Religion & Liberty Online

Organism, institution, and the black church

(Photo credit: Kim Kelley-Wagner /

Some years back, I helped put together a small, edited volume intended as a primer on some of the ways in which the relationship between the church and political life has, and ought to be, understood. In The Church’s Social Responsibility, we aimed in part to apply the Kuyperian distinction between understanding the church as a formal institution and as a dynamic, organic body to questions of social justice.

“Sometimes words have two meanings,” as Led Zeppelin has put it, and church is one of those words that is rich with a variety of nuances and significations. The purpose of the institute/organism distinction is to do justice to some of the differences in believers’ responsibilities in their typical, day-to-day lives, as opposed to participating in formal worship services. This distinction can play out in a number of different ways, which is why we attempted to capture a diversity of perspectives in the short volume.

One of those perspectives is from Calvin Van Reken, whose contribution, “The Church’s Role in Social Justice,” employs the institute/organism distinction to argue that the institutional church does not have a primary role in promoting social justice, at least involving politics and public policy. As Van Reken writes:

The primary work of the institutional church is not to promote social justice, it is to warn people of divine justice. Its primary business is not to call society to be more righteous but to tell persons of the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Its primary work is not to tell us who to elect to public office, it is to tell those in every nation of the One who elected many for eternal life. The primary work of the institutional church is to open and close the kingdom of God and to nurture the Christian faith. This it does primarily through the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline.

He goes on to note, however, that there are some important exceptions to this general disposition. For example, the church should, he argues, speak institutionally to “the proper goals that social policy should promote.” But it is generally better to leave specific policy proposals and discussions to the deliberations of civil society and the vocation of the body of believers in their everyday callings rather than to pronounce upon them from pulpits.

I think Van Reken is basically correct in his articulation of the institute/organism distinction and its implications for the church’s social witness. But there are perhaps more exceptions, or more instances of the church getting involved politically, than I have appreciated before now.

It is possible, for instance, for a society to be so corrupted and dysfunctional that the normal institutions of that society no longer work properly. It may be that the church remains one of the few or even the only institution with some level of proper functioning. In a situation like this, it would perhaps be necessary even for the institutional church to act in ways that are more or less overtly political, in part because the political institutions themselves have failed or are failing. It may not be generally good for pastors to also be politicians, but we might imagine some situations where this is not only acceptable but also necessary.

Political action, advocacy, and activity by the institutional church in this sense need not necessarily violate the institute/organism distinction, sphere sovereignty, or subsidiarity. Such action might actually be necessary according to these principles in order to restore proper functioning of other civil, social, and political institutions. Now this does mean, perhaps, that such political activity is unusual, irregular, or occasional. Such action has its limits, including temporal ones. The goal of churchly political activity should be in part to make such action redundant and unnecessary.

All of this plays out differently in different contexts. The church may be in a social setting at one place and time, where it enjoys relative peace and good government, and is free to focus primarily on (as Van Reken describes it) divine justice rather than social justice. But at other times the connection between divine justice and social justice needs to be proclaimed more clearly. And sometimes that proclamation has to terminate not simply in exhortation but in institutional action, as well. Here’s how the pastor and apologist Christopher Brooks describes the American context, where the church has generally enjoyed a kind of social influence and standing: “We believers in America have to wrestle with the challenge of how our commitment to justice must play out in the way we vote and engage politically.” And the church as an institution has to grapple with these realities.

In his introduction to a new edition of Charles Octavius Boothe’s classic Plain Theology for Plain People, Walter Strickland II points to a specific time in America where the church became a central political institution by necessity. “In the years following Emancipation,” writes Strickland:

the church became the epicenter of the black community. The church was the sole institution that African Americans controlled, and it was central to the black community—not only as a spiritual outpost, but also as a social hub and political nerve center. Often the most educated people in the black community were pastors who had the rhetorical skill necessary to advocate for their congregants. Moreover, full-time ministers at large churches were uniquely situated to advocate for racial justice. They were financially independent from whites, so they could represent blacks on social issues without fear of lost wages—though they could suffer other forms of retaliation like church burning, physical violence, and intimidation.

The institution of slavery was so corrupting of society that the church became one of the few remaining realities for institutional organization and action. The same has been true in other times and places where societies are emerging from oppressive regimes or political tyranny.

In this way, the black church experience in America has something important to offer the broader Christian community in our calling to do justice to the dynamics of the church’s social witness, including the church’s social responsibility in an institutional as well as in a broader, organic sense. The recognition of all this complexity does not, of course, legitimize absolutely any or all political action by the institutional church. But it does, I think, require a noteworthy proviso to a traditional understanding of the institute/organism distinction.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.