In The Lion King, Simba flees the pride in shame. He leaves because Uncle Scar convinces him that he’s responsible for his father’s death. In his exile, he finds refuge with Timon and Pumbaa. The loveable meerkat and warthog give more than comic relief. They become family during his self-imposed removal from the pride. I suspect they also represent deep-seated ideals we hold about community. We want people who accept as we are. We long for friends who will never abandon us, no matter what. We suspect that relationships will be healthier free from the entanglements of institutions. These ideals can collide with the church as an institution.
Church as institution?
Joe (not his real name) refused to join a church because, as he said, he answered to Christ alone. I’ve met plenty of others who share his sentiments. Even the word “institution” has mostly negative connotations. We perceive institutions as impersonal, authoritarian, and arbitrary. We sense that people get lost in them. We think they dehumanize. All too often our experience confirms the perception. Consider your experiences at places like the Department of Motor Vehicles. How does it feel when you’re treated as a number? Institutions provide ample reason for us to be suspicious.
Is the church an institution? According Merriam-Webster.com, an institution is a significant practice, relationship, or organization in society or culture. You won’t find the word in Scripture. But the idea is certainly there (e.g. Acts 15; Titus 1). God organizes the church under the headship of Jesus. The Bible is the church’s foundational document. Jesus appoints various officers to govern the church under Him. It has organizational structure. In short, it’s pretty hard to argue that the church isn’t an institution. At the same time, most of us would admit that organization is necessary when groups of people come together in any significant way.
What are we assuming about the church as an institution?
We should be realistic about flawed leaders. Leaders are sinful just like the rest of us. They can–and certainly do–sin. Most of us have at least heard about the youth pastor who used his authority to seduce a student or volunteer. I’ve seen church leaders pit people in the church against each other for their own ends. Sometimes leaders simply make unwise decisions. Flawed and fallen church leaders burn many. Sometimes they have treated people in unspeakable ways, for which there is simply no excuse. I have been on both the giving and receiving ends. I have burned others; I have also been burned.
There is an alternative to rejecting church. It’s an alternative that every Christian must choose. As believers we can’t neglect connection to our Lord’s body (Hebrews 10:24-25). Jesus calls us to live in meaningful relationships with other believers. A brother or sister holding your hand at your sick-bed in the hospital lends strength. Someone speaking words to remind you of the gospel encourages you when you’ve fallen. People praying for you when you desperately need a job, or when your children are in danger helps. In these ways the church rises above our fears about institutions.
These things are how the body of Christ takes shape concretely. Yes, the church is an institution. But its an institution that, through divine support, soars above our worst stereotypes. To be united to Christ is necessarily to be connected to His body. One cannot have Christ without also having His church. The church takes shape in time and space. God’s people are bound together in relationships in particular places. They spend time together. They worship together, hear God’s word preached together, and celebrate communion together. They confess their sins to one another. They confront each other. They bear each others burdens. They laugh together and they weep together.
So why not seek a church that has structures to support accountability for leaders? Why not seek a church where people are making efforts to live in real relationship? I fully grant that no system made up of fallen people will be perfect. We have no right to expect a perfection from others that we lack ourselves. We will have to forgive. It will be painful at times. We long for the return of Christ because we expect something far better when He consummates His reign. One day He will remove sin totally from creation. But in the mean time, God rules through the church as an institution. I’ve seen Him care for people when the circumstances have been extremely messed up. I’ve experienced meaningful relationships. Despite our sin, we can trust our Lord to reign in His church. It is an institution like no other.
What assumptions do you have about church as institution?