Cultivating Trust: Institutions and the Crisis of Confusion

Originally written as a submission for Comment Magazine‘s 2018 Seerveld Prize.

Trust is adhesive, often unseen and nearly always assumed. It binds together individuals and groups, currencies, software systems, networks, and even the various species in an ecosystem. If we ever do notice and consider trust, we tend to associate it with emotion—a feeling of comfort and goodwill toward a person, object, business, or organization. In reality, trust is more a condition of support, a predictability and consistency of nature that requires continual cultivation.

In that sense, the collapse of trust in America’s institutions has been exaggerated. Gallup may report that our confidence is declining precipitously over the past few decades in some apparent pillars of society: the news (-26 percentage points from its high), banks (-30), the healthcare system (-44), the presidency (-35), the congress (-29), the public schools (-33), and the church (-30). Paradoxically, trust in the military has increased (+22) and even the police have held steady.

Our practical trust in the face of these numbers, though, stays blindly faithful. Only 11% of Americans claim trust in Congress, but nearly all of us at some point today drove on roads constructed and maintained by their authorization (or travelled in trains or planes regulated by their fiat) without a second thought. The 30% of us who trust banks were likely joined by the other 70% today in buying or selling something within the economy made possible by their systems. 20% of us trust the news media, but everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what it has told us to think about today.

Trust and Power
This dynamic illuminates a critical reality—we will have institutions, whether we want them or not, whether we “trust” them or not. Much as they’re taken for granted, every human institution was created—person or a group went to the trouble of planning out the structures and processes to secure or deliver a perceived social good, from a neighborhood hot dog stand to the International Criminal Court.

In Playing God, Andy Crouch describes institutions as tools that men and women develop to extend their gifts, abilities, and desires—their power—across time and space. As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton might say, “I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me.” Crouch leans into the word “power” to remind us that whatever euphemisms (authority, leadership, influence) we may cover it with, the human experience is defined by the exercise of our power to make a mark on the world. In this, we reflect the image of our Creator, who by His very words called forth the universe. Whatever power we wield is His gift, meant for stewardship and the extension of His wondrous creative spirit through the whole earth.

If this picture is accurate, why the rampant reported distrust? Because institutions are human-created and human-maintained, the power they ostensibly wield for good can be turned toward such evil or apathy as is common to man. Since the Fall, our God-given power is often twisted toward these unjust ends, transforming cultivation into coercion and turning our fellow image-bearers into objects to be used and abused. Moreover, institutional injustice is capable of spreading man’s sin and destruction on a massive scale, with police brutality toward African Americans, re-emergent abuses and coverups within Roman Catholic clergy, and the raft of rape and sexual harassment incidents and coverups in churches, businesses, and government offices representing just a few recent examples.

Beyond that, we recoil against having our personal power constrained by accountability and responsibility. If institutions, when abused, magnify sin and its effects, when they function well, they can curtail our baser instincts and our tendency to avoid difficulty. Acting on eroding trust to tear down failing institutions fits well within a sensory, experience-centric culture. Iconoclasm seems to come naturally to us. Institution-building doesn’t have the same appeal, though. It is a slow, often painful process of binding your freedom to a greater cause. It takes courage to tear down broken systems, but immeasurably more courage to stand pat drafting processes, procedures, and policies that can, in time, bring about good.

Perhaps most importantly, thinking about institutions as power structures reminds us that our aversion to use power for good in no way prevents institution-building by less noble actors. When we neglect or cast off the institutions we have, we are not left with unfettered freedom, but have pledged unwitting allegiance to institutions that we may not yet recognize.

Ordained or Supporting?
The best institutions exist for the benefit of the people they purport to serve, the worst exist to perpetuate themselves at their expense. Institutions begin to fail once they cross this line, to borrow from Miranda again (Burr this time), when they become “just a legacy to protect.” Few, if any, are started with such failure in mind. Trouble arises when institutions lose touch with their constituencies or create unintended consequences. The shortcomings of human nature lead many institutions to “bake in” cultural biases or discriminatory acts that then blossom into massive injustices down the road. When we say that our confidence in institutions is flagging, we perceive that our institutions are ill-suited to the times, or perhaps were never designed for the fullness of human flourishing.

Much as we speak of them abstractly (a transgression I’m guilty of even here), institutions are the antithesis of abstraction. Institutions don’t coolly attempt to enshrine ideology but to enact and sustain the longings of a person or a group. For better or for worse, they push toward the fulfillment of desire.

