The Institutional Church and the Mission of Calvin College: Some Redemptive Possibilities for the Way Forward
On the occasion of the CRC's 150th anniversary, a message to the Calvin Community
By John D. Witvliet

The anniversary of a church is an occasion to remember with gratitude God's faithfulness, to confess sin and offer lament for brokenness in God's church and world, to pray for the Holy Spirit's work among and through us, and to rededicate ourselves to grateful, humble and visionary ministry in Jesus' name.

So on this 150th anniversary of the CRC, we acknowledge the grace of God that has led four small, isolated congregations back in 1857 to become an organism of 1,100 congregations across North America that now worships in 14 languages. We express our gratitude to God for a church committed to both theological orthodoxy and Christian cultural engagement, to both vital personal prayer and social justice. We also confess and lament the degree to which this denomination has been, at various times, a source of exclusion, legalism and inertia. And we pray for God's Spirit to sanctify us, not merely for our own sake, but for the sake of the world that so needs God's healing love.

CRC 100th anniversary service, Van Andel Arena

Some Basic Ecclesiology

It is precisely this orientation to God's renewing work in the world that should call us back to two central lessons in classic Christian ecclesiology.

First, the institutional church is never an end in itself, but it plays an indispensable role in God's redemptive work in the world.

Indeed, institutional churches do not exist for their own sake, but instead for something that ultimately enfolds every square inch of creation.

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We at Calvin College are heirs to a long tradition of those who cherish this claim, those with expertise at keeping the institutional church in its place. It is a tradition shaped by Augustine's dealings with the Donatists, Calvin's dealings with late medieval Catholicism, and Kuyper's dealings with a culturally captive Dutch national church. In this tradition, several constructive distinctions and themes-among them that of "the invisible vs. visible church," the distinction between the "organic" and "institutional church," as well as the theory of sphere sovereignty-have been especially adept at squelching clericalism and keeping the church from merely focusing on its own institutional life.

This is a venerable and necessary tradition we inherit. But it has some blind spots.

For one, it can become a dis-incentive for students to pursue ministry. At certain periods of our history, we've done so well convincing everyone that full-time kingdom service is a redundancy that we may have unwittingly undermined the strength of the pastorate.

More fundamentally, this emphasis, when overdone, can unwittingly undermine our perception of the miracle of the church. Like Christologies that calmly affirm Christ's divinity, but can't stomach his humanity, this approach can end up denying the local, embodied nature of the body of Christ. In order to deal with our cognitive dissonance about the quirkiness of the institutional church, we fret dismissively about the workings of congregations and denominations, while still speaking of "The Church" as a haloed abstraction that floats several feet above reality. These vulnerabilities are especially troubling in today's cultural context for at least four reasons.

We live in a culture with widespread interest in religion-less spirituality.

Our students often have imbibed a sub-Christian understanding of vocation that focuses only on career choices, ignoring the vocational dimensions of family, community and especially church life.

We participate in networks of scholarship, even Christian scholarship, that lapse into the tendency to think that ecclesiology is mostly something for seminaries—a very odd inclination to have emerged in a Reformed tradition that so cherishes the roles of elders and deacons and other laypeople. We at Calvin College will train more office-bearers of the church (in and beyond the CRC) than any seminary.

We teach a generation of students who don't necessarily have genes for the institutional church in their spiritual DNA. They are often formed into what sociologist Christian Smith has called a worldview of "moralistic therapeutic deism." (A worldview, I might add, that we don't merely want to connect with or be relevant to, but that we should want to change.)

With all of this in view, the second clause in this thesis emerges as especially important. While the church is not ultimate, the church is indispensable. The church, after all, is the body of Christ. Like the incarnation, the other miracle having to do with the body of Christ, the church is a bearer of God's grace in all kinds of local, embodied ways. And the activities of the church-its preaching, sacramental celebrations, teaching, evangelism and pastoral care-are indispensable elements in God's redemptive work in the world.

Second, the redemptive work of colleges, churches and all other agents of renewal is only possible because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

In Reformed theology, we work with a lot of nouns: faith, justification, sanctification, the church, sovereignty, the atonement, common grace. But every one of those nouns is a cloak for a verb. Every single one describes divine activity. Without a robustly Trinitarian vision of God's own life and God's activity in the world, these venerable concepts melt away into puddles of incoherence.

The whole Calvin College project depends on, and highlights, the work of a dynamic, relational, Trinitarian God, who works in us, through us, around us, and sometimes in spite of us. It depends on a dynamic and extremely broad view of the Holy Spirit, so magnificent that its scope includes basic scientific research and the writing of peer-reviewed journal articles; the study of ancient mythology, cell development and literary theory; daily work in the food service and grounds crews; the development of marketing plans and major fund-raising campaigns; music offered by praise teams, pipe organs and drumming circles; poetry readings, late-night devotions and athletic contests.

But our enthusiasm for this broad view of the Spirit's work must never unwittingly convey that the church is somehow a lesser partner in this work. The New Testament joyfully insists that the church is one locus for the Spirit's work. The Heidelberg Catechism insists that it is God who gathers, protects and nourishes the church-in a single stroke freeing us from the burdensome pretense of thinking that job is ours, but also frankly inspiring us to see the remarkable redemptive work that happens right in front of us all the time.

