There were a thousand reasons to hate the small campsite nine friends and I called home for three days last summer. Our “cabin” was more like a trailer. There were four mattresses and ten of us – and making room for four mattresses was tricky. They had a nine o’clock quiet time policy that we had to respect. The ceiling of the bathroom didn’t extend to the roof, which led my friend Jason to try sleeping in the space between the top of the ceiling and the slope of the roof. He quickly climbed down from his helterskelter bed coughing and covered in dust.
All this is to say nothing about the sewage drain they called a pond that was directly across from our trailer.
Like I said, there wasn’t much to appreciate about the camp. But to a man, I don’t think it bothered any of us. It was our first reunion of a membership begun in Lincoln amongst the ten of us and we were too busy enjoying our favorite beverages, food, folk songs, and old theology debates to be much bothered by our less-than-ideal lodgings.
The above is the best way to introduce the membership I call home, which we’ve dubbed the Benne Phinehas (it’s Hebrew for Sons of Phinehas. Phinehas is a particularly awesome Old Testament character). There’s ten of us and we all met in Lincoln with the University of Nebraska chapter of Reformed University Fellowship. But since our joining in Lincoln we’ve spread out. By the end of the summer, five of us will be in St. Louis, myself and one other in the Twin Cities, one in Omaha, one in DeKalb, and one still living faithfully and presently in Lincoln.
What we’ve discovered amongst ourselves is a happy exception to the typical rules of relationships amongst many in our generation: proximity and affinity. If we like the same things and live close enough to be together without too much inconvenience, we’ll be friends. And when we develop new interests or find a new place, we find a new batch of friends. In our own way, we’ve defied that convention. Though we are still young and we have (we hope) 40-50 years of faithful living in front of us, we already belong to each other.
But with the belonging comes a burden. Memberships are heavy things. There is a reason many Americans embrace the comparatively-simple anthropologies of individualistic autonomy or statist citizenship—they’re much easier to preserve. In both cases, you’re free to define the commitment based on your own preferences. So you get a woman like one of the infamous tea partiers weeping about wanting “my America back.” (Somewhere millions of Native Americans are saying “Yeah, so do we.”) American identity, like that of the autonomous individual, is malleable and often quite arbitrary.
But identity in a membership like the Benne is more rigid. We do not have the freedoms that others might enjoy—I am not free to get trashed at the bar every weekend and go home with a different girl each time. If I did I’d have nine very ticked off Presbyterians to deal with. (And as denominationalists you don’t want to anger go, Presbyterians top the list. We were founded by a Scottish bodyguard who carried a claymore into the pulpit.) Of course, “freedom” to do such destructive things isn’t really freedom anyway. Rather, the Benne has freed me to enjoy life in the way God intended it to be enjoyed, with all the demands, limitations, and responsibilities that entails. The fact that none of us think of the demands of our membership as such doesn’t mean those demands don’t exist, but simply that they exist within the context of love and brotherhood. In other words, we’re an institution without the trappings of most modern institutions.
So when I consider the discussions of community and church that happen in the house church circles, I’m largely sympathetic with their concerns. Too often life in the church gets swallowed up by programs and the pressure to perform on a regular basis (typically Sundays and Wednesdays). The over-programmed, performance-driven evangelical church needs to be critiqued. And I’m grateful for voices like Frank Viola and others that are doing it. Yet their prescriptions for change strike me as a fundamental misunderstanding of how communities work.
The problem with many house church movements and, if I can show my Presbyterianism for a moment, congregationalist ecclesiology, is that they seek to deinstitutionalize the church. And this is problematic because communities are by necessity institutional. What ought to be targeted is impersonal leadership structures, program-driven ministries, and performance-based spirituality. These issues are the source of our many ills. It is not the institutions themselves, but the industrialized, consumerist trappings that define so many of our institutions.
Consider the Benne: Whether we admit it or not, we’re an institution. We’re a group of ten men that have committed themselves to each other over the course of the last several years. And we plan to continue that commitment for as long as we live. And within that community, we’ve given each other authority to say very difficult things to each other and wield authority over each other. Such a bond makes the demands of many other institutions, including most American churches, seem trivial. Though we are an institution, we are not defined by impersonal authority structures or consumer-driven performances.
Or we might consider marriage, the oldest institution. Rightly understood, marriage is the incubator for love. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but your marriage that sustains your love.” Marriage is an institution but it is as far from impersonal and performance-driven as can be. Indeed, it ought to be the most intimate relationship we experience. Once again, the problem isn’t with the institution, but with the way we’ve allowed the consumerist attitudes of our culture to define the institution. But the point can be pushed further, it’s not just that the institution doesn’t kill the intimacy. In fact, it’s the institution that creates a climate in which intimacy can flourish.
So in marriage the institution calls for the two becoming one, which means living together, sharing a bank account, sleeping in the same bed, having sex… these are the practical things that encourage oneness. (To speak of them in profoundly dull, somewhat tedious terms.) And in the Benne the institution calls for yearly gatherings and regular phone calls. It calls for the singing of Josh Ritter songs and the smoking of hookah. And in the church, the institution calls for meaningful church membership, preaching, singing, and the sacraments.
And in every case, it’s impossible to divorce the intimacy from the institution.
Therefore, as we assess the contemporary evangelical scene we must not make the mistake of believing that the removal of institutions will solve all our problems. If we remove institutions completely, we greatly hinder our ability to maintain and develop the close communal ties that the house church movement so rightly desires. Further, we lose our ability to enjoy the relationships that help us live the way God intended. And when we do that, all we’re left with is a lousy trailer and a sewage-filled pond.