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.

Honor Codes and Celebrity Woes

A musing from several years ago.

When is honor dishonorable?

A major subject of discussion in the American evangelical scene over the past several years has been the presence and influence of certain “celebrity pastors”. Much has been written on whether well-known personalities in Christian ministry qualify as “celebrities” or merely “public figures”—whether they gain notoriety for faithfulness and accomplishments or whether they seek fame and power and use the Church as their platform. A helpful roundup of these thoughts is available here (ironically enough, a panel discussion of well-known pastors in front of a crowd of 7,000).

There are other issues underneath this general discussion, notably the increasing lack of oversight and accountability for famous pastors and speakers. Carl Trueman (who appears on the panel mentioned above) writes incisively about a few flare-ups of this phenomenon here (N.b.: Since writing this in 2013, the list of fallen Christian celebrities has sadly grown longer and longer).

Most of what I hear on the subject focuses on three areas in particular 1) the aforementioned accountability issues, 2) the seeping into the Church of the general celebrity culture of the contemporary West, or 3) the role of mass and social media in “feeding the beast”. What if, perhaps, there was something else operating in the shadows here? Something more primal, more dangerous, because it comes from within?

Honor Codes and Christ
One of our church elders (who also happens to be a professor of English literature) and I were talking about the prevalence of honor codes in world literature. He noted that, despite surface differences, shame/honor cultures typically function by elevating the social standing of men who conform to a given culture’s ideal of manhood and shielding those who rise from dishonor or any damage to their reputation. Christianity, he argued, subverts that model in the person of Christ—He receives the highest honor (being seated at the right hand of the Father and receiving worship from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation forever) through being subjected to the highest dishonor this life could muster (emptying Himself, betrayal by friends, false accusation, public humiliation, execution as a criminal). That radical perspective shift upends the notions of manhood, leadership, and power in the Church, giving Christians a framework by which humility, tenderness, patience, etc. become markers of strength rather than weakness.

The Code Redeemed in the Church
In a sense, Paul expounds this redeemed code of honor in his description of the character of elders/overseers in the Church: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:2-7).

To qualify as a leader in the Church, a man must be recognized as holding to the standards to which all believing men should aspire—pastors and elders are not called to be a breed of theological übermenschen, but rather faithful men who lead others by teaching and example to greater Christ-likeness so that the witness of the Gospel may be upheld and spread. Paul says as much in introducing this list of qualities: ”It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1).

Double Honor
Even so, this is not an easy calling, and Satan desires the distortion and downfall of God’s good plan for Church leadership. For this reason, Paul shares (later in the same letter), that “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). He suggests that those who labor in the Word for the benefit of the body should be compensated for their work (5:18), and that criticism and accusation against them should be weighed carefully (5:19).

It is right and good that we should honor and, in some measure, elevate those who serve the Church well. Like cream, they rise because of their obedience and perseverance over the long haul. Perhaps they even gain notoriety beyond their local church and community through media transmission of their teaching. Though it is easier to gain a wide audience through today’s technology, this goes all the way back to the beginning of the Church in that its leaders often wrote widely and impacted wide swaths of the population. The Church Fathers, and later the Reformers, were something of “celebrity pastors” in their own day, and their writings continue to wield influence. Again, to be a celebrated teacher of God’s Word is not inherently problematic, and the Church past and present has benefitted through the very public ministries of some men.

The Code Resurgent
Perhaps this is where we swerve. All it takes for the old pagan code of honor to overtake this righteous double honor is the most natural of human weaknesses—pride. As soon as the man who gains fame from ministry begins to believe that this condition arises from his work rather than the Lord’s, he will chafe against any attempt to counsel or correct him. When other godly leaders pointing out his errors or character flaws, he sees it not as loving reproof but an affront to his reputation. To save face, he may surround himself with yes-men and go to great lengths to remove himself from those who would correct him. From there, it is a short road to disaster, for the celebrated man, his church, and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ around the world.

Our enemy is endlessly creative in the ways he can bring this to bear to the ruin of the Gospel. For some, he delights in allowing them to faceplant into sexual or financial sin that anyone who was listening to godly counsel would have fled long before it consumed him. For others, he seeks to have them continue in authority but tempts them through their pride to teach false doctrine and lead many thousands astray from Christ. Most dangerously (and most germane to the issue at hand within the evangelical and Reformed communities), he seeks to get believers to separate the life and doctrine of public teachers, so that we accept many failings so long as their words retain the truth of Scripture. In such cases, the ripple effects of unaccountable leadership trickle down to cripple churches with leaders who answer only to their own egos.

