Is the "Institutional Church" Inevitable?

It is Wednesday at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Assembly will close this evening and we will head home to our congregations. Some of us will be inspired and others frustrated. The questions that have been facing us for some time haven't gone away. Is the day of the denomination over? Is instituional structure a hindrance that we should abandon. At the time the Disciples tradition emerged, we were an anti-institutional bunch. Now we have a structure that is nearly fifty years old. The questions that haunt us concern whether it is time to reinvision what it means to be Disciples. In this post I wrote two years ago after the closing of the 2013 General Assembly, I asked the question of whether institutionalization is inevitable. I repost that essay and ask the question once more.  


Many people decry the existence of the institutional church.  It is seen as wasteful, inert, unproductive, and perhaps even unbiblical.  Congregationalist types of churches have tried to limit the damage by limiting their structures to local congregations, but for some even that is abhorrent.

The ecclesial community of which I am a part, in which I hold ministerial standing, long held that denominationalism was sinful.  When we finally decided to embrace what many already knew to be true -- that we'd already crossed the threshold -- it was in the late 1960s and the world had entered an anti-institutional stage of history.  The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) declared itself to be a full-fledged denomination at the very moment that denominations were declared to be irrelevant.  For the past four decades we have struggled to figure out our mission and purpose.  We've done this at at time of decline in numbers of adherents and finances.  

One of the issues facing my tradition over the years was the seeming need to find the appropriate biblical pattern for church structure.  Unfortunately, we never found that elixir.  If you moved a few decades into the second century you'll find clear evidence of an expanding episcopate, but the biblical texts offer little guidance on the proper institutional formats.  Ronald Osborn notes the problem we faced in the 1960s.  We had jettisoned our restorationist beliefs -- our search for the biblical pattern -- and then faced the problem of what kind of structure would work for us.  We could and we did look to our neighboring denominations, but their structures didn't necessarily fit our realities.  

Osborn offered two guiding principles:

1.  Any ecclesiastical institution must seek to manifest its best understanding of the gospel and of the nature of the church to the fullest extent that this is possible through a historic institution.
In other words, it must always keep in touch with its founding purpose and principles -- it's divine calling.  This requires theological conversation.  It's not just a question of management principles.  

2.  If a denomination is a historic institution belong to the church's historic existence, then it must be built of the stuff of history, taking over principles and procedures from its own historic time.  Every religious institution has done this, whether it has recognized it or not.  Thus the task before Disciples is not to seek some presumed absolute, some divine pattern, but calmly to consider our need and the institutional materials available in our couture to give expression to the nature of the church, as we understand it.  With a humble prayer for the power and even the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit we must address our corporate thought to the task before us.   ["Ronald E. Osborn, "A Theology of Denominations and Principles" in The Revival of the Churches, Wm. Barnett Blakemore, ed., (St. Lous:  Bethany Press, 1963), pp. 105-106].
I understand why many people, especially younger ones, find institutional religion problematic.  They can be ponderous, difficult to reform, and yet I'm not sure that we can live without them for long.  These institutions serve as a kind of skeleton that keep the body erect.  An organism can live without a skeleton, but its form determines the way it lives out its purpose.

Osborn offers two good principles.  The first calls us to ever keep in mind our founding purpose, which is to bear witness to the gospel.  When we move away from this, then we must pursue reform.  Second, we will, most likely turn to the structures present in our own context to create the needed structures.  What is interesting to me is that once we've created these structures, we seem to believe that this is the necessary structure.  The Roman Catholic Church wisely borrowed the structures of the empire.  It made sense in the fourth century.  The Disciples borrowed structures from the new American Republic.  The other day, Tony Jones, who is a constant critic of the denominational system offered up another possible organizational framework.  Tony is suggesting that we fix our denominations by getting rid of the bureaucracy.  

It’s not the people that is the problem, it’s the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is bad for the gospel. Bureaucracy is good at sustaining itself, but only for its own sake, not for a larger, more noble purpose like the gospel. 
I think that denominations might take a lesson from a new kind of company in America. These companies are being founded and funded, but they have no managers.

While I'm not yet convinced we'll get the denominations to switch over to this new non-bureaucratic framework anytime soon, it's quite likely that new movements within the church might take it up.  They will add another format of ecclesial life to our realities.  If it works -- well great -- if not -- well we can go back to the Roman model, which has worked for about 1800 years!  But note this -- Tony was taking us back to Oborn's first point -- whatever our structures, they must manifest the gospel!


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