Institutionalism and Relevance
Podcast: Axe to the Root
Topics: Culture, Ecclesiology
” . . . the attempt to produce relevance through solidifying institutional power and demanding submission to it will only produce more irrelevance.”
– One Holy Local Church? The Ghettoization of Protestantism, Bojidar Marinov
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Welcome to Episode of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes I will rant. The purpose of my rant is to try to shake churchmen out of their sleep – something I shouldn’t have to do, if the church in America were doing her job. My thesis is this: As a church, in the last one century in America, we have dropped into a complacent slumber, content of going through the same useless motions over and over again, repeating the same meaningless rituals over and over again, not paying attention to the obvious historical trends around us, namely, that we are slowly but surely becoming a pavement for the culture around us, being trampled under the culture’s feet. Which, if we are paying attention to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, is a clear indication that we have become a salt that has lost its savor. But instead of looking for radical solutions to what appears to be a radical problem, we continue the same things over and over again, mindless of the danger we are facing as a church.
The prospect of being salt that has lost its savor would be deeply alarming to any Christian. It is certainly deeply alarming to me. In an episode of Axe to the Root last year I spoke about “Modern Presbyterianism: Under the Feet of Men,” showing that Presbyterianism in the US went from being the dominant intellectual and cultural influence in the society to a marginal sect which no one really pays attention to. And this in a mere two generations!Granted, cultures change, and different cultural influences may have their ups and downs, but such a fall from the top to the bottom, within such a short period of time, after about two centuries of total dominance (including and especially during the very formative period of the US, the Revolutionary War) should be troubling to any Presbyterian Christian, and even more to the leadership in Presbyterian churches, for in the Bible, whenever God promises judgment, His judgment starts with and is especially severe against the shepherds, those who hold a position of formal authority and actual power in the churches.
Presbyterianism is not alone in this complacency in the face of obvious decline and near death. The same situation applies to all the other denominations. If you think American Baptists are any better, just think of Judge Roy Moore in Alabama. That’s right, Alabama, in the Bible Belt, the very heartland of the Southern Baptists. And it is in Alabama where a panel of judges, most of them members of Baptist churches, removed from office a legitimately elected judge for his stance for the Biblical family, against sodomite perversion. Let that sink. And how deep corruption goes in the Methodist and Episcopalian and other churches and denominations, I don’t even have to mention.
We have the highest percentage of church-attending population in the Western world: over 50% of Americans report to attend church regularly. And yet, we have a declining imprint of our churches in the culture – in fact, declining so quickly, that if our great-grandfathers were here today, they would hardly recognize our culture.
Such abrupt fall from dominant influence to irrelevance should trouble every Christian heart in this land. It should also grip in fear the heart of every single person in a position of leadership in the American churches, whether a pastor or elder, or a theologian and seminary professor. We have the clearest signs of our times that the church has become salt-less and light-less, and that in a radically short time after it had all the influence it needed to spread the Gospel and build Christendom. Such radical change in the times should produce a radical alarm in our hearts and lead to radical changes in our churches and practices and beliefs . . . and yet, nothing is happening. The pulpits continue business as usual, as if nothing has happened. The weekly rituals continue, as if nothing has happened. The same useless discussions and conferences on theological trivialities continue, as if nothing has happened. If someone from outside would observe the American church without knowing the historical and cultural context, he would come to the conclusion that the American church has nothing to worry about anymore, except for achieving perfect assurance on minor things, of which the Bible contains little more than a few ambiguous verses.
God has given us a clear sign that our church today is useless in His kingdom, by removing her lampstand out of its place: a clear invitation to “remember from where we have fallen” (Rev. 2:5). And yet, the sense of urgency that should follow such invitation is lacking, and it is lacking especially among the leadership of the American churches. Yes, even among those who can see and acknowledge that there has been an abrupt loss of cultural influence, even where leaders understand that the church is trampled under the feet of men. In fact, if anything, modern churchmen have mostly been busy devising theologies and eschatologies that justify the decline rather than analyze the reasons for it or the remedies for it. How to live a Christian life in a fallen world, you know. Because once we define the world as intrinsically “fallen,” we don’t have to worry about the fact that the Bible calls that world God’s world (1 Cor. 10:26) and that it is subject to redemption (Rom. 8:21).