When our desires are anchored in the ultimate goodness and truth of God, it would be appropriate to speak of the institutions which sustain and work to fulfill those hopes as ordained. Thus we speak of the Church (which shapes and sustains our proper worship and anchors us in an eternal perspective), the family (which is designed to channel the forces of sexual desire and economic need into paths of trust and faithfulness), and government (which, ideally, protect good and punish evil to allow for greater flourishing on the earth until Christ returns). While these institutions can be turned toward evil periodically, there is something of God’s will in them that prevents their dissolution and periodically calls them to reformation and restoration.

Our desires for things less than ultimate can be sinful, to be sure, but can also be healthy outflows of God’s good design. When these subordinate desires are legitimate, it is possible that they will be put into practice through supporting institutions. These, perhaps make up the bulk of what we think of when we think of institutions (schools, civic organizations, businesses, etc.), and even the less noticeable structures that make these visible systems possible (specific laws and policies, denominations, accreditation associations, etc.).

Secondary, supporting institutions necessarily draw their design and authority from the primary, ordained institutions. As a result, over time, it is easy for them to assume a comparable character and status and to demand a level of respect and obedience that they are not due. When our secondary desires become ultimate, the institutions we create to fulfill them drift from supporting flourishing to become consuming idols. The gravest peril there is that “those who make [idols] will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:8, NIV).

This, as Patrick Deneen has argued in Why Liberalism Failed, seems to be the case with many of the political and cultural institutions that we veritably worship in the West (representative democracy, capitalism, tolerance, etc.). These are shaped by, and shape us into, the enacted ideas of the Enlightenment. They are designed to protect an individual, de-cultured, displaced and disembodied concept of freedom. Ultimately, though, these systems have crowded out older structures which drove us to family, community, and place and have, paradoxically, trapped us in the tyranny of our own unchecked desires.

Trust and the Church
As the only group founded on the explicit content of Jesus Christ—incarnate, crucified, and resurrected—the Church is the one indispensable, foundational institution. Lest we fall into modernist conceit, I will stretch the definition of “Church” here to include the fullness of God’s covenant dealings with His people from Eden to Israel to the Apostles to the present day and on through the coming of the New Jerusalem. The other ordained institutions draw their life and significance from this story. Marriage and family serve as emblems reflecting its holy order (as Ephesians 5 tells us). Government, however flawed, is designed to reflect the good rule of our righteous King. All the supporting institutions man creates can only peripherally and for seasons overlap with the underlying reality of the Church. They succeed and endure to the extent that they enact the liturgical rhythms, community, justice, and equity prescribed by our good and holy God.

The visible churches we are part of so often fall far short of this reality. The Scriptures are ignored or mishandled. The cultural conceits of particular times, places, and groups become entangled with ecclesial authority. Churches are turned into the handmaidens of various political or social systems. We have so seldom seen churches that lovingly shine forth as the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15, NIV) in all its theological and ethical facets.

This is nothing new. Closing the gap between the model of Christ and the visible realities in the beloved community was the chief concern of Paul, Peter, John and all the New Testament epistles. It is the core animating discussion of the church fathers, and the great ecumenical councils. Who is this Jesus, and what does He ask of us? We are a wicked and deceitful people, and the best that our visible churches can attain to this side of glory is a humble posture of semper reformanda.

To the extent that today’s crisis of trust is a real phenomenon (at least in the West), perhaps it is simply a coming to terms with the reality that we’ve confused the ordained power of the Church with its supporting institutions. So much of ministry of has been co-opted from local churches and corporatized in parachurch organizations, denominational entities, and businesses. Discipleship and community ministry have been professionalized, with the basic faithfulness of church members buried under curricula and certifications or simply outsourced to a proliferation of paid staff. The cooperation of churches for global evangelization and relief and development has spawned agencies and NGOs that are now seen as the primary face of the work. There is a predictable pathway to a certain sort of “rich and famous” through the Christian publishing and conference circuit, and the organizations that facilitate that do a tidy business in their own right.

None of this is inherently wrong, but there is a very strong sense that our support structures are masquerading as the church itself. Theologian Lesslie Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society wrote that “[parachurch ministries] have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.” The entrepreneurial rise of the parachurch sector, particularly in the 20th century, allowed churches to turn inward, focusing their ministry on the comfort and happiness of their members while still feeling like the larger ministry objectives commanded by Scripture were being addressed by external organizations. The people in the pews no longer feel able or responsible to undertake their core callings to follow Christ, love their neighbors as themselves, and make disciples. It’s as though the church were a business where some 80-90% of employees think of themselves instead as customers. Every parachurch and trendy ministry strategy will ultimately pass away, but the Church remains.

