Chinese Translations: GB Big5

The Shortcomings of 
Institutionalized Christianity

Warning: This article so upset the institutional leaders of one church I went to
that they used it as a basis of expelling me from their institutional church!

What is the Church?

We can characterize the Church in one of two ways. Either it is an institute which exists independent of its members or it is a corporate body which is an ordered assembly of its individual members. These are two completely different concepts of "Church".

The word "Church" itself is "ekklesia" which means an assembly. And we see that "(Christ) is the head of the body, the church" Colossians 1:18 and He suffered "for the sake of his body, which is the church." Col 1:24 Thus we see that the Biblical definition of "church" is a corporate body and not an institute. This is also opposed to those who call the Church "our Mother" in the sense of it being entity separate from the Christians who compose it. The Church is not "our Mother" in that sense. The Church is us collectively. The institutional forms associated with the assembling of Christians together are neither individually nor collectively "the Church". (And, to clarify, in this sense by "Institutionalized Christianity" I'm referring to all forms of organization of the assemblies of believers, be they referred to by some as "traditional churches", or "house churches", or para-church ministries.)

In addition the body of Christ is supposed to be a living healthy body and not a sick or dead body. The difference between these is that a sick or dead body has non-functioning members. You could assemble a body together by assembling a bunch of dead non-functioning members together and end up with a dead body. But that is not the kind of assembly the Bible speaks of when referring to the Church. Notice the Biblical description of the church.

Romans 12:4,5  Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
Ephesians 4:11-16
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets,
some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,
 to prepare God’s people for works of service,
so that the body of Christ may be built up
until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God
and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves,
and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning a
nd craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.

Instead, speaking the truth in love,
we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament,
grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Thus every individual member should not simply be present, but be functioning. And there should be growth in maturity. That is the objective, but institutionalism has to varying degrees obscured this perspective and hindered the accomplishing of this objective.

As for the size of the assembly,  other than Matthew 18:20, the Bible doesn't give any indication as to how many believers have to be assembled for the group to be considered a "church". But if we take Mt 18:20 as the standard, Jesus says, "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." Well, there you go. And just to consider the context, the verse starts with "for" indicating it to be an explanation of what was previously said. And what preceded this? Mt 18:17 speaks of "tell it to the church", so the context of Mt 18:20 is referring to a legitimate assembly of believers being composed of at least two or three people.

Furthermore the Bible indicates that the assembly does not need leaders before they are reckoned a "church". For it says in Acts 14:23 that Paul and Barnabas went around appointing elders for each church. So before they had elders they were reckoned churches. This is in great contrast to the post-Biblical megalomaniac view of the religious elite that institutional leadership is largely what constitutes "the church".

Indeed what are today referred to as "parachurches", like campus ministries and independent Bible study groups, would in New Testament times be referred to as churches. The Bible implies that any regular meeting of an assembly of believers is a church.

But post-Biblical Christianity has obsessed over institutional forms rather than the intended function of the assembly. This I reckon to be largely due to the inherent pride of institutional leadership.

But as for leadership, it should go without saying for obvious reasons that small groups don't need much oversight in comparison with larger groups. But as the assembly grows in numbers, the corruption of leadership becomes the major issue.

The Shortcomings of Institutionalize Christianity

Much of the shortcomings of institutionalized Christianity are simply due to the nature of institutions themselves. The same kind of shortcomings can be found in secular institutions.

Institutionalize Christianity:

Tends to align itself against the significance of the ordinary individual Christian, while at the same time exalting an elite few. In fact there is the tendency to reckon "the Church" to be only the officers of the institutional church, or some mystical being called "Mother" from whom the officers are presumed endowed with authority.

Institutionalize Christianity tends also to view itself as the only legitimate form of Christianity. And tends to develop a divisive attitude even between institutions and tends towards exclusivity. This is just human nature at work as people form groups its natural to reckon your group, country, race, or whatever is particular to your group, to be superior to other groups.

As a result, any challenge to the superiority or criticism of the group is taken as a threat and dealt with often in a hostile manner. The degree of hostility is often a function of the degree to which the group has been institutionalize. Thus, Christ was callously murdered by the institutional leaders of his day;  the Catholic church callously murdered protestants; Calvin and his people murdered Anabaptists and Mennonites. It's the "lynch mob" effect. Atrocities are callously committed by groups whereas left to themselves the individuals of the groups would have never thought of carrying out such atrocities.

