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.
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.