I said above that our crisis of confidence exists “At least in the West,” because much of the situation I’ve just described has only been made possible by the church’s de facto alliance with the dominant culture. We’ve operated out of a sense of power and entitlement, and that is breaking down. Paradoxically, our anxiety about the loss of power has led many to join themselves to political parties and to create organizations that have served to accelerate that loss and alienate the very people we’re called to love. The collapse of the structures we are accustomed to here could be simply a return to the status the church has always lived with in much of the world and even the subdominant communities within our own culture.

What’s Next?
The church seems poised to undergo a season of great humbling. In God’s good provision, I expect it to also be a period of true growth. Amid the rubble of unholy alliances and fallen celebrities, the faithful remnant continues to gather for worship through Word and sacrament, week in and week out. The body of Christ, particularly in her most under-appreciated and unloved corners, stands, facing down the calumny brought on by the fall of misguided efforts to make her great.

The tools of confession and forgiveness were given by Christ to His church to address inevitable outbreaks of sin and division. These practices are extensions of His grace, enabling us to speak the full truth with full love. This mutual truth-telling is the only way to build the trust that allows the visible church to grow and flourish. In other words, confession and forgiveness are the solid foundations of any successful institution. Without them, people can only bite and devour one another, tearing down one structure after another, whether or not it needs to go. The question of whether our society maintains and regains confidence in the church and the rest of our public institutions seems to depend a great deal on our recovery of these disciplines. When we do, we may be astonished by what we can then begin to build together.

Image: Chicago’s Gold Coast at sunset, October 2018.

Heritage

The six-year-old spotted it first
From the back seat on the back road;
White, blue, and red, waving from the
Pole on the back corner of the
Back stoop of the house with the
Roll roofing and the laundry tree
Creaking in the backyard. “What’s that?
“A broken American flag?”

I see it there, yes, but those same
Stars and bars adorn the front porch
Of the fine house on the front street
With magnolias in the front yard,
And the front of the ball cap and
The front bumper of the Camry
And the coin shop on Frontage road.

I suppose I should be proud that
My child lived six years in the South
Before noticing the banner,
Or that I now no longer think
It a thing to hold in tension,
Tweeting justice from the drive-thru.

But all I can discern is how
My great-great-grandfather followed
This hand-stitched flag to a hell his
Sixteen-year-old self thought righteous.

Image: Chattanooga from Lookout Mountain, September 2017

A True and Better Way to Be

The last of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Nothing I’ve said in this series is truly original to me (or even to this millennium, in terms of Scriptural exposition), and there is much more left unsaid. Why then does the suggestion that the church could and should do more to elevate and affirm the dignity of our sisters cause so many Christian men to squirm?

Perhaps it is better to ask why anything going by the label of “feminism” (however accurate) under a Christian header is likely to draw condemnation from theological conservatives—in long, deconstructive blog posts, sharp Tweets, and nuanced sermons—while blatant sexual abuse and an entrenched culture of misogyny requires a society-wide mass movement to even begin receiving a second look. Increasingly, it must look to those outside the church as though any attempt to use Scripture to prop up a hard-and-fast division of gender roles is little more than a fig leaf for powerful men who want to keep women from that same power so that they can continue to abuse them whenever, wherever, and however they choose.

The body of Christ should be at the forefront of overturning this imbalance, but Satan is no fool, and he has divided us here as in so many other places. The congregations and denominations that give this a running shot are typically already well down the road of letting the world interpret Scripture for them on multiple other points, undercutting their witness and effectiveness in changing the larger church conversation. A Christ-like feminism has to look to Him and His Word as its sources, not “dumpster-diving” for ideas in the trash bin of history, as Carl Ellis would say.

Scripture is shot through with a robust vision of both male and female dignity and power, affirming God’s good design and honoring His authority. This is not a tacked-on or optional back-reading that has to be shoehorned into a Christ-centered understanding of the Bible, but quite foundational to the Gospel message. As we explored in the second post of this series, if denouncing violence and mistreatment of women seems, through our theological lenses, as so much creeping liberalism, our understanding of gender relationships has indeed been built around evil and oppression—not Scripture—all along.

A vision of Christ’s love for women, seeking their dignity, protection, and flourishing is not hard to find in the gospels. Christ pauses His “important work” to have compassion on desperate, shamed woman and heal her (Luke 8). Christ pours out the joy of living water on a woman running from her past (John 4). Christ protects a sinful woman from the over-harsh judgment of a hypocritical mob of men so that she might receive grace to repent (John 8). Christ allows a woman who has been used up and cast out byJohannes_(Jan)_Vermeer_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_Google_Art_Project men to bathe his feet with perfume and wash them with her hair (Luke 7). Christ entrusts the testimony of His resurrection to a woman, who could not even bear witness in a court of law in that day (John 20).

