A theology of institutions

Christian reflection on creation, reconciliation and redemption creates a picture of institutions as incubators of innovation, writes Jason Byassee.

One reason it can be hard to say a good word about institutions is that it seems like they’re just there: inert, inactive unless to bother us, as aggressively dull as a Soviet apartment building or the DMV office.

That is not a view that accounts for Christian reflection on creation, reconciliation and redemption. In light of God’s blessing of all creation, institutions are no longer only icky and to be avoided or survived. They can become bearers of the gospel, like the paten on which Christ’s bread rests, and the cup in which his blood is poured, as sacramental as a neighbor’s soft hands reached out in service.

Several books offer indirect praise of institutions, though they meant to unpack something else. David Hart’s new book “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies” not only takes apart the New Atheists but also describes Christianity as the only genuine revolution in Western history. Christine Pohl’s “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition” helped renovate the word “hospitality” from the sole purview of a single industry to the forefront of theology and congregational practice. Dana Robert’s new “Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion” describes the now-global nature of the church.

And all three are unintentional theologies of the institution.

Institutions in light of creation

Hart’s book considers institutions in light of God’s work of creation. His argument for Christianity is largely that Christians founded institutions based on love of neighbor. He describes “Christianity’s 20 centuries of unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs -- its care of widows and orphans, its almhouses, hospitals, foundling houses, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies and so on.” Pagan Greeks had only houses to help wounded soldiers recover and get them back to the front. Christians opened houses to heal the poor out of obedience to their Lord.

The Didascalia, a third-century Christian document, made bishops, the church’s key leaders, responsible for educating orphans, aiding widows and purchasing food and firewood for the poor. The church of Rome in 251 had some 1,500 poor people on its rolls, whom it cared for with food, oil, wine and clothing. And such efforts were before the lifting of state-sanctioned persecution against the church. Once official harassment of Christians gave way to imperial largesse, churches became the first institutionalized public welfare organizations in Western history.

And lest anyone think this history self-serving, look to the witness of Christianity’s most bitter ancient enemy. The emperor Julian sought to reinstate imperial worship of the ancient gods and to stem the rising tide of the church in the empire. His primary means? Encouragement of pagan altruism. Julian declared it a “disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.” Christians won people because they cared for the poor materially and they did this through institutions. Pagans lost people because they did not. These institutions showed, and embodied, the Christian claim that God is not on the side of the strong, but is personally fleshed in one crucified Jew. His resurrected light transfigures all with eyes to see now -- not one heart at a time (as today’s pious would likely put it), but one almshouse, hospital, university and monastery at a time.

Institutions in light of reconciliation

Pohl’s “Making Room” has a bit more ironic posture toward institutions. They bear enormous good to countless people, to be sure, but they also carry inherent risk. Institutions can become bureaucracies and deaden the energy that led to the institution’s founding in the first place. Pohl helps us think of institutions as not only witness to God’s good creation, but as themselves in need of Christ’s reconciling work. They’re in need of saving if they are to save others.

Pohl stands in awe of ancient Christian advances against the ills of poverty, hunger and friendlessness. She describes the way St. Jerome in the fourth century praised a Roman aristocrat named Fabiola, whose money founded the first hospital in the West and whose personal zeal had her washing wounds and dispensing food herself. In the Christian East, another aristocratic woman named Olympias supported churches, convents, beggars, prisoners and exiles. In between institutional crevices themselves, as women in a highly patriarchal society, Fabiola and Olympias nevertheless “helped create new institutions.”

This founding impulse is not limited to the ancient church. For example, the Methodist revival succeeded not only because John Wesley preached to poor coal miners. It succeeded because it institutionalized charity to those most crushed by the Industrial Revolution. Wesley described the Strangers’ Friend Society in London as “instituted wholly for the relief not of our society, but for poor, sick, friendless strangers.” Later the civil rights movement in the U.S. was no momentary spasm of do-gooder sentimentality. It was a highly considered and planned effort in the black church to “turn Southerners’ notions of hospitality inside out.” The rhetorical force of Pohl’s book is a relentless demonstration of the necessity of institutionalized hospitality for a thriving Christian life. The stranger is someone who is, by definition, in a state of “detachment from institutions and relationships.” Christianity is God’s cure for this ever-present human ailment.

