughout history.

    I’m confused.

  15. Jeremiah Lawson says

    So if the instituion consists of people and the people are at fault the institution isn’t. Westerners don’t understand how collective guilt can work in biblical thought, I guess. 🙂 My caution about criticism isn’t that institutions aren’t guilty but that I’ve seen critics come up with stuff that was just as bad. The criticism itself is often not the problem but the solutions proposed by either critics or institutions. If the solution is more closely following Jesus, awesome. A solution that keeps blaming the critics for being critical or defends the institution for getting more important things right than what the critics are complaining about, that’s not necessarily the way to go.

  16. This is why I highlighted Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers, which was an approved operation of the institutional rulers, the Sadducees. He didn’t burn down the temple. He respected it, and he said this particular institutional operation was criminal and wrong.

    One of my concerns in writing this post is the response I’ve gotten from people who are defending the institutional church to the point they can’t read their own Bible (the Prophets!) and hear the critique of the institutions as sources of oppression, idolatry and sin.

    The movement and the community are of more value than the institutional forms of either. The Bible critiques EVERY institution: religious, civic, cultural. Defending them is evidence that the culture war has shaped our mindset to be more “conservative” than Christian imo.

  17. Ok, I may be shoe-horning this comment into this thread, but I hope it fits. If not, please don’t post it.

    Another problem with institutions is when membership is equated with hiding behind stone walls of right-ness (not righteousness), worshipping the formulas of perfect faith rather than practicing it.

    I am bewildered by the comparatively silent response from within evangelical circles to the shootings in a Knoxville Universalist church, by a murderer who found their views too liberal. People gathered to seek truth were murdered. Debate the wrongness of the answers found in their church all you want, but the ramifications are chilling. This is more than the freedom of religion or defending institutions; freedom itself is at stake. If freedom only belongs to those who agree with us, then none of us are free. For that reason alone, we should stand with that congregation and pray for them. An even better reason is because the victims were our neighbors, created in the image of God. By God’s grace, we need to be good samaritans, not self-absorbed Levites.

    Freedom is not believing what you are told at the end of a gun or the tip of a boot. Did WW II teach us nothing?

  18. I still think blaming the institution instead of individuals is passing the buck. “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing” (a quote attributed to Edmund Burke, but probably not his) sums up the problems of the American Revolution, WWII–or any situation where people lay the power for their comfort and happiness in the hands of a few instead of taking responsibility for themselves and seeing to the well-being of their neighbors.

    I agree wholeheartedly that church people often do not reflect the principles of faith that Christ taught. But Christ also established a church (a community, an institution) and did not intend for people to worship and live in isolation and practice faith for their own sakes.

    Isn’t it reverse prejudice when we pack our bags and leave a church because “those people just aren’t as righteous as I am?” That’s the coward’s way–when you’re not willing to take a stand against the institution with clear and concise arguments about why their attitude doesn’t reflect the Gospel.

  19. Deb:

    I think you are misreading this post and this discussion. I don’t often say that, but in this case, I feel it’s true.

    No one is asking everyone to leave every church. As Protestants, we have the privilege of being able to say that our churches can be wrong, and if leaders repent of what is wrong, things can change.

    If the sin in the institution is evil enough, the only RIGHT thing to do is leave. Sexual abuse, for example, or many other kinds of abuse and exploitation.

    Clearly, some institutions need and deserve our loyalty. Others should be abandoned.

    It’s not cowardly to leave an abusive or immoral situation.



  20. Being Presbyterian (pcusa), we’re big on “God alone is the Lord of conscience, and hath left it free from doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” (G-10301. ) So, not that we’re necessarily known for our earth-shaking radicalism, in theory, we’re supposed to work to “agree to disagree” and discern God’s will as a community.

    I can’t imagine there’s many Christians who support sexual or other abuses in the church–that’s kind of a no-brainer. That’s not what I’m reading in your post, however. I get the sense that perhaps you’re weary of traditional worship, or Christians who pay lip service to faith they don’t apply in their every day life–and blaming that on The Institution. Why is that the fault of the community rather than the individual? The statement I find confusing in your post involves the friend leaving the church because he felt he wasn’t allowed to perform exorcisms. Why did you feel angry because he was leaving and you were staying?

    I don’t think I’m necessarily misunderstanding your post (but I did read it and the comments again, just to make sure :-)) . It just seems like in my experience, people who leave The Institution (or claim a belief in God but don’t attend church because they don’t like institutions) are not as interested in spiritual truths and making a passionate stand for Jesus’s values as they are in wanting to make up their own version of the Gospel. Perhaps you’re luckier to live in a neck of the woods where people are more passionate about their beliefs.

    I agree with the statement made by the new president of the Southern Baptists–I think many of our main stream denominational churches will not exist in the coming decades. We’re seeing that in a major way in the pcusa, but unfortunately (and again, perhaps this is a regional problem) it has to do with a generation more interested in recreational activities for their kids (an type of institution that can be just as controlling as a church, I might add) than worship on Sunday morning.

    As you’re probably aware, we’ve had quite a bit of this “leaving the institutional church” in the PCUSA over the issue of gay ordination–but it’s almost the reverse of what you’re talking about. What I consider The Institution (older, traditional, conservative members) are breaking away to form their own congregational-governed churches where gay ordination (and, gasp!, women elders and ministers) won’t even be discussed.

    Through all this, I’m agreeing with your point that the church (ie: church people) need to be open to new ways God leads–and that there is no perfect church.