Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Toward an Anabaptist Theology of Institutions

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Toward an Anabaptist Theology of Institutions

Article excerpt

Anabaptists (1) have many beliefs in common with some other Christians. But in recent years some church and institutional leaders have asked whether Anabaptists also have distinctive beliefs and practices that would make a difference for their relationships with their church institutions. Do Anabaptists have a "theology of institutions"?

Theology is about God. But it is about a God who created a world and humankind, who became human and who continues to be present in the created world. The shape of God's people in the world and the way they act in God's name and go about God's mission are theological questions. That is to say, some concerns go beyond sociology, organizational theory and the other relevant social sciences. The sciences deal with what is. Anabaptist Christians have an interest in more than only what is. Their "theological" interests extend to what ought to be in God's world.

Consequently, this paper is not just about the way organizations usually behave in the world around us; it is also about ways the church can and should use organizations as it participates in God's mission in the world in the future. It is about the way Christians can best work in the kingdom order that God intended for humankind.

Let us set forth some key understandings that could be elements in an Anabaptist theology of institutions:

1. Anabaptists believe that the face and the will of God are revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ and in the work of God's Spirit as they learn of these in the New Testament.

Many other Christians share this belief. However, the way in which Anabaptists understand Jesus' life and the way of the cross as relevant for all Christians is different from that of many church people of other traditions. (2)

2. Anabaptists see organizations as more than isolated rational bureaucracies.

Max Weber's classical theory of organizations, (3) appropriate for understanding the Prussian military, does not adequately describe many characteristics of contemporary business, political and private not-for-profit organizations. It does not adequately consider the effects of environmental forces on organizations--their efforts to gain legitimacy and their tendency to imitate one another, especially playing follow-the-leader in institutional structure. It is particularly inadequate for describing organizations that employ substantial groups of highly competent professionals and organizations that have strong cultures. (4) Church missions, health care institutions and schools, along with various other church organizations, typically have substantial bodies of highly competent professionals. These organizations may or may not choose to function as church organizations having strong cultures.

Church people who want to form a large church organization to accomplish specific purposes often face a choice. In naming the organization, they can use terms already common in American society. However, if they do, they then must continually expend a great deal of effort to explain and demonstrate that their organization is really different from most American organizations with similar names. Or they can invent a new or unusual term to describe their new organization and then try to fill the new term with the meaning they intend. Where an organization uses the name most people associate with the pattern (e.g., hospital, or school), the organization can find that the common understanding of the term helps explain who the organization is and what it is about. But where the organization wants to be different from other organizations in its field, the fact that it then has to defy well established institutional patterns can pose a serious challenge.

From a theological perspective, Anabaptists see the "principalities and powers"--including those of societal institutions--of their times as provisions of God for their good, but also as having tendencies toward autonomy and toward serving their own selfish interests. …

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