"Institutional food," or an "institutional diet," is a common concept, a thing well-known to be avoided. Granted, there are exceptions, but exceptions they are, everyone knows to avoid the common "institutional food" if we can.
The question is, why does this happen? Why have institutions given their food such a name?
And recently the thought broadened. There is a growing trend towards what we might call "institutional medicine". And there has always been "institutional religion" among men and women of sin. Looked at this way, the common element is simple, yet profound and perhaps a little scary.
Institutional food, when the term fits the reputation, has as its primary purpose neither nutrition nor satisfaction of the eater. Nutrition usually is a somewhat secondary purpose; satisfaction might be down the list somewhere. But the primary purpose is very different.
Certainly some medical institutions do very well. Some do a mix. Some have divisions, where one division is permitted only to do pat procedures over and over again regardless of end result, and where another division has the freedom and the motivation to take care of patients towards healing and cure. But where the effort is “institutional”, there is an issue, because “institutional” is an opposite of “personal”.
Institutional faith is usually not discussed at all. But if examined, it exposes the entire concept we are talking about. Institutional faith, like everything else institutional, serves primarily the glorification, the pride and the persistence and the funding, of the institution, a construct of strictly human preferences, a thing which is not holy.
Institutions can be tools used by churches. But many people confuse institution with church. The Lord’s church is people devoted to Him. It is not a building, and it is not a corporation or a list of bylaws. The holy being of a church, is not supported by its institution. A holy church may construct an institution and use it as a tool, with very good result; but ever so often it does occur, that the ball and chain surgically attached to the tail of the dog, wags the miserable dog, who just does not understand.
I’ll suggest that churches do vary tremendously in holiness – and shall consider that even the least holy, are still considered His, to be raised up or disposed of strictly by His decision, never ours. I’ll suggest that we have this most explicit in the first few chapters of the Book of the Revelation. But I will suggest first and last and forever, that the only one who is good is God, and that to the extent that we are institutional and not personal, we are not doing what we should.
There was a situation arising about twenty-five years ago, where the pastor who had baptized me, was asking for my take again and again over time. The music team lead was unwilling to cooperate in a number of ways, including concerning a number of things the Lord has said, and there was actual rancor building. After multiple discussions over a month or so, I asked, “Why not just let her leave?” She had spoken of leaving more than once. The return was, “But she supports my ministry.”
For that return, I had nothing at all. I had no idea why it was a concern then, but I knew that not only must I not reply at all, I must pull back and pray and wait a very long time for anything at all to think about it, and cover with love as best I then knew how. And so I did.
The next major lesson I remember on the subject, was years later. The Lord had taken my sweet Lori and I to a different church, to soon become the sole practicing musician and vocalist which the church had: the organist was in her late 70’s or 80’s, and passed on to the Lord gratefully, two weeks after we joined. In attempting practical discussion within this church, as to things we might do in Christ to reach the neighborhood, there was one pattern that repeated over and over again. The defining factor was always insurance and the risk of lawsuit. This factor was stated by the entire board of the church, over and over again, as reason to not care that there were many people with severe lack of food in the immediate area.
I found myself studying their statements on this topic and many others, and noticed that they often left the door cracked, they had not found it in them to flatly and utterly deny all effort to help and fellowship to our neighbors. And they suggested, after a couple of monthly meetings, that I write up a full proposal and bring it to the meeting. So I did. I wrote up a nine-page dissertation, handed out copies to everyone, and was permitted to summarize the entirety for several minutes. And the verdict was yes. So I was indeed permitted to sit one evening per week with a large and heavy sign reading “Free Food From Jesus” (hot pink on black, the inverse of the signs of a certain well-known hate-cult in town), in the church parking lot, and hand out food. Usually I brought Ramen noodles, sometimes with a large box of oranges, and often Bibles too. I was quite surprised by the linguistical challenge: the visitors and I all were native English speakers, but though I am good with several American dialects, I had never heard this one. But they knew me better than I knew them, and we had a very good time for seven years, until the leadership of the church lost all confidence and voted to to hold a funeral for the church. Then Lori and I left without further involvement, and the church’s building was sold to another church who did not want me there at all.
