Distancing Through Institutions
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12-13).
In our study of the subversion of the faith and the distancing of God from the common people and their everyday experiences, we have looked at two of the symbols that have been contributors. These are the symbols of law and of holy men. Very closely connected with these two is the symbol of institution. I propose all three of these symbols of mediation stand as forms of distancing God from man and promote the subverting of the Christian movement.
We need to begin our study of institutions by attempting to discover the meaning of the symbol of institution. When we think of the symbol of institution, the word summons up many sub-symbols that help us to conceptualize the meaning of institution. First and foremost, to have an institution there must be what we might call a symbol of being. This symbol represents an identity or a sense of being which seems to exist apart from the people who make up the institution. Thus, we can talk about the soul or spirit of an institution, and yet we often talk about institutions as though they were completely separate entities from the people who are a part of them. In other words, there is a sense that institutions have a life apart from the people who constitute the institutions. In ancient times people believed this sense of entity that seemed to be present in an institution and gave it life was a spiritual power that enlivened it, controlled it, and gave it power over men. Many moderns refer to this phenomenon as a group-consciousness. However, this term seems to be more of an observation than an explanation and ends up being as metaphysical as the ancient view.
Another prominent symbol that is closely connected with the symbol of institution is the symbol of law or tradition. In fact, I believe it would be safe to say the symbol of law makes up a large part of the foundation of any institution. For without law, an institution could not exist. Likewise, where you find law and tradition, of a necessity, you will also find the symbol of the professional to perform the traditions, administrate, enforce, propagate, and protect the law and the institution. In religion these professionals are represented by the symbol of holy men or clergy. In a true sense, this trinity of law, holy men, and institution cannot be separated because the symbols of holy men and law form the very foundation on which the institution is built. In turn, the institution will invest the holy men and law with the authority and office that is needed to sustain the institution. In fact, it could be the interaction of these three symbols which forms the almost mystical life of an institution: life that is not easily destroyed or changed and life that seems to exist apart from its members and seems to be more powerful than the sum total of its membership.
This leads to another sub-symbol of the institution, which is the symbol of power. All institutions have power and their power seems to be greater than the sum total of the power of their membership. From this we are forced to conclude that their power comes from some source other than themselves. Of course, religious institutions will claim their power comes from God, but unfortunately for them, the Bible places the power source of religion with the authorities and powers in the heavenly realms that are in rebellion against God (Eph. 6:12). Could it be that Bonhoeffer was right when he charged religion with being disobedience in the form of obedience? We also find not only do institutions have power, but that they tend to use their power to organize and control men through force or manipulation. Some may be thinking, does not the Bible tell us to obey the authorities? The answer is yes. And I might add, those passages have been worn out and abused by religion over and over again as religion tries to justify itself and its beguiling loyalty to the state. For the Christian, any obedience given to any institution is and must be qualified obedience, understanding that the powers that enliven institutions are themselves now in rebellion against God (Acts. 4:19).
The Christian obeys them because he believes that bad rule is better than no rule or chaos. The Christian is cautious of any and all institutions, whether religious or secular, recognizing the spiritual powers controlling them in the end stands against God and His Son (Ps. 2:1-30). Surely, no Christian should be so much in love with any institution of this world that he would allow it to stand between him and Jesus. To love the institutions of this world is to love the systems of this world and the ones who controls them (1 John. 2:15-17, 1 Cor. 4:4).
Institution-A Symbol of Death
Institutions are also dependent on the allegiance of their members. Often this allegiance is a blind allegiance to a mere illusion created by the institution (1 Thess. 2:11, 12). In order to do this, the institution must create a unique body of teachings and traditions that separates and sets itself apart from other similar institutions. Then it must indoctrinate and convince its members that its body of teachings and traditions are the truth and only truth. In order to accomplish this, it must create creeds and educational institutions with the sole purpose of propagating its body of teachings. Without realizing it, in this process, a group or movement becomes an institution and sets its body of truth (human deductions about the truth) and itself up as a mediator between God and the people. As a mediator it drives a wedge between its members and other Christians, as well as distancing the people from God by adding an additional mediator between God and His people. When the process is completed, the members are convinced that to leave the institution or question the institution is to leave God or question God. When this happens, their body of truth, which is nothing more than the embodiment of their human deductions about God, becomes the symbols of God’s acceptance and in reality replaces Jesus as the central symbol of their faith. This institutionalization of groups and movements seems to be the fate of all movements that take a physical form in what we call a church. It is here we see one of the paradoxes of life and faith. As life takes its form in a physical body and thus begins to die, so will group faith when it takes its form. Given adequate time, it will evolve into an institution of religion and when it does, it begins to die. Thus, the symbol of institution becomes a symbol of death and decay.