A few of us have tried to sound the alarm in articles, sermons, books, lectures, that the radical fall of the church from cultural authority is a clear sign that the American church has radically quit being salt and light. This cultural authority was not incidental; it was not simply some historical aberration. It has been the result of the hard work and faithfulness of generations of Christians and churches. The church hasn’t always been perfectly faithful, neither has she been perfectly knowledgeable about the Gospel, but she must have dome something right to be the factor for the creation of a society where the Bible exercised so much influence over both men’s lives and the operations of the civil government and all other social institutions. This accumulated cultural capital has been dissipated in just a short period of time, and we have tried to bring this to the attention of the church. From heavy theological guns and preachers like R.J. Rushdoony and Leonard Ravenhill to self-sacrificial groups and movements like Operation Rescue and Abolish Human Abortion, the writing has been on the wall for a long time.
And yet, the only argument raised against such attempts at correction has been the trivial and nonsensical, “You can’t be a valid critic of the institutional church, unless you are a member of the institutional church.” Which means, to legitimately speak against corruption, you need the approval of the very system which is corrupt; that is, you need to join the corruption. The saltless salt and the lightless lampstand must approve your salt and light, otherwise your salt and light are not legitimate. The system that is near death is expected to judge life. The shepherds of the modern church whom the signs of the times reveal to be on the defendant stand want to be on the judge’s bench, and judge the witnesses sent against them according to their “submission to authority.”
The answer of many of those churchmen to the obvious failure of the church in the last one century has been to blame the flocks for their supposed lack of submission to the “local church.” In my conversations with different elders of different churches on proposed solutions of the problem with the diminishing relevance of the churches in America, they always resort to the argument that in the past, when the church was successful in changing the culture, there has always been some institutional structure to which men submitted, and this was what made the church strong. Thus, if we just have all men submit to the modern institutional structures that pass for “churches,” we will surely have the renewal and the revival which will restore the church to her relevance in the world today. To the decline of the American church in the last one century, their solution is more institutionalism.
But such faith in the power of external institutionalism is nothing more than a modern form of the Cargo Cult. The Cargo Cult was a religion which developed spontaneously on some of the islands in the Pacific during WWII. The island populations who had their indigenous religions, saw the arrival of the US Seabees to their islands. The Seabees built airstrips and piers and roadways to provide the infrastructure for the US Navy and Army and the Marine Corps to defeat the Japanese. Once the infrastructure was built, planes and ship with cargo started to arrive, and this cargo had a number of nice things which made the life of the islanders much easier: from pocket knives and flashlights and batteries to compasses and rubber tires and textiles, the Seabees performed a real miracle in the eyes of the locals. The old religions and myths lost their adherents: they couldn’t deliver. But the more important part came after the war.
When the war was over, the Seabees were gone, taking their materials with them. The ships and the planes stopped arriving to bring cargo anymore. The locals figured the solution: They started building their own improvised versions of piers and airstrips and roadways, out of available materials like bamboo or palm trees. Once the infrastructure was built, they figured, it would attract the planes and ships with cargo. Just like the Americans had done during the war. In the minds of the locals, the cargo just existed out there. No one knew how and why it existed. It was just a given reality. The mechanism to bring it over to the island was the infrastructure. The infrastructure was the altar to which the cargo will be attracted. Thus, any restoration of the prosperous years during the war had to start with building the altars. That the infrastructure of delivery was only the end product of centuries of civilization growth and development, of hard work and entrepreneurship and accumulated knowledge and organization of production, could never occur to the natives.