Christ’s very existence in human form is our model (Phil. 2:5-11). Incarnation is the opposite of both abuse and paternalism. It inverts the world’s idea of power, subsuming infinite strength and privilege into loving, sacrificial service. Christ empties Himself, voluntarily sheds the trappings of power to exercise it most fully in submission to the lowly and bearing the most unjust of deaths for us.

In God’s grace, this present apocalypse—this unveiling of secret sins—should be seen as an instance of judgment that begins in His own household (a la 1 Peter 4:17), purging us and fitting us to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). May He rip away all our idols of toxic masculinity (and toxic femininity) that deface the image of God with broken alternatives. May He use it to lift up the work and voices of men and women who can demonstrate Christ’s restoration to the used, abused, and sorrowing. May the church repent from reflecting the worst of our culture and grow to leading us all in the way of Christ—defending the weak, freeing the captives, holding evildoers to account, and teaching a true and better way to be—as many already are, and have throughout her history.

This is the way to “get the straight of things,” to take justice and righteousness from the realm of “taste” back to the center of what it means to faithfully follow Christ together.

One Next Step
If we’ve come to grips with the scope of the problem, and begun to own the diagnosis that God’s church is experiencing an “epidemic of denial,” what do repentance, corporate lament, confession, and mutual accountability look like?

I’ll return again to my friend quoted in the first post of the series. I’ve left her voice anonymous out of respect for her privacy (though she’s more than welcome to change that at her discretion). She is a biblically grounded, faithful follower of Jesus, an active member of a church in a theologically conservative denomination, and employed at an internationally recognized ministry organization. If you need all that context in order to hear what she says, though, instead of being willing simply to listen to the concerns of a daughter of the King, you’ll understand why I’ve tried to write what I’ve written.

“As a woman in the church who is oh so very tired, I’ll say this: if you are pastor or leader within the church, particularly in theologically conservative circles where women do not hold direct positions of leadership, it’s essential that you acknowledge this moment. We need you to acknowledge what it’s like. If you aren’t, you are shirking your pastoral responsibilities.

“Start simply. As a first step, add five sentences to your congregational prayer next week. Each week, your sisters hear prayers about natural disasters, shootings, abortion, or decisions and crises facing our immediate church body. Expand your horizons with something as simple as:

‘Jesus, in the midst of seemingly endless stories and revelations of how our sisters experience hurt and degradation, even and especially in the church, I pray for my sisters in this room. Would you give them peace and courage in the absolute reality that they bear your image and are precious to you. As their brothers, we repent of the ways each of us individually and collectively have been passive, dismissive or perpetrators of transgressions against our sisters. We have failed to reflect your image in how we have treated them. God, bind up the broken-hearted in this room, and help all of us to be agents of your mercy and holiness toward one another.’

“If you think that this prayer would set off a firestorm of controversy within your church, you need to pray it all the more. Because your sisters even more desperately need it, and your brothers need to hear it, too.

“I can tell you with complete vulnerability and honesty, if I heard this prayer, I would burst into tears of relief. And I guarantee you I wouldn’t be the only one.

That’s where I pray we can go next.”

Image: Christ in the House of Mary & Martha by Jan Vermeer

Cultivation vs. Coercion

Third of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church. Part 1. Part 2.

Even if the unjust treatment of women by men is not a result of our faith (rightly considered), Scripture certainly still has much to say about it. Right there in the Garden, at the moment of our descent into sin and shame, God pronounced a curse on the very works of cultivation for which He created us. Because we trusted the word of the serpent over the design of the Lord, the ground would no longer respond well to the man’s tending, and the man would no longer respond with love to the work of the woman in his life.

A key component of this curse toward the woman is that the man will not only resist, but that he will “rule over” her (Gen. 3:16). Relationships crafted to demonstrate God’s goodness and creative spirit are instead handicapped by a visceral power dynamic—one more expression of our central sin of pride. Our confidence is no longer in our submission to God, but in the strength and wisdom we think we possess.

As Andy Crouch has pointed out in his excellent work, Playing God, our call to cultivate and care for all God had made was enabled by His gift of power; power meant for stewardship and the extension of His wondrous creative spirit through the whole earth. Since the Fall, our God-given power is often twisted toward unjust ends, transforming cultivation into coercion and turning our fellow image-bearers into objects to be used and abused.

