On Christianity’s Institution Illusion

Tonight, I read a blog post by Tony Jones titled Honest Scholarship May Not Be Possible At A Christian School. In it, he wrote:

Let me ask — and be honest — Do you think that a scholar at a confessional school truly has the freedom to come to whatever conclusions her/his scholarship leads to?

I don’t. Not if they don’t want to be fired. And I can affirm this by the emails I’ve received from evangelical college professors who affirm gay relations and rights based on their own academic work, but are unable to publicly state that because they’d be fired.

After reading Tony’s blog post, I thought about the issues of theological censorship that are so prevalent in both Christian academia and our churches. I thought about how censorship leads to ignorance, and how ignorance is a necessary ingredient in the cycle of oppression. I let those thoughts linger… and then fester… and then I nearly became angry until I realized something very important:

If people are oppressed because of a lack of life-giving and sound Christian theology, it is not the fault of the “institution”. We speak of institutions as though they work independently of human influence– However, institutions have no power. The power lies in the hands of those who work within the institutions. That includes you and me.

Tonight, I am reflecting on the degree to which we– religious leaders, parishioners, academics, and others who wear the name “Christian”– are complicit in the ills of our institutions. Many of us (including myself) complain about the bottle neck of information as it relates to the academy and the church, but what are we really doing to fix it? Is there a point when we are called to acknowledge that we have become the very entities against whom Jesus fought most often– The Scribes and Pharisees: Wielders of the Law, worshipers of tradition, and counterproductive agents of religious oppression in the Kingdom of God?

At what point does it become our responsibility to say: “Screw the consequences. God requires that I tell the truth and set you free, even if I become unpopular in the process”?

I don’t believe change happens organically. It happens when ordinary people stand up and say unpopular things to powerful people. That’s a choice. This applies to our religious institutions in a powerful way. There has to come a time when those of us who can effect change decide that we are not afraid of what the “institution” can do to us any more.

I guess the question is: Will we take up our mantle and lead the call for radical change within the institutions of Christianity, or will we wait for the next generation to lead the charge? Is it our time, and if it is– What is our responsibility?


  1. Frank says:

    Provocative post, Crystal. But it is a joy to read. Unfortunately, from my experience, when ordinary people stand up to any institution, the response is usually to preserve the status quo and not to embrace a change in orientation. The reception to an altered vision of reality offered can even be vicious and brutal. I think that is because change is often perceived as a threat to stability and it presents risks which undermine control. Once upon a time, I held the belief that the church and all her affiliated institutions were about proclaiming “the Truth.” I learned later in life that holding that belief was misguided and naive on my part. The marriage of the church it seems was subverted. She couldn’t wait any longer for the Christ, her true love, but has been satisfied by a marriage with authority and control, a pragmatic love, instead. What hope remains with me is inclined to consider a more universal spiritual orientation versus what exists within contemporary Christianity. I do think Bishop Spong was right, too, “Christianity Must Change or Die.”

    1. Hi Frank. Thank you so much for your very thoughtful response to my post. I couldn’t agree more. I believe the “church” as we know it today has become far too dependent on the power structure that has developed over the years. There needs to be a shift in consciousness toward a message that moves beyond the heaven/hell narrative and ideas of hyper-“morality”… I can only hope to see signs of this in my lifetime. I hope you’ll visit again with additional thoughts and/or criticisms.

  2. Daniel O says:

    Very interesting post. Funny that I have been thinking about the same topic. How biblical scholarship has lost touch with churches the world over. This in part is the fault of the academics for not reaching out “IN LOVE” to the people in the church. By “IN LOVE” I mean that, to present simple facts, theories and discussion without feeling responsibility over the spiritual blow or growth it is being created. But it is also fault of the clergy for not allowing doubt and the deep study of scripture to be present in church. Personally I am in the middle of preparing a three week course on Genesis that I will give in our local parish church. Im doing this because I’ve heard people talk about creationism vs evolution in our services and feel compelled to address the issue with biblical study and the freedom it gives.

    1. Hi Daniel. I apologize for the late reply. I would love to hear more about your church’s reception to the course on Genesis after you finish teaching it. Please feel free to email me at crystalslewis@gmail.com. Take care and please come again. 🙂

  3. Yvonne says:

    CHARGE! We can either speak and lead people to FREEDOM or sit quiet as we all are taken captive by the”Babylonians”!

  4. bartosik says:

    I guess I am not as convinced as these other three comments….the post seemed to call us to a generic charge against “the man” or the “institution” like calling for “change” which is a good thing, I just would love to hear it fleshed out and maybe it was and it would have been helpful if I read the other two connected posts,but I didn’t.

    As I read the comments and the blog, I couldn’t help but wonder that isn’t that part of the joy of the Christian faith? We truly are seeking to understand God’s word and a truth that can explain ultimate reality, that is livable, and coherent?

    For those who are not followers of Christ we don’t argue about theological issues, but instead what them to see the glory of Christ—-for the Christians who has recognized Christ as the Messiah, the God-man and now has committed their life to Him—the question seems to become how do I become more transformed and the answer seems to be the revealed word of God aka the bible.

    We only need to argue about issues only insofar as we are discussing with other christians about the scriptures. You don’t need a pastor or bishop or priest to tell you what the bible says, you simply need a mind that understands how written language is communicated and seek to find the big idea of what the text is saying. The joy comes when two people see one text in two COMPLETELY DIFFERENT ways. One person is wrong…right? And in wanting to grow, we seek to understand the text. The bible cannot condone both same sex marriage and say it is wicked at the same time can it? The bible cannot say there are multiple ways to “heaven” and then turn around and say there is only one way can it?