Faith and Institutions
Institutions are of men. Faith is of God. Therefore, faith is filled with life, mystery, and wonders and will come anew to every generation that is open to it. It does not need our help or the help of the institution we have built. In fact, our children and their children will spend a great deal of their time trying to reform or even destroy the institutions we are erecting today. Each generation must break down the religious symbols of the previous generations that have slipped into idolatry, which is the fate of all religious symbols. In contrast to faith, which is filled with life and comes from God, institutions are of men and represent man’s need to set in order his own life and his world. Institutionalism is one of man’s highest forms of self-righteousness and self-immortality. Therefore, it represents man’s chief form of idolatry. Institutions are memorials or symbols of man’s goodness and wisdom before man. However, they stand before God as symbols of egotism, pride, and man’s self-independence. Therefore, they are filled with death and are illusions of man’s vainglory and the hollow shells of yesterday’s faith. We might say that faith is man living from God. In contrast, institutions represent man living from himself. This explains why each generation must find its own faith and not try to live in and from the institutions passed down by its fathers. This is not being disloyal to our fathers’ religion, but rather recognition that faith is a living thing and not a family heirloom.
The Church as an Institution
I know the retort of some will be, “Did not Jesus establish the church, which is an institution?” If we use the modern or current definition of Church, we would have to say that Jesus did not establish a church. The word church has undergone such subversion and evolution that it no longer carries the original meaning. In its original context, it was not a religious word but rather a common word that simply meant a group of people who were called together for a meeting. If used in this way, the answer to the question, “Did Jesus establish a church?” would be yes. He called a group of men to meet in His name. However, this group of men and women who met in His name in the first century could hardly be viewed as an institution as defined above. They had no hierarchy, but rather were led by the Spirit of the living Christ. In contrast to the religions all around them, they had no clergy or holy men except the one true holy man, Jesus Christ. They had no law but Jesus; for to them He was the embodiment of the Law and the prophets. They had no tradition but divine tradition that was lived out by God Himself in the person of Jesus. “For I received from the Lord what I also passed onto you” (1 Cor.11: 23). The things that they received from the Lord were the only traditions they knew and those traditions, like the law, were embodied in the man Jesus Christ. It is obvious from the gospels that all human traditions were looked upon with a questionable eye (Mark 7:6-8, Mt 15:8, 9). In view of this, we might say Jesus has become for us our law, our tradition and our Faith
So we must conclude that Jesus did not establish an institution nor did He establish a church as the word is used today.
There has always been and there will always be a tension between the true followers of Jesus and the idea or symbol of institution. The reasons for this tension are many. For one thing, it was the institutions of the status quo and their professional henchmen that crucified Jesus. Jesus warned His disciples to be on their guard in regard to the religious professionals. Moreover, the disciples knew that the very life of Jesus stood opposed to the very essence of what institutions represented. The symbol of institution and the symbol of Jesus are in no way compatible.
CHART OF SYMBOLS:
OF INSTITUTION OF JESUS
Authority * Servant hood
Power * Weakness Structure
Security * Freedom
Law * Grace /Freedom
Office * Gifts of Ministry
Status Quo * Radical /Fringe
Rich/Middle-Class * Poor/Oppressed
Self-Sufficient * Dependent on God
Ostentatious * Simplistic
When the wind of the Spirit is blowing among God’s people, the fire of Christian freedom will burn up the institutions of religion and reform the institutions of the world. In this we can be confident: when the Spirit of God begins to move among His people, the institutions of the world, both religious
and secular, will gather together to resist it. We see this resistance to God’s Spirit first in the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus and then in the institutions’ effort to destroy God’s people (Rev. 12:1-12).
