Do we need the institution to do church?

Cross atop the steeple of the chapel at Perkins School of Theology on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications
Cross atop the steeple of the chapel at Perkins School of Theology on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

Can I be real with you? The word “institution” makes me want to break out into hives. When I hear the word “institution,” I can’t help but think of its negative characteristics. I think of unjust systems. I think of rigid, constrictive policies that exist in current public institutions (banking, schools, health care, government, [insert your favorite institution here]) that erode the viability and hope of my fellow neighbors. I think of institutions that seek their own “bottom line” instead of focusing on the good that benefits all. I think of red tape, on top of red tape, on top of red tape to make one inch of headway into turning a massive ship of bureaucracy. I think of “us versus them” mentalities. I think of backroom deals and negotiations to “get the job done,” winning for the team at all costs.

They say it takes five positive experiences to merely counterbalance one negative experience… 

Then it occurs to me: the same uneasy feeling I have about the word “institution” is the same feeling that some of my friends have about the word “church.” Ouch. So I decided to take a look at the definition of the word “institution” from good old Miriam Webster, being the self-professed nerd that I am.

in·sti·tu·tion

a: an established organization or corporation (such as a bank or university), especially of a public character

The church certainly could be considered an organization of individuals with a common interest that seeks to have a public character rather than solely a private endeavor. Specific churches like the United Methodist Church are also established in that they have been recognized and accepted by the governments of several countries across the globe. We have provisions within our church laws (the Book of Discipline for the United Methodist Church) that affirm our obedience to the civil law of our respective governments as citizens. We are in and for the world.

b: a facility or establishment in which people (such as the sick or needy) live and receive care typically in a confined setting and often without individual consent

Oof. My friends who have been harmed, pushed out to the margins, or ostracized by the church would agree that the word “church” falls under this definition. They experience a confined setting. A setting that they may be dragged to without consent to receive what the church views as care. A building. Four cold walls.  

c: a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture
also : something or someone firmly associated with a place or thing

Many of us would agree that “church” has been a significant practice, relationship, and organization in cultures worldwide. We also hope and pray that we would be an entity firmly associated with our devotion to Jesus Christ by onlookers. At its best, the church has uplifted and impacted society and culture positively when it manifests fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and shares it freely. At its worst, it has impacted society and culture negatively with colonialism, segregation, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious superiority… 

I suppose that the United Methodist Church and other established churches do not escape from the definition of an “institution.” But aren’t we called to so much more? There must be some reason why we call ourselves the “United Methodist Church” instead of the “United Methodist Institution.” Perhaps the Book of Discipline for our “institution” may hold some answers.

The preamble of the Constitution within the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline describes exactly what type of “institution” that a “church” is and what we strive to be:

“The church is a community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ.” [emphasis mine]

– Preamble of United Methodist Church Constitution, 2016 Book of Discipline

When we call ourselves a “church”, we acknowledge our commitment not only to Christ as the ultimate authority in our lives above all others, but we also recognize our commitment to each other in community: a word that isn’t readily used in the definition of an institution, might I add.

“It is the redeemed and redeeming fellowship in which the word of God is preached by persons divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment.” [emphasis mine]

– Preamble of United Methodist Church Constitution, 2016 Book of Discipline

The church is not just a community that has been redeemed by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, rescued by God’s grace and unconditional love from having the power of evil in our world completely consume and rule our lives. This community also redeems others through the Holy Spirit that empowers us to join in partnership with Christ to heal the brokenness caused by such evil. Just because we are a redeemed community doesn’t mean that the community doesn’t still encounter the temptation to succumb to the power of evil. The relationship between the church and the God we serve is a two-way street. We still have a choice to choose what master we wish to serve. At any time, we have the choice to accept the gift of redemption in the power of Jesus Christ, which gives fuller, more abundant life or reject it for the power of sin that divides us from one another. The latter choice focuses solely on our own benefits rather than the good of our neighbors, and seeks to create hierarchies of superiority that cause brokenness in our world. We are human, and that choice from day to day is a tougher battle than we would like to admit. We want to take care of our own, and well, it’s easier. We want things that are concrete and we fear the unknown. Discipleship is the key instrument in fighting that battle – to actually live how we have proclaimed we will live: under the Lordship of Jesus Christ that values love and wholeness over injustice and brokenness.

The Importance of Disciple Making

 

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the Greek word for “disciple,” mathēthēs, simply meant “one who learns” but as time went by, the word started to designate those who were committed to particular teachings from a teacher, philosophical school, a city or state, or religious figure.[1] No wonder the disciples call Jesus “Rabbi” (teacher) in scripture! However, as New Testament scholar David Bauer explains, there were significant differences between the discipleship that Jewish rabbi’s typically allowed and the discipleship that Jesus Christ requires.

First, rabbis did not typically approach individuals with an invitation to become a disciple or student. The disciples had to beg and plead for the opportunity to study under rabbis. Jesus, ever the perpetual subverter of the status quo, personally and uniquely calls each of his disciples and invites them to “follow him” (Mark 1:16-20, Mark 2:13-14, John 1:43-35, 6:70; 15:16).[2] Not only that—look at the diversity of disciples that Christ calls and invites! They aren’t under one ideology. They ranged the entire spectrum from modest fishermen to a hardcore activist pressed to destroy the oppressive government of Rome to a tax collector that thrives in that same government. Meanwhile, today we still cringe at the thought of the next conversation at our dinner tables with family members who think the exact opposite than we do! Jesus invites all voices to the table, and we are invited to do the same as disciples of Jesus who claim the Lordship of Christ.