    Stoked to hear more about “the charge” and what is meant by “christianity changing”….and the “truth” that you are saying needs to be proclaimed…

    1. Hi, bartosik. Thanks so much for your response. I actually disagree with a few of the points in your comment. You asked: “The bible cannot condone both same sex marriage and say it is wicked at the same time can it? The bible cannot say there are multiple ways to “heaven” and then turn around and say there is only one way can it?” My answer to these questions is YES…

      The Bible is not a cohesive text. It’s a library of commentaries written by a variety of civilizations, many of which had very different ideas about a variety of things. There are lists of these contradictions all over the internet, but here’s a website that names quite a few of them: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_meritt/bible-contradictions.html

      The issue for me lies in this: Which understanding of scripture do we choose? Do we read the texts as cultural commentaries that describe the times in which the writers lived, or do we attempt to apply it all in such a draconian way that we become forces of oppression? I am interested in striking a balance that will allow scripture to inform my spiritual journey– but I don’t think it’s okay to use any religious text to strip the rights of others.

      As for “the truth”– I don’t claim to have THE only spiritual truth. I can only claim to have my own spiritual truth because I believe spiritual truths are often subjective. However, I believe there are some tidbits of Christian history (objective truths) that would change the game if we taught them– such as the history associated with this piece of iconography which depicts a same-sex marriage: http://www.christianity-revealed.com/cr/files/whensamesexmarriagewasachristianrite.html … Or such as the history of the Bible, etc. I think Christianity would be a more inclusive and productive religion if we would broaden our understanding of what the faith means.

      I apologize for the EXTREMELY long response, but I hope this clarifies my position. Please come again soon. 🙂


  5. Thanks for this important post, Crystal. I ponder and work on the same set of issues in a broad way but have gotten to the “broad place” via details by the thousands of hours to get reasonably informed. Not necessary for everyone, by any means, but a strong interest of mine… formal and informal study, both. I have a LOT of general plans to develop structures, educational systems, etc. based on both “natural theology” (not as classically defined tho) and on teachings of Jesus as in the NT. I have commented a bit on some of the efforts of Emerging and Progressive Christians on my blog. At the same time, confessing I’m not sure what “identity” I want to carry as any “kind” of Christian.

    Because of my major transition, years ago, in specifics of belief (away from a fairly rigid orthodoxy/evangelicalism), I’ve not kept formal affiliation within any Christian “institution” but I find myself increasingly drawn to operate “around the edges” and educate Christians as well as non-Christians about personal psychological factors driving and molding religious impulses and affiliations, beliefs, etc., as well as the social and other forces that drive “institutions” of religion, “civil religion,” and so much more. I’m glad to have discovered you and your blog!

    1. Hello Howard. Thank you for your comment! I am also having trouble figuring out where I belong in the landscape of Christianity. I have found a comfortable and welcoming home in UUism, but long for a space in Christendom where I can help the faith move forward. I would love to learn more about what you’ve been doing on a smaller scale to impact the lives of other Jesus followers. Please stay in touch and feel free to shoot me a link or two on Twitter that might help me develop some new ideas. Glad to meet you!

      1. Hi Again Crystal,
        I’ll look for time soon to go into more detail directly with you on this issue. I’ve found it a difficult one because of some things that I think have been mostly avoided by all types of Christian faith, from conservative to most liberal (probably Unitarian Universalism). Those are hard to put into words succinctly. However, they have to do with a deeper understanding of and respect for the place an power of myth (I need to study Joseph Campbell more myself!)…. Myth not as falsehood but at truth couched in “real life” type stories that are imagined. And in the case of the Gospels/Acts, the genres are unique and create a complex, fascinating mix. The standard Western approach to that has been, from the mid-18th century on, to try to sort “fact” from “fiction.” It has proved an impossible task when you get into the details, though important things have been uncovered and learned.

        A part of this rational analysis has taken nearly half of Western Christianity into classic and now “post-liberal” liberalism–a heavily rationalized, sometimes politicized kind of faith that lacks the appeal and “punch” of more literalist, and charismatic/conservative forms (Evangelicalism and Penetcostalism included). I am not convinced there cannot be viable 3rd or other “models” and paradigms of faith. Process, as you and I know, lays out some good directions, philosophically, but has not really spawned fresh, viable new structures for faith communities. The “postmodern” forms of Evangelicalism, such as Emerging/Emergent Christianity, ask many good questions and foster exploration of answers. But they seem afraid to tackle the “elephant in the room” of the issue I just raised. With that, they don’t want to address even some fairly clear-cut issues about NT formation and authority, such as the highly doubtful authorship by Paul of at least the Pastoral Epistles, and almost as surely, of Ephesians and Colossians. Seems to me that is because their superstructure of integrated doctrines is still tied to traditional orthodox theology and the poorly-supported biblical scholarship used to lend it authority.

  6. Hello everyone. I am terribly late responding to your comments. With final exams and the holidays, I developed a one-track mind that didn’t leave nearly as much time for my blog as I would have liked. Thanks to all of you for your comments. I’m looking forward to hearing more of your responses in the year to come! 🙂

  7. Correction: 1st paragraph, middle, above: “at truth” should read “as truth.”

  8. Winifred says:

    Hello, I log on to your blog on a regular basis.
    Your story-telling style is awesome, keep it up!

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