Category Archives: church and state

New Anti-Institutionalism

I’ve been searching for a term that captures the mood that has gradually come over me in the last ten years. I think I’ve found it: New Anti-Institutionalism. I sense that this mood has become widespread among American Christians and has developed into something of a grass roots movement. But why “new”? How does it differ from “old” anti-institutionalism?

Old Anti-Institutionalism

For readers that don’t know my background, my theological and ecclesiastical identity was shaped in the (American) Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, out of which came the Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ. Among Churches of Christ there developed an anti-institutional tradition that resisted the rise of parachurch institutions that accompanied the increasing wealth, urbanization, and the social and missionary consciousness of churches after the 1880s. Many argued that these organizations were usurping the work that churches ought to do. Parachurch organizations may do good works in Jesus’s name, but they don’t answer directly to the authority of the church. Indeed, some feared that local churches would be brought under the authority of such organizations. I am sure that some Baptist and other independent churches also had similar fears and engaged in similar controversies. In Churches of Christ, the original anti-institutionalists argued that the local church was the only institution with divine authority to carry out such essential works of the church as preaching the gospel, sending out missionaries, and taking care of the poor. The cogency of such arguments depended on the widely accepted doctrine of the church known as restorationism. Restorationism is the idea that many of the divisions among Christians are caused by adding extra features to the simple organization of the New Testament church. However, following the simple pattern of the New Testament church, without addition or subtraction, charts the way both to faithfulness to Scripture and unity among believers.

New Anti-Institutionalism

The new anti-institutionalism does not object to the existence and work of parachurch organizations, certainly not for the reasons given by the old anti-institutionalists. We cannot discern one organizational pattern in the New Testament that must be implemented regardless of era or circumstances. Nor are we concerned with legal precision of organization. We worry, instead, about our freedom to preach and live the gospel in this post-Christian culture. The challenge to our spiritual freedom comes from within as well as without the church. Hence new anti-institutionalists focus as critically on institutions that call themselves churches as they do on so-called parachurch organizations. In fact, new anti-institutionalists consider most traditional churches to be “parachurches.”

Note: See my book Rethinking Church: A Guide for the Perplexed and Disillusioned (Los Angeles: keledei, 2021) for my explanation of why most churches are really parachurch organizations. One suspicious critic seem to think of Rethinking Church as an apology for old anti-institutionalism. Not really, but I suppose one could think of it as a manifesto for New Anti-Institutionalism.

The Regulatory State

In nineteenth-century America, the dominant culture was friendly toward Christianity, there was no income tax, and no regulatory state. Churches and parachurch institutions had great liberty to organize and conduct their affairs as they please without government entanglement. In 2021, however, churches, schools, and all other legally recognized associations live under mountains of laws and government regulations. Their freedom to preach and live the gospel is under constant threat. Compromise and assimilation are their greatest temptations. The new anti-institutionalists assert that the threat from the regulatory state and the dominant culture has become so menacing and compromise so common that it has become impossible for a government approved institution to remain unequivocally faithful to the gospel. We don’t trust any of them.

The Impersonal Institution

Institutions are by nature fictitious persons. They have no heart or soul. They are organized as bureaucracies and operate according to rules. The bigger they grow the less nimble they become.  Self-preservation is their strongest instinct. The institution’s officers and bureaucrats almost inevitably substitute their own private interests for the founding goal of the institution. And when that institution calls itself a church, it often prioritizes such institutional goals as growth in numbers, visibility, and wealth, over the spiritual welfare of individual believers. The institution is well fed while its members starve. New anti-institutionalists object to institutionalization because it is the enemy of community and individual discipleship to Jesus.

Agility, Simplicity, and Freedom

New anti-institutionalists are not iconoclasts. We don’t want to demolish institutions for the joy of hearing the crashes and bangs. We want believers to be free in mind and heart to invest themselves directly in service to God without bureaucratic rules, government entanglement, and avoidable cultural pressure to assimilate. New anti-institutionalists prize agility, simplicity, and freedom—all for the sake of the gospel of Jesus.

The Price of Privilege (Rethinking Church #15)

In the previous essay I listed four types of relationship between the church and the state—persecuted, free and tolerated, free and privileged, and established. In 1833, Massachusetts became the last of the original American Colonies to end its system of state support for churches. Since that time, churches in the United States have been officially “free and privileged” but not established. In the previous essay, “The “Friendly” Elephant in the Room,” I focused on religious freedom and its dangers. In this essay, I want to examine the idea of privilege and its temptations.

What is Privilege?

