From time to time I ponder the importance of Ecclesiology and the legitimacy and role of church institutions in the life and practice of believers . As a loyal and service-minded member of both a local congregation as well as a larger body of believers that extends around the world, I ponder the tension that exists between being generally loyal to imperfect but generally godly institutions and being a rather critical and frequently solitary person who brings a great deal of broader reading and context to the questions of my own particular place and situation. In particular, I would like to deal with a tension that I think about often but which I seldom see expressed openly, and that is the tension between the role of institutions in shaping and reforming individual believers and the role of individuals in shaping and reforming their imperfect institutions.
We all know, whether or not we often dwell on the fact, that we are not perfect beings. If forced, we may be able to confess at least some of our shortcomings and weaknesses and reflect in a melancholy way on the way in which our lives are not quite as good as they could be if we did not have to wrestle so often and so unsuccessfully with the trials and shortcomings that we have in our lives. No doubt anyone who knows me personally can think of at least a few flaws and vulnerabilities that I have that make my life more complicated and less enjoyable than it could be, and I have at least some idea of some flaws that those around me suffer from, being an observant and somewhat critical person as I am. Given that we are imperfect, then, there are all ways in which the institutions we are a part of seek to shape us and to encourage the better angels of our nature so that we may be of more general use and productivity to other people in how we spend our time and our money. We may resist this pull, but we are aware of its existence and may, in our more generous moments, concede at least some legitimacy to it.
We also know, whether or not we dwell on it, that the institutions we are a part of are themselves imperfect. We can all complain, whether or not we choose to, about the imperfections of our families, of the businesses we work for, of the churches we attend, and on and on. If shoved into a corner and made unable to escape, even ministers will be able to admit the imperfections of the congregations and church organizations they loyally serve, and certainly plenty of more critical people can be found. Our institutions are imperfect, of course, because they are made of people, and even if we could make perfect laws and rules, they would be enforced by people with imperfect knowledge and understanding and their own moods and attitudes and imperfect obedience to those laws and rules themselves. We make mistakes in our dealings with others, and other people make mistakes themselves. Sometimes other people make mistakes in institutions that make our own lives more difficult, and it is difficult to separate our own personal experiences in a given institution from our opinion of the larger institutions whose dealings may be largely opaque to us because of our limited knowledge and experience.
If, then, we realize that we are imperfect and that our institutions have a role in helping to shape us and encourage us to be better and that our institutions are imperfect and we have some responsibility in shaping them and making them better, we are placed in a position of considerable awkwardness. How willing are we to accept the growth that comes to us from being a part of institutions that push us to waste less time and to give more of ourselves to others than we might be inclined to do if left to our own devices? On the other hand, how willing are our institutions to accept our own insights as to the difference between those aspects of our heritage and tradition that are worth holding on to tenaciously and which of them are instead the tenacious survivors of human folly and evil that have become encrusted like barnacles to the ships we serve on? Perhaps we are willing to grow but our institutions are not. Perhaps our institutions are amenable to growth and progress where it can be clearly demonstrated and explained. Perhaps neither or both are amenable to growth and development and (hopefully) positive change. Whatever is the case, though, we are in a position where there is a mutual desire on our part and on the part of the institutions around us for the other side to be better so that there is less of a tension.
We would expect, although we do not know this from experience, that this tension would be less if we and the institutions we were a part of were closer to perfection. We read of the oneness that exists, for example, between Jesus Christ and God the Father and wish for that oneness to be a part of our own relationships with God and with each other. And yet we are aware that we are not perfect, fully mature, and that neither are the institutions we are a part of, not least because we are a part of them. To the extent that we wrestle with deep and serious divides within ourselves and between ourselves and others, we are imperfect, but we have a hard time bridging those divides. We often are not willing to see the flaws and shortcomings in either ourselves personally or in ourselves as officeholders and representatives of the institutions that we serve in. Where we are willing to see that there are flaws or shortcomings, we may not know what can be done about them, or what would be right. Nor may we agree on who has the authority or legitimacy to do something about the problem or even to point out and publicly acknowledge its existence. And yet we desire perfection for ourselves and for our institutions, or we may throw our hands up and say that we and our institutions are good enough, even if we and they may not be. We are placed in the position of being aware of our flaws while also created with a longing in our hearts for that which is perfect and requires no further change, longings which cannot be fulfilled this side of heaven. And so our tension is, at least within our experience, one that can never be entirely resolved but only lessened as we begin to approach the noble standards that we should all be aiming at regardless of how hard of a target it is to consistently hit.
 See, for example: