Wednesday, April 06, 2011

What does "The Institutional Church" mean? A Response

A fellow Christian blogger, Arthur Sido, has problems with the "institutional church." And he has graciously responded to my inquiry about his definition of the "institutional church" (over at pastor White's blog). This post is my humble attempt to better understand his concerns.

I suspect Arthur is unaware that his article is chockablock with assumptions and stereotypes. At least, it comes across that way to a reader (like me) who is not aware of his background and beliefs. So, I found his "what I believe" and read it. It, too, was chockablock with assumptions and stereotypes--or perhaps a language of description that I find unclear.

Even so, perhaps this dialogue will help express what is implied and draw both parties to more faithfulness to Christ.

First of all, he provides a tentative definition: "The institutional church, at its most fundamental, is the most visible and culturally recognizable manifestation of organized religion that finds its primary definition and purpose in the weekly Sunday morning meeting."

I find the phrase "the most visible and culturally recognizable manifestation" most curious. I take it he is allowing for other "visible and culturally recognizable" manifestations of "organized religion" besides Sunday worship. If so (say daily fellowship), then why can these other visible manifestations not be fundamental to an institutional church?

The definition then climaxes with a questionable assertion: the institutional church's "primary definition and purpose [is] in the weekly Sunday morning meeting."

Now Mr. Sido may define things and words any way he wishes. Of course, communication becomes quite hard if this ability goes unchecked. In this case, the definition simply misses its mark: if he wishes to mark all non-organic church organizations, such as, say, all Reformed churches, as "institutional churches," then he needs another definition.

The Reformed churches do not define the institutional church's primary mission, action or goal as the "Sunday morning meeting." The institutional church is but a part of the whole idea of the church visible.

To take only the Westminster definition of the church visible: "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..." (WCF 25.2).

In fact, the visibility of the church is not confined to Sunday worship: "God is to be worshiped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies..." (WCF 21.6)

At the end of the day, I think Mr. Sido has something more specific in mind than the opening definition. He writes:

"Furthermore, the Protestant/Evangelical institutional church is by and large a modification of the Roman Catholic institutional church. The theology is radically different but the practices remain much the same: a formal and rigidly scheduled weekly gathering, mute observance by most of the church during that gathering, a ritualistic observance of the Lord’s Supper, a clerical class that is distinguished from the laity by extra-Biblical educational standards and that derives its financial support from the offerings of that same laity, and finally a focus on performance instead of mutual edification."

Now, since the opening definition does not work to identify Reformed churches, does this more extensive definition work better? It is closer if only because it clearly brings to the fore traditional anabaptistic arguments against certain elements of institutional churches--elements not necessary for any and all institutional churches. One can have an institutional church without financial support or ritualistic observance, for instance.

But then this all turns on how institutional, ritual, etc. are defined. The pejorative use of the words ritualistic, rigidity and formal all hinge on an understanding of what is proper worship. I do not know Mr. Sido's ideas about worship so it is hard to exactly evaluate.

If he believes that the Lord's Supper could involve cool-aid and cheez-its while people eat and wander about in their pajamas, then anything short of that could be labeled ritualistic, rigid and formal!

But there are more clues that some other idea of institutional church is at play here:

"Many of these institutional churches meet each week, go through the religious rituals and pay their bills but accomplish little else...In fact, the best measure of the spiritual state of someone is what happens outside of the church meeting. It is ironic that in the one place that Western culture agrees is “the church” is the same place that you are least likely to see the church functioning as it should."

I strongly suspect that our author is critiquing Christians that "play church." They come to church on Sunday, follow the motions, smile politely and pay their tithe and so feel good about themselves while accomplishing little for God's kingdom during the week. To that I say amen!

If that is his driving concern, then the institutional church is not the problem. The external form is rarely ever the root problem rather it is the internal problem of sin. If Mr. Sido concedes that organic churches can also "go through the motions" then he concedes the whole case and must critique the church organized (institution) upon different grounds.

His opening definition is insufficient to mark all my test-cases, Reformed churches, as institutional churches in the pejorative sense. His paragraph-long descriptive, on the other hand, seems to fit depending on what view of worship he believes. And if his true goal is to denounce superficial Christianity then we may well be closer in thought than either of us realized.

1 comment:

Arthur Sido said...


Thanks for taking the time to respond. I appreciate that you actually read and interacted with what I wrote!

I will admit I am not sure what "chockablock" is (although it sounds like a yummy breakfast cereal) but a definition of something as amorphous and difficult to define as "the institional church" is necessarily going to include many assumptions and be tinged with bias, just as those who defend the IC are likewise biased.

My definition of the institutional church is designed to compare and contrast the prevailing forms of church gatherings by proposing two polar opposites, the institutional (or traditional) church model and the simple/organic/house church model. All gatherings of Christians fit somewhere on a spectrum. Even the most loosely organized simple church will have some organization to it and even the most staid institutional church will defy the definition in some ways.

I stand by my assertion of an overemphasis on the Sunday morning gathering as not mere assumption but observed behavior. There is a great deal more to the Westminster definition of the visible church than what you listed. To wit:

II. 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.

III. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.

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.

Notice that especially in defining the visible church in a way that ordinarily salvation is impossible outside of it and the focus in section 3 on the clergy and section 4 on the rituals, we see more of what I find objectionable in the IC and likewise to be holdovers from Rome.

Even the section you referenced regarding worship appeals to a "worship is for all places but especially on Sunday" mentality with a Sabbatarian impulse that sees Sunday as a special holy day in XXI, 7 & 8, where we see an arbitrary decision to transform the Jewish Sabbath into "The Lord's Day".

My larger concern has to do less with the defintion of the IC and what I and many others see as the impact of the traditional view of church, i.e. an authoritarian clergy, a passive laity, an emphasis on rituals and traditions and an unhealthy division between Sunday morning and the rest of the week.