Christians came face to face with an alarming reality this week after America’s largest denomination – the Southern Baptists – commissioned a third-party investigation into the handling of sexual abuse by their Executive Committee. The findings were described by Russell Moore – former President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (the Southern Baptist Convention’s official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical issues) – as an “apocalypse.”
The report makes for hard reading, but here are some highlights:
- “For almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists” contacted its executive committee “to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff,” but executive-committee leaders “largely controlled” the response and “were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations.”
- Guidepost, the organization which conducted the third party investigation, revealed that victims “were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its policy regarding church autonomy—even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”
- Senior leaders who refused to act on these reports of abuse compiled a secret list of 703 “accused ministers.” They didn’t take “any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.”
Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Wehner aptly summarized these findings by concluding, “No atheist has done this much damage to the Christian faith.“
Christians around the country are wondering the same thing: how could this happen? I believe my “theology of institutions” can contribute some helpful insight to what’s happening.
The central insight of this theology is that human organizations also bear the image of God. As Christians, we believe that humans are made in the image of God, but we have overly restricted this truth to individuals. Organizations are also intended by God to reflect his character and his being, especially via the revelation of Jesus Christ. Colossians 1: 15-17, one of the most important and regularly recited passages in the early church, starts with the proclamation that “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…”
The logic is this: because Jesus is the true human and he perfectly images “the invisible God,” so therefore all of humanity (indeed all of creation) follows him in participating in the Imago Dei. This is heady stuff, and one would expect the passage to supply some concrete illustration of just how humans are supposed to image God. Based on our individualistic mindset, one would expect something like, “So, don’t forget that you bear God’s image in your personal prayer life or your internal thoughts.” Or, if we’ve come to learn that following Jesus stretches beyond our solo lives and into our relationships, we might expect the application to extend into our most intimate relationships: i.e. “Remember that you image God in your marriage or as a parent!”
But the passage takes a surprising (to our modern mindset) twist. In the very next words, the passage supplies one specific illustration for where this human imaging takes place: “… whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Thrones. Dominions. Rulers. Authorities.
This is Biblical language for human institutions. Colossians goes out of its way to emphasize that human organizations reflect the nature of God, and they do so in both their visible and invisible forms.
This means that human institutions serve a visible function, like educating your children or teaching them how to have fun at summer camp, but they also have their own invisible spiritual dimension as well. Human organizations are just that – human – and they therefore have their own kind of spiritual life that is meant to reflect God.
When we create, maintain, and grow organizations, we are creating, maintaining, and growing images of God. Secular organizations do this unknowingly (analogous to the way that an infant still images God unconsciously). Christian organizations should be doing this with full awareness.
When we think of our institutions in this way, institutional actions take on supreme significance. They become acts of worship – whether knowing or unknowing, visible or invisible. That’s what worship is: reflecting the image of God.
What then does all of this heady talk about “institutions as the image of God” have to do with the scandals besetting the church?
Well, it explains what is happening when institutions go bad. Theologically, what happens when something is no longer properly imaging God?
The logic of Colossians 1:15-17 and the rest of Scripture is clear. When an image no longer properly points to God’s character, it turns in on itself and simply points to itself. It casts its own well being as the supreme value. The Biblical explanation for this state of being is that the image becomes an idol. When an image no longer serves as signpost to the true God, it elevates itself to be god, the being to be upheld at all costs. The visible work of the organization may continue on the surface, but the invisible spiritual darkness of idolatry takes root.
How does this institutional idolatry manifest itself behind closed doors?
It shows itself in the SBC’s reaction to stories of abuse. The leadership did not think, “Well, how do we reflect God in our response?” Instead, it prioritized its own protection from legal action.
When RZIM discovered abuse and sexual impropriety of its namesake, it didn’t think “How do we make this right?” Instead, it thought, “How can we keep this a secret?” and “How can we protect our brand?”
When Kanakuk’s Joe White heard the camp’s charismatic director Pete Newman was serially caught nude with children, he didn’t think “what should we do to protect children?” Instead, he thought “what can we do to make sure this man continues to bring children back to camp and continue in his fundraising efforts? Listen to White explain why Newman’s nudity with children wasn’t enough to terminate Newman. Spoiler alert: because Newman had record numbers of children in his Bible study and received applause from parents:
The invisible spiritual reality of idolatry within these organizations meant leaders worshiped institutional survival. They made their own organizational well being the supreme value. They turned their organization from an image into an idol.
And in the process, these organizations were willing to sacrifice all of these women and children (and their wellbeing) for their own institutional survival.
This is exactly what Scripture predicts will happen with idols. Idols demand sacrifices. They demand human sacrifices. For instance, Leviticus 18:21 condemns the idolatrous worship of the false god of Moloch, especially calling attention to how Moloch required the sacrifice of children at its altar.
RZIM, the SBC Executive Committee implicated in the report, and especially Kanakuk Kamps are the equivalent of Moloch. They have shown without a doubt that they are more than willing to place the well-being of innocent women and children on the altar of their own institutional power. Keep in mind that all human organizations – precisely because they are human – are fallen. No organization bears the Imago Dei perfectly. But there is an important difference between an organization that is a partially flawed image still open to redemption and one that has committed itself full heartedly to idolatry. How can you tell the difference? When organizations persist in denial and refuse to repent in the face of overwhelming evidence – as is the case with Kanakuk – they reveal their true spiritual nature: they have become false idols.
What does Scripture demand that the faithful do to their false idols? Deuteronomy 12:3 is emblematic of many other passages: “Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones… cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.”
It’s time for us to do the same.
To learn more about my “theology of institutions,” please see my video course here.
Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.