These institutions are symbolically spoken of in the Book of Revelation as the Beast, the Harlot, and the False Prophet. This unholy trinity represents the economy, political, and religious institutions of this world that are attempting to take the place of God in the eyes of man. The institutions of the world both religious and secular are nothing more than the scaffolding man uses in the erection of his towers of Babel. Both Biblical and secular history reflects God’s response to all this building of institutions. He grinds them into dust and scatters the people to the four winds. In fact, in our own time we are witnessing the destruction of the idols and towers of Babel that modern man has built and placed his faith in. We are witnessing the undoing of Western civilization and all of its institutions including the kingdom of Christendom. For those who have eyes that see, they have been given the honor of seeing God’s Spirit at work in the world in such a clear and powerful fashion that only a man blinded by bias could not see it. The stage is now being set for a tremendous movement of the Spirit of Christ and as always, the corresponding movement of the anti-Christ, which takes its physical form in the institutions of the world. We might be so bold as to say any institution that stands as a mediator, or places a mediator between God and man is anti-Christ. For in doing this, it is seeking to establish that which Christ has abolished.
The institutions of the world always stand in contrast and opposition to the movement of the Spirit. The best example of this can be seen in the history of the Israelites. Under God’s rule they were organized very loosely with the heads of each tribe ruling over the people and the prophets speaking for God as the need arose. When there was a crisis, God would intervene by raising up a judge through whom God would deal with the problem. When the problem was corrected the judge would return to his former calling. In this loosely knit structure, the Israelites demonstrated their faith in the leadership of God and the lack of faith in their own wisdom and power. However, it soon became obvious they were not content with this simple structure and wanted to be more like the nations around them. In short, they wanted the institutional structure of kingship and the security they thought went with it. In asking for kingship, the Israelites were rejecting the leadership of God. When Samuel the prophet asked God about this, God’s reply was, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected as their king, but me” (1 Sam. 8:7). We should not be too hard on the Israelites for in their desire for a king; they were simply reflecting man’s obsession with security and structure. However, God goes on to tell them of the high cost of the security of kingship. The cost would be the loss of much of their freedom and in the end the rejection of God.
We find a striking parallel to the above story of the Israelites and the Christian movement. With Israel, everything was fine as long as the people trusted God. God took care of them and spoke when the need arose. However, it seems the Israelites did not like the uncertainty and the ambiguity of this arrangement. So they clamored for a king. In like manner, we see the early church becoming anxious when its Lord did not return as expeditiously as they had believed He would. So we find them turning more and more to the structures that were being created by their own hands, structures that very much resembled the institutions of the world. In this, they replaced the headship of Jesus and the movement of the Spirit with institutions, traditions, law and, of course, holy men to interpret the law books. In fact, this subversion has been so complete, that the church no longer knows how to listen to the voice of God as He speaks through His prophets. The modern church has done a marvelous job of silencing God by locking Him up in a book or an institution. Some have gone so far as to say God no longer speaks and He no longer has spokesmen on the earth. In this, they have relegated the living God to the status of a dumb idol that neither hears nor speaks. Dead men can only speak through books and institutions; the living Christ can and does speak to His people through His Spirit that He gave to His servants, the prophets. This is not to say the Bible is not the word of God and needful for God’s people. God has given us the Bible as a witness to Christ and as a tool for discerning the words of those who claim to speak for God. In saying this, I understand and am fully aware of the terrible abuses of this idea by the fanatics and those who love the pre-eminence. However, I find the opposite view equally alarming, for it reduces the living God to a lifeless god that neither hears nor speaks except in a book, a book that has been staked out for and by the professionals and their institutions. Be assured that such book religion always evolves into clericalism and institutionalism.
The Bible and Institutions
The truth is, God intended the Bible for the average person who has the Spirit of Christ to help him understand the essentials. Moreover, as we have learned more about the Bible, it has become more and more evident the Bible was
never intended to be looked upon as a book of theology or law, but rather it is made up of pastoral letters sent to groups of ordinary people encouraging them and telling them how to live godly lives. In plain English, the Bible was written to and for the average person. However, the Bible is continually being distanced from the average person by the symbols of institutions (seminaries, Bible colleges, etc.,) and highly educated clergymen who spend most of their time arrogating their religious systems and institutions. No matter how hard we try to justify them, these symbols of institutions send a message to the average person that the Bible is hard to understand and in the end is a book for the highly educated. This is great for the religious professional and their institutions, for it makes people more dependent on them. But the problem is, these symbols are subversive in that they symbolically leave the impression that Christianity itself is difficult and is for the educated, which in turn usually means the middle class. In this, the poor and uneducated, for whom Christ died, are becoming less and less a part of the Western church and its leadership. In this, we have subverted the symbols of the Christian movement and have distanced God from the uneducated and the poor. However, we should not think this process we are witnessing is some new phenomenon, for it is not. It parallels what happened to the Jesus movement of the first four centuries. Now, as then, the faith is being subverted and God is being distanced from the people by the unauthorized symbols of law, holy men, and institutions along with all of their subsymbols.
