Post last updated on December 3, 2021
Image credit: RAH
As many state governments eased recent virus restrictions last week, Christians in these places were again free to practice an underappreciated virtue, habit. They returned to churches. For some, it was but a short walk to a well-worn chapel. Others needed to travel farther, but the way was familiar and easy. They all came from somewhere else, but these and others all traveled to a church last Sunday.
Some gatherings were large, and most were smaller, but none of them was a gathering of one. These Christians came together because only together do they manifest what is sometimes otherwise difficult to see: they are united in one way, despite other differences. They confess the same Savior in common, and so they gather in common.
There are, of course, good reasons why some Christians in these places did not immediately return to their respective church. That said, there were undoubtedly others who chose not to return, even when they were able. Outward circumstances had conspired with the inward motions of the heart, and they did not return. And just like that, these Christians turned their back on the future. I will explain what I mean, but let us first consider the present.
* * *
Until recently, anti-institutionalism was all the rage again. It did, perhaps, hide for a few weeks behind the recent and common concern. If nothing else, early estimates regarding the rate and severity of infection was reason enough for many to put regularly scheduled strife aside; but now the old skepticism has flared up again. This feeling comes and goes rather easily.
It is true that institutions do sometimes truly and tragically fail us; but I wonder if there is not something more to this all. Perhaps it is often nothing more than the cost of unreasonable expectations. Or (better said) perhaps some want something different than the institution can either promise or provide. Regardless, it is not as if disappointment is a far-off destination. There is already sufficient distrust in our own hearts, so that the distance between contentment and offense is a rather short one; and then, rather quickly after feeling offended, we begin to cast blame.
I still remember my first car. It never disappointed me, nor has any car of mine ever since that time; but then again, this is because I never had a car that suggested anything other than a kind of trivial functionality. Had I imagined that first car would drive like a roadster of some sort, I would indeed have been disappointed. As it was, its ill-conceived styling always moderated my expectations, even before I ever sat in its driver’s seat; still, it met reasonable, if moderated, expectations quite well.
Regardless of its origination and cause, now institutional angst is apparent on both the political left and the right. And this does not mean that I am making light of real failures, with an easy swat at both sides. After all, institutions serve real and necessary purposes, and we cannot do without them. But I will say this: it is far easier to condemn institutions than it is to dismiss people, especially when those same people are neighbors. It is, in fact, too easy to be dismissive of institutions and their edifices; but what if their edifices are actually people?
Obviously, it is not sufficient for someone to merely live near his neighbor, but he should live together with them well. We know such purposed attempts as a societies, and within societies we inevitably find institutions.1See Herman Bavinck, The Christian Family, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman (Grand Rapids,: Christian’s Library Press, 2012), 136-39. Institutions are, in fact, the unavoidable expressions of a society. Note the characteristics of a people, and you will be able to make some sort of prediction about its institutions; but you will never find a society without an institution of some kind. Even those who despise them and seek their destruction, first form their own institutions in order to destroy others. If nothing else, politics is the fight over institutions; for as troubled and inefficient as they sometimes are, institutions are both inevitable and invaluable. They are frequently derided, but not easily abandoned.
It seems evident that few political traditionalists will conserve institutions at the expense of society; but it is also true that that few revolutionaries are so very revolutionary as to dispense with institutions, at least those that serve their purposes. After all, politics is also the practiced reconsideration of ideals for ends. And, perhaps, this is just the problem. Institutions are now too frequently servants to self-interest. They are not abandoned altogether; rather, they are reconsidered and recreated. This may have always been sometimes true; but increasingly, institutions do not reflect the ideals of the societies that actually established them and depend upon them; but they are become stages of ambitious individuals.2This is one of several helpful observations made in Albert Mohler’s interview with Yuval Levin. See The Ties That Bind: A Conversation with Yuval Levin About the Crisis of American Institutions and What We Can Do About It, podcast audio, Thinking in Public, https://albertmohler.com/2020/04/22/yuval-levin.
* * *
Anti-institutionalism, of course, extends to churches. Churches are easy and frequent targets for criticism, perhaps because they are so necessary and persistent. Because men are so intractably religious, churches are even more inevitable than many other enterprises. This religious inclination, regardless of its actual content, helps explain the existence of many churches that deny biblical and historic Christianity; but it also informs us to reasons for the more recent rise in secular and atheist societies, which sometimes have a similar structure and feeling of a traditional, western church. Form and function hold hands as they walk together. Even still, churches sometimes fall to the same self-interest that corrupt other institutions; but in churches, that corruption is mixed with professed piety. Self-interest smells worse in a church, which means that the intractably religious man will take notice. “Organized religion” will be the subject of his new critique, though that has been heard before.
But what if some Christians will not return this Sunday for another reason, altogether? Theirs is not the average sort of anti-institutionalism, at all. Organized religion doesn’t really bother them. In fact, the church is not organized enough—or it is not organized properly. Their complaint is just this: the church is not quite so good as their family. These have decided that they will now meet at home. After all, were not the first churches in houses?
