David Bosch on the institutional church

November 14, 2007

Over the past months I’ve been thinking about the whole conversation going on regarding the institutional church, many being quite negative about it. I’m trying to get to a responsible approach to this. I’m studying Transforming Mission at the moment, and Bosch spent some time discussing this as well, so I thought I might just as well post some more thoughts.

Just before moving to this blog, I posted some thoughts in this four posts on the question:
institutional church #1 – posting the question
institutional church #2 – the internet and blog-o-sphere
institutional church #3 – the early church
institutional church #4 – something from the NT
I’m not promising that what I’ve written there, and what I’m going to write here will be the same, since I’m still thinking about stuff myself, but this is some thoughts.

A very popular argument going around nowadays is that the church was institutionalized by Constantine in the early part of the fourth century, when Christianity was made state religion. Although I think we can learn a lot from this further institutionalization of the church, making Christianity a bourgeois religion (burgerlike godsdiens), we need to recognize that Christianity was being institutionalized long before this. Although Bosch gt information from a lot of other people, I’m not going to mention them, simply how he in the end understand things. Read Transforming Mission pages 50-54 for some more.

According to him we might possibly find the first steps in institutionalizing the church already with people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both members of the Sanhedrin, who helped smooth out the transition from a movement to an institution. We are talking about the first thirty years after the events at Pentecost.

And Bosch considers the institutionalization as a failure of the early church. Jesus did not come to establish a new religion. The followers of Jesus was not given a name to separate them from others, they were simply a community, meant to provide an alternative, to both challenge and serve others, but not to exist simply for itself, a kind of “the bureaucracy is expanding, for the sake of the bureaucracy” thing. But this did not last. The question Bosch asks is, were there any alternatives? And the answers seems to be no. Any movement need some form of institutionalization to survive.

The question we should be asking seems to be not should the church be institutionalized?, but rather, how should this institution look, if it is to retain it’s core identity. Maybe this was part of what my posts on the round-table church (here and here) was about. But it surely is difficult. Should this go in hand with just starting out anew, for some this is the way to go, but for many the difficult talk of rethinking the church institutions they are part of is laying ahead.

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9 Responses to “David Bosch on the institutional church”

  1. Ronald van der Bergh Says:

    Cobus

    I agree. One has to admit that the church was institutionalised very early. I haven’t read Bosch in a while, so I don’t know if he mentions it (but I think he would), but signs of the church as an institution can already be seen in Timothy, Titus and Acts.

    So you’re statment is relevant. The question is not whether we should be an institution, but how we should be one. What must the institution (=church) look like and how must they function if they (we) are to remain true to their roots? I think some clues might be found in the emerging churches. However, one cannot pressure an existing church (for instance, the Dutch Reformed Church) into becoming an emerging church. This would be contradictory – it would not be emerging. (I think I got this from reading “Nuwe Drome” by Nelus Niemandt.) Rather, one should look at the principles underlying this movement, and as far as possible try to incorporate it into the existing (institutionalised) church, without making it synthetic.

  2. Cobus Says:

    Quickly scanned through those pages, can’t see that he does. But in general I don’t think Bosch work with Deutero-Pauline literature a lot in Transforming Mission, but maybe he will touch upon it when he get to the chapter on Paul.

    I did mentioned this in one of the previous posts on institutional church in the new testament. If anyone is interested. It’s not a very cmplete argument though, just touch on the pastoral epistle argument.

  3. RMacD Says:

    Ronald

    As one also rethinking a whole lot of stuff, I question if “Institutionalism” is necessary for any movement to endure or if it was in the purposes of God for the Body of Christ (Church). When Jesus began his focused mission after his baptism he pretty much sidestepped any institutions. Institutions seemed to spring more from the Hellenistic world view than the Hebrew, which was more familial and patriarchal. There almost seems a parallel with rejecting Samuel’s eldership with a monarchy.

    Institutions intrude into the intimacy of each believer with the Holy Spirit and his leading as initiated normatively after Pentecost. Instead of doing away with the earthly priesthood in order for the spiritual reign of Christ within believers, the institutional church again put men there failing to discern that the change was more than typical enculturation. Also, Gal & Romans 11 seem to indicate that these followers of Jesus were more than merely an extension of that present Hebraic expression. It always comes back to the issue of professional control.

  4. RMacD Says:

    Another comment here to Cobus; First I apologize for jumping in here as an unknown Yank. I lived in South Africa working with mission colleges for 20 years and have great respect for the many expressions of His Church there—as well as Bosch’s work. However, the element I find often missing in these discussions is one I am most familiar with being what Bosch might term a “Post-charismatic”. In discussing where the church failed he states and acknowledges it as the move from an early charismatic movement into an institution, even acknowledging certain natural sociological “laws” as the cause. Though my charismatic identification would not jell exactly with his, I see the transition entails not only a loss of any individual natural Messianic appeal, but also the loss of the supernatural elements of the Kingdom. Must Christ’s Church be under such “natural sociological dynamics” or could it have transcended them? What would it have looked liked in order for the natural olive branch to not be cut off? How would things have been different? Bosch questions the reasonableness of expecting Josephs and Nicodemuses to leave the centre for the edges, but it was because of vested interests, as it is today. For a peasant to leave his own family (and life) was no more traumatic than it was for the professional, and again, so it is today. Bonhoeffer and Paul (Col 1:24) clearly addressed such issues. As Jesus said concerning such choices, with man it is impossible, but not so with God. Perhaps God is again giving us the choice to be a charismatic community (even in the wider sense), or an institution. I guess it depends on how powerfully one envisions the Kingdom that is presently (?) invading us. That is the real paradigm issue of missions.

