We Make Institutions, They Don’t Make Us

The nature and origins of our institutions has been something that I’ve become more aware of over the last little while. By institution I mean systems of organization assembled by people. These organizations turn into amazingly complex and powerful organizations and have accomplished many fantastic and horrible things.

One of these institutions is the church. It’s one that I’ve had a precarious relationship with since I’ve been born. There is the entire Christian church, then the specific Pentecostal church I was a part of, then there an academic side at Tyndale that I connected with, the Free Methodist denomination I am part of now and then various other experiences with subsets of the institution as a whole. The church has plenty of guidelines, structures, rituals and goals as any institution would.

One of these institutions that the church adheres to is marriage. This organization comes with all sorts of its own rules, obligations, rituals and goals. Of course the church didn’t invent marriage, but it absorbed it, made it its own, used its own language and lives by its precepts.

Some parts of the church uphold marriage as a sacrament in theology, as an special rite that Christians would participate in. Almost all churches uphold marriage as a sacrament in practice. With that comes specific definitions of what that is and why its important. For instance, the church upholds that their marriages are between a man and a woman. The state has different kinds of marriage, and that would be one man and one woman, or two men, or two women. The point is, that the church has its own take on marriage; it’s own traditions and rituals and rules that surround it that they have traditionalized over the last few centuries. They are all for a reason. Some are good reasons. Some are bad. Everyone else has their own.

What gets confusing is when two different versions with the same label start getting compared as if they are the same thing. If the Prime Minister calls marriage ‘X’ and the church calls marriage ‘Y’ then they are really describing two different things entirely but just using the same word to describe it. We see this confusion all the time when Christians start voting for their definition of the word within the political realm; as if Christians somehow came up with the idea of marriage and they have control over what it is. It’s just not the same thing despite the word we use to describe it.

What I don’t think we understand is that institutions and organizations are evolving in nature. They cannot be defined by how we interpret their history. They are subjective and fluid. They are defined by where we are in the present, but that doesn’t have to define the future.

This is why I don’t have an issue ‘agreeing with the Christian definition of marriage.’ There isn’t really a question what that definition is and what it has meant thus far. I don’t speak on behalf of all Christians. So it’s easy for me to say ‘yes Christians hold to this definition.’ Historically, marriage for Christians has been between a man and a woman. Historically though, things change. Definitions change. The church changes. The church has the authority to make changes.

Historically we can see that our faith stems from a faith that was patriarchal, pro slave, pro polygamy and pro death penalty. We’ve evolved and changed. Some hold onto some things, some don’t. Maybe the definition will change for all the church, maybe it won’t. What we do know now though is that it is evolving, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising if something happens that we weren’t expecting. What we also know is that a single institution cannot define all individuals that are a part of it. All of us make up multiple organizations in different capacities. We make the institutions; they don’t make us.

I don’t think I really want to be in the business of redefining our institutions. I used to push back against being part of them, but I am realizing now that it is inevitable. It’s a natural part of my human nature to be part of different organizations. They don’t define me entirely, but they will define me in part. No one knows what part. I admit what they are, and what they have been but I don’t know if I’m intelligent enough or in the kind of position where I want to start saying that this should change and then start defining what it should be. I’m changing weekly, and slowly trying to figure out what makes me, and I’m realizing that it is not easy for one person, let alone massive groups of people. I think I can criticize the negatives that have come from such definitions and uplift the positives. But saying ‘this definition is bad’ and ‘this one is good’ seems like a burden that I don’t think I’m ready to carry. I don’t want to speak on behalf of these institutions and I don’t know if I even want to change them. I know that in a lot of cases I don’t want them to speak on behalf of me. I want to live lovingly and respectfully within them but I’m beginning to lose my passion to change them. Maybe it’s because its exhausting trying to change something that won’t change and it feels like a losing battle. Maybe it’s exhausting just trying to change people, cause that’s all this really feels like.

It makes more sense to just accept what institutions are rather than try to change them. Join them where you can, rebel against them when you need to and seek to live out truth despite the fact that they always seek to solidify tradition out of fear of change. They don’t define us. We don’t define them. They really are entities on their own made up of little parts of all of us.

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