The church as people or institution


Christianity has long maintained a detachment from the self and attachment to Christ as part of individuals maturing toward Christlikeness. However, as an institution, and not-for-profit business, the Church proves quite the opposite. It is as though attachment to Christ had become synonymous with attachment to the Church.

A commonly held and reinforced assumption is that following Christ of necessity, and through divine ordination, includes membership to the Church. This view originates from the pulpit, is reinforced at church conferences, and gets regurgitated during conversations. The whole goal of church appears geared toward getting visitors to become members and volunteers who turn bring others into Church. And the purpose of a calling from Christ, or in response to the pulpit, is understood overwhelming by churches to mean schooling people toward professional careers in ministry as related to planting, maintaining, and growing churches and, if we must, parachurch organizations.

And it is here that we must distinguish between the “Church” as a dynamic and vital organism comprised of individuals and headed by the risen Lord from the “Church” as legal and formal institution headed by popes, patriarchs, councils and bishops and businesses headed by boards, apostles and pastors. Where the former “church” is essentially the people the latter “church” is in essence the institution. Viewed as such, and to clarify, the institutional model includes not only the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and the Ecumenical Patriarchies, but also the Protestant Churches and Denominations and even the independent movements, associations and churches.

Anyone recalling the Protestant Reformation will quickly argue that the Catholics, Orthodoxies and Patriarchies maintain the primacy of Tradition, Church and Scripture wrapped up into the Church as institution headed by Popes and Patriarchs. Protestants argue that they aren’t institutional in contrast. Instead, Protestants hold to primacy as lying in Scripture over Tradition and therewith salvation by grace through Faith rather than works (or incorporation into an institution or heritage), the Priesthood of all Believers as opposed to clergy and laity, and with the risen Lord continuing as Head of His Church rather than Popes and Patriarchs. However, as practiced, this broad spectrum of churches are all institutional models. And the Protestant churches, despite all their diversity and protestations, are also an institutional model due to their denominations, movements, associations and churches being established and run as legal or juridical persons led in practice by bishops, boards, apostles, and pastors.

And, if permitted to generalize, we can look past all the superficial and cosmetic differences — what different Christians wear, which language they conduct their services in, what titles and positions are held and filled, whether they’re cultural modern or traditional, make use of contemporary or traditional worship, what their order of service is, etc. — to see that, in essence, they’re all doing the same thing when doing church. The Orthodox and Catholics are essentially gathering believers to worship God and receive the Eucharist while Protestants gather believers to worship God and receive the Word. At their core, the true Christian is considered as the committed church goer who regularly attends and participates in an institutional church, whether traditional or modern, and their relationship with God is collapsed into the church worship event.

But there’s a world of difference between becoming, being, and gathering as the Church that meets with God and the practice of going to church as place, institution, event and gathering where people meet about God. At the core the difference lies in wether we’re meeting with God as a Person who draws near to speak and act or as meeting about God and assuming that in gathering to worship and receive the Eucharist or Word that God must somehow and mysteriously have been met with by faith. There is then a world of difference between the Church as a people living life relationally with God and the Church as an institution or business providing goods, services and events to and for Christians. We may be using the same word “church”, but there’s a world of difference between what is meant when that word is used. And the problem is that this usage enables the institution to take on everything that’s attributed naturally and healthily to the church as the people and make such the church as their institution and business along with their products, services, and events. By doing so we collapse a relationship with God completely into the institution delivering the Eucharist or Word.

However rich and meaningful such Church or Christian services may be, when meeting about God there’s nothing unique about Christianity. Churches merely provide inspiration for living derived from Christian imagery and symbols. They may be drawn from the Judeo-Christian story as told by the church when doing church and taken from the heritage of a faith tradition that’s recorded in the Bible. But surely that’s not the same as a reciprocal relational interaction with God present in Person to speak and act? Church may enable people to interpret and order their lives by the inspiration, symbols, and motivation they draw from the Eucharist received from the priest or Word received from the preacher and Bible, but is that the point of Christianity? Could people not draw similar meaning, experiences, and results from other religious, spiritual and secular sources? In fact, they may even derive such from fictitious and speculative sources. After all, people do experience the very same inspiration, meaning and opportunities in other social, spiritual or religious organizations. If the point of Christianity is the inspiration and meaning for living provided by an institution providing its goods and service, then sure we don’t need Christ as the faith, along with all other faiths, are able to provide the vet same meaning and purpose.

It is my argument, and deep conviction, that the church as institution gets in the way of experiencing God. This is because the Church as institution has hijacked what it means to be the church and because it has completely collapsed a vital and reciprocal relationship with God unto its services, events and goods. And having done so, it schools people into only meetin about God and somehow accepting solely on the basis of faith that God has actually and mysteriously been met. And though we can leave the institutional church to try and form authentic community, this still doesn’t mean that we’ve found a way to meet together with God. We may meet about God, retaining the gathering component and even being doing such as the gathering Church apart from the institution. But, having been strongly schooled into meeting about God, we have no way of meeting with God and instead work on ways to meet with each other and our selves. And as good as this is, it doesn’t answer the question as to how we may go about meeting with God.

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