DISCLAIMER – I’m not nor have I ever been a theologian!
In my last post I spoke of how we need to to think of the church as vibrant institution and that would perhaps need us to think of how we speak theologically about vibrant institutions.
Sadly in many churches Theology has become something of a dirty word, somehow the opposite of mission. However theology just means words about God. Revd. Dr. John Taylor (of late and blessed memory) once said that there could be a theology about anything, even lampposts. It just required that asking of two simple questions – ‘What has God to do with lampposts and what have lampposts to do with God.’ You can replace lampposts with any thing else you wish.
So what would the theology of the church as a vibrant institution begin to look like?
Three great themes that underpin all theology are creation, reconciliation and redemption.
CREATION One of the marks of the church as a vibrant institution is that through the centuries Christians founded institutions based on love of neighbour. The unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs — its care of widows and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling houses, schools, shelters, relief organisations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies and so on. Pagan Greeks had only houses to help wounded soldiers recover and get them back to the front. Christians opened houses to heal the poor out of obedience to their Lord.
The Didascalia, a third-century Christian document, made bishops, the church’s key leaders, responsible for educating orphans, aiding widows and purchasing food and firewood for the poor. The church of Rome in 251 had some 1,500 poor people on its rolls, whom it cared for with food, oil, wine and clothing. And such efforts were before the lifting of state-sanctioned persecution against the church. Once official harassment of Christians gave way to imperial largesse, churches became the first institutionalized public welfare organizations in Western history.
And lest anyone think this history self-serving, look to the witness of Christianity’s most bitter ancient enemy. The emperor Julian sought to reinstate imperial worship of the ancient gods and to stem the rising tide of the church in the empire. His primary means? Encouragement of pagan altruism. Julian declared it a “disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.”
Christians won people because they cared for the poor materially and they did this through institutions. Pagans lost people because they did not. These institutions showed, and embodied, the Christian claim that God is not on the side of the strong, but is personally fleshed in one crucified Jew. His resurrected light transfigures all with eyes to see now, not one heart at a time (as today’s evangelicals would likely put it), but one almshouse, hospital, soup kitchen and food pantry at a time.
The church is a vibrant institution when it recognises we are all part of God’s creation and therefore we care for all of God’s creation.
RECONCILIATION Churches as a vibrant institutions can offer enormous good to countless people, to be sure, but they also carry inherent risk. Institutions can become bureaucracies and deaden the energy that led to the institution’s founding in the first place. Churches are not only witness to God’s good creation, but as themselves are in constant need of Christ’s reconciling work. They’re in need of saving if they are to save others.
In the fourth century St. Jerome praised a Roman aristocrat named Fabiola, whose money founded the first hospital in the West and whose personal zeal had her washing wounds and dispensing food herself. In the Christian East, another aristocratic woman named Olympias supported churches, convents, beggars, prisoners and exiles. In between institutional crevices themselves, as women in a highly patriarchal society, Fabiola and Olympias nevertheless helped create new vibrant institutions.
This founding impulse is not limited to the ancient church. For example, the Methodist revival succeeded not only because John Wesley preached to poor coal miners. It succeeded because it institutionalized charity to those most crushed by the Industrial Revolution. Wesley described the Strangers’ Friend Society in London as “instituted wholly for the relief not of our society, but for poor, sick, friendless strangers.” Later the civil rights movement in the U.S. was no momentary spasm of do-gooder sentimentality. It was a highly considered and planned effort in the black church to “turn Southerners’ notions of hospitality inside out.”
Yet there is a danger in this institutionalization of hospitality. Christians are called to offer welcome to the needy stranger. Yet once institutions are founded to regularize this offering and make visible where the needy can go for care, that care can become bureaucratic, professionalized, distant from the heart of Christian love for the other. For example, ancient Christians founded hospitals to normalize care for the needy. Yet the efficiency these brought also, ironically, removed the needy from the community and locked them away. In one way this irony should not surprise us. God has no one other than sinners through whom to offer care to his beloved poor. Further, institutions founded as havens for the vulnerable can easily become places where the vulnerable can, outrageously, become trapped and preyed upon.
We need to recognise our churches as vibrant institutions need to be constantly reconciled to God as we offer the path of reconciliation to others.
REDEMPTION The work of making all things holy, traditionally attributed to the Holy Spirit in the Triune life, can be seen in vibrant institutions founded by missionaries all over the world. We call these institutions holiness-making because this function is largely unplanned, as wild and unhindered as the Spirit’s work always is. The Western missionaries who founded hospitals, universities and almshouses in, say, Africa, had no idea those institutions would train and equip a generation of African intellectuals who would not only demand that Westerners (like missionaries) leave their country. It would also produce missionaries who would be sent by African countries to newly de-Christianized Western places and to places European missionaries never hoped to reach. Institutions as living things can move in directions their founders never intended. In doing so they can fulfill God’s purposes, which are so much higher than ours as to induce not just surprise but wonder.
The emergence of indigenous faith is the lynchpin of Churches becoming or rebecoming vibrant institutions. Ambassador Gertrude Ibengwe Mongella of Tanzania, in an address to Boston University said, “I must thank the American missionaries who came and started the girls’ school in which I was educated. Without the work of the Maryknoll Sisters, young African girls like me would have no opportunities to get an education, to become a teacher, or to attend a university. But why are the Americans not focusing on founding schools and hospitals like they used to? Where are the missionaries of today?” Nelson Mandela could have given the same speech, having been educated in his village by Methodists.
Where indeed are these vibrant institutions? The Spirit blows where God wills. The Spirit blew countless preachers and teachers of the gospel across the sea in the modern missionary movement, and thousands more may come from the East and the South back to us in the spiritually moribund West. It seems to be what God is doing at the moment and the greatest hope for the future of the church. Who knew God would act this way? Yet as people produced by Spirit-inspired institutions, we should get used to being surprised. Who is a Christian without being baptized? Who a student without a school? Who a professional without training? And where do these come from without human institutions?
Creation, Reconciliation, Redemption. All three can help us see that institutions, created good, fallen and being reconciled, and pointing the way to God’s future redemption are integral to a flourishing life in this world. All three are important for our churches to be the vibrant institutions that God intends the churches to be.
God bless your Lenten journey, Alan