The criterion for understanding the Bible is not education or the lack of education. It is something that is totally different than the standards of the world. It is called spirituality and comes through true faith in Christ and comes to both the educated and uneducated alike. True spiritual knowledge comes to us not through the institutions of the world, even those that teach the Bible, but rather through the school of Christ; for only Christ can open our eyes to spiritual things because He alone has the power to give us the Spirit to aid us. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:14-16).
We have some in the Jesus movement who believe and arrogate that the institutionalization of Christianity is God’s way of perfecting the movement. It does not take a lot of intelligence to guess who would propose such hokum. They are the ones who benefit the most from the institutions. Be assured that they can come up with all kinds of spiritual flim-flam to convince the naive of their views. But the blood of a formally uneducated carpenter who was crucified by the status quo and its religious henchmen cries out against them and their institutions. And be assured that God is able to save people, not because of the splendid bourgeois institutions that men have built, but in spite of them. Moreover, if men think they impress the world with the institutions they are building, think again. They do not impress the world; they are only becoming like them.
Revelation and Institutions
Does revelation have anything directly to say about institution? Yes, unfortunately. However, it does not use that term. If it had, the institutionalization of the Church may have been prevented or at least slowed. When it speaks about the concept of what we call institution, it uses terms and expressions that are foreign to the modern reader. It uses expressions like rulers, powers, authorities, and principalities. These same expressions were used in Biblical times to make reference to the spiritual counterparts of institutions in the unseen world. For the ancient believed every physical embodiment of power or authority had its counterpart in heaven or in the unseen world. So in ancient times, the concept of institution would have been associated with the spiritual powers. Early Christians viewed these powers as being in a state of rebellion against God and His Christ (Eph. 6:12, 2 Cor. 10:4, 5). From this, we would have to gather that the whole of revelation is antagonistic toward worldly power and any structures in which it may be embodied, whether religious or secular. In time, all human structure will become oppressive and enslave man. The spiritual powers are so powerful that they can even use the Bible to oppress and harm mankind (Rom. 7:11-12). I could go so far as to say Biblical writers would view even the concept of the city or even civilization itself suspiciously.
In view of this, I find it somewhat ironic to see the Christian church enthusiastic about building institutions. This is especially true when one considers the number of educational institutions that have been built by Christians that have in turn evolved into the most liberal and anti-Christian institutions in our culture. They surely must share the blame for the
destruction of the very culture that gave them birth. I am not saying this to denigrate Christianity or its institutions, but rather simply to point out an apparent contradiction and inconsistency, which seems to be the hallmark of the modern church, along with compromise as well.
To see the contrast between the modern church and revelation, all one needs to do is note the culture paradigms each looks to and is built on. The institutional church or the modern church is built on the institution or kingship paradigm, which is best set forth by the symbol of a pyramid. Under this paradigm, we have one man ruling and the others submitting and serving. This is the paradigm on which all of Western culture is built and has led to oppression of women and working class since the beginning of civilization. The foundation of this system or model is authority and law that is vested in the offices of institutions. It is a system that is dependent on power and might and the submission of the low ones to the high ones. In contrast, the Biblical paradigm is that of the body and is totally dependent on relationships and the life that flows from one life to another. Unlike the institution that draws its life from the powers, the body of Christ draws its life from the living Christ. Institutions can live without relationships, the true body of Christ cannot. In fact, institutions thrive on and promote the lack of relationship because real relationship reduces the need for the institution. In this, we can see the Body of Christ is not an organization or an institution, but rather a living organism totally unlike any institution or organization. Though this view is not new, it is seldom that it has been put into practice. The majority of Christians are still locked into an institutional pattern or model that takes its form in the pastoral system in independent churches or the hierarchy system in main line denominations.
