Who Wants To Live In An Institution?

The CofS faces possible disintegration. In its decisions regarding homosexual ordination the last General Assembly acted with all the aplomb of the regimental idiot who pulls the pin on a hand grenade and then stands there wondering what happens next.

Like most evangelicals I am still feeling my way forward. We retire soon, what then? We will go to live in the village of Airth, there are several good congregations nearby, we shall undoubtedly worship with one of them, but, suddenly free of institutional ties should we formally ally ourselves with any church? Perhaps we should just work, worship and witness within a congregation without formally joining?

I wish I could say my quandary was purely the result of deep theological struggle, however, it has to be admitted that with me it is as much personal psychology as theology. I am one of those sad souls who is instinctively agin the establishment. Open Office rather than Microsoft Word, Partick Thistle rather than Rangers, Chick Murray rather than Eddie Izzard, you get the drift.

It is easy to be anti-instituitional in an ecclesiastical situation. Every one of us has sat through sermons wondering what was on television that night. We have all felt disenchanted with the institution. The faults in congregations and denominations are too glaring to point out, but we still do. Richard Dawkins’ comments are trifling witticisms compared to some of the more trenchant opinions I have heard in minister’s fraternals.

Christians tend to be amongst that dangerous class of people, utopians. Because
we see it before us in Christ we seek perfection, in our own lives, in His church and servants. We are future oriented, never satisfied with the present but always pressing on to what is ahead. We tend to undervalue the present in sincere desire to improve our work and witness. The ideal is always to be found on the top of the next hill, never on this hill. With this common attitude the church will always be seen as failing.

Utopians want to get stuck in, do the work and see the ideal materialise, and are unhappy when it doesn’t happen straightaway. Our prayer is “Dear Lord, give me patience. Now!” When we don’t get our results immediately we can get disgruntled and stalk off. Is this part of what is happening with those who don’t wish to continue in an increasingly unfaithful denomination?

We should distinguish between the church as institution and the church as organism. As an organism the church tries to fulfill its function as best it can. The world doesn’t acknowledge this but we should. Who is more admirable, the ageing rock star who jets to Africa to make documentaries urging us to donate to starving children whilst seeking out tax havens for his own wealth; or the father and mother who work hard, raise their family, do what they can to help others, and worship
and serve in their local church week in week out without recognition or applause?

The purpose of the institutional church is to provide the structures which enable that organic church to function, as such for good or ill institutions play a vital role. It is as an institution that the church is most seriously failing, and not only the CofS.

Unfortunately the alternative to organised religion is disorganised religion. Even when we find supposedly ‘independent’ congregations they usually have close ties with like minded congregations, and almost invariably have a highly developed internal committee structure. Totally unstructured groups are mayflies, quite attractive but they soon die.

Ecclesiastical institutions are inevitable. We find structures and organisation,
planning and even committees in the New Testament. The Bible knows nothing of freelance Christians.
The discussion amongst evangelicals about whether to leave or to stay and fight is basically about the function and place of the institution.

On Friday 13th August there will be a gathering at the East Church Inverness of those determined to stay in until forced out. They see their task as fighting for gospel truths despite the odds against, and almost inevitable defeat. Recent history teaches us that the ordination of homosexuals to the ministry of the CofS will proceed, despite discussion, argument, pleading, or Bible. Neo-Protestant progressive Christians are quite prepared to shatter a church in pursuit of their aims and are determined to get their way.

Deep down the bitter enders realise this but understand their position as a matter of faithfulness to their ordination vows and membership promises. They will fight on until the bitter end, because this is their church. Even after all the avenues have been explored, arguments engaged and political manoeuvrings have failed many will stay, because it’s the church.

Instead of downplaying the importance of the institution in favour of the organism as do the ‘over the next hill’ mob, perhaps the ‘bitter enders’ are overvaluing  the institution.

The institution is not the body of Christ, that is to be found in the organism, the living people of God. The institution is merely a framework which enables the church to emerge. The question is not: How do we preserve the institution? but: How can we make the institution serve the church? The institution exists to serve the organism, the organism does not exist to serve the institution.

Those who are set on leaving have an obligation to make clear what institutional arrangements they look to create. Without a clear vision of the emerging church most of us are left with a choice between fissiparous independency or bondage to an unfaithful institution. Without a comprhensible alternative the only option is to go down fighting.

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About Campbell

Now retired but once upon a time a parish minister in Glasgow, before that the South West and initially the Black Isle. Been a prison chaplain and lecturer. Still am constantly bemused by the weird world around me.
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One Response to Who Wants To Live In An Institution?

  1. Ewan Wilson says:

    I largely agree with your thoughts on the Church. As a convinced Presbyterian I do not think we can safely underestimate its vital role in the life of the individual Christian. Indeed it is God’s instrument to advance our personal sanctification. Thus walking off from a denomination must be for be no light or frivolous matter. One unambiguous point of departure surely must be when the lunatics take over the assylum! When the fools who have said in their heart ( and out loud!) there’s no God who has spoken to us. To be in communion with such is a flagrant act of disobedience to and insult to Holy Scripture. The disunited response to the late General ( but not venerable!!) Assembly is hardly surprising if the troops are only selectively heeding the Captain’s orders! The CofS was a cause of great despair to me long before the present debacle but this crisis and the utterly disorganised response simply confirms to me sadly that the Kirk’s evangelicals are as presbyterian in strategy and leadership as the most virulent Independent! At least in 1843, 1893 and1900 there was a good degree of planning. Even in 1989 and in 2000 the APCs and the Free Kirk Continuers were better prepared. Meanwhile the asendant corrupters will look on and act on the basis of the law of diminishing returns: each time the boundaries are moved the evangelicals bleat a bit but then just settle down to quiet grazing as the wolves in sheep’s clothing further ravage the flock. It is sad to think Kirk evangelicals can contemplate staying locked in fellowship with flagrant sin yet regard the various other Presbyterian bodies as quite beyond the pale ( exclusive psalmody apparently being a far worse sin!)

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