To quote John Calvin, "Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt."
Such an attitude was also present in the religious leaders of Jesus' day. But we see also another effect of institutionalism. Criticism of the institution or its leadership is of itself taken as heresy. And thus Jesus and those who walk as Jesus did were murdered, excommunicated, or shunned - depending on how institutionalize the organization is.

This implies also that Institutionalism:

The institutionalized Christian will tend to mindlessly accept whatever is the dogma of his particular institutional church. Indeed surveys have proven that the more institutionalized a Christian, the less he knows the Bible. In fact the hyper-instutional forms of Christianity will say that you as an individual Christian cannot understand the Bible. Rather the correct interpretation has to be dictated to you by the institutional leaders. Well then why bother reading the Bible at all? That's the reason that they don't.

This ignorance of the Bible imposed indirectly upon the members by the institutional leaderships allows for the exaltation of human dogma, regulations, and indeed false teachings without any corrective mechanism in place. For example the Catholics don't seem to realize that the Bible doesn't make such a big deal about Mary. And by the way the Bible says, "(Joseph) didn’t know her sexually until she had brought forth her firstborn son." Mat 1:25 Given the degree of Biblical ignorance of the more institutionalize, one could go on and on pointing out many things of which the less institutionalized are well aware. In less institutionalized forms of Christianity, an individual member could object with Bible in hand. But such a person would be reckoned a heretic and treated with hostility in the more institutionalize groups regardless of whether the objection was legitimate from a Biblical standpoint.

This is not to say that the more institutionalized reckon the Bible less relevant. No, rather all forms of Christianity, and indeed all Christians, reckon their own version of Christianity to be the most Biblical, though most don't seriously study the Bible.

Institutionalism tends towards reducing openness to self-evaluation. In institutionalism "self-evaluation" comes down to the leadership judging the ordinary members, but not the institutional leadership themselves being subject to judgment. Yet the Bible teaches, "Beloved, don’t believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." 1John 4:1 By "spirit" he is referring to those who teach and preach. The Lord commands the ordinary Christian to be skeptical about all teachings and to compare them to what the Bible says. Indeed Paul commended the Bereans who exercised skepticism towards his own teachings. "Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true."Acts 17:11 It's less honorable to gullibly accept whatever is taught, even if such teachings happen to be correct. Even Jesus himself said, "If I don’t do the works of my Father, don’t believe me." John 10:37  He doesn't want gullible type of followers. Those he describes in the parable of the sower, "those who are sown on the rocky places, who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with joy. They have no root in themselves, but are short-lived." Mark 4:16,17 Thus we could say that institutionalism tends towards producing unrooted Christians - those who have a faith which is only on the surface. Not that they may not have a deeply rooted faith in the institution. But having a deeply rooted faith in Christ is quite a different thing.

What is the emphasis of institutional teachings?

Institutions focus on Basically the same kind of characteristics Jesus pointed out of the institutional religious leaders of his day. (See also The Synoptics on Hypocrisy)

 The institutional mindset tends towards obsessing over issues of ritual, time, place, buildings and material things. And even "going to church" becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. And again such mentality is not restricted to what some refer to as "traditional churches". I had a discussion with a "house church" leader who demonstrated the same obsession over forms, even slandering those who get paid for doing ministry as being Satanic. This despite the fact that "The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel." 1Cor 9:14 He furthermore claims that since there are a few instances where the Bible mentions that believers assembled in houses, therefore to meet anywhere else or even give your assembly a name is unBiblical and to buy a building to meet in is satanic. Here's an example of his rhetoric, "What Satan has done is form an Institution, which creates a building, a staff, programs and a budget." That's the kind of mentality, that kind of misreading of scripture is born of the pride of which the religious elite are often entrenched in.

In this way one church attacks another church over issues of form, whereas form is not the essential thing. But they do so because all they generally have to inflate their own importance are differences of form rather than substance. Thus for such churches form become substance.

The Origin of the Corrupting Effects of Institutionalism

Sinful human nature is of course the origin. But we must take care not to lay responsibility on institutional leadership alone.

Corruption among the Leadership

Perhaps given their position leadership should take the bulk of the responsibility, as Jesus had the chief priests. But realize they are also in positions subjected to the greater temptations. Such positions could of course also tend to attract people who are already corrupt or prone to corruption. Power corrupts, but positions of power also attract people who are prone to being corrupted by it. Which is not meant as an accusation against any particular leader. Furthermore we see, particularly from democratic societies, that its generally the most popular who attain to leadership. But is popularity a good measure of a leader? Statistically positions of popularity attract people who want to be popular. Notice Jesus' accusation against the religious leaders, "But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad, enlarge the fringes of their garments, and love the place of honor at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ by men." Matt 23:5-7 And so even today we see many religious leaders dressing in special clothes to distinguish themselves and demanding to be call "Father" or "Reverend" and such.