I personally cannot believe it was by accident that the apostle Paul used the paradigm of the body in imaging how Christians are to relate to Christ and to each other. It would have been completely natural and far easier for his readers and for him to use the paradigm or model of kingship or institution. However, he chose the paradigm of the body. This was no mere happenstance. He knew, unlike so many moderns, the church must not be imaged as institution. Unlike many moderns, he knew the symbol of institution and the symbol of Christ were totally incompatible with each other. We can gather from his usage and the contexts in his Corinthian correspondence, that he used the paradigm of the body in a polemical fashion against his opponents. In so doing, he showed the contrast between his message, which was a message of the cross and servant hood, and theirs, which was a message of personal power and domination. He tried to point out to the Christians in Corinth that in the end, his opponents’ message turned out to be nothing more than an attempt to win them to another worldly system or institution that depended on human tradition and a worldly paradigm of power, instead of Christ (1 Cor. 12: 12-31, 2 Cor. 11:1-21).
Today the Christian movement is facing a crisis. The crisis is that a secular society seems no longer interested in what the Church has to say. In fact, in recent years there has been a host of religious books on the evils of secularism. With few exceptions the authors seem to place the blame for this secularism on everything from Satan to the educational system. There may be some truth in their charges. However, the real culprit in this mystery of secularism is the Christian religion and its institutionalism. It is the Christian religion that has made the sharp distinction between the sacred and secular; a distinction that was abolished forever when God joined His creation in the person of His Son. It is the Christian religion that has preached for two thousand years that Christians must withdraw from the world. This is done in spite of the fact revelation tells us Christians are to go into the world. If anything, revelation tells us to come out of religion into the world and conquer it for Christ, which is somewhat difficult when we lock ourselves behind the closed doors of our institutions.
In creating the institutions of Christendom, the Christian religion has taken God out of the world and has put Him into the sacred. This becomes very obvious when you realize that the symbol of God in the world is the living symbol of His people. When you take God’s people out of the world, you in effect take God out, thus, opening up the world to secularism. It is truly amazing how the Christian religion and most other religions as well, can take God out of the world and in turn blame the world for rejecting God. The truth is, Christians and other religious people have rejected God’s world and have judged it profane and unholy even though God has pronounced it holy. “What God has called holy let no man call it unholy.” In the act of calling things unholy that God has called holy, the Christian religion has promoted the attitude of “us and them” which is the very antithesis of what the good news is all about.
Moreover, we can hardly blame the world for losing interest in a wholly other God, which is somewhere out there in a place called heaven where things are great and wonderful. He is portrayed as a God that is so distant from the everyday (the real) that He must be mediated to people though the sacred (the unreal). The God of religion or the sacred is a God that is aloof and uninterested in the ordinary and the everyday. To Him the everyday is profane, unholy, and worthless. It’s no wonder the people of the world ignore a God like this. If He ignores them, why should they not ignore Him? If this is not the case, why has He moved out? He has moved out of our public schools, colleges, the media, and even our bookstores and has taken up residence in the sacred. Was He kicked out? No, His own people moved Him out. His people who created Christian colleges, Christian schools, Christian bookstores, and a Christian media moved Him out. Is this God of the sacred, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ or is this a god that has been prefabricated by religious men who are afraid of the everyday [the real] and in turn have created a God in their own image? Is it not time for us to start asking some hard questions about all this religion of ours that has institutionalized God right out of the real world? Of course, this should not be surprising, for institutionalized religion has always been about the business of killing God and removing Him from the land of the living (Matt. 21:33-46).
The Curse Of The Secular
There was a time when Western culture had sacred times, places and men. Now we have the secular and everything has become equal and ordinary. The mystery in the world has been taken out of the holy and sacred, leaving us with nothing but the secular or the profane without mystery and without wonder. This is a huge negative because it’s out of wonder and mystery that the celebration of life comes. We celebrate life because of its mystery. Once the mystery is taken out there is nothing left but hollow and empty dogmas’.
For example, we used to dress up for special occasions, but now we have few special occasions and the ones that we have are empty for most people. Everything, everyone and every place is equal, the special has been overcome by the ordinary. The weak, the insignificant and the small have overcome the big and the powerful. The sacred has been destroyed by the ordinary. The curse of secularism has come upon us. Increasingly our language is becoming profane and secular. Nothing is holy, nothing is sacred, all words are profane, which in the end means nothing is important or special because everything is equal. Good is evil and evil is good. Nothing is sacred, all is profane.
