I am really enjoying Neil Cole’s “Organic Leadership”. Cole does a great job of communicating how the Lord brings about leadership that glorifies Jesus. But early on, he also effectively spells out what currently ails much of the church world… the curse of institutional religion. In the chapter, “On Being Institutionalized”, we pull these excerpts from the section, “Two Lethal Problems”:
Christ did not come to establish an institution. His kingdom and his church are meant to be relational and spontaneous movements, not organizations. It is his followers who created the “church institution” with layers of authority and solidified programs and practices that take on a sacred nature in and of themselves.
When we become part of the perpetuation of the institution so that our own identity and security are found there, we have become institutionalized…”
There are two lethal problems with being institutionalized. First, the leader who has been institutionalized in the church, often unwittingly, places his or her faith in the institution rather than in the Lord. The church’s institutional form becomes the provider: the source of security, identity, and hope. As the institution goes, so goes this person’s sense of worth and well-being. If the institution is threatened, the leader’s own security is threatened. In this state, the leader’s faith is reduced to maintaining and promoting the institution and its agenda.
The second problem is we elevate the institution to the level of being God’s main, if not his only, instrument on earth. We limit God to working within the institution. This is by far the worst consequence of institutionalization. If we see the organization called “church” as God’s special means of working on earth, it takes on divine importance. If this is our perception of the organization, then to resist it or exist outside of it is to resist or be outside of God himself. When we further the cause of the institution, we further God’s cause. When we question it, we question God. Those who are not friends of the institution are not friends of God but enemies. Anyone who competes with the institution must be against God. The worth of people is determined by their value to the institution and its objectives. Even the buildings that are owned by the institution are said to be God’s house.
Of course, God may well be working in and through the organized expression of the church, but I guarantee he is also at work outside of it. His kingdom is bigger than any church, denomination or institution.
The first problem is personal and affects the leaders and perhaps those closest to him or her. The second - believing the institution is God’s main instrument for working in the world - can create an entire culture that affects many others. Both problems are forms of idolatry, because in both cases the institution replaces God. This is bondage. It is unhealthy and can destroy lives, and it certainly is not the reason Jesus died on the cross.