Money also corrupts as Paul writes, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." 1Tim 6:10 Thus he avoided getting paid for ministry and advised the Ephesian elders also, saying, "I coveted no one’s silver, or gold, or clothing.  You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me.  In all things I gave you an example, that so laboring you ought to help the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’" Acts 20:33-35 Professional Ministers have the right to get paid for ministry. But in 1Cor 9 Paul advocates freely giving up that right so as to minister more effectively. Financial dependency may cause one's ministry to be suspect and may consciously or unconsciously influence the minister to modify his ministry so as to optimize his earnings. This would make one's popularity an even greater factor. This can be seen most obviously when you observe how the minister handles doctrines which are true but unpopular. The temptation is to either advocate popular ideas contrary to the truth, or avoid talking on the subject or else speaking of it in such an obscure manner so as to say nothing.

Paul warned the institutional church leaders in Ephesus of the inevitable corruption which would occur among their own leadership just prior to his advising them concerning minstering free of charge saying, "Men will arise from among your own selves, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them." Acts 20:30 He doesn't say that such men might arise from among the church leadership, but rather that it is inevitable that they will arise. This has proven to be consistent throughout the history of the institutional Church.

Paul tried to restrict positions of institutional leadership to the most godly not because only they are the only ones qualified to make disciples. For the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations applies to all Christians. Rather Paul imposed restrictions on leadership positions so as to reduce the likeliness of corruption. Notice for example he says, "He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil." 1Tim 3:6 Why may he become conceited? Because it is just human nature that such positions invoke pride, and only those experience in humility can hope to avoid such influences. Seminaries can even exacerbate the problem. What comes out can often be worse than what goes in. What comes out is often a person who has been trained to have an elitist clergy/laity mentality, and as such reckons himself automatically qualified for leadership over people who have worked for a living. After all, if you're really committed to Christ you'd become a full time minister getting paid by those under-committed Christians working at secular jobs. That's the attitude I've gotten from a number who have gone through seminary. In fact this trend has been so disturbing that whoever asks me advice about going to seminary I tell them not to go. Seminaries themselves can often cause one to lose their objectivity in studying the Word of God. Whether by choice or unconsciously, human dogma can replace Biblical truth. One seminarian spoke of his teacher being flexible on the interpretation of whether women should be in positions of church leadership over men, leaving it up to the students to develop their own convictions. It turns out the teacher was a woman teaching men. And what is being taught by that fact? The leavenous philosophy of Feminism permeates modern Christianity just as it does the society in general. Just as Isaiah said, "Youths oppress my people, women rule over them." Is 3:12 And since it is popular, Church leadership opposing it is more the exception than the rule. And so also for many other popular philosophies. But what of Catholicism in its opposition to women in the priesthood. Well they already made Mary practically into a goddess, carrying around Rosary beads, praying to her over and over. Talk about reckoning women to be in authority over men! And just as we see political correctness operating in the society, so we see political correctness as at work in the church, even though it may be over different issues. Young Earth Creationism for example is mindlessly advocated by much of the Christian community disregarding any alternative interpretation of Genesis and turning a blind eye to (actually not even bother to investigate) legitimate scientific claims to the contrary. Such blind irrational faith is simply a product of institutionalism and is contrary to Biblical faith. Politics is an institutional matter. Church politics can take priority over Biblical truth.

The typical loss of objectivity due to the elitist attitude and emphasis on institutional dogma can make a professional minister much less objective in Bible study than the ordinary layman. Here are some questions to consider in evaluating your minister: What percentage of his preaching are quotes from the Bible? And percentage are quotes from other theologians, philosophers and such? Does he have a tendency to use the Bible as simply a springboard to say whatever he wishes by allegorizing passages to death, making them say whatever he wants them to say? Is his preaching application-oriented? If it's application-oriented is it legalistic? And how does he respond to correction? (If indeed he even allows any feedback at all)  For there are natural tendencies due to the corrupting influences and the natural selection processes of institutionalism.

