Incarnation and Institution

by Donald W. McCullough

Donald W. McCullough is president of San Francisco Theological Seminary and professor of theology and preaching.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 23, 1981, pp. 1337-1339. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It is not surprising that in many sectors of the church there exists an intense anti-institutionalism, a desire "to differentiate spiritual responsibilities from administrative responsibilities." But to separate the mundane from the spiritual is part of the scandal of the incarnation.

Just prior to my arrival as pastor, the governing board of the church I serve voted to "differentiate spiritual responsibilities from administrative responsibilities." On the positive side, this decision shows a welcome awareness that congregational leadership has to do with more than deciding which brand of paper towels to use in the rest rooms; it aims at developing Christian discipleship in the community. But there is, I suspect, a negative side to this action. Behind it one senses a frustration with the institutional reality of the church.

Anyone who has participated in the life of the church has struggled with this problem. There is a Grand Canyon-size gap, it appears, between our spiritual aspirations and the time-consuming chores necessary to keep the organization functioning. Meetings are opened and closed with prayer, but these relatively few minutes seem a paltry offering compared to the hours sacrificed on the altar of institutional needs. Budgets must be adopted; something must be done about the leaky toilet next to the Fellowship Hall; and a way must be found to translate to the music director Mrs. Jones’s complaint that "the Cherub Choir has been acting like little demons and sounding like hell."

What has all this to do with the Kingdom of God? We understand the place of preaching and prayer, and certainly of Bible study and evangelism. But what about the endless committee meetings which, at their conclusion, would more appropriately be closed with a round of Alka-Seltzer than a round of prayer? It is not surprising that in many sectors of the church there exists an intense anti-institutionalism, a desire "to differentiate spiritual responsibilities from administrative responsibilities."

I suggest that frustrations with the institutional church are part of the scandal of the incarnation.

The miracle of Christmas means more for the church than Sunday school programs and choir cantatas; it points to the essence of how we are the church in the world. What things, specifically, frustrate us about the institutional aspect of our communal life in Christ?

Recently the chairman of our buildings and grounds committee approached me with an upset look on his face. "We’ve got problems," he said. "It’s the new dishwasher. Seems we forgot to order the faucets." (Can you order a car without wheels?) "And the faucets are only half the problem," he continued. "The company already installed the dishwasher, and now it’ll have to be ripped out of the wall before the faucets can be put on." How, I wondered, can you install a dishwasher with no faucets? And what does this have to do with my seminary labors at parsing Greek verbs and mastering hermeneutics, prolegomena and homiletics? Not a thing, of course.

But it has everything to do with life in an institution called the body of Christ. We should not be surprised. Bodies are earthy and earthly. They sweat, get sick, and require routine maintenance -- earthy things; and while they have some choice of pasture and speed of movement, they are confined to this terrestrial ball -- earthly things. The church is the body of Christ.

And it is the body of Christ. It is the community of the Incarnate One. The miracle and mystery of Christmas is that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). Flesh in the New Testament means more than simply "flesh and bones." It includes that, to be sure, yet it is more extensive: it signifies this concrete human nature in which we find ourselves, with its weaknesses, limitation, brokenness. The text does not say that the Word became a superman, a figure towering above us in absolute perfection; rather, the Word entered into our world, meeting us where we are. In Calvin’s words: "Christ of his boundless grace joins himself to base and ignoble men." The Word became mundane.

Had we been in the stable that night in Bethlehem, I doubt we would have witnessed the scene in the way that many artists have since pictured it. No smiling baby crowned with golden halo there; no aura of otherworldliness; no angelic cantatas descending from the rafters. Just a red and wrinkled baby who cried when he wanted milk and messed his pants after he got it. Mark Twain candidly observed in Answers to Correspondents that "a soiled baby, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty." Quite true. The Word became not a thing of beauty, but flesh -- as we know it and live it.

For some, this "mundanity" has been cause for stumbling. Early in the church’s life there were those who revolted at the thought of such a union of the spiritual and the physical. Christ’s body only appeared to be real, they said. Thus docetism (from the Greek verb dokéo, "to seem") emerged to relieve the embarrassment of the Christmas scandal. Though occasionally reappearing in various forms (even now), this view has been rejected as heresy by the church. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" is the gospel witness.

The point is this: the spiritual entered fully the physical world as we experience it. As the presence of Christ in this world, then, can the church -- his body -- strive for an existence alien to the way of its incarnate Lord? Paying the light bills and repaving the parking lot do not seem all that spiritual. How much better, we think, to flee to the purer realms of prayer and Bible study! But such desires are not from the mind of Christ. They are docetic dreams that have little to do with the way of Christ in this world.