The word privilege has a long history and many meanings. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, it derives ultimately from Latin in the days of Cicero (106 – 43 BC). Privilegium combines two other Latin words, one meaning “private” and the other “law.” The word was at first used in a negative sense, as a law disadvantaging an individual or group. Later it acquired the positive sense in which we use the English word today. In this core sense, a privilege is an legal exception given to some people or groups but not others or a positive benefit bestowed by law on some but not everyone. Even though today we use it of special advantages some people have over others no matter how they were acquired—by birth or good fortune or successful labor or in execution of an official duty—it still possesses an aura of unfairness that provokes resentment and envy from those not so privileged.

The Church and Privilege

Many privileges enjoyed by the church today are also enjoyed by other nonprofit corporations, specifically those under the IRS classification “Charitable and Religious Organizations” [(IRS code 501(c) (3)]. Under these regulations, churches are exempt from paying certain taxes, and a portion of contributions by individuals to those organizations also receive favorable tax status. But in the United States, Christian churches and charitable organizations—along with other religious groups—are given special exceptions in deference to the First Amendment to the Constitution. For example, churches and some religious nonprofits claim exemptions from certain parts of anti-discrimination laws applicable to other groups. Below is a typical statement of anti-discrimination written for nonprofit organizations:

“[My Organization] does not and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities or operations. These activities include, but are not limited to, hiring and firing of staff, selection of volunteers and vendors, and provision of services. We are committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of our staff, clients, volunteers, subcontractors, vendors, and clients.”

Often, churches and other religious nonprofit organizations place exception clauses within in these declarations claiming exemptions based on freedom of religion. Some simply say “[Organization X] does not unlawfully discriminate….” Others add explanations such as the following, “[Organization Y] is exempt from certain state and federal anti-discrimination laws based on its status as a religious non-profit corporation and its religious beliefs.”

The Cost of Privilege

The advantages of privilege are obvious and difficult to turn down when offered. As you can see from the discussion above, privileges granted to churches fall into two categories, financial exclusions and exemption from anti-discrimination laws. These privileges greatly advance the work of churches in so far as they are organized as legal, corporate entities that engage in commercial activity. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that revoking these privileges would destroy most churches as they are currently organized. For churches could not continue to do business as usual if they were subjected to taxation on income and property and individual contributions to churches were to cease being tax deductible. And were churches to become subject to the full range of anti-discrimination laws, they would be forced to hire atheists, heretics, and immoral people as ministers.

In recent years, churches and other Christian nonprofit organizations in the United States—and other Western countries—have come under growing pressure to conform to the dominant culture of anti-discrimination. Calls to revoke the church’s privileges and exemptions have grown louder and louder. And voices defending the church’s freedom and privileges are equally loud. As tempting as it is to enter this culture war as a combatant, I want to look at this issue from another angle. My concern in this series is preserving the church’s essential nature as the body of Christ and its essential mission of witness to Jesus.

The privileges granted by the state apply only to that dimension of the church that is visible to the state as a corporate entity engage in commerce. Clearly, only churches that exist as legal entities could be “destroyed” by losing their privileges. Only they can be blackmailed by threats of such revocation. Churches that refrain from organizing in this way do not receive privileges from the state. But they also do not need them or fear losing them. Nor are they in danger of mistaking them for the essence of the church.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I do not believe that churches that organize themselves so as to take advantage of state granted privileges are necessarily doing wrong. Having served in church leadership in such churches for most of my adult life my concerns do not arise from secular resentment and envy. I am not hoping that the state will take away the church’s privileges. Nor do I long for persecution. I am simply urging the church to count the cost of accepting state granted privileges and to cease thinking of them as an unalloyed blessings. For if we believe that losing our privileges would destroy the church, we will be greatly tempted to do whatever it takes to preserve them. I want the church to be free of this fear. The existence of the church and the vitality of its mission do not depend on favors from the state. Even if the church gave up all its current privileges and ceased to exist as a legal entity, it would not thereby ceased to exist in its fullness as the body of Christ. Nor would its witness to Jesus be rendered ineffective. Even if we do not choose this path—and most churches will not and, perhaps, should not do so—it is liberating to know that it is available.

The “Friendly” Elephant in the Room (Rethinking Church #14)

A church with any visibility at all will have a relationship to the state—as persecuted, free, free and privileged, or established. Every state claims the right to decide what behaviors and beliefs of individuals and groups within its jurisdiction support or threaten its interests. It reserves the exclusive power to dispossess, incarcerate, or kill anyone it deems a threat. Hence the church must always maintain awareness of this “elephant in the room” even if the elephant seems very friendly at the moment. How, then, should the church relate to states—like the United States and other Western democracies—that acknowledge its freedom and grant it certain privileges?

The Quest for Visibility

Many contemporary believers have never questioned the assumption that the church should seek maximum visibility in society and take full advantage of whatever freedom it has to get its message out. After all, Jesus told his disciples to proclaim the good news to the whole world (Matt 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). We’re supposed to “let our light shine”:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).