It should be said that some of these are often well-intentioned. They are careful fathers and mothers of considerate children. And some of them attend churches that have become too much like circuses. Their concern is understandable. It is the unfortunate reality that if some institutions, despite disagreement with the facts of gospel proclamation, nonetheless mimic a church’s ambiance, it is also true that churches sometimes mimic secular deviance. After all, a single heart is both naturally religious and naturally idolatrous. Even so, by withdrawing from a church and retreating to the safe uniformity of a family, these parents have done more than they realize. They have retreated from the means of God’s purpose. If they have exchanged their church for their families, they have forfeited that one institution that anticipates and prepares for the future that matters most—eternity.
It is true that the family was the first established institution among men, and is fundamental in God’s order. It derives both its appearance and its authority from God. Nevertheless, the family was first in sequence but not in supremacy. It was the foundation of God’s order, but only just that. All foundations give way to a building. It is also true that both government and the church presuppose the family, but these three are not competing models of an ideal society. This is precisely the problem: the institutions of family, government, and church are seen as ways of living rather than ways of becoming.
The family has its respective but restricted role in God’s revelation and redemptive history, and it is not merely a subject of sociology, ethics, or well-being. It is not possible to dismiss or redefine the family, as some do; but nor is it possible to exaggerate or expand its role and make it the church. That would be to expect more of the family than that institution can provide. The family was first and foundational to human life and flourishing, but it is not the end of God’s design.
* * *
In God’s covenant with Abraham, we see how God’s promise to Abraham anticipates something more than the family (see Genesis 12 and 15). In Abraham all the families of the earth would be blessed. Abraham would be the father of many nations. This is certainly language that affects the intimate circle of the family, but also wider circles of peoples; and yet, the patriarchy of Abraham was not the church. Instead, as Paul would later make clear, it is through Abraham’s eventual descendant—Jesus Christ—that God would bring about his salvation to all peoples (Galatians 3:7-14). Through a savior, and not a father of a family, disparate peoples would find a unity that otherwise eludes them as members of families or as citizens of nations. They find that salvation only through redemption in Jesus Christ; and yet, the expression and order of believers is the church, the body of Christ. And that is seen locally in churches.
Only in Jesus Christ through the Spirit, would those of different families and nations find their intended spiritual unity, which the promise to Abraham had predicted. It is impossible to say that either families or nations are irrelevant institutions, but even their supporters sometimes forget just how important these institutions are, especially because they are so frequently extracted from their part in redemptive history, and made servants to the present order only. It is in that history, which always moves toward its inevitable future, that they each become prerequisite to the redemption that was eventually provided for through the son of God. We there find that the law would be imposed upon the nation of Israel, Abraham’s decedents through Jacob. In this way, both family and nation are not only intended for our temporal happiness and security, but they became the effective means by which the Savior was given to us all (Galatians 3:18-19). That said, family and nation are institutions that must eventually comport with eternity. Change weighs on them both; but the church—a gathering of believers only—will proceed forward as it is, for it is a people that is redeemed. Indeed, it is as the Lord said of his church, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
* * *
No nation can long escape the consequences of broken families. Everywhere, nations will tend toward either tyrannies of dissipation or austerity, whenever husband and wife abandon one another or their children. In this sense, a nation is unavoidably dependent on the family. Families separate in divorce, and nations then dissolve in revolution; but it is in the church that humanity is given continuity. The church does not ultimately depend upon natural relations in the way that nations must. Families are divided and nation states fail and then reorganize, but the church is never destroyed, for it was never a natural society.
When the writer of Hebrews exhorts readers to not forsake the assembling of themselves together, this is not because the church is a club that needs a quorum; it is because the simple but habitual preaching and singing that occurs among otherwise unrelated people has their common future as the goal of their communion: “but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). It is the coming of Christ Jesus that is anticipated when Christians gather together in this way.
It is true that the church’s local expression is sometimes evident in only the weakest of natural power. It may (conceivably) consist of only the unmarried, widows, and orphans. In this instance, there is no natural way for it to reproduce; that said, there is also a supernatural way in which it will ultimately survive. That is the point: God’s Spirit through his word will move these believers to persist in faith in the present day, but he will also move them toward the New Jerusalem. Scripture calls Christians citizens of heaven and of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19). For Paul, the language of these two earthly and temporal contingencies finally yields to that which is eternal, the church of Jesus Christ.
This fact, it is hoped, saves us from doing harm to both the family and the church, asking robust and independent families to accomplish what is seen and provided only in the local church. The church is a supernatural society, one in which people of many families and nations are called together, to edify one another in ways a father or mother cannot do themselves. This is not warmed-over, sentimental socialism—it effects what socialism cannot. To be a Christian is to find oneself in such a society that Paul visited everywhere, an institution of different people that were all the beloved of God.
Notes & References
|↑1||See Herman Bavinck, The Christian Family, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman (Grand Rapids,: Christian’s Library Press, 2012), 136-39.|
|↑2||This is one of several helpful observations made in Albert Mohler’s interview with Yuval Levin. See The Ties That Bind: A Conversation with Yuval Levin About the Crisis of American Institutions and What We Can Do About It, podcast audio, Thinking in Public, https://albertmohler.com/2020/04/22/yuval-levin.|