Where two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is present, we are told. And where two or three are gathered in this world, there is likely to be a committee, complete with docket, budget and conflicts. This sociological datum is part of our humanity. Christmas disallows separation of these two facts into mutually exclusive, antagonistic spheres of reality. The spiritual is found in the institutional nature of human communal existence; the Word becomes flesh.

In his Ethics Dietrich Honhoeffer put it this way: "In Christ we are offered the possibility of partaking in the reality of God and in the reality of the world, but not in the one without the other." This is a tremendous source of liberation, because

so long as Christ and the world are conceived as two opposing and mutually repellent spheres, man will be left in the following dilemma: he abandons reality as a whole, and places himself in one or the other of they two spheres. He seeks Christ without the world, or he seeks the world without Christ. In either case he is deceiving himself. Or else he tries to stand in both spheres at once and thereby becomes the man of eternal conflict.

In other words, the ruling board of my church is freed from the anxiety about whether they are doing spiritual or administrative work, for in Christ the conflict has been overcome.

There is another reason why the institutional character of the church frustrates us. It involves limitation. That which is mundane is circumscribed by the limits of space and time. Though I sometimes wish I could be in two places at once, I cannot; my body is either here or there, but not both. Furthermore, my time for existence is now, not a hundred years ago or a hundred years hence. Finitude limits.

This element of the mundane exacerbates our restlessness with the institutional. An institution can neither be all things nor do all things. Those involved in leading it must decide what it will be or do, which includes deciding what it will not be and do. Institutions are as finite as persons -- perhaps more so. For, while an individual has a certain (though limited) freedom of autonomy, an institution is composed of different persons with differing ideas about its nature and goals. Thus out of conflicts arise compromises, limits on everyone’s ideal.

Elder A comes to the board meeting full of enthusiasm. He can hardly contain himself until the moderator asks, "Is there any other new business?" He has just heard afresh Christ’s call to make disciples of all nations, and has been seized by a new conviction that the church must be an evangelistic fellowship. So he moves that a minister of evangelism be hired to train members for this necessary work. The motion is seconded, but before discussion ends, Elder B unloads a very different vision of what ought to be done with the $20,000 per year Elder A wants to give the new pastor. He, too, has been eagerly waiting for a chance to make a proposal. In his recent reading of the New Testament he has come to a vivid awareness of the social dimensions of the gospel. Reports of African famine have goaded him to the view that the church must make a considerable gift to the denomination’s hunger and development fund. The other elders recognize the biblical validity of both proposals. What is to be done? Chances are, a compromise will be reached: a part-time minister of evangelism will be hired and $10,000 given to alleviate hunger. Each will need to relinquish his notion of the best, and each will likely go home and grumble to his wife that their church is too limited in vision and perhaps they ought to think about finding a more biblical one. The limitations inherent in the institutional are what frustrates them.

It may be tempting to cast our gaze heavenward, for the stable can get pretty messy. We might long for a stable full of championship thoroughbreds, instead of the unruly bunch stepping on our toes whenever our eyes rest on the purer heights. But we live in this stable -- the institutional church. To serve the Holy Child best we must live with the frustrations of limited results: getting the oxen straw, giving the donkeys a rubdown.

But this is so mundane! Are we not called to a spiritual life and ministry? Indeed we are. Our problem, however, is an idolatrous notion of the spiritual. The word connotes the otherworldly, the exalted, the transcendent; it has to do with outer space, not earth. To be spiritual, we think, is to be other than: other than this institution, other than this committee hassle, other than this budget formation, other than this building maintenance above it all. If we affirm, however, the apostolic confession about Christ, that "in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Col. 1:19), then we can neither look for God in the heights nor construct well-reasoned images of the spiritual; rather, our focus must be wholly directed to the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. There we see the divine.

What does Christmas teach us about God? In Karl Barth’s words: "The mystery reveals to us that for God it is just as natural to be lowly as it is to be high, to be near as it is to be far, to be little as it is to be great, to be abroad as it is to be home" (Church Dogmatics IV, 1). What Barth is saying is that the transcendent reveals its true power in the free act of humble accommodation to worldly reality. God’s unlimited freedom actualizes and reveals itself in voluntary limitation. The genuinely spiritual is not a supramundane reality located somewhere in an exalted Above and Beyond. It is grounded on our earth, in our mundane, limited existence.

And because the church is the body of Christ, the communal event of his presence in the world, the church also exists in that heavenly-worldly intersection. In practice, this means release from hand-wringing when we are faced with the limitations of a mundane church. We may confidently follow Christ out of that bifurcated tension where, with one foot in heaven and one foot on earth, we are torn apart like the wishbone after a Thanksgiving dinner. We may be the church as it is, in other words, at peace with the institutional consequences of life in the Incarnate One.