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Institution Building : Ancient origins and the parallels to modern days


Institution Building

Ancient origins and the parallels to modern days


Author – William S. Doolittle



If you’re reading this article it’s probably because you’re a person who is questioning the validity of an institutional approach to your relationship with God and fellow religious seekers. Quite possibly you are also questioning the institutional approach to a host of other issues that you grapple with as well.


We all come naked into this world, and for most of us our first consciousness is of ourselves as individuals, in relationship to family, not as functioning cogs in an institution. Institutions are something we are introduced to, often with apprehension - our first day at school; induction into the military; our first job. Institutions have become so ubiquitous they are almost assumed in modern American life. But are institutions a given? Must they play a prominent role in the conduct of our lives? Indeed - is it a given that you had to be born in an institution, called a hospital? Is it a given that you had to learn to read and write, and fathom the world around you, through the auspices of an institution – a public or private school? Is it a given that you have to work in, or market your own products or services, to institutions? Is it a given that you must be married and buried through an institution?


For many of the above questions, the answer used to be no. It wasn’t all that long ago that many, if not most, Americans were born in the family home. Public school institutions are a relatively recent innovation. Not too long ago, most Americans earned their keep on a privately held farm, not in a corporate institution. Persons were often buried on their own land, by their own family members; no funeral home was involved.


How then, did institutions become such a big part of modern life in America, and is the institutionalization of American life good or bad? Is it something we should embrace, reject, or something in which we need to find a middle ground?


Some of the answers to these questions can be found by examining the genesis of institutions and drawing parallels from their ancient origins to modern times. Whether viewed as allegorical or literal truth, the story of Cain found in the biblical book of Genesis is arguably the description of the creation of the worlds first institution.


In the figure of Cain we encounter a man in uneasy relationship with his creator. Cain is not so very different from every man - we see in him something which we often see in ourselves. First, distrust of our provider and protectors (displayed as children in our attitude toward our parents; as adults in our attitudes towards our employers and our government); second, questioning and rebellion against authority; third, a reluctance to acknowledge and worship God according to God’s standards (or any standards).


The story goes like this: Cain is one of two boys born to the world’s first parents – Adam and Eve. He becomes a tiller of the soil, and for some unspecified reason, his worship of God is inadequate in God’s eyes; perhaps because he, unlike his brother Abel, is unwilling to slay an animal for sacrifice. In any event, he is willing to slay his own brother in the midst of an envious rage, with the consequence that God cuts Cain off from the land itself, and from God’s own presence. In response, Cain laments:


My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.


Now, why did Cain perceive that his punishment was more than he could bear? If we are willing to entertain the notion that this story is a literal retelling, or at minimum an allegorical truth, than the judge here is incapable of injustice. (Some may reject that notion, arguing that God’s standing as God does not automatically make him just. However, it is well to remember that the crime committed was murder. In the end, Cain’s sentence is a matter of judgment, and it was God that got to make the call.) Cain perceives his punishment is excessive because God has cut him off from two of Cain’s (and all mankind’s) most fundamental needs – security and relationship. Cain perceives that life, deprived of those essentials, is not worth living.


As the story of Cain progresses, evidence of God’s great mercy is made manifested in that Cain is allowed to defy God’s sentence by: not only settling into relationship with a wife and children, but settling in and building a city. Building a city is a far cry from being the restless wanderer he was condemned to be. In building a city, Cain established the world’s first institution. Yet, like any parent who looks smilingly on as his child seeks fruitlessly to circumvent punishment, Cain, in building a city, brought more grievous evil upon himself than living out God’s sentence ever would have. In a city Cain found congestion, pollution, noise, a hurried pace, crime, unemployment, politics, politicians, corruption, tenements, ghettos, vice and much more. Cain had built himself a city to supply what God had denied him; what he wound up with was the illusion of relationship, and the illusion of security. Cities with millions of inhabitants are almost, without exception, the loneliest places on earth, and Americans are only just beginning to learn the truth about the so-called security found in institutional (read: corporation) employment; in cities targeted by terrorists and renegade nuclear-armed states.