If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

I understand the desire for visibility, and I can see why people take Jesus’s statements as grounds for seeking it. But we need to ask what Jesus meant by “let your light shine.” I am pretty certain that Jesus did not intend to mandate building cathedrals and huge church buildings, wearing crosses and clerical dress, or getting a Christian tattoo and putting a fish bumper sticker on your car. Of course, Jesus did not forbid them either, and they can witness to the faith. But they also symbolize social power and wealth. Building an expensive church building is similar in some ways to planting a flag. It says, “We are here and are a force to be reckoned with.” Such visibility can be more intimidating than inviting to outsiders. Or, it can obscure the gospel by associating it with material advantages. I can understand wanting to be part of something big, powerful, and wealthy. It is a natural human desire. But I think Jesus had something else in mind.

It seems more likely, given its context in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7), that “let your light shine,” means taking seriously your responsibility to live every day and in every relationship in vivid awareness of the love of God flowing through you to others—even if some people hate you for it. Let constant awareness of your Father in heaven impart to you heightened sensitivity to the needs of others. The good you do will bring glory to the Father because it will be evident that your good works are inspired by the Father. The “light” Jesus speaks of is not that of the spotlight illuminating a 100 foot tall Cross on a hill above Interstate 405. It is not the light reflected off cathedrals, church buildings, and gold cross pendants. It is the lives of people that live, speak, and act in witness to the love of God revealed in face of Jesus. Nothing else is required.

Coming to see that the church can exercise fully its responsibility of witness without great social visibility can free us from the inordinate urge to seek social visibility and from incautious use of religious freedom granted by the “friendly elephant.” For what the state gives, it can take away.

To be continued…

Rethinking Church #13: Privilege Always Comes with a Price

For the first 275 years of its existence the church endured persecution, spontaneous at the local level, official at the imperial level. Its offense? Non-conformity “to the pattern of this world” (Rom 12:2). Christians would not participate in the pagan ceremonies and sacrifices that accompanied almost every aspect of social life in the Roman Empire. Nor would they pledge loyalty to Rome by offering sacrifices to the “divine” Caesar. Many Christian writers in the Second and Third Centuries wrote works addressed to the emperor arguing that Christianity is neither politically subversive nor morally corrupting.

Only with the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious freedom within the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, did official persecutions end. The emperor Constantine I (d. 337) favored Christianity and even participated in the Council of Nicaea (325). Theodosius I (d. 395) took the final step toward establishing Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire by outlawing many heresies and ending pagan sacrifices. The tables had turned. Christian emperors supported the church and persecuted pagans with equal or even greater energy than the pagan ones had persecuted Christians.

Not surprisingly, Christians rejoiced and thanked God for their new freedom and privileges, and Constantine was hailed as a saint and a thirteenth apostle. Can we blame them? Who wants to live as a social outcast, have your property confiscated, be thrown in jail, or suffer torture and death for being a Christian? What was the persecuted church to do when offered freedom to worship as it pleases and organize its internal affairs as it thinks best? When given official status, financial support, and social visibility, should the church have turned them down? Seeing crowds of people enter the churches for worship and instruction, should the church have turned them away? Most of us would have done the same had we been in their shoes.

But privilege always comes with a price. For when the empire becomes Christian, the church becomes imperial. And an imperial church must support the empire. Perhaps most of my readers are clear that this exchange turned out to be a Faustian bargain. I agree. But I want to argue that getting out of that deal with the devil is not as easy as renouncing established churches and ratifying the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As I pointed out in the previous essay, every state reserves to itself the power of life and death over all individuals and associations within its jurisdiction. If it leaves the church alone, if it recognizes its freedom to worship as it pleases, to organize as it sees fit, to choose its own leaders; and if it grants such privileges as tax exempt status, it does so only because—and only as long as—it judges that the church does not work against the interests of the state and in fact contributes to the common good as the state understands it.

It may happen that a state views its interests in ways that largely harmonize with the church’s mission of witness. It may be that this state sees the work of the church as advantageous to the common good. If so, it is not always wrong for the church to use these freedoms and privileges to advance its mission. However in every society, no matter how friendly to the church, there will always be areas where the state’s aims cut across the church’s mission. There are no exceptions to this rule, for “no one can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). And in some cases, formerly “friendly” states’ views of their interests—of what is good and evil and of what serves the common good—can change so dramatically as to come into fundamental conflict with the church. Hence the church always faces—no exceptions—the temptation to seek or hold on to freedoms and privileges granted by the state by subordinating, compromising, or giving up its mission to witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

At every point in its relationship to the world—from bare toleration, to approval, to establishment—the church should ask what price it has to pay for these freedoms and privileges. How deeply in debt we have already become may not come clear until the mortgage comes due. And come due it will. Perhaps it already has.