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?
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.
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.