In attempting to understand institutions in the light of God’s economy, it is helpful to examine the lives of, and the lives of the descendents of, Noah – namely Japheth, Ham and Shem. From the eldest son Japheth, all the maritime peoples sprang. They were not primarily builders of cities and they were prophesied to dwell in the tents of Shem, Japheth’s youngest brother. To be dependent on the hospitality of one’s younger brother may not be a curse, but it is certainly not a blessing. Ham, who was singled out for cursing by righteous Noah, was prophesied to be a slave of Shem, and he and his descendents were prolific builders of cities, including the infamous Sodom, Gomorrah, and Babel (Genesis 10: 10-12; 11:1-9). Conversely, in describing the lives of Shem and his descendents scripture makes no mention of them engaging in city or institution building. Abraham was a descendent of Shem; he was called out of city living by God, and was extraordinary for not building cities and kingdoms in an era when that was, perhaps, the most important measure by which a man was judged. Instead he lived in tents as a shepherd surrounded by fortified cities – as did his sons Isaac and Jacob. Indeed it is difficult to find any great character, after God’s own heart, in the Bible who can be closely associated with cities or great institutions. Moses was raised up among great institutions, but God called Moses out of those institutions, into the isolation of the desert and the humility of a pastoral life, when God wanted to make use of Moses; almost as if he wanted to purge Moses of all the institutional influences Moses had acquired. David, called to lead one of the few institutions God did create, was shepherd boy, not a city slicker.  The person, Jesus, is the very picture and type of pastoral man; he shunned big cities, and avoided entanglement in institutional civics or religion. Consequently, while it cannot be maintained that institutions are in-and-of-themselves evil, it appears from the evidence of scripture that God Himself is not a fervent advocate of, or builder of, institutions. God closest followers seemed to understand this, and lived their lives accordingly. Invariably, we find that those most favored by God are those who seek relationship and security primarily in God, and not in other people, or in institutions built by people.


Nevertheless, we do witness God himself building at least three institutions in the course of human history, as described in the Bible. First, he built an institutional form of worship, through the agency of Moses and under the direction of Moses’ brother, the High Priest, Aaron. Second, we see him building a nation, established along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. Finally, we see him building the church in the wake of Christ’s crucifixion and ascent into heaven. Clearly then, God is not entirely opposed to institutions. How, then, do we reconcile the aversion to institutional life in so many of the Bible’s central characters, with God’s visible efforts to build institutions? The answer might be found in 1 Samuel 8. There we find the people of Israel - the nation God built - rebelling against the institutional structure God had ordained, and demanding a temporal political institution under a king. When Samuel brings the people’s demand for civil government to God’s attention, God responds:


Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.


Clearly then, institutions are acceptable to God, and may even be erected by God himself, when they exist to further God purpose, the purpose which was established in the Garden of Eden – that we should have fellowship with and obtain provision from God. The temple and tabernacle, under the priests; the nation of Israel, under God the king; the church, under Christ the Lamb of God, were all created to enhance men’s ability to grow closer to God and obtain needed forgiveness, spiritual direction, material provision, and human fellowship. Whenever we build institutions to subvert, or substitute for, those ends, we defy God (as we did at Babel), and lay ourselves open to all kinds of evil, including God’s rebuke.


In the church today, we see an institution which increasingly resembles a live shark – it must keep moving to perpetuate its own ends: maintaining facilities and providing employment for paid staff. Furthermore, and increasingly, a whole host of ministries is coming into dependence upon the survival of the church institution to further the ends of those ministries – Christian publishers need the church through which to market its product; missionaries need the church to package and market their ministries to; evangelists and popular musicians depend on the church to provide audiences. The list is endless. In regards to providing relationship, the church is practically frantic in it attempts to find ways to bring people into meaningful relationship with one another. Singles ministries, small groups, cell groups, concerts, games nights abound, and like big cities, mostly provide an illusion, not the reality, of relationship. When churchgoers need financial assistance, more often than not, the church refers them to financial counseling and para-church ministries, or perhaps most often, to government assistance programs. In public affair we see the seemingly inexorable growth of government programs and services, from all manner of welfare programs to help people subsist apart from dependence on God, to government funded “Midnight Basketball” to help inner city kids develop relationship with other kids, and cope with the absence of a father in the home.


Despite all the above, institutions do have a role to play in God’s economy. Prophets of old demanded that the nation Israel awaken to the needs of the poor and widowed. The scriptures specifically tell us that God will build a city after Christ’s return - the new Jerusalem -, and that “the government” (read: institution) “will be on his shoulders”.


In conclusion, it seems apparent that persons abandoning the church today are simply following in the time honored footsteps of leaders like John the Baptist. John saw that in his day the institution allegedly representing God on earth – the temple with the attendant priests, Sadducees, Pharisees and various teachers of the law - was no longer supplying the two critical needs that engendered Cain’s lament: “My punishment is more than I can bear” – namely our needs for security and relationship. When our institutions - temporal and religious - further those ends, especially when they encourage relationship and dependence on God first and foremost, they are functioning as God intended - and have a chance to endure.


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