Wineskins Archive

December 5, 2013

Both/And: How Institutional And Non-Institutional Christians Need Each Other (Aug 2012)

Filed under: — @ 9:45 pm and

By James Wood

God’s people have calcified and stagnated. They’ve transformed the gathering of believers into institutional, traditional, dogmatic formulas that bear only a passing resemblance to the words of God that originally called them. Instead of being the merciful, loving, compassionate people that share God’s love with the world, they’ve closed themselves off and become harsh, cold, judgmental and selfish.

Where did they go wrong? How could the people that God called, personally, get so far from his message? How is it possible to see the truth of God through the faded, battered, ugly institutions of humanity?

Jesus came to answer those questions. He stepped in and reminded God’s people of what God meant, what God wanted and what he created them to be. Jesus stood against the traditionalistic institutionalistic dogma of the Pharisees and Sadducees and proclaimed, again, what God had been telling his people for centuries.

When Jesus rebuked them he said: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matt. 9.13) But he wasn’t sharing anything new with these scripture-experts – Jesus was quoting Hosea the prophet (6.6) and reminding them of what they should have already known.

It wasn’t a new situation in the days of Jesus, nor in the days of Hosea and it’s not new now. God’s people constantly struggle with the trap of institutionalism. We want to codify, clarify and solidify what God said (which isn’t a bad thing) so that we can contain its impact on our lives (which is a bad thing).

Institution versus Institutionalism

Please hear what I’m saying. Institutionalism is bad because it elevates God’s people over God and his word. But the institution itself isn’t bad. The church isn’t bad (it’s the bride of Christ), but when we elevate the church over God, that becomes idolatry. The same is true when we place our tradition over God and his word.

If you’ve read scripture, you see this pattern crop up time after time. God reaches out to his people to establish a relationship, the relationship is glorious and redemptive, God’s people try to institutionalize the relationship, God’s people suffer for it. But God, ever gracious, seeks his people again. Through prophets, kings and priests, God sought relationship with his people.

In Jesus, a prophet-priest-king established a permanent Spirit-empowered relationship. God works through institutions and traditions, but he’s always seeking relationship. Always.

Working within the Institution

We clearly see that Jesus, and later Paul, were comfortable working within the institutions and traditions of God’s people. They went to the Synagogue on the Sabbath, read from the Torah and the Prophets, went to the temple, observed Jewish feasts and (as far as we know) Jesus was kosher. By being within the institution and keeping the traditions of the Jewish people, they had a voice that they could use to speak truth and help establish a relationship with God.

The structures, connections and ideas that exist within an institution are invaluable to connecting people to the truth of God. We speak a common language of theology and worship that allows us to skip over the hard work of establishing that commonality and get right down to business. Shared traditions have value.

 Working outside the Institution

We also see that Jesus and Paul would step outside the institutional and traditional walls, when necessary. They would go to the Samaritans and Gentiles with the good news, disregarding the traditions that forbade it. They would speak in the language of the people (Paul liked to quote popular poetry at times, Jesus told folksy stories) and do an end run around the institutions that were keeping people away from a relationship with God.

The structures, connections and ideas that exist within an institution can suffocate when they insulate people from the truth of God. The common language becomes rote repetition that allows us to skip the hard work of knowing God and being in relationship with him. Shared traditions can be dangerous.


We live in an either/or world that wants to divide people up into nice, tidy units. It’s just easier that way. In an either/or view you can dismiss the people that are different. You can decide that their political view or religious view or social view or financial view is incompatible with yours. You don’t have to associate with people you disagree with in an either/or world. You don’t have to have a relationship with them.


But Jesus didn’t call us to be either/or people; instead, he called us to be both/and people. We can both love people and disagree with them. We can both associate with people and hold different views. We can both be involved in the institutions of religion and work outside the institutions. We can have relationship with anyone in a both/and world.

In 331 BC, Alexander faced off against Darius III of Persia. The insult of the Persian invasion of Greece would finally be answered and Alexander could fulfill the mission of his life by defeating Darius.

As usual, Alexander had a brilliant strategy, he waited until the foot soldiers were engaged and then filtered out his cavalry troops. At the decisive moment, Alexander led the charge and broke through the Persian lines. Darius’ guard was killed and the defeated emperor fled for his life.

Just as Alexander gathered his Companions to chase down the vanquished Darius, a messenger came to him with a desperate plea. The foot soldiers were surrounded and would soon die if they weren’t reinforced. <br><br>The great Macedonian could have charged after Darius, caught him and ended the war. But he would have sacrificed the army that won him the victory. So, reluctantly, he led his cavalry back to save the beleaguered infantry and the war with Persia continued.

The story of Alexander strikes me as a parable for us today. I’ve been in both the institutional and non-institutional church. I’ve worked in established churches, church plants, new monastic communities, small groups and impromptu worship gatherings.

I’ve been frustrated with the institutional church. It’s slow to move, cautious to act, skeptical of new ideas and quick to abandon new thinking. I want to run out ahead in a church plant or house church and just do all the new, exciting, relational things that I’m convinced that Jesus wants us to do. I can see the goal. It’s so close.

But then I hear about old, dying, stagnant churches, surrounded and beset on every side. They may even lack the strength to call for help. I could drive forward, ignore the plea and press on toward the goal. I could move out into the exciting, challenging front-lines work of the mission fields both domestic and foreign. I could ignore the differences and difficulties of the institution and sacrifice the institutional church in the process.

Or, like Alexander, I could look for a both/and solution. I can work to help the institutional church, working within the structures and traditions that helped bring me to faith. I can take the slow, often painful road of revitalizing the dying, because if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have a relationship with Jesus today. And then I can go out and pursue the fight, then I can step back outside the traditions and institutions to seek and save the lost.

I’ll continue to work both in and outside the institutional church. I don’t have to choose just one option. Neither do you.

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