In a similar way, it doesn’t seem to occur to the modern churchmen that the authority of the institutional church is not the beginning of revival or of restoration of the cultural authority of the church in the society. Submission to the local church or to any institutional body is not, nor can it be the magic altar which will attract revival and Reformation. All that institutionalism can do is institutionalize already existing conditions. Where there is true relevance, life, and victorious expansion, institutionalism will channel and organize that relevance, life, and victorious expansion. Where there is irrelevance, death, and retreat, solidifying the institution of the church will only solidify and establish that irrelevance, death, and retreat. An institution is never an instrument for growth and victory. It is nothing more than city walls; it will protect what’s inside – whether misery or prosperity – but it will never conquer anything outside. Conquest is only achieved through men outside the city walls.
But more importantly, true authority doesn’t come through more institutionalism. If it could come through institutionalism, North Korea would today be the highest authority in the world, and everyone would be looking up to them for guidance. It’s the other way around: a really successful and healthy institution can only be established where there already exists a reliable authority, trusted by the majority of the people in the society. The institution is the final product of authority, not the beginning of it. The attempt to build prosperity through building airstrips and waiting for the planes with cargo to land will only produce more poverty in wasted time, labor, and material. In the same way, the attempt to produce relevance through solidifying institutional power and demanding submission to it will only produce more irrelevance. The institutional church is only the final product of a long process. And that process never starts with the institution. Our attempts at solutions, therefore, will always fail when we base them on more institutionalism.
We have a radical problem on our hands. We need to look for a radical solution. Doing the same thing and expecting different results won’t do. The church will continue to lose influence, and the legacy we will leave to our children will be misery.
As Protestants, the Reformation should be a good example to us. It didn’t start with the establishment of a hierarchy. In fact, if anything, it started with a destruction of a hierarchy. It started with a radical departure from an institutional system. It took more than a century in most of the Protestant churches to develop any institutional system. In most places, the new institutional system was nothing like the Roman Catholic one, of before the Reformation. In fact, the majority of the great Reformed confessions of faith were written and adopted not in the context of an organized institutional system but to the contrary, in the context of institutional chaos. The very Westminster Confession of Faith, which became the foundation for many other confessions, was adopted in the midst of such chaos: it was a predominantly Anglican confession (yes, folks, it was not Presbyterian in its origin, only 6 Scottish commissioners and 9 elders of the Scottish Kirk attended, compared to 12 Anglican bishops and about 80 Anglican vicars or other clerics), so it was a predominantly Anglican confession in a time when the Anglican church was at its lowest institutional state, being controlled mainly by non-separatist Puritans. And England was not alone. The influence and the cultural impact of Protestantism not only didn’t come by institutional means, it in fact came in opposition to any institutionalism.
It is in that very Westminster Confession, in its chapter on the Church, that we see the explanation to the current problems we have in the church today. In its 25th chapter, the Confession specifically defines the visible Church in non-institutional terms, declaring it to be the sum of all believers, without any institutional limitations:
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (Chapter 25, point 2)
To be a member of the visible Church, therefore, one doesn’t need to submit to a local church. All he needs to do is profess the true religion. Outside of that profession, there is no Church. But also, there is no other requirement for being a member of the Church but that profession.
But what do we do with the institutional churches? Aren’t they true representatives of the visible Church? Not necessarily. In points 4 and 5 of the same chapter, the confession speaks of churches in plural, and has to say the following:
IV. This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.
Obviously, when it comes to the institutional aspect of the church, that is, the many particular churches, the authors of the confession were careful to not put too much confidence in them: they are more or less pure, and some have degenerated to the point that they are not churches of God anymore. In this here, could the confession be telling us the possible reason for our situation today? Could it be warning us against investing too much confidence in earthly institutions, even if they are “churches” with all the right accreditation and correct Sunday morning rituals? After all, if we are Protestants, spiritual heirs of the Reformation, shouldn’t we be traditionally suspicious of any hierarchy, whether universal or local, which claims for itself a monopoly on salvation, and a monopoly on revival and renewal? Shouldn’t we be naturally resistant to any claim to authority, testing it through the Word of God? And if any institution claims authority, but its history proves that it is salt without savor and a lampstand without light, aren’t we as Protestants, the first who should challenge its claim to authority and reject it? Even if it is our own Protestant churches and seminaries?
