How are we to describe the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions? Is it Spirit against institution? Spirit in tension with institution? Spirit enlivening institution? Spirit in institution? Some combination of these? I’m wrestling through this question right now in my dissertation, and was blessed to have an opportunity to lecture on the topic last week at Wycliffe. The following thoughts are taken from my my lecture notes.
The church is necessarily institutional. An institution is simply a stable set of social relations practiced among an identifiable group of people. In order for the church to persist in time and “take up space” in history, it must be institutional. We must beware the cultural baggage we bring to the term “institution.” We live in a time of extreme skepticism regarding social institutions. We as Christians have been formed in a society which encourages us to believe the myth that we should, as autonomous individuals, resist all institutional authority. This is, of course, impossible and impracticable.
We must avoid the errors of triumphalism and spiritualism. A triumphalist church presumes upon the Spirit’s presence and blessing, identifying the church with the Spirit. A spiritualist church denigrates the institutional reality of the church in favour of a disembodied “spiritual” church.
The Spirit and ecclesial institutions must be distinguished but not opposed, just as nature and grace must be distinguished but not opposed. As nature is the milieu of God’s gracious action, so also human institutions are the milieu for God’s pneumatic / charismatic action.
We cannot oppose the Spirit to ecclesial institutions. There is no “non-institutional” place where the Spirit is “really” at work in people’s lives. Ecclesial institutions are not the enemy of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit condescends to work in human institutions, as “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7).
The church can never presume upon the Spirit, but must always humbly call upon the Spirit, trusting in the promises of Christ (John 14:15ff) and the Father (Acts 1:4). The institutions in themselves are not endued with power; yet we know that Christ has promised the Spirit to the church, and we know that the church cannot avoid an institutional existence.
While ultimately the Spirit is not dependent upon institution, in the concrete life of the church in history, the two are inextricably interrelated (because the church is institutional in all aspects of its life).
As with human agents, the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions is not a zero-sum competitive game; the Spirit is the creator and animator of the Church’s institutions in such a way that they remain truly human institutions, while their institutional character is taken up and elevated into something more than a human institution – a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the kingdom of God.
In this way, all ecclesial institutions are charismatic. Just as humans were created in such a way that we cannot reach our divinely-ordered telos without divine grace, so the church as a visible, institutional reality is created in such a way that it cannot be what it has been created to be without concrete bestowal of grace.
Nevertheless, the gifts of the Spirit, which preserve, uphold, and elevate the Church’s institutional life are no guarantee of her faithfulness; the Spirit is not merely a stamp of approval, or a “divine positive energy”, but a divine Person, who carries out judgment and brings conviction of sin (John 16:8-11), as well as giving life.
Because ecclesial institutions are truly human, they are caught up in the web of sin. Therefore the institutional character of the church can also be turned into something which it is not intended to be; it can become corrupted (and it often is).
In other words, the Spirit’s presence will include acts of both mercy and judgment, wrought in the historical life of the Church. We can trust that the Spirit will be among us, but that should encourage a sure trust and confidence in God, and a humble watchfulness on our own part (rather than presumption on our part).
All the more reason to embrace the reformation call for a church which is reformed and always reforming. A constant repentance – an institutional turning away from sin and toward God – should mark the church’s corporate life.