With the full rise of the emergent movement and growing emphasis on “organic” churches, it is not unfair to say that there is a relatively common evangelical mistrust of the Church as institution. Institutional Church is viewed as the enemy over against more organic interpretations. The hierarchy of a Church (unless, ironically, it’s set up like a business?!) is frowned upon as oppressive and arcane.
But I want to suggest three reasons that the Church as institution can actually be valuable (although not without perils):
1. The institutional Church is the child of its tradition. Christian tradition is important. Even for many who are terrified of the idea of tradition, the denial of the Trinity would be a step too far because traditions (in this case, doctrinal traditions) matter. However, if you are in a context where there are multiple traditions vying for attention, something more than tradition becomes necessary. Particularly for the everyman or woman, some authority is invaluable to discern which traditions merit following and which do not. Thus, structure and institutions step in to preserve what we now consider “orthodoxy” or right teaching. This is a natural progression and one in which we see the God-given dignity of humanity to participate in God’s work of passing down his truths.
2. The institutional Church helps clarify boundaries. As alluded to in the first point, authority that aids discernment can be very helpful when there are multiple voices clamoring for attention. In an increasingly pluralistic society, there is good reason to only expect the number of voices to continue. A Church with clearly defined doctrine and people in place to make clear decisions with regards to Church discipline provides clear boundaries that help its members. This is not to deny that members should be mentally active and engaging with the issues themselves, but neither is it every individual’s calling to work out all points of doctrine. Submitting to authority on such issues may actually be freeing.
3. The institutional Church recognizes and remembers the importance of its localized context. There is a tendency in churches that shy away from this idea of institution to begin to lose a truly localized sensitivity. The identification of their church becomes more about all the followers of Jesus everywhere, or the Church universal. An institutional Church (particularly at a larger level) preserves both that universal sense, but also emphasizes the localized parish because those localized incarnations are definitionally a part of it.
These are obviously ideals, and I recognize that the Church has, historically, often abused its institutional power. But my concern is that our skepticism about institutions has more to do with the cultural influence of post-modern skepticism than it does to do with a well-thought understanding of institutions and their role. It may be that the bad still outweighs the good, but the good certainly merits a voice.