Belief-Based Institutions Are Not Sustainable Or Effective

Art by David Hayward (Naked Pastor)

I’ve been trying to understand and appreciate the role of institutions (the definition I’m using for institutions is “a society or organization founded for a religious, educational, social, or similar purpose)” in the world and my own life.  Whether it be corporations, churches, non-profits, governments or community groups.  I usually take a position of skepticism and opposition towards institutions because of the uneasy relationship between institutions and power.  I wrote some and read a lot about anarchy a few years ago as a legitimate way to operate within institutions.  I still hold to these principals.  To summarize my current views I would say that I support organization but I do not support hierarchy of value or power.  It’s a tricky balance to strike, but one that I attempt to model.

Anyway, I got thinking about the ways institutions start.  I’ve been involved in the starting of many of them; a church, a few businesses, a few non-profits, a community-house and some events.  I have found that there has been three kinds of institutions that I have been part of starting.  Belief-based institutions, action-based institutions and institutions that are a mix of the two.

For this post, I’m thinking out loud about the belief side of institutions and wondering if beliefs need to be moved to the back burner, especially for religious institutions.  At the very least, the lines for who is in and who is out of an institution being based on beliefs is making less and less sense to me.  Allowing the intangible to be a determining factor of anything is no longer sustainable in this world yet we carry on trying to hold onto these things.  It’s not to say beliefs, values and myths aren’t important or haven’t been foundational to these institutions, or that they aren’t critical to starting them.  I just don’t think they are helpful markers or reasons anymore to determine eligibility for membership to them.

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

Jesus got tired of this kind of ‘in and out’ method too.  Jesus seems to think that by performing a certain action (giving a cup of water) is the pre-requisite for membership in his group – not the right words of beliefs that the person who does the action has.

Maybe I’m saying all this because of posts like this I’ve written that muddy the waters for the formal and informal religious institutions that I am apart of.  Or maybe it is because I’m at a denominational conference right now that is heavily based on beliefs, and not action, to determine eligibility for membership.  When you state or question beliefs that are foundational to institutions then you are really stating your separation from them according to their gatekeepers.  In a world where we have thousands of institutions all based on their differences surrounding one book, you think we would start to figure out that maybe basing our institutions based on these beliefs is a recipe for disorganization rather than organization.  Focusing on what is going on in the heads of their possible members rather than their members efforts and focus on their vision creates ineffective institutions.

Again, I think values and beliefs are important, and clearly without them we’d have nothing bringing us together.  But after a while, an institution that guards its boundaries because of the intangible cognitive going-ons of the people who are part of them is really missing out on the value and beauty of what an institution can be or become.  In other words, if shared belief is what an institution is founded on – shared belief won’t be what it is sustained on.  Something tangible needs to come from their coming together or else it will fail to exist.  This is true for any institution, but it seems that there is only a select few of them (religious ones primarily) that try to maintain their boundaries based on beliefs rather than the tangible things that have resulted in their existence.

This really is unfortunate.  The ‘Kingdom of God’ as we call it in Christian circles does not see boundaries like this.  It looks at all the good and beauty and justice and peace in the world and says that this is all part of the same thing.  It’s all part of God.  But then humans start to get involved.  We start to get organized and we create these boundaries and rules for what it means to be part of it.  The problem I am seeing, isn’t so much about the organization, it’s about the boundaries we create to determine how we are organized.  Where did the idea come from to take the thoughts or convictions that people had in their heads and make that a determining factor for participation or not?

I’m part of a board for a local non-profit, Habitat for Humanity, and it would be an institution that is based around action.  If you are part of doing an action that the institution is built for, then you are part of it.  The philosophical ideas, religious or political ideas do not play a role in determining if you can join them.  If you can fit into the organization of creating a world where “where everyone has a decent place to live” then you are brought into the fold up at the appropriate amount to how you would fit.  If Habitat for Humanity was to start to have a faith statement, and have people sign off on it in order to be admitted or to have an influential voice, it would be a disaster.  The amount of work, administration and heartache that would go into trying to monitor and determine people’s beliefs in order to check off the box to prove their allegiance or fitfulness into the organization would be enormous – which would then take away from the goals and effectiveness of the organization.

What I would like to see is a religious institution that is not protected by belief police.  Rather it is driven by a vision and a mission and the effectiveness that someone has towards those things.  Action-based religious institutions, especially churches, could be beautiful forces for good in the world.  If someone wants to give a cup of water to someone in need in your name, by all means.  If they aren’t against us, then they are for us right?  Who cares if they aren’t one of us or don’t hold to the same creeds or doctrines.  Are they getting that water to someone?  How many of churches are full of people that believe the right things but don’t give any cups of water?  Yet we still, for some bizarre reason, that I cannot figure out, don’t seem to care – as long as you believe this list of things that we deem as necessary.

I’m starting to care less about belief-based institutions and looking to join in different kinds of organizations that are action-based.  If they are committed to an action I support, then I want to join.  Let’s use our beliefs to keep our actions accountable, not to eliminate who can join in.


  • “Up to now, Christianity has largely mirrored culture instead of transforming it. Reward/punishment, good guys versus bad guys, has been the plot line of most novels, plays, operas, movies, and wars. This is the only way that a dualistic mind, unrenewed by prayer and grace, can perceive reality. It is almost impossible to switch this mind during a short sermon or service on a Sunday morning. As long as we remain inside of a dualistic, win/lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and vindictive moralisms and will not rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus offered us. The spiritual path and life itself will be mere duty instead of delight, “jars of purification” instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party (John 2:6-10). We will focus on maintaining order by sanctified violence instead of moving toward a higher order of love and healing—which is the very purpose of the Gospel.”
    Richard Rohr

  • thanks for your thoughts on this, nathan!

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