What does the title of this article mean to you? Does it bring to mind any images, people, or customs? Does it evoke feelings in your heart, either positive or negative? Or is it a foreign term to you because of the vagueness of the term “institution”?
When I use the phrase “the institution of the church,” I am referring to the necessary structure that develops among Christians of similar theology, history, and practice. Let me unpack that a little bit:
- “Necessary structure”: Just as people gather to live in neighborhoods, villages, towns, cities, regions, and nations, so do all human organizations. Any organization, if it is going to maintain its identity and purpose, must develop some kind of structure to keep itself going into the future. Over the course of time, the earliest Christians developed a structure to keep themselves afloat in the world; today, we call this structure the Roman Catholic Church. Even our brand of Christian faith, the Church of God Reformation Movement, has developed structures and systems that support the identity and purpose of this movement. That development began back in the 1910s and really flourished during the mid-1900s.
- “Similar theology, history, and practice”: Christian groups vary widely in these three categories, and perhaps others. But when believers have these in common, they tend to stick together. They have campmeetings and conventions; they have unity services and missionaries; they trade pastors and, all too often, church people. They might even work together on joint projects, like we did in Guatemala with Meridian Church of God earlier this year, and like we did with two other Church of God congregations for the Global Gathering last month. The structures we develop support and protect our investments (material and spiritual) in our beliefs, our shared history, and our shared experiences.
This is all well and good. But many people today have been driven away from God because of the problems in the institution of the church – whatever its label. And this isn’t good. In our humanness, we create issues that cause people to turn away from God. We argue among each other; we criticize those who disagree with us on political issues. We discriminate against those who aren’t like us; we harbor jealousy of those who are successful. We distrust those in power; we fail to consider the needs of “the least of these.” And all these things can occur within one particular church group – I know, because I have seen them in the Church of God itself!
Yet I do not run away. I remain committed to the Church of God (and to the Mt. Haley congregation in particular) because I believe in the Church of God’s theology, history, and practices. I find the institution frustrating at times, but I also find it incredibly valuable because it connects me to something bigger than myself. And at the same time, I constantly work to remember that the Church of God is connected to something bigger than itself as well. We speak openly about salvation, unity, and holiness with Christians in our own fellowship and those in other backgrounds. We do so because we share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6 NIV) and we take seriously Jesus’s prayer that we might all be one (John 17:22-23).
With all this in mind, I invite you to read two more articles, these written by good friends of mine, Joe Watkins and Jael Tang. They are two of my “people” – the group I’ve mentioned to you before, my seminary friends who form for me a special community of support, inspiration, and challenge. Please take a few minutes to read what they have to say; I promise it’s worth your time.
Read Jael’s blog here: http://akandatang-luke5.blogspot.com/2013/07/where-we-come-from-institution-and.html