Religion & Liberty Online

Pastors, Pulpits, and Politics

This week’s Acton Commentary is adapted from an introduction to a forthcoming edited volume, The Church’s Social Responsibility: Reflections on Evangelicalism and Social Justice. The goal of the collection is to bring some wisdom to principled and prudential aspects of addressing the complex questions related to responsible ecclesial word and deed today.

A point of departure for the volume is the distinction between the church conceived institutionally and organically, perspectives formalized and popularized by the Dutch Reformed theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper. A recent article in Themelios by Daniel Strange of Oak Hill College in London critically examines the distinction and ultimately finds it wanting: “I do not think that the institute/organism distinction, as Kuyper understood it, is a safe vehicle in which to carry this agenda forward, for it creates a forced distinction in describing the church, separates the ‘organism’ from the ‘institute’, and then stresses the organism to the detriment of the institute, ironically leading to the withering of what the ‘organism’ is meant to represent and achieve.”

I recommend reading Strange’s piece, because it does raise some legitimate concerns about the distinction and does so while providing a good overview of the model within Kuyper’s thought. But I also recommend Ad de Bruijne’s article, “‘Colony of Heaven’: Abraham Kuyper’s Ecclesiology in the Twenty-First Century,” for another conclusion about the utility of Kuyper’s thoughts on the church.

Perhaps the distinction is in some sense artificially imposed by Kuyper onto the text. Perhaps the language of “institute/organism” is a modern invention and contextually dependent upon the intellectual culture of Kuyper’s own time. But it seems difficult to get away from the need for something like this distinction, whether we use the precise language of Kuyper or not, for the church in the world today. In the modern West, we live in a post-Christendom and increasingly post-Christian social setting. The institutional church, despite the desires of many, does not (and indeed, ought not) exercise the kind of direct influence on political life that it once did. And pastors face the difficult responsibility of determining what to say and how to say it on a daily basis.

Consider, for instance, Karl Vaters, who writes from his pastoral perspective: “We’re not all called to respond to every issue in the same way.” Consider, too, the institutional witness represented by something like the Christian advocacy at the recent Paris climate summit. (I’ve registered my concerns over the latter phenomenon here; I also have a longer engagement with these phenomena at the global ecumenical level.)

The institute/organism distinction, as we note in The Church’s Social Responsibility, is not a panacea, and using it can raise additional questions. But we are convinced that the distinction is a useful tool for sorting through the complex responsibilities of church officers and laypersons in the modern world.

Read more at today’s Acton Commentary, “Social Justice and the Evangelical Church Today.”

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.