Institutions Can't Provide What We Ultimately Need...Redemption
Never in our lives have institutions been such a part of shaping the way we live, think, and discuss issues. We are in the midst of a global pandemic and are affected by institutionally required quarantines, social distancing, wearing of protective masks in public, and many more mandates. We have people calling for institutional reform for law enforcement agencies, protesting all around the country at various levels of public intensity. We look to and expect much from institutions to effect positive outcomes over daily concerns: we count on local, state, and federal government to enact laws and represent our interests, trust in schools to educate us, expect courts to promote justice and oversee the administration of our laws, expect the military to protect our nation, depend on law enforcement agencies to promote safety, attend churches to lead and shape our religious worship, and rely on so many more institutions that affect our daily lives.
Various passages of scripture reveal how the Lord desires us to view and interact with institutions. The Father instructs us in 1 Peter 2:13 “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” As to our involvement in the local church the Lord instructs us in Hebrews 13:17 to “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Clearly in both of these passages of scripture the Lord desires and calls us to have hearts and wills that are cooperative and responsive in following the directives of the institutions created and sanctioned to foster flourishing in our lives.
But there is a difference between supporting an institution and relying upon it. Just about all institutions have a mission statement and stated goals to achieve their objectives. These statements look good on paper and we expect institutions will fulfill their stated purpose. Some of us, however, have at one time or another felt neglected, been treated unjustly, or been deceived by an institution, and it’s particularly hurtful if that institution is Christian based, like a church, school, or ministry.
For example, some of us have felt neglected by a school in caring for the academic, and relational well-being of one or more of our children after being promised the school is dedicated to the spiritual and academic development of each child. Some of us have felt overlooked and neglected in being cared for by a local church who publicly proclaims from the pulpit and on their website that “every single member is equally important and worthy of care and attention as image -bearers of God.” Some who’ve worked and sacrificed for many years (either vocationally or as a volunteer) for a Christian institution have felt unappreciated, perhaps being passed over for advancement by someone with less experience.
It is tempting in these situations to feel resentful of institutions, becoming mistrustful of them, and perhaps choosing to sever ties with them completely. Consider John and Kayla who’ve have been active for many years in a local church with a ministry to individuals in the deaf community. Many individuals and families have benefitted from their service. They have willingly met in the back of the church sanctuary during the fellowship hour instead of their own meeting room because of space limitations. When a building expansion was proposed, they asked the church to consider giving them a space to meet since their numbers were growing. But when the renovations were complete, they were told other ministries needed the space. Later that year Kayla’s father passes away, and nobody on the church staff or in leadership acknowledged her loss. On top of that, their children are having trouble fitting into the youth group and have reported that none of the youth staff or lay leaders reach out to them very much, while they seem to do so with kids who are more outgoing.
John and Kayla are upset and struggling with how things are going. They think the church is hypocritical for expressing they exist to build up the body of Christ equally. They also are struggling with resentment as they see some of their peers being well-cared for by the church leadership during a personal tragedy, while the death of Kayla’s father went largely unrecognized. John recalls a number of times when he was asked to participate in various areas of service and did so willingly even when they took long hours of sacrifice. He now feels used by the church in light of the imbalance they are experiencing. John and Kayla want to leave but feel stuck since they like the teaching and have made some friends there. Sadly, they continue on with unaddressed feelings.
Sometimes situations like this exist because individuals find it difficult to talk about such things and are hesitant to bring issues to the attention of the leadership of an institution (or are unwilling to). Sometimes institutions don’t do enough to create a humble and receptive environment that welcomes a meaningful dialogue over such things. In either case, however, I believe we all must accept a reality of limitation about institutions: God has not promised to bring redemption through the institution, but only through His Son, Jesus.
This is ultimately what John, Kayla, and all of us are looking for – redemption. We deeply desire to be loved without selfishness. Even if we’re not asking for preferential treatment, we want to be treated justly. We long to be met with comfort when we suffer tragedy and loss. We want someone to overlook our fears and insecurity, our selfishness and apathy, our anger and jealousy and say, “I love you anyway and don’t hold it against you.” We want someone to take note of our toil and sacrifice and say, “well done, good and faithful servant. Your labor is of great value.” What we want is redemption; and only Jesus can provide this. Some institutions could do a better job of displaying personal care for its members, while others excel at it. However, no institution can provide the personally nuanced care of the Lord.
Because of the fall of man, life is not what it should be, and that is a normal consequence of sin and all are subject to this burden. Redemption is the reversal of the fall, but it is not yet complete. Redemption is the Lord making alive (Ephesians 2:4) in Jesus those who are dead in their trespasses and sins. Where we were once enemies of God (Rom. 5:10), Jesus has reconciled us to God and made us His beloved sons and daughters (1 John 3:2) and has given us His Holy Spirit to us as a pledge of our eternal inheritance. But we continue to live in a fallen world broken by sin, and we suffer because of it.
Jesus died and rose again to bring all the promises and provisions of redemption to His people. Again, these are provisions for the people who belong to Him through faith. Institutions are not made alive by the gospel; institutions are not declared sons and daughters of the king; institutions are not forgiven because of the finished work of Jesus; institutions are not promised the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. These are all provisions of God for His people and are meant to give us security, abiding hope, and assurance. An institution is not promised these, nor can it provide them.
In fact, history shows that most institutions don’t survive. Even if they do, they become something essentially different than when they began. There was a church in the neighborhood I grew up in that sold their building to a dental practice, and then dissolved. I was dumbfounded, never expecting a local church to cease to exist. Yet in the first few chapters of the book of Revelation Jesus speaks warning to several churches that their existence is in peril. The Lord says to the church at Ephesus that unless they repent and return to their first love of Him He will remove their lampstand. To the church at Laodicea he warns if they remain lukewarm, He will spit them out of his mouth.
Consider Psalm 103 and the many ways the Lord brings redemption to our lives. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.”
Now imagine substituting certain institutions in place of the Lord’s name. Hearing it out loud helps us to realize how foolish it would be to rely on an institution to provide this for us. The Lord loves and is honored by our faith, and so He wants us to look to Him and rely upon Him to provide these blessings to us. An institution may be involved in the process of these blessings being partially realized in our lives, but ultimately it is the Lord who provides these blessings.
Just as a person is tempted in a fleshly way to look out for one’s own interest over and above the interest of others, institutions sometimes make decisions that are more about selfpreservation than serving the entities they were originally created to serve. It doesn’t necessarily mean the institution is corrupt and therefore unworthy of our support and involvement. Institutions are made of people, and in the same way people sometimes do, institutions are sometimes inconsistent in fulfilling their purpose, put selfinterest and self-preservation above others, act in fear and opportunism, can be greedy, and so-on.
Jesus was treated most poorly of all by the powerful religious institutions of his day. But the Lord upheld him and ultimately fulfilled his promise to glorify him. Philippians 3:10 says the two ways that we grow in knowing Christ are through the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering. If Jesus suffered in this way, then we may be called to know Him more deeply through a similar refining experience of suffering (“For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:17). When we’re mistreated by an institution, we sometimes may need to sever ties with it and at other times we may be called to stand up and seek to hold the institution accountable to reform. But we are definitely called to remember and be mindful that Jesus submitted to institutions and instructed others to do the same, but he did not rely and place his hope in them. And he certainly was not surprised to be mistreated by the institutions of the day; we might even say He expected it. But the suffering he experienced served to keep his hope and reliance fixed upon The Lord as his true shield and defender, his comfort, his advocate, and his hope. Part of our growth means we must walk in His footsteps and do the same.