The Great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck understood the problem and understood the necessity of breaking out of the institutional mold for the purpose of reformation of the church and the society:
It is not unbelievers primarily but the devout who have always experienced this power of the hierarchy as a galling bond to their consciences. Throughout the centuries there has not only been scientific, societal, and political resistance but also deeply religious and moral opposition to the hierarchical power of the church. It simply will not do to explain this opposition in terms of unbelief and disobedience and intentionally to misconstrue the religious motives underlying the opposition of various sects and movements. No one has been bold enough to damn all these sects because they were moved to resist the church and its tradition. Even Rome shrinks from this conclusion. The extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church) is a confession that is too harsh for even the most robust believer. Accordingly, the “law” we see at work in every area of life is operative also in religion and morality. On the one hand, there is a revolutionary spirit that seeks to level all that has taken shape historically in order to start rebuilding things from the ground up. There is, however, also a false conservatism that takes pleasure in leaving the existing situation untouched simply because it exists and—in accordance with Calvin’s familiar saying—not to attempt to change a well-positioned evil (malum bene positum non movere). At the proper time everywhere and in every sphere of life, a certain radicalism is needed to restore balance, to make further development possible, and not let the stream of ongoing life bog down. In art and science, state and society, similarly in religion and morality, there gradually develops a mindless routine that oppresses and does violence to the rights of personality, genius, invention, inspiration, freedom, and conscience. But in due time there always arises a man or woman who cannot bear that pressure, casts off the yoke of bondage and again takes up the cause of human freedom and that of Christian Liberty. These are turning points in history. Thus Christ himself rose up against the tradition of the elders and returned to the law and the prophets. Thus one day the Reformation had the courage, not in the interest of some scientific, social or political goal, but in the name of Christian humanity, to protest against Rome’s hierarchy…
This certain radicalism of which Bavinck speaks, is very needed today. Again, with the obvious transformation of the American church in the last 100 years from dominant influence to under the feet of men, it is time for us to realize that business as usual will only produce more of the same. This radicalism may require that we revisit and revise many of our assumptions about how we should do church, and what system of church organization we should have. We can’t afford to continue doing the same things. We can’t afford to let the same people whose leadership brought us to this point control what is legitimate criticism and what is not. We can’t let the same pulpits whose false conservatism – to borrow Bavinck’s phrase – produced the powerlessness of the modern church – continue producing more of the same. As in the Reformation, we need to have the courage of opposing the institutional system of the modern American church, and look for alternatives. I don’t know all the answers.
I don’t know what a new system of church organization should look like, and whether we should have such a system in the first place. What I know, however, is that we should be open to radical changes, which may include – as in the Reformation – the total abandoning of the current institutional church system in the US.
Otherwise, the America we will leave to our kids will be much worse than what we have inherited.
The book I will assign for reading this week is my new book on this specific issue: One Holy Local Church? The Ghettoization of Protestantism. In it, I am dealing with this very objection against the critics of the modern institutional church in the US: “Are you a member of a local church?” I have shown that mandatory institutionalism is not a Biblical concept. And more than that, that it is not historically Protestant concept. It is a modern invention, and it needs to go.
And remember in your prayers and your giving, Bulgarian Reformation Ministries. In our mission, we have been open to different ways to bring the Gospel to all aspects of the culture, not limit the new wine to old wineskins. And God has granted us success. This is amission worth supporting. Visit Bulgarian Reformation.com, and subscribe to our newsletter to learn more.