Some would say that science has done this but that’s not the case, what really has done it is the ego of man who has made himself larger, and God small, to the point that God has been eliminated from the world of us men. In contrast, true science has proven that the creation is infinitely big and infinitely small beyond the imagination of man. The problem is that science, like religion, has been over powered by the profane and has become secularized. Remember, that early scientist’s were some of the greatest men of faith. Their science was a wellspring of wonder and amazement at the creation of God. Their science came out of wonder, today the science of the secular comes out of doubting. It was not science, that emptied science of faith, but rather it was the secular and profane thinking of the enlightenment which profaned science and culture, and even religion.
It is surprising that atheism and Christianity has one thing in common, both equalize everything. Atheism does it by making everything equally profane and Christianity does it by making everything sacred. Christianity, if I understand it correctly makes everything sacred. All men are sacred, all places are sacred, all truth is sacred and all time is sacred. Therefore, Christianity is a positive force in the world exulting all things to a higher level where unbelief is a negative force reducing everything to the profane, even human life.
If I am correct the secular world is, and will, pay a terrible price for their belief system of the secular. We can begin to see some of the consequences of the secular mind in the atheistic systems of communism and socialism. But the horrors have just begun. The profaning of sexuality, marriage and the family will usher in the complete collapse of civilization as we know it today. It will reduce everything to the level of beasts seeking the lowest common denominator. Secularism is man’s attempt to return to all fours.
A Forest of Symbols
“ Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8-10).
One of the main linguistic tools we will be using in our study of the contrast between religion and revelation is that of the symbol. In recent years, scholars have come to understand the importance of language in all areas of life. Language is the key that unlocks the door to what it means to be truly human. Along with this increased interest and understanding of language, there has been a corresponding increased interest and understanding of the importance of the uses of symbols in human communications. Increasingly, many scholars are coming to believe that symbols are not only the key to understanding much of the human language, but also the key to understanding the whole of the human enterprise. The importance of symbols can be seen in the statement of one author when he says, “To live is to live symbolically.” He said this because he realized humans live in a forest of symbols. In fact, he believes they are symbols themselves. Our very consciousness and identity are created and shaped by the symbols of our culture. Bernard Cook adds to our understanding of the importance of symbols when he says,
“For it is now becoming clearer that symbol is not something that humans use occasionally and for the most part aesthetically, even artificially. Rather, symbol is of the essence of all thought and all language. Even more basically, the very model of existing, which is distinctive of humans is symbolic; we are more than ‘symbol-making beings’ as Cassirer and Langer have insisted, We exist symbolically because the spiritual dimension of our being ‘speaks’ itself-though never with complete satisfaction-in our bodily-ness.”
“All this impinges strongly on the study of symbols, for inner consciousness, even on the level of the subconscious, is shaped and animated by symbols. More than that, the entire process of consciousness being translated into communication as a basis for society is a process of symbolizing. And conversely, the shaping influence of culture and society upon an individual’s inner existence is exerted through symbols of one sort or another.” The Distancing of God by Bernard J. Cooke (page 296, 299)
From Cooke, we can gather somewhat the importance of symbols, but we have yet to define a symbol. A symbol may be defined as “a word or object or thing or action or event or pattern or person or concrete particular…Representing or suggesting or signifying or veiling…Something greater or transcendent or ultimate: a meaning, a reality, an ideal, a value, an achievement, a belief, a community, a concept, an institution, a state of affairs.” The Power of Symbols in Religion and Culture F.W. Dillistone (page 13)
In the same section, Dillistone goes on to point out that the function of a symbol is to bridge the gulf between the world of the abstract and the concrete. In religion, the symbol is used to bridge or bring together physical facts and metaphysical truth without compromising either. Therefore, symbols are used to explain the unexplainable, yet never completely. Thus, the symbol always involves mystery, wonder, and paradoxes. This may help us to understand why God’s final and complete revelation of Himself is a person—in other words, a living symbol and not a written law. This could also be the reason why the New Testament witness has come to us in the form of story and not law as the Old Testament Torah. The God of Heaven and Earth could never reveal Himself through propositional truth. We cannot reduce God to a logic syllogism or lock Him in the narrow chambers of human reason and imagination. The only way one will come to know God is through reflecting on the symbol that mediates His image and presence, that is, His Son Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, sometimes this one true symbol of God gets lost in a forest of religious symbols that we humans have made. I would like to think that man has done this out of ignorance. However, both Old and New Testaments bear witness to the fact that man has knavishly and knowingly subverted the symbols of God. The reason for this is obvious; man does not want to live in the presence of God nor in the presence of the pristine revelation of Jesus Christ. The simple truth is that man does not love the truth. He loves darkness instead of the light. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John. 3:19). In this passage, light stands for revelation, and Jesus confirms the fact that the majority do not want to live in the presence of revelation. So what does man do? He hides from it in a forest of religion and its symbols. We see this rejection of revelation in the story of Adam. When Adam sinned, he also hid in the forest from God. In this act, Adam prefigures the entire human race that would hide from God in its religious systems and symbols.
