People, Not Institutions

We act like the best way to change the world is to stand firm behind the institutions we’ve created and the ideologies they promote. It seems admirable: pool our resources together to form an organization that can more fully do what individually we cannot. To safeguard that new pool of resources, we must develop rules and procedures to ensure it isn’t squandered or abused. The bigger the pool, the more the procedures and the more guards. The yoke we thought was freedom becomes burdensome.

One of the great losses that occurs when churches become institutions is the shift in focus away from people and toward maintaining and preserving the institution itself. It is as though the institution becomes a person, though not in a corporate “we are the church” way. It becomes a person of supreme importance, a god, and far too often that personified institution is someone/thing toward which we hurl our resources at the expense of the people who were meant to be served by it.

During his life Jesus railed against the institutionalization of the Temple and the exclusionary tactics of the Pharisees that were designed to prop up the Temple structure. The church’s struggle with institutionalization must have fiercely wrestled with Jesus’ own words of scorn for the Temple structure. How can we embody with greatest fidelity the Kingdom of God in an organized way?

The New Testament lesson for this Sunday, Proper 8, is the Galatians message about using our freedom not for self-indulgence but for greater postures of service and love. The larger book of Galatians is a diatribe against division and structured rules of inclusion and exclusion. It is a letter for churches struggling with how to make sense of Jesus’ call against the very worst of the Temple and for the kind of radical love he so richly proclaimed. The church is best, the author argues, when it recognizes that each person should be in profound life-service of each other, not the institution. The NRSV translation says, “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

In our contemporary American context we are seeing a slavish devotion to the national institution against a spirit of care for the person. News reports ring with the debate over building a border wall, the deportation of persons to their home countries, and the gross and barbaric mistreatment of children in detention centers. The elevation of the national institution and the desire to preserve its purity is costing the nation what remained of its conscience.

But just like all organizations and institutions, the nation-state does not exist as an entity devoid of individual adherents or constituent parts. It is made of up people, many of whom claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth, who submit themselves again to a yoke of slavery that is allegiance to an organization. Such allegiance demands a full-bodied support of policies designed to sustain, elevate, and glorify the institution at the expense of any who appear as a threat to that institution. This is, at its core, diametrically opposed to the Gospel.

Perhaps the best argument to speak into such misguided allegiance is that the Kingdom of God that Jesus so passionately preached is not an institution. It is a movement of love and self-sacrifice that calls each person to devote themselves in true compassion to the good of the other even at the expense of the self. What would the work of mission and evangelism look like for a church that considered its primary (and dare I say “sole”) allegiance to the kind of cruciform love that Jesus heralded? I imagine it would see a rising up of persons committed to the care of the least among us. And as our world grows ever smaller, the “among us” begins to encompass more than before, including especially children locked away in detention centers.

Patterns of institutionalization in the church have led followers of Jesus to a form of self-slavery that fears the other and promotes a purity of organizational preservation at the expense of Christly love. At its heart, the Temple was a place to encounter the wondrous beauty, mystery, and presence of God. At its heart, the Church is a people who live that beauty, mystery, and presence of God in the world. Any organization that may come about as a means to facilitate that work must remember that it serves the mission, not vice versa. A movement of persons bound together in a common mission can and must be organized without offering a slavish devotion to the organization it creates. And when the organization gets in the way of self-sacrificing love, it should be disassembled.

Because any institution that promotes buildings over feeding the hungry, ideologies over caring for children, or politics over freeing the oppressed is an institution that has chosen itself over others and does not embody the message of our crucified Lord. As church we must be cautious against the kind of institutional patterns that seek purity and self-preservation. We must be agents of deep compassion, going as far as the Galatian author commends by becoming slaves to one another through love, even if that means giving up an institution we love.

That is really the only way the world will ever change.

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