The Corrective: Biblical Authority
The shame/honor dynamic is deeply embedded in our sinful hearts, and it is always ready to creep back into the Church. This is why, almost in the same breath as he urges honor for Gospel ministers, Paul minces no words to ensure that honor is well checked: “[Elders] who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality” (2 Tim. 5:20-21). The Lord knows that men, even His chosen redeemed, are sinful and would abuse the honor given them to make much of themselves at the expense of Christ and His Church. Therefore, He establishes 1) a plurality of elders to keep the whole church in submission to God and prevent any one man from co-opting a local church, and 2) a firm standard to rein in those who go too far.

Public ministry is a privilege, but it can become a precipice without the oversight of faithful elders. Any man given a broad platform to teach and preach ought to be exceedingly careful to submit to the authority within his local church, to men who know him and his proclivities and who will not hesitate to strike loving blows upon his sinful heart when necessary. To step out from under that umbrella is to cross the threshold from public figure to “celebrity”—without authority over you, you are left unprotected from both the enemy’s snares and the destructive capacity of your own heart.

As to those of us in the pews who are in no danger of becoming publicly known pastors, what is our responsibility in this? First, we should be shrewd in accepting teaching from any “celebrity pastor” and “test the spirits,” checking their words and  by the Word and being wary of any who are not fully submissive to the elders of their local church. Second, we should submit ourselves to the Word and elect our  own pastors and elders with great discernment. As Paul warns, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin” (1 Tim. 5:22). To exercise that level of care and concern for sake of the Gospel and its teachers is honor indeed.

The Curious Difficulty of Numinous Fiction

Why do so many Protestant writers on the numinous (or even the religious) come across disingenuous, cloying, or false? If, as Joseph Bottum and others have suggested, the novel is essentially a Protestant art form, why is it that those who take the Bible most literally and believe Reformed doctrine most fully write fiction most dreadfully?

Of course, there are manifold exceptions (Defoe, Austen, Brontë, etc.). Perhaps the better question is to ask why the world of doctrine and spiritual life, of a real and active God, so brilliantly articulated in Protestant sermons so often fails to animate our works of fiction? Bottum argues that the form itself, so encoded with the Protestant understanding of the individual’s relationship to God and the world (in which the inner, spiritual life is paramount), collapses under its own weight when too self-consciously attempting to portray spiritual realities. He writes, “To write a Protestant novel is, instead, to do something a little unnecessary, a little verging on the redundant. And when a deliberately Protestant novel fails, it often fails because it seems didactic and preachy, engaged in what the art form itself promises that readers can take for granted.”

In the twentieth century, particularly the post-war era, the literary voices in Britain and America most able to capture the realm of faith  were overwhelmingly Catholic—Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, William M. Miller (A Canticle for Liebowitz). The best “Protestant” writers of the period were mostly secular in life and work—Robert Penn Warren, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, etc. Serious Protestant writing flowered in extremes of abstraction or concretion: poetry (notably T. S. Eliot) and theology (C. S. Lewis, John R.W. Stott, J.I. Packer, among many others).

City scenes--St. Paul's Chapel

Looking heavenward in a material world.

Among these Catholic writers, themes of faith are handled in very different ways. Greene’s The Power and the Glory is a very Catholic story about a very bad Catholic, but God comes across convincingly (though subtly) as the main actor. Miller imagines how the Church can continue and rebuild society after a nuclear holocaust. O’Connor’s short stories are memorable for the violent intrusion of grace into the lives of smugly self-satisfied characters (through the theft of an artificial leg in “Good Country People” or a high-velocity book to the forehead in “Revelation”). Waugh and Percy’s characters (Charles Ryder, Binx Bolling, Will Barrett) explore dead-ends of selfish personal fulfillment, reaching beautiful resolution by the merest hint at conversion.

Why in this barbaric, scientistic, hypersexualized modern world (to which Scripture has so much to say) have Catholics rather than Protestants (particularly Bible-drenched evangelicals) handled the interaction between God and Creation so much more believably? This is a line of questioning that I’ve wrestled with for a long time (as a member of that most insufferable class–aspiring writers) and one that seems of peculiar importance in a day that promises less and less attention to traditional modes of Christian discourse.

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