However, man’s hide-and-seek game with God has far-reaching consequences. For the forest he hides in, not only hides him from God, but also from his fellow man and his very self. The forest divides men religiously, politically, and culturally. When the apostle Paul speaks about the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14), he was making reference to the forest of religious symbols that separated Jews and Gentiles. He points out to his readers that this forest of symbols has been done away with in Christ. In Christ, God has cut down the forest of religious symbols that keeps people divided religiously. He did this by replacing, or in many cases, subverting the existing symbols by changing one or more of their levels of meaning. All the symbols in the old order that spoke of the presence of God or symbolized His presence were subverted to point toward Christ as their fulfillment and their end. The master symbols of religion that fit this category are the symbols of mediation such as sacred laws, places, times, and priesthood. Before the coming of Christ, these religious symbols stood for or symbolized the presence of God and the unity of His people. However, after Jesus’ coming, they stood for the absence of God and division, which is the very antithesis of God. These religious symbols still stand as a dividing wall of hostility between religious people.
In the fore mentioned case of the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, it was the sacred “master” symbols of Law, sacred days, priesthood, and sacred places that formed the dividing wall of hostility. Jews could easily accept these symbols. However, Gentiles could not easily accept them for they had no inherent meaning to them because these symbols were tied directly to the history of the Jewish people. But now that God had invited the world to become His people, the symbols of God’s acceptance and presence would have to change. The new master symbols would be Christ Himself and His spirit-filled people. In order to do this, God would have to create a new history with new symbols. This He did by raising His Son from the dead. In this mighty act, God created a new world and a new humanity. He invites all of humanity to join His Son in a new exodus out of the old order into the new; an exodus out of religion into Christ. This exodus will be completed when His Son returns from on high to lead His people into the glorious freedom of the children of God. “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John. 3:2). When Israel left Egypt in the first exodus of God’s people, there were many who were intimidated by their new freedom. Thus, they wanted to return to the security of bondage in Egypt. If you remember, this happened when Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Because he tarried too long, the people longed to return to Egypt and its gods. Was this not a foreshadowing of what would happen in the Christian movement? When Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended to the Father, he inaugurated a new exodus, an exodus out of religion. However, like the Hebrews, we find the people (Christians) were intimidated by the freedom they had in Christ and grew anxious over the fact that their Lord had tarried longer than they had expected. So many of them went back to religion and to the making of religious symbols, very similar to how the Hebrews had made the golden calf. God’s call today is for our generation of Christians to take up where the first generation of Christian left off: that is, in an exodus out of religion into the freedom of the children of God.
As we look anew at God’s new master symbols, we find that both of these, Christ and His people, are what we might call living symbols which are the most powerful symbols, for they are flexible and can fit into any cultural venue. This flexibility should be expected, seeing that God has invited the world to join His history. God’s history is no longer a history of a people, but rather a history of one man who now represents the new humanity that has been created by His resurrection from the dead. God now invites all to join in the history of His Son, which He is taking on to perfection in Christ.
Moreover, these living symbols of Christ and His people have the power to impart life, which other symbols do not have. “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (John. 6:63). No symbol, even the sub-symbols of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, have any life in themselves but rather point to the work of Christ and His life giving Spirit. Only Christ and the Spirit have the power to impart life. Even the symbol of the Bible apart from the Spirit has no power to convey life (2 Cor. 3:6). Regrettably, the church has often eclipsed the quickening symbols of Christ and His Spirit with the lifeless lesser symbols of ritual and form, at the same time claiming that this is Christianity perfected.