Yet there is a danger in this institutionalization of hospitality. Christians are called to offer welcome to the needy stranger. Yet once institutions are founded to regularize this offering and make visible where the needy can go for care, that care can become bureaucratic, professionalized, distant from the heart of Christian love for the other. For example, ancient Christians founded hospitals to normalize care for the needy. Yet the efficiency these brought also, ironically, removed the needy from the community. In one way this irony should not surprise us. God has no one other than sinners through whom to offer care to his beloved poor. Further, institutions founded as havens for the vulnerable can easily become places where the vulnerable can, outrageously, become trapped and preyed upon.

Institutions in light of redemption

Robert takes our accidental theology of institutions one step farther. If Hart shows institutions’ created good and Pohl their reconciling good (and reconciling need), Robert shows their sanctifying good.

This work of making all things holy, traditionally attributed to the Holy Spirit in the Triune life, can be seen in institutions founded by missionaries all over the world. We call these institutions holiness-making because this function is largely unplanned, as wild and unhindered as the Spirit’s work always is. The Western missionaries who founded hospitals, universities and almshouses in, say, Africa, had no idea those institutions would train and equip a generation of African intellectuals who would not only demand that Westerners (like missionaries) leave their country. It would also produce missionaries who would be sent by African countries to newly de-Christianized Western places and to places European missionaries never hoped to reach. Institutions as living things can move in directions their founders never intended. In doing so they can fulfill God’s purposes, which are so much higher than ours as to induce not just surprise but wonder.

Robert’s book is largely a history of the church as a mission movement, with special attention to modernity. One example: missionaries in the field in Muslim and Hindu countries realized that they couldn’t reach families without reaching the mother. And they couldn’t do that as men. So they asked for women, and churches responded. By the early 20th century there were three million dues-paying members of women’s missionary societies, and soon women outnumbered men on the mission field two-to-one. And this was not only a North American phenomenon. A Chinese doctor and “Bible woman” named Dora Yu got around strictures against women’s ordination by staying busy. She worked as a physician and revivalist in Korea before doing the same in China. In the 1920s she “ran a Bible school, held Bible conferences on prophecy and preached at famous revivals from which the founding generation of independent Chinese male pastors emerged.” When else has the church worldwide organized so fast and well for so audacious a goal?

That emergence of indigenous faith is the lynchpin in Robert’s book. She tells the story of Ambassador Gertrude Ibengwe Mongella of Tanzania, who recently addressed Boston University. “I must thank the American missionaries who came and started the girls’ school in which I was educated,” Mongella said. “Without the work of the Maryknoll Sisters, young African girls like me would have no opportunities to get an education, to become a teacher, or to attend a university. But why are the Americans not focusing on founding schools and hospitals like they used to? Where are the missionaries of today?” Nelson Mandela could have given the same speech, having been educated in his village by Methodists.

Where indeed?

The Spirit blows where God wills. The Spirit blew countless preachers and teachers of the gospel across the sea in the modern missionary movement, and thousands more may come from the East and the South back to us in the spiritually moribund West. It seems to be what God is doing at the moment and the greatest hope for the future of the church. Who knew God would act this way? Yet as people produced by Spirit-inspired institutions, we should get used to being surprised. Who is a Christian without being baptized? Who a student without a school? Who a professional without training? Who can even get buried without a funeral society and people to mourn? And where do these come from without human institutions?

Hart speaks of institutions as tactile evidence of Christianity’s law of charity. Pohl diagnoses their danger of putting distance between believers and strangers, while also chronicling their importance in helping the whole church cherish hospitality as a virtue through which we participate in God’s saving work. And Robert shows the Spirit may use institutions like missions in ways none can have imagined. All three can help us see that institutions -- created good, fallen and being reconciled, and pointing the way to God’s future redemption -- are integral to a flourishing life in this world.

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