Many today are anti-institutional, especially when it comes to the church. They’re quite courageous in their convictions and often spell out their terms on the internet with glee and not a little chest-thumping. It’s acceptable and therefore the anti-institutionalists are bold.

But they’re wrong.

Egalitarianism in the sense of a church that is fully democratic lasts only so long as the dominant person or persons says the group is full equal and democratic. Which means about a month. Or less. Someone emerges with gifts of leadership and others emerge as in need of leadership. Even those who have claimed a greater democracy in a church cut themselves off from other groups that disagree (who’s egalitarian now?) and have a strong idea, almost always from the leader or leaders, of what makes for consensus.

Not only is this a chimera, it is profoundly unbiblical.

We are reading the extraordinary book by C. Kavin Rowe, Christianity’s Surprise, and he has a wonderful chapter on just how quickly institutions formed from Jesus on and how creatively instititutional the church was. This book should be on the shelf of every pastor and used by professors in Christian colleges and seminaries. It’s a kind of apologetics as well as straightforward, plain reading (he’s a Methodist school, so forgive me for the expression) of early Christian history.

Rowe is one who makes it clear that the idea that the earliest churches were charismatic, non-institutional, and free-flowing is a pipe dream of those who’d like to be in charge by creating a supposedly non-institutional, democratic church.

Today we almost automatically think of institutions as bureaucratic extinguishers of vibrant faith and all that goes into them – dynamic relationships, powerful worship, works of justice, and imaginative thinking. If you want to slow, or stop, the beating heart of new faith, institutionalize it. If you want to oppress human beings, build institutions that smother their natural creativity. If you want to ensure that innovation never gets the upper hand, do things in an institution. If you want drudgery day after day, work in an institution. And so on.

He expresses this anti-institutional sentiment and then says,

The early Christians did not share our view. Instead, they insisted that the revelation of the human required the development of institutions to sustain the pracrices that kept the new vision of the human visible and alive in the world. The story of everything positioned them, that is, as institutionally creative people.

Jesus appointed twelve, the twelve were the immediate successors to Jesus as teachers and guardians of the gospel, the lack of order in Acts did not mean freedom but chaos, deacons were an institutional ordering that developed over time, and the earliest churches then had bishops and elders along with deacons.

They weren’t institutionalists in the sense of theorizing about institutions, but they formed structures very early that have been with us ever since. If that’s not institutional, nothing is. Here’s what they asked:

What things do we have to have in place to be and remain who we are and why we exist? What must be retained from what we already have, and what must be newly developed? What habits do we have to cultivate in our people and how do we get these habits into practice in an environment of rapid growth? In short, what must be there for us to be us?

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I can put it this way: the most liberal groups are the most anti-denominational and anti-institutional, and the most conservative are pro-institutional and pro-denominational. Liberalism in church order is about the constant shifting of structures and conservativism is about preserving the church’s historic orders.

Christianity’s institutions are about structure, education, and care.


Think of it like this: the Twelve, the teaching of the Twelve in Acts, care for widows by creating a new structure (deacons), bishops and elders.

We inhabit the “Age of Democracy” where we think everything should be voted on, and that is simply not the way of the NT. It was not – hear me fairly – “congregational polity.” It was “episcopal.” Sorry, but that’s true.

Debates did arise, right? Yes, and the structure empowered them to handle the debates well. How?

The leadership structure ensured that even when arguments were intense, the disputants could count on the fact that they were disputing within and about a shared framework of life.


The earliest activity of the Twelve was teaching, and that’s because there were learners and where there are learners there is a need for teachers. The most vocal anti-institutionalists are almost all teachers, or wannabe teachers or envious of others teachers, and the moment you have a teacher and people in need of learning, pop up moment, you’ve got an institutional arrangement. In fact, it’s hierarchical.

Notice Luke 1:1-4’s use of a catechetical term, notice Acts 13:1, notice James 3:1 (which I believe runs all the way to 4:11-12 (see my commentary on James), notice the presence of teaching in the earliest non-NT Christian writings, notice the presence of teaching in churches and homes and then schools and then the famous university-like school of Origen.But, it was not simply intellectual. It was formational.

In the USA, I add, we are at a crossroad in Christian education. We have one pastor after another collapsing and one church body after another wobbling, and we need some serious rethinking of what education is and how it can be truly formational and not just knowledge.

Rowe: “to educate Christians in a pagan world required the invention of Christian education.” It was thoroughly institutional, folks. It was in part the formation of a scriptural, narratival, and Christian social imaginary. So Rowe writes:

And that is ultimately the answer to why the early Christians developed institutions of education. They did not see education as the satisfaction oF intellectual appetite but as the formation and transformation of teacher and student alike into the image of Christ.


A third institution took care of “care” and compassion.

Think of it this way: Christians inherited and massively expanded the concept of the poor and caring for the poor, they formed what we today call nurses and caring for the sick, the Christian invented what we call hospitals, and Christians were the ones who created orphanages. Some of this rooted in Judaism, very little rooted in anything pagan, and all of it a part of a Christian theology of seeing the face of Christ in others, in other words, the image of God.

All of this sketched out on the basis of ancient texts. A must read.

In short, we assume structures of care, a vision of care, a reason for care. We have forgotten how such things came into the world in the first place, how they are not simply a given in human history, and how it was that the Christians generated the forerunners of the kind of care we now hope for – and why they did so.

Understanding the Christian provision for the poor, the nursing during the plagues, the development of the hospital, and the invention of the orphanage is the same thing, that is, as seeing the concrete social and political explanation of the human revealed by God in Jesus Christ.