Unjust power is an audacious grift, an attempt to usurp God’s authority without the foundation of His omniscience and lovingkindness—in other words, an idol. And we are so, so slow to give up this false god of coercive power over others. Its tentacles weave through our works, allowing mankind to create unspeakable evils and corrupting even our best efforts. Such is the root of our mistreatment of women and the church’s ignorance or toleration of a broken status quo. The same can be said of racism, abortion, marginalization of the weak, disabled, and elderly, perpetuation of poverty, proliferation of war, and every other systemic sin.

In this light, pornography is revealed as an extension of sexual abuse, warping desires and feeding the beast of consumption for those who lack the social power to do such unspeakable things in the real world and get away with it. Women appearing in that footage are often paid next to nothing or, in many cases, actually held in some form of slavery, making the visual delivery of their bodies as a “product” a direct result of their actual abuse at the hands of others. As the Avett Brothers sing in “True Sadness”: “Angela became a target / As soon as her beauty was seen / By young men who tried to reduce her down / To a scene on a x-rated screen / Is she not more than the curve of her hips? / Is she not more than the shine on her lips? / Does she not dream to sing and to live and to dance down her own path / Without being torn apart? / Does she not have a heart?

Perhaps the epidemic of pornography in our churches (that now swallows up women, in addition to men) both contributes to and flows from the softer dehumanization we’ve grown accustomed to. Brokenness is always cyclical.

A healthy feminism is the staunch opponent of all such coercion, but much of what passes under that name has instead been a cheerleader for the same sorts of acts, provided that they are perpetrated by women instead of against them. If gender is merely a social construct, then difference itself is the only injustice. A feminism aimed there, that encourages women to seek equality by acting in the same sinful consumption that men have gotten away with—striving for social, cultural, and sexual dominance—misses so many of the deeper evils.

I’d argue, in fact, that our present moment is a much the death of that movement as it is the death of silent suffering at the hands of pigs and patriarchs. The emergence of a what has been described as “rape culture” on university campuses suggests that men still hold the balance of power in any pitched battle for sexual freedom.

What of Marriage?
In such a cycle of coercion and abuse, what value can there be to marriage? Is it not just one more social structure in which women are forced to subsume their person and will to the desires of men?

Going back to Genesis, we see marriage described not as a display of power, but an act of mutual care and cultivation: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:24-25). When Paul takes up this matter in Ephesians 5, he calls it a “profound mystery” that does not merely reflect God’s good design of Creation, but portrays God’s mercy in repairing what has been broken through Christ’s “marriage” to His church.

For most that object to this reading, though, it is Paul’s words a few verses before that cause them to stumble: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph. 5:22-23). Some see this as proof positive of the evil of marriage, and others tie themselves in hermeneutical knots trying to explain how Paul unfairly introduces a hierarchical structure to a beautifully egalitarian institution. It seems clear, though that we have to interpret this instruction in light of the “profound mystery,” and not the other way around.

Submission is only submission if it is an act of will cutting against the grain, just like the counterpart command for men to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). We are to emulate Christ, not Pharaoh, who used the people to make him wealthy and comfortable; Christ, not Solomon, who multiplied pleasures to himself; Christ, not even Elijah, who abandoned his calling when he was discouraged. Any other model of marriage is not only dysfunctional, but diabolical, in that it mars a God-ordained portrait and sends a false message about Christ.

Loving my wife as Christ loved the church is not a “natural” act, and certainly not a “masculine” one (at least in the cultural sense). It is something that I would never conceive of, let alone attempt, without the transforming power of Christ. Likewise, submission is not the normative state of “femaleness”, but the conscious entering in to a Christ-like act of sacrifice by a strong, free, individual. It is a call to mutual obedience (within the marriage covenant) not a ratification of the world’s status quo. What spiritual value is there in submitting to your husband if you live in constant dread of all men everywhere? Only a strong woman can submit well. What spiritual value is there in leading your wife if you are called to lord your privilege and power over all women? Only a weak man needs to be so propped up.

Of course, marriage is meant to mirror Christ redeeming the church, but not to the exclusion of his redeeming love toward His daughters themselves. In this picture, a groom is a reflection, not a replacement, of Christ. Our brothers and sisters who pursue full lives of godly service in singleness are no less powerful images of God than those called to participate in that particular re-enactment of redemption. I’ve seen so many single women among my friends and family* offer brilliantly faithful service to the church, in the face of immense cultural pressure to marry, serve outside of their gifting, or abandon the way of Christ to seek their pleasure in the world. Such a life is not second-class, but boldly sacrificial and worthy of praise.

Part 1: Tasteless, but Excusable? Dehumanization, Women, and the Church
Part 2: Men and Women, Image-Bearing, and Scripture
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

*Why I’m not similarly acquainted with very many young single men is a sociological conversation for another time.

Image: Samaritan Woman Meets Jesus, Byzantine Icon