Vol.XVII No.II Pg.4
April 1980


Robert F. Turner

Institutionalism is, of course, the upholding of institutions — of the usefulness, validity, authority and sanctity of institutions. The dictionary is general in its treatment of the term, as is expected, but it places emphasis upon the institution or highly organized society.

Now, what is the opposite of institutionalism? Use your dictionary, and determine the contrast to our subject. If something has been institutionalized, what was it before this happened? If you do your work well you may get a brand new look at this longtime clash in ideologies. Is a man's relationship to God a direct and immediate relationship; or is his direct relationship with an institution which, in turn, has the direct relationship with God? Think about it! In current brotherhood discussions the purely institutional issue may be buried beneath arguments about the organizational structure or polity of independent congregations of saints, and their legitimate work and purpose as independent institutions. Is the local church the individual's link with God, or is it a God-given tool for the use of saints whose link with God remains direct and immediate?

The historic church concept, developed to maturity by Roman Catholicism, has the Lord establishing a universal institution which was then given certain "sacraments" to dispense. The blessings are inseparably related to the institution; are not available except as administered by the "Church." The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it clearly: "The Church alone dispenses the sacraments. It alone makes known the light of revealed truth. Outside the Church these gifts cannot be obtained. From all this there is but one conclusion: Union with the Church is not merely one out of various means by which salvation may be obtained; it is the only means. (V. 3, p.752.) In this concept the individual must look to the institution as the means of obtaining divine approval; but in Scriptures the church is the product, the result of individuals being saved (Acts 2:47 A.S.). The basic institutional fallacy remains, whether "church" is regarded as universal or local.

In the 14th century, when Wycliff sent out "pore priests" to teach the Scriptures to the country folk, these "lollards" were not sanctioned by the church, hence were an attack upon institutional prerogatives. Teaching the revolutionary concept of measuring the church by the Scriptures, rather than the Scriptures by the church meant that individuals were directly answerable to God, and this was the principle of Reformation that broke the back of R.C. institutionalism. It gave a basis of authority for doctrinal reform by Luther, Zwingli, and others; although their ties to "historic church" concepts kept many from cutting free, and rebound their followers with "church" creeds.

The Swiss AnaBaptist (16th century) took bold steps to cast off institutional concepts. They "unChristianized" the world (Schaff), when they taught each individual must obey from the heart the teaching of Scriptures, and that "church" sanction could not take the place of this. (continued next page)