As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
There’s a big movement toward local and organic foods whose proponents are called “locavores.” They shop the green belt at the edges of the supermarket and eat at “farm to table” restaurants. But this movement is also part of a larger anti-institutional movement in our culture. People, often for good reasons, mistrust larger institutions, corporations, and government agencies.
The fact is that even locavores need institutional structure. How does the local farmer get the produce to market? How does the market get broad enough to sustain the farmer and serve a larger number of people? How do we know what’s really organic? An institution grows up around a movement, and other institutions, like government take an interest.
There is a kind localism happening in the Christian Reformed Church as well. People see the local congregation as the dynamic and driving force of the church (which it is). They also see less and less need for the denominational affiliation with its institutional structures. The institution, they believe, gets in the way. It demands too much and gives back too little, especially in financial terms. It tends to run top down with too little responsiveness to the local church. But what do we do about it?
Years ago, Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper made an important distinction regarding the church. He taught that the church is both an organism and an institution. It is an organism because it is the body of Christ, united to him in faith and baptism. But it is also an institution that is organized around certain core doctrinal, liturgical, and governance norms. Without the institutional elements, the church has little staying power and is subject to a heightened threat of abuse and deviation from the gospel truths on which it is founded.
Whatever criticisms I may have of the CRC as an institution, I would still argue that denominations are necessary institutions—alongside of the local church—for several reasons.
- Denominations offer the local church a longer arm of mission. The denomination makes it possible for local congregations and their members to spread the gospel in faraway places, help the poor and suffering far more effectively, and bring them in touch with like-minded congregations.
- While all institutions can become corrupt and mismanaged, the local church may be more susceptible because misguided or power-hungry local leaders can go more easily unchecked. Denominations provide the kinds of norms and standards that can prevent congregations from going off the rails.
- Denominations provide rules and norms by which we can better interact with each other. To the extent that they are healthy, the assemblies of the denomination foster that interaction. They offer opportunities to see the bigger picture, learn best practices, and receive encouragement and support in times of need and stress.
Of course, there are good and bad institutions. They can be bottom-up or top-down, tightly bound or loosely organized, effective or plodding, inclusive or exclusive. They can lose their purpose and dynamism.
If we understand the importance of an institution like the CRC, then we all need to acknowledge the importance of our investment in it. There is a dangerous tendency to just write off whatever comes out of Grand Rapids or Burlington, to say, “What does that have to do with us?” On the other hand, denominational people sometimes assume that they know best what’s good for the congregations.
We are going through a generational change in the CRC as millennials take the place of aging boomers and their voices become increasingly influential. At the same time, we are experimenting with denominational structure, seeking to make it tighter, more responsive, and more cost-effective.
This is not the time for congregations to simply burrow down to their own concerns. The CRC needs to engage in some pretty radical structural and financial reform in order to flourish, and in order to get it right, it needs the input and involvement of local congregations and regional assemblies.
The organism of the body of Christ needs institutional form. Local congregations are stronger, more effective, and less inclined toward dangerous aberrations when they are participants in denominational life. At the same time, the denominational leadership can only remain strong through paying attention to the health and ministry of local congregations.
About the Author
Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.