There were many lessons given in those years. The most amazing was how the Bibles I gave were used. I usually bought between 6 and 23 boxes of Ramen noodles, and made sure everyone who came received some. I made sure the Bibles were visible, but gave them only either when interest was clear. And some of these poor folk who piled into cars held together with chicken wire and duct tape, cars probably driven only at night to avoid enforcement, eagerly accepted Bibles from me, and I learned over and over again that one person would keep a Bible and discuss and share with three or ten people in the apartment buildings and split homes in the area.
Another lesson, sad in the extreme, was how no one else in our church was willing to help. But the third lesson, maybe more important, was that the Lord supports such effort only with connection to a church, no matter how tenuous. After the funeral motion, I received easy permission to sit at the municipal community center across the street (they knew me by then, and had been helpful, e.g., to warn about likely gunshots), but the Lord did not support, and I soon understood the ending.
Institutional faith does take many forms. In some churches of where this can be found, attendees will be told they have an obligation unto God to be present, to listen, to respect, and to participate in the proceedings. The pastor "means well," but is concerned by certain numerical trends, and so adds weight of this world upon his flock, rather than releasing them in the freedom of the Lord. Often, after such statement, the pastor will quickly try to deny that weight, try to cite joy and motivation which he has just taken from his listeners. But he feels that weight, and has seen it spread upon others in his church-upbringing, and so he considers it justified. And some listeners who do not know better, fall for it hook, line, and sinker, because they believe that their devotion to the institution glorifies them, which is exactly the opposite of the truth.
It was actually in two different churches to which the Lord had called us, where all sorts of holy directions were ruined by people citing fear for the building. Once I quietly pointed out that a church does not need a building...which did not help! But a number of practicing pastors have taken it upon themselves to educate me most carefully, and thus I have come to understand, that when church plants finally get their building, rather often something awful happens, and most of the people start placing value in the building, rather than in the communion of the Lord’s people.
There are many variations. But all of them are exactly what the Lord described in Matthew 23:4-6. All of them are institutional faith, which drains and demoralizes, or leads astray, leads to insularity, to the glorification of the physical and of the self, to the unwillingness to take joy in sacrifice in His name. And all of them are the heavy burdens which the Lord will lift from us if we are willing. None of them, are Christ the Lord. When the freedom of Christ the Lord is delivered to His sheep, they flock to hear, and give willingly. They do not drag their feet in guilt, and they do not give grudgingly or reluctantly, if it is Christ the Lord who is given.
There is a very common ethic in many adult generations today: if the topic is opened, if there is no threat of censure, they will freely admit that they have no use for "organized religion." For years I heard this said and saw it written, and wondered quite what it meant in the context of the Lord Jesus. And this is what they are talking about. By "organized" they mean "institutional". They see how the institutions serve themselves first, last, and most of all. They see the strong effort to ignore many things the Lord has said, and to defend such effort using any favorite words they can think of. They see the heavy burdens, the guilt laid. They have yet to see a single church in which they are encouraged, in the name of the Lord, to abandon the cares of this world. And one of these cares is quasichristian nationalism, a great and terrible burden indeed. It is these burdens and attempted justifications thereof, to which churches often abandon our Lord.
We know that the Word of God, the truth in His Name, is food and drink, it is living water which satisfies, it is that which motivates any to do anything that is truly good in the eyes of God. And we know that, if we find ourselves doing anything else, if we find ourselves slaving in undermotivation, if we find ourselves laboring under a yoke which is not easy and a burden which is not light, we need to seek the Lord more, and very likely indeed, to seek the Lord more in order to learn more of that which we need to repent.
I am very pleased to report that the Lord, after taking my sweet wife and I to help in a number of churches fitting the above, has given us to a local church where from the pulpit there is approximately zero institutional faith encouraged. There is a certain amount of uncertainty and disagreement and disunderstanding of course, which we must expect and cover with love. Very often, the Lord does not release us rapidly from our chains to cares of this world. But we have enough of His Word in our leadership, that they do not add to our burdens, and they actively and carefully and prayerfully do seek to lighten them in His Name. For this I am most grateful to the Lord, and them for their obedience and faithfulness, and I shall desire to help to further His Way forever.
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