The implications of all this are incredible. The symbol of Christ among His people symbolizes that God is among His people. Not only is He among His people, but also He has accepted them in their sin, forgiven them and has given them the Spirit to deliver them from the bondage of sin and religion. This was all enacted and symbolized in the life of Jesus when He ate and fellowship at the table with sinners. Therefore, the symbol of Jesus in the world is symbolizing that the world has become a theater of God being with man and for man. Moreover, the symbol of Jesus as the Godman symbolizes and foreshadows the unity of God and man in the new humanity; Jesus Himself being the first fruits of that new humanity (1 Cor. 15:22). Therefore, in the resurrection of Jesus we have a promise and a preview of where God is taking humanity. “For we shall be like him” (1 John. 3:2).
Another incredible implication is that man no longer has to hide from God in a forest of religious symbols, for he no longer has to try to justify himself before God or man. For in Christ, God has accepted him and forgiven him, not because of his religiosity, but because of God’s grace and the work of Christ. Because God has delivered him from the need to be religious, He in the same act has broken down the religious wall that separates man. Therefore, man has been reconciled not only to God though Jesus, but also to one another. Consequently, we must conclude that the division in the Christian church is an indication of just how far religion is from God. The Christian church, especially in America, is the direct opposite of revelation and its division is a symbol to all the world of its disobedience and its distance from God.
Here we need to ask this question. If Christ has removed the symbols of religion that divide men, what would be the consequence of reinstating the old symbols or symbols like them? The answer is obvious: division. When men have symbols in their belief system, other than divinely authorized ones, there will be division. For people will insist that others acknowledge their symbols in order for them to be acceptable. This is why the reinstating of unauthorized religious symbols is condemned so strongly in the New Testament. In the book of Galatians we find a group of Christians contemplating reinstating the symbol of Law into the Christian movement. In turn, the apostle Paul warns them, “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4). Not only does Paul give this astringent rebuke, he goes on to reinforce the fact that the main symbol in the Christian faith is Jesus Christ. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor un-circumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:4-6). In this text we find that the only authorized symbols in the Christian movement are Christ, faith, and love. The symbol of circumcision, which is the symbol of the Law, has been negated in Christ. Law is never unauthorized Christian symbol, unless it is used as a symbol of Christ Himself, for He is the new Torah.
All other symbols of law must be rejected. Symbols like creeds, human traditions, and theological systems must not be imposed on believers as law. Even the New Testament Scripture must not be symbolized as law, for it is pure grace when mixed with a spirit of faith. Those who symbolize or image the New Testament Scripture as law will find it very difficult not to lapse into legalism. For the power of the symbol will negate and overcome any verbal effect to proclaim freedom from law. The symbol of law is one of the most powerful religious symbols because it has a cosmic counterpart behind it and is linked with the spiritual powers of sin and death (Rom. 7:7-25, 8:2, 2 Cor. 3:6-18, 1 Cor. 15:56,57, Col 2:13-15). Therefore, the symbol of law should be dealt with thoughtfully in the Christian movement, lest we crucify the Lord anew and insult the Spirit of grace (Heb. 6:4-6, 10:29).
There also are some psychological consequences to reinstating religious symbols into the faith of Christ. The most obvious would be that the more religious symbols a man has in his belief system, the more exclusive and rigid his religion will be. The danger is that this forest of religious symbols will become so thick that it will blind him to all new truth. Most religious people, especially those that are exclusionist, have layers of religious symbols that protect them from revelation and separate them from their fellow-man. The religious man fears revelation because it will strip away all the false symbols that he has trusted. It leaves him naked before God, stripped of all his self-righteousness. In this context, self-righteousness could be defined as all the religious symbols that men hide in, such as symbols that allow them to feel secure and righteous. The traditionalists hide behind the symbols of ritual. The fundamentalists hide behind the multi-level symbol of the Bible and the true church. Nevertheless, no matter how hard the religious man may try, he cannot hide his humanness behind these symbols because God is continually destroying them and exposing man’s nakedness. It is here, in his nakedness, that the religious man has the possibility of coming to faith and being clothed by God in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. However, nothing hinders authentic faith more than religion. In a true sense, religion is a vaccination against revelation.
In our quest for a better understanding of the distinction between religion and revelation, the symbol will help us immensely, for it will allow us to look at things from a different perspective. Most importantly for our study, the symbol will help us trace the evolution of the revelation of Christ from a simple way of life into a complex religious system. We can do this by noting when and why new symbols were introduced into the Christian movement. Through analyzing the introduction and meaning of new symbols added to the movement, we will be able to see the subtle shift in theology away from revelation to religion. We will begin that study in our next chapter