Prairie View

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Biblical Institutions

The following article was written more than a year and a half ago and submitted for publication elsewhere. It has never been published.

A critic of mine once castigated me for what he perceived as an assault on a Biblical institution. In an effort to clarify for myself what I was or was not guilty of, I undertook a study of the words “Biblical” and “institution.” I also studied several derivatives of the word “Biblical.” My observations since that time more than a decade ago convince me that much confusion exists on the proper understanding of these terms, and, because of it, no consensus emerges on where our highest loyalties are to be directed. Problems are compounded when the institutions we are familiar with are categorized under the wrong heading.

When an institution is Biblical, I assume that its design has either been exemplified positively in Scripture, or its form and function have been decreed by specific command in Scripture. An Unbiblical institution is one that is either exemplified negatively in the Bible, is banned in Scripture, or is simply the direct opposite of what has been commanded.

The third category, that which is Extra-Biblical, seems to cause the most difficulty.
Some of the things that rightfully belong here are often unthinkingly and perhaps even unconsciously classed under one of the previous headings: Biblical or Unbiblical. Rightly categorized, this group is made up of things that are not mentioned at all in Scripture.

Part of the difficulty is that the word Biblical has several different meanings. Besides the operating definition given previously, the word can apparently be used to extrapolate from what is clearly Biblical according to command, or Bible example-with-positive-outcome-or-commentary. These extensions of what is clearly Biblical are justified on the basis of their being consistent with the principles in Scripture. They may be regarded as some of a principle’s varied applications.

In the case of institutions, in order to be considered Biblical, they ought to actually be present in the Bible in a recognizable form, or they ought to operate under the principles for institutions that are present in Scripture.

According to my observation, when an institution comes into being without a clear mandate to fulfill the mission of one of the Biblical institutions, it will function without the blessing of unassailable design instructions and clear Bible examples to emulate, and may lack a well-designed sense of purpose and direction. The longer an institution goes on in this condition, the more out-of-balance it becomes. When problems develop, precious time can be wasted trying to tweak the operation of the institution when simply looking backward to examine its Biblical basis for existing at all would be far more productive and instructive.

Schools are a case in point. They are not mentioned in Scripture.* No commands relating to their design and mission can be found, and no examples are present. They are thus Extra-Biblical, unless they function directly under one of the Biblical institutions. The only way they can fit into either of the other two categories is by operating as an extension of an institution that is commanded or approved in the Bible, or by counteracting such an institution, in which case they would be Unbiblical.

Elementary schools, as operated in our communities, are institutions for child teaching or training. Since commands to train children are always directed in Scripture to parents, schools ought to function as extensions of the Christian family, one of the Biblical institutions.
The teaching ministry of the church (also a Biblical institution) is to be directed to people of accountable age–those who ought to be deciding to follow Christ in life, or those who have already done so.

Rather than undertaking the teaching of children directly, the church ought first to be equipping parents to teach, thus enabling them to meet their obligations to their families. In some cases, more direct assistance may be necessary in addition to this equipping effort. In turn, the families ought to be working to produce individuals that will one day help further the mission of the church by evangelizing and teaching adults or those approaching adulthood. Meanwhile, this life together prepares each household member and other observers to understand the rich family imagery that characterizes many New Testament writings.

These families do not function in isolation however. They operate as part of a larger church family and as a part of the community in which they live. This setting optimizes the success of various Biblical institutions. Children prepare for their own adult roles in the church and community by being taught diligently, and by observing the daily lives of parents who take their contribution in these arenas seriously, and fulfill them with Godly wisdom and maturity.
Children are far less likely to see this exemplary behavior modeled by their peers whose immaturity mirrors their own.

Jesus Himself, when children came to Him, took them in his arms, blessed them, and taught–not the children–but His disciples.** The children presumably soon returned, freshly loved and blessed, to their parents. Jesus did not organize a teaching effort specifically for children but he always welcomed them into the middle of any event he was part of.

For the church to thrust itself into a trainer-of-children role when the parents are willing and able to assume this role themselves, seems counter-productive at best. Worse, such action reveals a misunderstanding of the role of two important Biblical institutions (church and family) and one Extra-Biblical institution (school). This misunderstanding results in ongoing confusion, struggle, and disappointment.

As one who is directly involved in the home, the church, and the Christian school, I anticipate the day when the role of each of these institutions is widely and generally understood in relation to Scripture and the implications of making it our pattern for life.

I am grateful to my critic for providing the impetus for sorting out these complexities by the aid of a trusty dictionary, the Word of God, and the teaching, guiding Holy Spirit.

*The word school is mentioned only as a preaching location for Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:9–the school of Tyrannus). This was likely a lecture hall rather than a classroom for children.

**When Jesus wanted to train his disciples to do His will, he invited them to come live with him. He did not send them away to school. They walked, worked, and lived together for approximately three years.