What is an Institution?

I’m thinking through the relationship between institution and charism right now, and one of the more frustrating aspects of the debate is the lack of consensus regarding the meaning of the word “institution.”

Some authors don’t bother to define the term at all, but seem to assume a certain common sense understanding of institution.  My problem with this is that the “common sense” understanding of institution in our contemporary context is typically very negative.  People today are very skeptical of institutions of all kinds, and religious institutions are no exception.   While I’m aware that some institutions can be terribly repressive, twisted, and dangerous, I don’t think these tendencies are inherent in institutions per se.

Then there are some who do take the time to define institution in such a way that it tends toward a negative characterization, because they frame institutions primarily as agents of control and coercion.

Gotthold Hasenhüttl was an influential voice in the mid twentieth century, cited authoritatively by people like Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff (who were, in turn, very influential at the popular level).  Hasenhüttl defines institutions as follows:

“An institution is a changeable, but permanent, product of purposive social role behaviour which subjects the individual to obligations, gives him formal authority and possesses legal sanctions.” [from “The Church as Institution,” in The Church as Institution (New York: Herder and Herder, 1974), 15]

He goes on to describe institutions as “instruments of power,” and calls upon the church to reinvent itself and work towards “the institutionalization of freedom [from] domination (an-archy)” (17-18).

In Boff, this translates to a playing off of “the institution” versus “the community,” arguing that the former must serve the latter:

“We refer to the organization of this community with its hierarchy, sacred powers, dogmas, rites, canons, and traditions…The institution does not exist for itself but in service to the community of faith.” [Church, Charism and Power, 48]

I think these definitions of institution are too narrow.   Institutions aren’t simply agents of control with formal laws and coercive power. They exist on a continuum which is much broader and more ambiguous than these perspectives imply.

In this broader understanding, which takes its inspiration primarily from Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, institutions are simply stable patterns of social interaction. They could be huge governmental agencies or international businesses, but they could also be a recurring encounter between two persons.   All social interactions are subject to habituation, and when interactions between persons are habituated over time they become institutionalized – that is, they become stable patterns of social interaction.

Berger and Luckmann’s definition is as follows:

“Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution.” [The Social Construction of Reality, 54]

There are, of course, many nuances to their account which I won’t address here, and some of them may not sit well some Christians.   But their insights have been taken up and incorporated into some theological accounts of ecclesial institutions, such as Miroslav Volf’s After our Likeness, and George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine.

The point of adopting this perspective is to underscore the fact that social life is inescapably institutional, and therefore the Christian life (because it is inherently social) is inescapably institutional.

“The essential sociality of salvation implies the essential institutionality of the church. The question is not whether the church is an institution, but rather what kind of institution it is.” Volf, After Our Likeness, 235.

In other words, there never was and never will be a “non-institutional” church.   The fact that the church has certain institutional features does not mean that it has compromised or fallen from a primitive state of charismatic freedom.   From a Christian perspective, rather, ecclesial institutions are no threat to true personhood and freedom, but are divinely-ordered means of grace through which our true personhood and freedom is restored through incorporation into the body of Christ. Christian fellowship, worship, ministry, sacraments, and the proclamation of the word are institutions which confront us as a verbum externum. This point is brought out well by Lindbeck in his comparison of religion to a cultural-linguistic system:

“To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.  A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self or of preconceptual experience.” Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 34.

Ecclesial institutions are stable patterns of human interaction in the church through which the Spirit calls us to be conformed to Christ. They are certainly open to abuse and distortion, but this is not because they are institutions, but because they are patterns of interaction among people who are redeemed by Christ, but who continue to struggle with sin.

Notes on Spirit and Institution in the Church


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 identify the Spirit with ecclesial institutions. The Spirit stands over and against ecclesial institutions, as Christ stands over and against the church as its Lord and judge.

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.


Typology of Views of Charismatic Movements, part 6: Institutional over Charismatic

As I said in my introduction to this series, it is hard to find anyone today who actually tries to make a theological argument for the priority of the institutional over the charismatic in the Church.

Historically, the obvious example of prioritizing the institutional over the chairsmatic is modern Catholicism, before Vatican II.   The Roman Catholic Church was conceived as a perfect society, meaning that the Church was a complete social system, and its various elements were instituted by God, so that it would lack nothing in its historical existence until the return of Christ.  The priesthood, all the sacraments, the hierarchy, even monasticism and the religious life, were said to be derived directly from Jesus Christ himself.  These institutions were therefore invested with divine authority, such that, any “charismatic” who arose outside the established order would be seen as problematic. As Johann Adam Möhler summarized this view, “God created the hiearchy and in this way provided amply for everything that was required until the end of time.”

