When I think of the word institution I think of a building or an organization. It is a place or a set of beliefs that are governed safely from inside. If you are not following the rules of the institution you can be considered unsafe and risk expulsion. Institutions have rules and regulations that help the members know what is expected from the members of the organization. Institutions protect, sometimes forcefully, those on the inside from those on the outside.
Institutions have a hierarchy that puts individuals in roles of leadership over others. Institutions are concerned with the membership of the organization from the top down with little resources for those outside the institution. The rules of the institution are generally established and enforced by those in leadership of the institution.
Occasionally institutions may feel attacked. These attacks can come from its own organization but most time these attacks come from outside the walls of the institution. In answer to these attacks strategies must be implemented to shore up the institution to demonstrate stability and strength.
As I was reading the book The Shack, Mack asks Jesus for his thoughts on the institution of marriage. Jesus responds, “Marriage is not an institution. It is a relationship.” So what is a relationship?
A relationship is the connectedness of two or more people. We are related to others through blood, like interests, affections, race, religion and nationality. For some this relationship involves a deep affection for another that leads to marriage. For some their relationship with God compels them to love others, outside themselves. A relationship is alive. It is not bound by hierarchy or rules. It should be impossible to expel one from the relationship because of infractions.
At the core of all relationships is love. At the core of all institutions is survival.
So when I consider my life and all the shortcomings that I bring into the world, I desire to be surrounded by individuals in a relationship who love me in spite of my sinfulness. Jesus tore down many walls to bring us into a relationship with Him. Walls keep people out, relationships allow people in. Maybe that is why Jesus knocks at a door and calls Himself a gate.
So the bigger question; “Is church an institution or a relationship?”