  5. Cobus Says:

    RMacD
    thanx for coming in. Ronald is currently out of the country, on a visit to some of the cities Paul visited and things like that, some kind of ‘academic holiday’, but I believe he will have some comments to make on the things said when he gets back.

    I think the relationship between Jesus and the institution is very complex. Although Jesus was a charismatic leader, running a charismatic movement, the first signs of institutionalization seem to be found already before his death. Have you seen the film ″https://mycontemplations.wordpress.com/2007/09/18/jesus-judas-and-the-zealots/″Judas? Some of this gets portrayed there as well.

    Now, on Bosch: You obviously have a good knowledge of his work. Just to get on the same page, we are talking about Transforming Mission, the argument on pages 50-55. It’s on p52 that he talk about the sociological law. There Bosch the historian (and he was a brilliant historian as well) is speaking, when he says that history has proven that religious groups need to become institutionalized in order to survive. This is historical ans sosiological observations, not theological. Deep inside I think many of us want to remain a movement, but we still need an example of what this would look like. Do we have examples of religious (especially Christian) groups that was able to do this?

    I do believe that we need a serious rethinking of the institutional church. I do think the church need to thought through theologically and not just sosiologically, and I would love if this didn’t involve any institution. But I can’t see this happening, so I think a more durable way of going is to work with rethinking, rather than simple de-institutionalization.

    Would love to hear some more thoughts

  6. RMacD Says:

    Thanks for the welcome. The problem of incarnating these things is certainly real, and even someone with some stuff on the ground like Hirsch is still “moving on” to other possibilities. I initially studied Kűng back in seminary when he was still in the RCC institution, so perhaps a more “tabernacle” than “temple” existence might hold some clues. It is not merely ecclesiastic issues that have yet to be realized—consider Jesus’ prayer in Jn 17 for “visible” unity. I’m not sure just how happy Jesus was with the 2nd temple system, so what did he want? This is one of the reasons why the “yet-not yet” paradigm gives me hope. We could surely use some more “yets”, however.

    Perhaps we also need to make a little more differentiation about the word institution. Words like relational, familial and organic (C. Swartz, Natural Church Growth) might provide other ways to embrace organization. Must the pattern of the past be our prophetic future? Strange, that many of the EC guys are looking for a model while rejecting the validity of models. As you pointed out in your previous discussions I’ve read here indicate, theology and the other disciplines are holistically interrelated and it can be like leveling a table by working on one leg at a time. A number of my friends here in the States that have left the professional ministry have given up attempting to transition folks while some have come to the conclusion that the relational and spiritual dynamics are the issues that are vital, and we are not concerned with the particular colour of the package—much like your rainbow nation—rainbow congregations. (Rainbows sound good to the Covenant guys too!;-)

    I’ll kontroleer the film link you provided, and check back here regularly, as I feel South Africa is my second home and family — and I care about your journey.

  7. RMacD Says:

    Thanks for the welcome. The problem of incarnating these things is certainly real, and even someone with some stuff on the ground like Hirsch is still “moving on” to other possibilities. I initially studied Kűng back in seminary when he was still in the RCC institution, so perhaps a more “tabernacle” than “temple” existence might hold some clues. It is not merely ecclesiastic issues that have yet to be realized—consider Jesus’ prayer in Jn 17 for “visible” unity. I’m not sure just how happy Jesus was with the 2nd temple system, so what did he want? This is one of the reasons why the “yet-not yet” paradigm gives me hope. We could surely use some more “yets”, however.

    Perhaps we also need to make a little more differentiation about the word institution. Words like relational, familial and organic (C. Swartz, Natural Church Growth) might provide other ways to embrace organization. Must the pattern of the past be our prophetic future? Strange, that many of the EC guys are looking for a model while rejecting the validity of models. As you pointed out in your previous discussions I’ve read here indicate, theology and the other disciplines are holistically interrelated and it can be like leveling a table by working on one leg at a time. A number of my friends here in the States that have left the professional ministry have given up attempting to transition folks while some have come to the conclusion that the relational and spiritual dynamics are the issues that are vital, and we are not concerned with the particular colour of the package—much like your rainbow nation—rainbow congregations. (Rainbows sound good to the Covenant guys too!;-)

    I’ll kontroleer the film link you provided, and check back here regularly, as I feel South Africa is my second home and family — and I care about your journey.

  8. cobus Says:

    I like the suggestion that we need a little more differentiation about the word institution. When Bosch use the word he seem to have a very wide understanding. But within this concept there is better and worse ways of doing things. We do not neccesarily need to keep all the bad parts of the institutional church, just because we cannot sosiologically get rid of being an institution. Similarly, we do not need to reject the institution concept in its entirely, just because we don’t like the way it worked out the certain churches.

    We have the freedom to think what the church of tomorrow should look like. And yes, I do think that the church will always learn from its past, but no, I think the future could be totally different… no, will have to be totally different. Within this we can then take elements of the wide concept “institution”, which we believe is neccesary for the church to survive, no, more than survive, to do what it was called to do. We can also reject elements which we standing in the way. What exactly either would be is obviously not that easy a question.

  9. cobus Says:

    I like the suggestion that we need a little more differentiation about the word institution. When Bosch use the word he seem to have a very wide understanding. But within this concept there is better and worse ways of doing things. We do not neccesarily need to keep all the bad parts of the institutional church, just because we cannot sosiologically get rid of being an institution. Similarly, we do not need to reject the institution concept in its entirely, just because we don’t like the way it worked out the certain churches.

    We have the freedom to think what the church of tomorrow should look like. And yes, I do think that the church will always learn from its past, but no, I think the future could be totally different… no, will have to be totally different. Within this we can then take elements of the wide concept “institution”, which we believe is neccesary for the church to survive, no, more than survive, to do what it was called to do. We can also reject elements which we standing in the way. What exactly either would be is obviously not that easy a question.


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