Of course the problem with this perspective was that, for one, it was not historically accurate.  It embraces what Avery Dulles describes as a “regressive method” of theology, whereby the latest teachings of the Church are adopted “as if they have been present from the beginning” (Models of the Church, 32), since any change would be seen as an “innovation,” and would undermine the view that all had been provided for in the Church’s institutions (including the magisterium).  Clearly, the Church’s institutions have developed over time, and many innovations have been made along the way.  Among these innovations, we must include some which I would call “charismatic movements”: monasticism of various kinds, the mendicant orders, apostolic societies, and so on.  These are among Catholicism’s most treasured institutions, but in the modern “perfect society” scheme of ecclesiology, it would have been difficult to explain their origins, apart from rooting them somehow in the divine institution of Jesus Christ.

These ideas are pretty far removed from the life of the Church today, even for Roman Catholics. However, the “institutional over charismatic” mindset is by no means absent.  Institutionalism is a pervasive social phenomenon, and all of our churches (even those which are highly charismatic) have to wrestle with the challenges it brings.  Therefore, the natural tendency in any church tradition is to be sceptical of leaders and movements who arise from oustide the established order.  We could say that, though it is not argued for theologically, “institutional over charismatic” is the default operating perspective of most churches.

Clericalism is perhaps the best example.  Even in evangelical churches, which profess a strong doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” there is a tendency to view the pastors as “professional Christians,” and to exclude lay people from fulfilling many roles which they ought to be able to fulfill.  Those who have the gifts (charisms), should be freed to exercise them, but they are sometimes excluded simply by virtue of the fact that they are not clergy.

I grew up in a denomination (The Salvation Army) where the clergy are largely responsible for the business of the church.   It strikes me as rather odd that we should expect pastors to be business-savvy, when there are likely members of their congregation who are business men and women themselves.

I’ve noticed that a lot of other evangelical traditions tend to have a “pastoral prayer” at every service.   This is where the pastor stands up and leads the congregation in a long prayer prayer.   I suppose most people see this as harmless, but I think it promotes a clericalist mindset.  Why would we want the pastor to be the only who publicly prays during worship?  It sends the message, again, that pastors are the “professional Christians.” It is interesting that in the older traditions (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.), which most evangelicals assume are more “clericalized,” the prayers are not led by the pastor, but by lay intercessors. In the SA, the officer often leads this prayer, but sometimes it is a layperson.

The problem is that we can’t go too far in the other direction.  We need institutions, including ordained ministry (in my opinion).  We need stable structures that endure over time, and provide a means for passing on the faith from one generation to the next in a way that retains the historic core of gospel teaching.  We cannot escape this need.   We must embrace the institutions of the Church, without absolutizing them, and thereby excluding any new wisdom that the Spirit might bring from unexpected places.  That means, in part, that the institutional authorities of the Church must be open to discerning and coordinating the charisms that arise among the people.

Typology of Views of Charismatic Movements, Part 4: Charismatic Complementary to Institutional

Another approach to this question of the makeup of the primitive church attempts propose that the charismatic and the institutional aspects of the Church should be taken as complementary. In relation to the discussion of the constitution of the primitive Christian communities, Leonhard Goppelt was a particularly influential representative of this perspective, arguing that both charismatic gifts and offices were constitutive of the Church from the very beginning, strengthening his case by arguing that offices were both instituted by Christ and a functional necessity for the church as a historical reality (see Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Times, 1977).

The teaching on charisms in the documents of Vatican II presents a similar attempt at stressing the complementarity of the institutional and charismatic, speaking of the “hierarchical and charismatic” gifts through which the Spirit directs and equips the Church (Lumen Gentium, §4). A fundamental harmony between the charismatic and hierarchical gifts is presupposed here, in which the hierarchy “submits” to the working of the Spirit by endorsing and approving of those endowed with charismatic gifts.  The chapter of Lumen Gentium which deals with the religious life makes this clear:

“Submissively following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the hierarchy also endorses rules formulated by eminent men and women, and authentically approves later modifications.  Moreover, by its watchful and shielding authority, the hierarchy keeps close to communities established far and wide for the upbuilding of Christ’s body, so that they can grow and flourish in accord with the spirit of the founders” (Lumen Gentium §45).

Shortly after the council, Gabriel Murphy, a Roman Catholic brother, completed a study of the theology of charisms, which included a chapter summarizing the use of the term at Vatican II (Charisms and Church Renewal, 1965).  His summary of Lumen Gentium’s teaching on charisms stresses how the Church is aided by “two forms of assistance,” hierarchical and charismatic gifts, both of which come from the Spirit (123).  The two kinds of gifts cannot be essentially divided or separated, but should rather be conceived of as “overlapping” and permeating each other.

“As we have seen, there is not and cannot be an essential division or separation between these two aspects.  There is rather an overlapping or permeation of one by the other.” (125)

The charisms then, far from being a minor aspect of ecclesiology, are “a structural element in the Church,” granted to all the faithful, and bringing about renewal (142). The complementarity in this case of course implies both that those in authority accept the Spirit’s work through the charismatic movements, and that the movements themselves accept that the hierarchy is also charismatically based. Murphy argues that this is what the sixteenth century reformers rejected – the charismatic nature of the hierarchy (30-31, 125).

A variation on this position comes from Joseph Ratzinger, who rejects the institutional-charismatic discussion as completely unhelpful in attempting to understand and explain the place of reform movements in the Church (I refer to the current Pope by his former name, as the text in question was written before he became Benedict XVI).  This is based not an objection to the theology of charisms but on his rejection of the category “institution,” because the Church’s official ministry is based fundamentally on the sacrament of orders, and by its very nature transcends the sociological category of “institution.”

He writes, “this “ministry” is a “sacrament,” and hence clearly transcends the usual sociological understanding of institutions.” (“The Ecclesial Movements: A Theological Reflection on their Place in the Church,” in Movements in the Church, 1999, 25).  To speak of the Church’s ministry as an institution implies, in Ratzinger’s view, that ministry is something which the Church “can dispose of herself” and “can be determined of her own imitative,” views which are clearly inadequate in light of the ministry’s sacramental character. He continues,

“Only secondarily is the sacrament realised through a call on the part of the Church. But primarily it comes into being by God’s call, that is to say, only at the charismatic and pneumatological level.  It can only be accepted and lived by virtue of the newness of the vocation and by the freedom of the pneuma.  Since that is so, and since the Church cannot simply appoint “officials” by herself, but must await the call from God… That is why it has been clear from the beginning that this ministry cannot be produced by the institution, but can only be invoked in prayer from God” (26).

The Church itself, then, including its enduring historical and ministry, is characterized as a charismatic entity, an “irruption of something else,” which is “intrinsically iuris divini” (27). While Ratzinger does allow that there are institutional elements in the Church which exist of purely human right,he will not allow that the Church’s ministry is one of these, and thus he rejects an approach to the question of movements in the church by way of an opposition between charism and institution.

He prefers therefore to discuss “movements” in the Church under the category of the Church’s universal apostolicity. Ratzinger is arguing that apostolicity has always had two aspects, the local and the universal, with the unpredictable reform movements identified as part of the church’s universal apostolic mission.  For Ratzinger this begins with the primitive Church, which had both local ministers and itinerant preachers (charismatics according to other perspectives).   He thus roughly follows Harnack’s interpretation of early Church structure here, arguing that in the second century the local apostolic ministries came to dominate the universal, though Ratzinger believes this was a necessary development.  The “universal” apostolicity of the Church has continually been present in various movements, such as monasticism, the mendicant orders, and the clerical and apostolic movements which emerged in the post-Reformation period (33-47).

Ratzinger’s perspective is therefore similar to Rahner’s, in that he insists on the charismatic nature of the church’s ministry, but Rahner is more willing to grant the tension between what he calls the two structures of the Church, and continues to view “institution” as a helpful category, so long as it is clear that the Church’s institutions are charismatic.  Ratzinger, on the other hand, essentially fuses institution and charism into one category, blurring what I think is a helpful distinction made by Rahner.   So, while I’m sympathetic to Ratzinger’s concern that we don’t treat the Church’s ministries as mere institutions, I think Rahner’s discussion of “institutional” vs. “non-institutional” charismata answers these concerns without losing the insights that we can gain by examining the stable structures of the Church as institutions.