Institutionalism: of man or God?

Institutionalism is, of course, the upholding of institutions—of the usefulness, validity, authority and sanctity of institutions. The dictionary is general in its treatment of the term, as is expected, but it places emphasis upon the institution or highly organized society.

Now, what is the opposite of institutionalism? Use your dictionary, and determine the contrast to our subject. If something has been institutionalized, what was it before this happened? If you do your work well you may get a brand new look at this long-time clash in ideologies. Is a man’s relationship to God a direct and immediate relationship; or is it his direct relationship with an institution which, in turn, has the direct relationship with God? Think about it! In current brotherhood discussions the purely institutional issue may be buried beneath arguments about the organizational structure or polity of independent congregations of saints, and their legitimate work and purpose as independent institutions. Is the local church the individual’s link with God, or is it a God-given tool for the use of saints whose link with God remains direct and immediate?

The historical church concept, developed to maturity by Roman Catholicism, has the Lord establishing a universal institution which was then given certain “sacraments” to dispense. The blessings are inseparably related to the institution; are not available except as administered by the “Church.” The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it clearly: “The Church alone dispenses the sacraments. It alone makes known the light of revealed truth. Outside the Church these gifts cannot be obtained. From all this there is but one conclusion: Union with the Church is not merely one out of various means by which salvation may be obtained; it is the only means.” (V. 3, p. 752.) In this concept the individual must look to the institution as the means of obtaining divine approval; but in Scritpures the church is the product, the result of individuals being saved (Acts 2:47 A.S.). The basic institutional fallacy remains, whether “church” is regarded as universal or local.

In the 14th century, when Wycliff sent out “pore priests” to teach the Scriptures to the country folk, these “lollards” were not sanctioned by the church, hence were an attack upon institutional prerogatives. Teaching the revolutionary concept of measuring the church by the Scriptures, rather than the Scriptures by the church meant that individuals were directly answerable to God, and this was the principle of Reformation that broke the back of R.C. institutionalism. It gave a basis of authority for doctrinal reform by Luther, Zwingli, and others; although their ties to “historic church” concepts kept many from cutting free, and re-bound their followers with “church” creeds.

The Swiss AnaBaptists (16th century) took bold steps to cast off institutional concepts. They “unChristianized” the world (Schaff), when they taught each individual must obey God from the heart the teaching of Scriptures, and that “church” sanction could not take the place of this. Restoration could take place only to the extent that individuals recognized a direct relation and obligation to God via His word. “The church” censured Thomas Campbell for communion with those outside its pale, and he had to decide between “church” sanctions and Bible sanctions. We like to believe he gave up fellowship with an institution, to have fellowship with God. We are saddened to realize that many look back upon this period as the Restoration of The Church instead of seeing it as a restoration of individual independence to study God’s word, putting direct obligation to God before institutionalism.

When we say, “But the church that censured Campbell was a man-made denomination!” we are not thinking too clearly about what distinguishes the Lord’s church from human churches. Is it unbroken historic ties with some body politic, traced back to Apostolic days? To bring this into modern focus, is the church of which you are a member “the true church” because it “came from” a true church, or because its faith and practice conform to Bible teaching? Campbell’s “church” could have sincerely believed that it was the “true church” but we contend its practices were still subject to examination in the light of the Bible. Now, who is going to do that examining? What is the “higher court” if it is not the conscience of each individual who should examine its faith and practice by the Scriptures before sanctioning and fellowshipping it. Institutionalism substitutes loyalty to the “party” for loyalty to God’s word on an individual basis. It looks to an institution for salvation. The Lord gave his saints collective responsibilities. He intended that they should work and worship together as conditions made this possible, and He gave instructions for the oversight and functions of these local churches. In a legitimate sense each local church is an institution and saints who so covenant together have responsibilities to this team. But never to the extent of overriding the individual’s direct responsibility to God. Nor should we abdicate individual responsibilities because “the church” shares some of our work. My responsibility to my brethren is not removed because I support a church which cares for indigent members. My responsibility to teach my neighbor is not removed because I support a church radio broadcast of truth. I must not embrace “institutionalism” by surrendering parental responsibility to teach and train my children to the “church” school.

I strongly support an active work program by the local church, but such a program that discourages individual initiative is not to the best interest of the saints. The local church “program” should be made for the saints, not the saints for the program. It seems to me that “together” prayer, singing, edifying, giving, and the Lord’s Supper are all for the building up of the saints; to assist and strengthen them in the “every minute of every day” life they must live before God. We will strengthen the church only as we strengthen those who make up the church. We must teach and encourage loyalty to Christ rather than “party” loyalty—the very essence of “institutionalism.”