Secondly, instead of asking his disciples to focus solely on the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) as the rabbis would require of their disciples, Jesus went a step further. Jesus required a total commitment to the embodiment and following of the ministry of Jesus[3]: a way of life that subverted the status quo of injustice and quest for earthly power that was lorded over others during that time (Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:25-27). It was a life that would inevitably lead to persecution by the world that idolized itself and its own status, but it was a life that was more honorable to God and offered something much better to its adherents: resurrection and new life. Be there no mistake about it, Jesus did not come to completely discount the Torah that rabbis had studied. He sought to be “filled full” of the Torah (known as God’s law) and the message of the prophets to turn back to God instead of following the path towards the deterioration of God’s beloved, good creation (. Thus, as fellow learners and disciples of Christ, we are called to do the same: to embody the scripture in our own lives and turn back to the God of life instead of turning to the evil that destroys. 

Finally, instead of expecting his disciples to become an expert in the law like the disciples of rabbis, Christ’s disciples were expected to become those who were sent out to proclaim the good news and to create disciples of all nations[4]: a commission echoed in the mission statement of the United Methodist Church.

“The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

– ¶120 of 2016 Book of Discipline

Note that the Great Commission, as detailed in Matthew 28:19-20 was not to create converts or even to create believers. It was specifically to focus on creating disciples that would follow the ways and the commands of Jesus. If we put discipleship first, the belief is sure to follow from those who witness the true embodiment of Christ. This new type of discipleship that Jesus calls us to helps us reclaim the goodness of God within us and allows us to share it with our fellow creation. In a world battered by oppression and evil, that goodness will be noticed. Belief will follow only when good fruit is produced. How else can the world tell either the vine we claim to cling to actually nourishes instead of poisons? (Matthew 7:16-20) Therefore, to be a “redeeming fellowship,” we must embrace the gift of the Holy Spirit that was bestowed on Christ’s disciples and share its fruits with those around us, inspiring others to do the same.

Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit, the church seeks to provide for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world.” [emphasis mine]

– Preamble of United Methodist Church Constitution, 2016 Book of Discipline

Disciples respond to the unique call of Jesus to follow his way of life that conquers all death by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through this Holy Spirit, they are able to heed Jesus’s call to turn back to God and receive the Good News of God, saving us from the power of evil (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 24:46-49). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, disciples can choose the life-giving power of our creator that exudes unconditional love for all people instead of allowing the soul-sucking, oppressive power of evil that plagues our world today. And by the Holy Spirit, whoever believes can receive the power to transform this world by living lives in the way of Christ.

Making disciples is not easy, and it’s even harder to be one. The original set of disciples didn’t get it right the first time either. That call to discipleship is hard in a world that mocks or derides us for daring to choose love over hate, or for daring to disturb or call out the status quo of injustice in favor for the equality and compassion of our siblings on the margins. (How dare we believe that all people are created in God’s image!) It is also all too easy to rest on legislation or a book, or a program to do the job of making disciples for us, but as a “church,” as a community of believers who proclaim that Jesus is our authority above all others, we are called to be disciples, choosing to live the way of Christ daily rather than the self-serving way of the world in order to inspire others to also follow Christ by the grace of God. In a society crippled by war, violence, rage, supremacy, and injustice, we need disciples to take up their crosses using the strength gifted by the Holy Spirit for guidance and discernment. We need disciples who are teachable, committed to a lifetime of learning and growing in Christ, discovering and embracing the unique gifts that God has given them to live out their own, authentic embodiment of Jesus. It is that embodiment of divine love itself that can change the world. Without making disciples that follow the way of Jesus Christ, we are just another institution, stuck in its own ideological bunker, living for itself, instead of its creator. 

With that said, as the United Methodist Church stares in the face of the opportunity to restructure and refocus as a “church,” we must take a look at the mirror, examine our fruits, and ask the hard questions:

  1. As an institution, are we truly creating disciples of Jesus Christ or are we simply creating disciples of our institutional standards and policies?
  2. In the legislation that governs our church, are we leaving room for the Holy Spirit to guide or are we stifling it?
  3. Are we providing brave spaces for disciples of Christ to be edified and accepted for who God created them to be along with their own unique call that God has on their lives?

The good news is that we are not alone in our efforts to journey through this endeavor of discipleship and learning. I believe the Holy Spirit of Pentecost awaits us to renew our commitment to Christ fully throughout the whole of our lives and communities to transform the world instead of being a mirror of it. The choice is ours: are we a “church” first? Or an “institution”? May we live into our mission to be the church that Christ calls us to be – creating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.


Shandon Klein is a certified candidate for the order of Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church and a lay delegate to General Conference. She currently serves at First United Methodist Church Richardson and will be exploring her "nerdom" as she enters her first year of PhD work in Religious Ethics through the Graduate Program of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University this Fall 2021. Shandon has a passion for the planting of multiethnic churches and bridging the gap between academia and the local church.

 


[1] The New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, D-H: Volume 2, “Disciple, Discipleship,” David R. Bauer, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007, 128

[2] Ibid, 129.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid