According to a Pew Research Center report, “Religiously unaffiliated people have been growing as a share of all Americans for some time…. Religious ‘nones’ – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population.” In addition to absolute growth, the “nones” skew young: “Overall, religiously unaffiliated people are more concentrated among young adults than other age groups – 35% of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) are ‘nones.’”
To recognize such trends is not to say that religious belief, religiosity, or spirituality are necessarily on the decline. But the trend in the developed world, and particularly in North America, is generally away from institutionalized forms or expressions of religion and more toward individualized and personalized forms of spirituality. Thus we get the common formula: “spiritual but not religious,” contrasting individual relationship to the transcendent with organized structures of worship.
Another recent Pew report underscored this disconnect between religiosity and institutional expression. For instance, only “35% of American Christians find ‘attending religious services’ to be an essential part of what it means to be a Christian,” and “28% of American Christians find ‘helping out in congregation’ to be an essential part of being a Christian.”
The Characteristics of the Institutional Church
The importance, indeed the uniqueness, of the church as a social reality needs to be defended against these kinds of trends. When we consider the church as institution, we start by considering what is characteristic of the church. What does the church do that only it is called to do?
Here we should think of things like the proclamation of gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline. Christians of a Reformed persuasion will recognize these as the so-called “marks” of the church as articulated by Reformed theologians and Reformed confessions. But these are functions that all institutional forms of the church do in one way or another.
In addition to these “marks” of the church we include anything the church does as a corporate and organized form. So the institutional church, depending on the polity, owns property, pays staff, maintains worship spaces and basement kitchens, files for tax exemption, and so on. All of these and many other things are things that the church does as an institution. And in all these ways the church exists in the midst of a social order; it takes up space and participates institutionally in society as church. So when coming to grips with the church’s social responsibility, it is important to recognize the institutional nature of the church and understand what it does (and in some cases does not do) institutionally.
The Church as Organism and Institution
Alongside the church as an institution, the church needs to be understood as a diffuse reality, an organically connected and living body. Abraham Kuyper, the great nineteenth century churchman, theologian, and statesman, helpfully distinguished between the church as an “institution” on the one hand, and as an “organism” on the other hand. Using the imagery of Ephesians 3:17, in which the Apostle Paul prayerfully implores the church in Ephesus to be “rooted and grounded in love,” Kuyper explicates this important distinction between the church as organism and institution.
In the first place, the church is “rooted,” an organically formed and connected reality, created by the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individual believers. Wherever the Holy Spirit converts a lost sinner, the church exists in some sense. The church is a living body of Christ, connected to him and through him to one another through faith, the work of the Holy Spirit.
As Kuyper notes, this aspect of the distinction particularly uses living or organic imagery: “He is the vine, we are the branches, withering if we are separated from him but bearing fruit if we abide in him—this describes everything that lives organically, and does so with metaphors drawn from growing plants.”
Along with this living, organic reality of the church comes the organization, the “grounding” of the structures of the body of believers. This is the church conceived of as institution. “The church not only grows, but is also built,” says Kuyper. Describing the construction of the Lord’s house, he says: “Buttressed by its pillars, fastened together in its security, that house is held together by its outermost cornerstone. It rises upward, the builders rejoice, and the goal of everyone’s effort is that the house may be established.” If the metaphors for the church as organism have to do with life and vitality, then the images used to describe the institutional church have to do with stability and order.
Implications for Social Responsibility
Thus far we have seen that the church has a unique place in society, and that we must consider the church not only in its unique, institutional expression but also in its disseminated expression as a leavening agent of renewal and grace in society. This distinction between the church organic and organized is a key tool for coming to principled and prudential judgments about how to meet our variegated social responsibilities as Christians. The institute/organism distinction does not solve all of the challenges of the church’s social responsibility, and it even may create some new ones, but it does provide a lens through which social action can be more responsibly pursued.
The main way the distinction does this is by referring the level and type of social action, whether political or otherwise, to the appropriate, proximate agent. Although the institutional church occupies public space, its social responsibility is not primarily political. In fact, direct political action by the institutional church should be rare and exceptional. And to the extent that the institutional church ever does engage in political advocacy, it should do so in a way that respects prudential judgments and the consciences of its members.
One way of respecting the consciences of church members is to form and inform them. So preaching, an activity of the institutional church, should not be apolitical in the sense that it never addresses structural injustices or political issues. Preaching must not only prick the consciences of the congregation but also prepare and equip them for responsible action outside of corporate worship. This will almost never be technical or concrete advice or instruction given in a way that binds consciences, but it will be proclamation that empowers and edifies the body of Christ to act responsibly.
The institute/organism distinction opens up space for the organic church to respond faithfully in its various members and their activities, offices, convictions, and dispositions. Proclamation and discipleship should spur, encourage, inform, and support action by the church organic in society, including organization and institutionalization for political action. Christians are, of course, engaged in much more socially responsible action than advocacy that is overtly or even covertly political. Christians are at work in the world in a wide variety of callings and in a wide variety of institutional settings, including parachurch ministries, charities, schools, governments, and businesses. So the organic church works in society and can (and should!) organize for socially and politically responsible action. But it usually ought to do so by acting and organizing as something other than the institutional church itself.
Proclamation and Politics
The church has a unique role in society, but in its institutional form this responsibility is to do what only it can do: proclaim the gospel (which involves not only the salvation of individual souls but also the conduct of Christians in society and the manifestation of God’s will for all of creation); faithfully administer the sacraments, which bind us to God and to one another; and responsibly exercise the discipline of an institution faithfully following its leader, Jesus Christ.
Likewise, the organic church is called to do what only it can do as the body of Christ diffused throughout all sectors, classes, and institutions of society: to work faithfully to follow Jesus Christ as agents of grace in our various callings and places of responsibility. As Peter writes, as each Christian “has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).
Essential to meeting the church’s organic and institutional responsibility is to keep them together even as we distinguish between them. As Kuyper argues, “‘Rooted and grounded’ unites organism and institution, and where Scripture itself refuses to allow any separation, it weaves them together. By means of the person who sows and plants, the metaphor of vital growth overflows into that of the institution; by means of the living stone, the metaphor of the building flows over into that of the organism.”
By reckoning with the church as institution and organism we can hope to avoid the extremes of pietism and politicization without losing either piety or political responsibility.
This essay was originally published at Acton Commentary and reflects the primary themes of The Church’s Social Responsibility: Reflections on Evangelicalism and Social Justice, a new collection of writings from Christian’s Library Press.
Abraham Kuyper’s sermon, “Rooted & Grounded,” is included in a forthcoming anthology of Kuyper’s work On the Church, a volume in the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology, a series published by Lexham Press in partnership with the Acton Institute. An updated electronic edition of “Rooted & Grounded” is available for free download from Logos Bible Softwarealong with other excerpts from the series.