Institutions: Hazardous and Helpful

A comment about Karl Marx set me to thinking about how ideas shape life.

Karl Marx has had more impact on actual events, as well as on the minds of men and women than any other intellectual in modern times. The reason for this is not primarily the attraction of his concepts and methodology . . . but the fact that his philosophy has been institutionalized in two of the world’s largest countries, Russia and China. (Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, 1988, p. 52.)

In other words one of the factors that preserves and lengthens the influence of ideas is whether they are institutionalized.

A religious example of this is the “Princeton Theology” (the Reformed, Calvinistic, God-centered, Bible-based vision taught by men like B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge). Mark Noll points out that “The Princeton Theology sprang from the minds of its exponents, but it flowed outward from Princeton through institutions which vastly transcended those individuals” (The Princeton Theology, 1983, p. 18). The institutions he has in mind are Princeton Seminary itself (for over a century), Princeton College (for much of the 19th century), several scholarly Princeton journals, and the Presbyterian Church.

The question rises: is it God’s will revealed in Scripture to advance the influence of biblical truth through human institutions? Institutions like: seminaries, colleges, parochial schools, mission agencies, publishing houses, journals, news-letters, hospitals, relief agencies, musical groups, drama troupes, conferences, camps, counseling centers, evangelistic associations, coffee houses, radio and TV networks, stations, and programs, etc. etc. etc.?

The reason the question is urgent is that institutions by nature develop self-sustaining power as opposed to God-sustained power. There are human expectations, human employees, procedures, traditions, money, brain power, real estate, facilities, reputation, constituency, etc. These all can keep an institution going even if the Holy Spirit has withdrawn. Institutions have the tendency to become self-sustaining rather than being God-sustained in any evidently supernatural way. Thus Christian institutions can become contradictions and artifacts of divine power that once was.

Thus the Bible repeatedly warns against relying on powers resident within human culture (institutional power). For example, Psalm 33:17, “A horse is a false hope for victory; nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.” In other words, military institutional power is not to be trusted for deliverance.

On the other hand the Bible does not say that institutions are therefore evil or useless. On the contrary, Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord.” Recognizing that institutions are not the decisive force for the triumph of the truth does not mean that they are no force.

God never commanded Israel to abolish its army. But again and again he warned against relying on it when they went to battle. “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, and rely on horses, and trust in chariots because they are many, and in horsemen because they are very strong, but they do not look to the Holy One of Israel, nor seek the Lord!” (Isaiah 31:1).

Think with me about what this means for Bethlehem, the Baptist General Conference, the Minnesota Baptist Conference, and Bethel, and whatever you are building.

Pastor John

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