Do We Really Need Institutions?

I’ve just completed a review essay of Jim Reimer’s book Toward an Anabaptist Political Theology: Law, Order, and Civil Society. toward and anabaptist politicalReimer didn’t complete the book before he died in 2010, but Paul Doerksen collected the essays Reimer was working with and published them in 2014 (Cascade). Reimer tries to do several things in the essays Doerksen collected. One of them, though, was to push back against the idea that institutions are unnecessary. We see this idea crop up in Christian anarchist circles, in some emergent conversations and in the suggestion that relationship with Jesus can somehow be distinguished from the practices of  ‘religion.’

Reimer is far from alone in this worry that contemporary Anabaptists have too little appreciation for institutions. Jonathan Chaplin, member of the Divinity faculty at Cambridge University, began a 2011 article in Comment magazine this way: “Institutions and organizations are out; networks and relationships are in . . . .” Later in the article he wrote, “Some also claim—for example, heralds of the emergent church movement, or neo-Anabaptists—that the appearance of a network model of social change provides new openings for Christians to bear public witness. Breaking free from the constraints of mainstream institutions, Christians can join the ‘subaltern’ flux on the margins of society, generate their own relational networks, and inject messages of hope (justice, peace, community, and so on) in the interstices of the current system.”[1]

While Reimer understood himself as a member of a minority religious community, he was not shy about his view that Christians should have a constructive presence in those central institutions of civil society, the ones that make and enforce laws. Chaplin is too quick in painting Anabaptists, neo- and otherwise, with the anti-institutional brush, but the point of his essay, that Christians should support “loving institutions” is important. He writes, “Even the radical sixteenth-century Swiss Anabaptists . . . would not have bequeathed their remarkable gifts of peace and toleration to the world, had Anabaptism not assumed denominational forms like that which became the Mennonite church.” The truth is that even prophetic speech requires a legal framework. The biblical prophets called wayward communities to observe the standards of the Torah. The simple conclusion is that Christians should be in favor of good institutions, both those labeled ‘Christian’ and those of civil society.

[1] Jonathan Chaplin, “Loving Faithful Institutions: Building Blocks of a Just Global Society,” Comment, (Sept. 1, 2011), found online at https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/2904/loving-faithful-institutions-building-blocks-of-a-just-global-society/ (accessed August 2015).

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