I used to hear in my teens sermons on the subjects of Institutionalism, The Work of the Church, The Sponsoring Church Arrangement, and such. I thought when the lessons were finished: Why can’t everyone see that? It’s so simple.
Perhaps so. But institutionalism has less obvious costumes. It can appear in subtle disguise. When it dresses up in flashy clothes it gets lots of attention. Just the novelty of its arrangement alone makes folks suspicious, even before its innovations upon the biblical pattern are neatly exposed. It is institutionalism in plain clothes that needs to be feared. And it is not just a fad of modern times. It’s been around for a long time.
An institutional mindset in religion occurs whenever people begin to think of religion as a function of the church rather than a function of the individual. When religious activity is conceived as being done in and through and by and for the church, an institutional concept of the church has evolved. The church is thought to be something greater than the saved individuals who comprise it. It is an institution in the same way as a bank, or a school, or a hospital. And of course when people begin to think of the church as an institution, we shouldn’t be surprised when the church begins to behave that way. This doesn’t happen all at one time, but gradually. And there are a few evidences of this gradual evolution of which we need to be cautioned.
Proof-text preaching. There are certain passages of Scripture which have been used so long to fight a particular doctrinal deviation, that the original context of the passage may be forgotten. For instance, Matthew 7:21 was not written to refute the misleading invitation to merely accept Jesus as your personal savior. That is a proper application of the passage. However when an application of the passage becomes its interpretation in the minds of the people, the original point of the passage is blunted. It may escape our observation that the passage has application to superficial allegiance of every kind, not just the denominational variety. In fact it is a particularly heinous variety of hypocrisy that cries Lord, Lord to invoke his authority for the work and worship of the local church while ignoring His lordship in personal purity, in individual growth, and in brotherly love.
The problem with the proof-text is the same as the theorem in mathematics. The student who takes up the theorem without having proven it for himself places his confidence in the professor of mathematics who delivered the formula. The man who memorizes the proof-text without testing it for himself places his faith in the person or persons who derived the doctrine, not in the principles and Person which underlie the doctrine. In his case, contending earnestly for the faith is no longer a defense of the system of faith, but a defense of the system, in other words the institution that is manufactured by his thinking it so.
Tradition. When a whole body of proof-texts arise and are circulated generally-whether in written or unwritten form-they become a body of tradition, and reflect a sort of creed. The example of the Pharisees ought to warn us that you can be averse to the concept of human creeds and still embrace the reality in your zeal to build a hedge around the truth. Pretty soon people begin to admire the hedge and are more committed to its maintenance than that of the truth behind it. The truth or falsity of the applications of the prooftexts is not the problem, at least not the only problem. The problem is that the applications of the Scripture begin to be raised to the status of Scripture itself, so that a generation arises that no longer reasons through the context. They merely outline its teaching with the stencil handed down to them by the fathers. Soon any other application of the proof-text is gazed at with an eye of suspicion because it doesn’t have the familiar ring of orthodoxy. When that happens Christianity begins to wreak of that same odor of cedar shavings and mothballs that characterized the religion of the Pharisees. You see one of the institutions of institutionalism is tradition.
Sunday school. I don’t hear the term Sunday school used by our people much. It has an institutional ring to it. But so does Bible class, and Bible curriculum, and resource room. I’m not opposed to any of those terms-they are merely descriptives. Nor am I opposed to the existence of Bible classes, and curriculums, and resource rooms. Their kinship to secular terms and contrivances can pose some real dangers however. Bible instruction may come to be understood as a corporate endeavor, a work of the church, rather than a privatized industry. The Scripture commands fathers, not churches, to bring up children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). When families depend upon churches to teach their children the Bible in the same way that the public school system teaches them reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, then religion is made the function of an institution which has as one of its goals the spiritual education of youth. Bible classes should only supplement and complement the biblical instruction of the home. When it becomes the sole or even the primary dispenser of biblical teaching then fathers have forsaken their post and have yielded their responsibility to an organization which has neither the authority nor the resources to provide children with biblical instruction. Don’t blame the church when young people leave the Lord. They were never the church’s responsibility-at least not in the Lord’s eyes. The man who sees differently has his eye set on an institution which the Lord never conceived nor commanded.
There are other instances of the institutional mindset which deserve addressing, but for which there is not the space in this writing. Perhaps another time. Address them yourself. It’s up to you to do so. And that’s the real cure-keeping religion a personal, private, individual devotion to God, His word, His work.