EMC #5: Movement or Institution

Author: Stuart Lindsell

Movement or Institution?

David Bosch says “The difference between an institution and a movement is that one crosses boundaries the other guards them”.1 The Bible says very little about church structure and even when it does the references are not prescriptive. It does however talk about the activities, attitudes and relationships, which characterise church. In ‘Organic Church’ Neil Cole describes the process God took him through to the point where he had to make a basic decision. Did he want to put his energy into an organisation or a movement? If he chose the latter than he had to yield up one thing – he could not keep in control. The former would have its limitations but the latter contained the missional DNA to multiply according to the principles of Jesus.

The church of the first three centuries was fundamentally charismatic and organic. Christianity did not begin as a religion but a movement of people around a conviction that Jesus Christ was Lord. It was primarily a movement. Alan Hirsch marvels at the remarkable growth of the early church. This was at a time when it was persecuted, when it had no scriptures or church buildings and when leadership was pre-institutional. Christians infiltrated every avenue of Roman society and had become a major threat to the social and political order of the Empire. The Romans knew that the triumph of the Christian movement would mean the end of the Empire. However persecution had only increased the momentum of growth. But then perhaps the church made its biggest mistake. Through accepting the peace terms offered by the Edict of Milan in 313 with the return of its confiscated property the church set out on a course that allowed the movement to be adopted by the State. Understandable though it is that the church wanted freedom from persecution the price was very high. Whether the monstrous idea of state Christianity can be blamed wholly on Constantine or his successor Theodosius, there is no doubt that under Constantine the rule of Caesar became legitimised and undergirded by the rule of God. L. Michael White says that with the conversion of Constantine Christianity became an Imperial religion. ‘Now, Jesus had been transformed into the Lord Christ of Heaven and Constantine, the Emperor, ruled in his name’. White points out that the imperialization of Christianity can be seen in some of the monuments of Rome. In the Church of Santa Podenziana, for example, there is a mosaic where Jesus is dressed in a very elaborate, expensive toga, seated enthroned in an imperial chair. This Jesus looks like the Emperor himself.

Freed from the Roman way

In Matthew’s gospel the great commission is set in contrast to the temptation narrative which also takes place on a mountain. These are two alternative understandings of the mission of God. To fall in worship is used in both. Matthew raises the issue of power. What sort of power does Jesus’ followers exercise; the power of might and Empire or the power of the cross? What sort of control are we looking for? Margaret Wheatley acknowledges that even in the business sphere ‘we have created trouble for ourselves by confusing control with order’.

John Swindell writes in an unpublished paper about the spirit of empire and how it has invaded the church. He suggests that some of its primary characteristics are:

  • Self serving and self indulgent
  • Ever seeking to expand
  • Wanting to impose its values on others
  • Their world vision is the right one
  • Centrist control with very strong hierarchical structures
  • Can provide some good for those who are under its control but if push comes to shove it is more important for the people to resource the empire than the empire to resource the people.

In the history of foreign missions John points out that the spirit of the British Empire created an unholy alliance between commerce (e.g The East India trading company), church and nation for the expansion of our borders. We imposed our values and beliefs and exploited the resources of others. John then quotes the Roman poet Virgil, ‘The supreme god of Roman state declares; I set upon the Romans bounds neither of space nor of time: I have bestowed on them empire without limit. The Roman’s special genius is to rule, to impose the ways of peace, to spare the defeated, and to crush the proud men who will not submit’. Absolute moral right was felt to be on Rome’s side.

If we ask what does it look like in the church? The crusades of the middle ages are an obvious example but also the history of conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Less obvious but nearer home perhaps is the centrist control and drawing upwards of resources in denominational structures. In these structures there are supreme rulers and imposed values enforced by overt or covert power. Success is measured by the increase of their territory and expansion. What does it look like in the individual?

  • Do we seek to impose our values on others?
  • Do we seek to violate their boundaries and thus increase our territory?
  • Do we use power to impose our will and get our way?
  • Is our primary aim to resource and release or to draw from and clone?
  • Self indulgence, food, sexuality, pleasure.
  • Self serving, often gaining more from others (overtly or covertly) than we give.

1. Quote in David Bosch, Transforming Mission.