Unfortunately, the world of North American Christian higher education is not the most likely place to learn this fundamental ecclesiology. There are many reasons for this: the religious diffidence of some mainline church-related schools; the entrepreneurial, parachurch orientation of much of evangelical Christianity; some justifiable frustration at the state of some institutional churches; the demise of genuine theology at some church-related colleges, and many others.

I wonder, on a national scale, if this is partly to blame for a lot of the toxicity we experience in the Christian ecology. Congregations all across North America regularly emit messages about vocation, race, gender, workplace ethics, the environment, science, sexuality, parenting, visual art, disabilities and bioethics that are overly simplistic and ultimately sub-Christian. Meanwhile, too much teaching and learning at Christian colleges (and I am speaking here about Christian colleges in general) often ends up undermining the institutional church by forming students to look down their nose at it, perpetuating stereotypes about it, or simply ignoring it. In the world of polarized politics and AM talk radio in which we live, each institution, sometimes unconsciously, tries to correct the errors of the other, often overcompensating.

This all makes it increasingly difficult for individual believers to achieve any kind of poise. How in the world can ordinary, thoughtful Christian believers maintain poise when faced with the war in Iraq, illegal immigration and America's prison problem (for starters) when the expertise and wisdom of the church and the expertise and wisdom of our college faculties are so often quarantined from each other?

Constructive Questions for the Way Forward

What is so wonderful about working here at Calvin College is the enormous potential we have-so much of it realized potential-for demonstrating another way.

And that leads me to three questions that promise to be a fitting way for us to honor the CRC's anniversary. These are questions about ways we can build upon our rather unique social location as a denominationally founded and owned school that insists on being interested in a lot more than the church.

The first question is about partnerships. How might our social location as a church-owned college help us form strategic partnerships that will breathe health into Christian witness and kingdom service? How might we replicate the kind of collaboration that produced our off-campus programs in Honduras and China?

The second question is about awareness and attitudes: How can we form students even more intentionally to desire, pray for and work toward healthy churches as one part of God's redemption plan? So many of us already do things to tithe a bit of our time and expertise to the church. Yet not all our students see this. So I wonder how we can we be more transparent about presenting a vision of faithful Christian living in which the institutional church plays an indispensable part.

My third question is about public witness. How might our social location as a church-owned college help us face our culture's most vexing problems more holistically? How can we help our students see deeply into problems and opportunities from professional, liberal arts and ecclesial perspectives at the same time?

On the most vexing cultural issues of our time, there is likely to be little ultimate progress without both the wisdom that we cultivate on this campus and the vital witness of institutional churches.

The fight against racism needs sociologists and musicians, educators and historians, Broene Center counselors and residence hall directors, but it also can benefit enormously from recent discussions in the CRC and RCA about the Belhar Confession, a document that emerged out of the struggle over apartheid in South Africa.

Healthy Christian responses to faith-science issues will only come about when lots of Christians absorb the kind of wisdom articulated, for example, in Loren Haarsma's and Uko Zylstra's online interview about intelligent design theory, and when pastors like Scott Hoezee write books about how preaching can be best informed by scientific learning (see his Proclaim the Wonder: Engaging Science on Sunday).

The struggle to parent wisely or to live faithfully as single persons needs expertise from our educators, theologians, developmental psychologists and gender studies courses as well as good church curricula, balanced preaching and the wisdom of local church communities.

The massive prison problem we face in the U.S. demands expertise in criminal justice, political science, sociology and economics. It also needs resources like the CRC's document on restorative justice, as well as the growing pool of congregations engaged in prison ministry.

To address illegal immigration, wise Christians will need expertise from at least a dozen departments on campus, best practices from congregations in both El Paso and Zeeland, as well as denominational Synods at which a Native American Christian leader can stand up, with prophetic twinkle in his eye, and say, "We would be happy to share what we've learned over the last 400 years on this subject ." (as happened on this campus in June!).

The struggle against a culture of frantic busyness needs not only Sabbath and the Lord's Supper, but it needs the kind of awe, gratitude and wonder cultivated by a place with a nature preserve, an online library of patristic theology, poetry readings, an astronomy lab, and musical and theater performances that are so compelling that they elicit pregnant silence before the audience's final applause.

None of these issues will be adequately solved by AM talk radio. None will be solved by the diet of most church-based adult education forums. And none can be solved by colleges working in isolation. But the prospects for a college and church working together in harmony are enormous.

The Communion of Saints

In the Apostles' Creed, the basic assertion about the holy catholic church is followed by the phrase, "I believe . the communion of saints." The Heidelberg Catechism, whose soaring and soothing tones can sometimes lead us to miss its prophetic urgency, explains what this means in this way: "that believers one and all, as members of this community share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts . that each member should consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members."

My own view is our observance of the CRC 150th anniversary should challenge us to live deeply into these images of gift-giving, partnership and communion.

May God's Spirit help us to discover gratitude in remembering the denomination to which we are covenentally related, and the opportunity this relationship gives us to participate in very embodied, tangible redemption projects in all sorts of ordinary places.

And may God's Spirit challenge us to imagine and carry out some constructive, prophetic and loving ways to work with churches of all types to address some of our world's most vexing problems in Jesus' name.