Concerning even popular theologians of the past like John Calvin and Augustine, if they were to express their writings in simple layman's terms, they're not particularly good in doing Bible study. At times they bring in unnecessary and I would say even unbiblical philosophical presumptions resulting in bizarre ideas. And yet if you were to oppose them on such flimsy points, you'd be reckoned a heretic and perhaps even put to death. There's an institutional philosophy, which is often applied either consciously or unconsciously, that since by God's sovereignty whoever is the leader must have been God's choice and therefore whatever they decide, whatever they say, must be from God. Thus human dogma and tradition replaces Biblical truth. I've run into such an attitude a number of times in different churches even in the evangelical community. I've seen Institutional church leaders even become hostile against para-church organizations. They're insecure because para-church organizations have generally proven more effective in carrying out God's work.

Corruption Among the Laymen

Laymen among the congregation are not above reproach in exacerbating the corrupting effects of institutionalism. It's one thing to give due honor and respect to leadership. But it's another to play the tempter by provoking their sinful passions. What keeps the leadership's pride in check? Treat them like Chinese emperors and they'll behave like Chinese emperors. What source of humiliation have you provided them to help them keep their pride in check? But it is actually convenient for the laymen to reckon the leadership as super-Christians and themselves as nothing but stupid sheep incapable of doing nothing but the most menial tasks. Why? Because it frees up the laymen from responsibility. The laymen present themselves as immature Christians running around in diapers who only take but don't give. Then the leadership complains of how busy and burned out they are. Whose fault is that? I thought they were supposed to be super-Christians. The yoke would be easy and the burden light if Christians would simply grow up and start taking responsibility. But institutionalism hinders that objective.

"To suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." 2 Timothy 4:3 Before Paul talked of deviant church leaders gathering disciples. But here it speaks of disciples gathering deviant teachers. Laymen are at fault when they seek to hear that which is contrary to what God has to tell them, which is not uncommon. What is popular is often unBiblical. But institutions will inevitably form around popular ideas regardless of their Biblical basis. And yet all will invoke "God's Sovereignty" saying that since their institution exists therefore it must be from God and therefore whatever doctrine they advocate must be from God. Furthermore leadership is often assigned by the congregation. When the church deviates from the Biblical whether in doctrine or practice the congregations cannot then wash their hands of blame, for they chose the leadership to begin with and they often fail to deal with such deviations when they first arise.

How Can We Fix the Problem?

The things I've pointed out are quite obvious especially to the less institutionalized and perhaps even to some in institutional leadership. This is nothing new. But what should be done about it? The most common response is to try to fix the institution, either internally or to get out of that institution and start another one. But realize that institutions due to their very nature will never be perfect in this life. Institutions just naturally have their own life cycle. They may generally start off well - Bible based and such. But inevitably they become corrupt. As members get sick of the corruption then there is either a revival within or a split. The split of the protestants from the Catholic church is such an example. And as the protestants institutionalize they also began to deviate from Biblical theology.

Should we not develop institutional forms of Christianity? That's not the solution either. "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another— and all the more as you see the Day approaching." Heb 10:24,25 But is this being accomplished in your institutional church? Much of the Christian life involves getting together and interacting with other Christians. How else can you make disciples. It's just part of the way society operates that when you get a bunch of people together there needs to be some organization. With organization comes leadership, rules, regulations, definitions of what constitutes a member of that group, and what kind of behavior is expected of that member, and other such things. Before you know it you've formed an institution. I would say that institutions - whether they be institutional churches or para-church organizations - are inevitable. The apostle Paul established institutional churches all over the place.

What I propose is that Christians should be involved to a degree in institutional forms of Christianity, but not reckon that doing so is all there is to the Christian life. Christians need to be aware and avoid the corrupting effects of institutionalism, while at the same time not avoid the institution itself. Jesus is a model. He went to synagogue and was involved in the ceremonies and such, though he and his followers were cast out of the synagogs from town to town. Christians should expect the same kind of abuse today from even institutional forms of Christianity. The history of the "Christian Church" proves this point. When a church becomes so corrupt as to reject any possibility of an internal change preventing you from fulfilling your ministry or role as a member of the body of Christ, then just as Paul shifted his focus to the Gentiles, perhaps it's time to find another church or start a new one.

The institutional problem is inevitable and cannot be fixed. It's simply a cross to bear. This is not to say that you should tolerate institutional corruption, but rather that you should walk as Jesus did. Live the Christian life, make disciples, do as the Lord commanded in spite of the institutional corruption. Point out the problems, the hypocrisy and such, just as Jesus did. And expect to be treated with hostility. That's just part of the Christian life. And if in the end the institutional elite manage to have you crucified, I say, "Congratulations, you have shared in Christ's sufferings!"

Steve Amato

The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources Jul 29,2015