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  • Institutional AuthorityA Christian Perspective
  • Terrence Merrigan

In a reflection that is intended to serve as a contribution to greater mutual understanding between religious traditions, it seems appropriate to begin by putting one’s best foot forward. When one receives a guest into one’s home, one usually makes an effort to do just that. One cleans and organizes one’s home, and even attempts to disguise, or at least to deflect attention away from, the defects of one’s living space—the scratches on the furniture, for example, or the chair that has seen better days. If someday the guest becomes a friend, he or she will drop in unexpectedly and see how things look on a day-to-day basis. And when one feels completely at home with one’s friend, one will make no fuss at all when that friend comes by. Our friend, one assumes, will put the best possible face on the chaos they see. And we will trust them to be mild in their judgments on our household and our capacities as a homemaker.

The following reflection on institutional authority within Christianity is structured in the light of the analogy of a friend’s visit to one’s home. Part 1 provides a description of the Christian “home,” that is to say, an outline of the most striking features of the Christian religion. This is, of course, inevitably, the view of a homeowner. Though the Christian home might not appeal to a non-Christian, it is important to know what it looks like. Part 2 aims to take the visitor into the heart of the Christian home. Of course, like every homeowner who welcomes a first-time visitor, the host will attempt to present their home at its best, that is to say, how the home looks when everything is in its place. Concretely, this means reflecting on how institutional authority is intended to function within the Christian community, how it—ideally—serves the goal of the Christian religion. Part 3 will deal with the impressions that a visitor might have of the Christian home if he or she were to drop by on a very busy weekday, when there are still a lot of chores to be done and there has been no time for housecleaning. In other words, this section will examine the way in which institutional authority works in practice and how this might appear to those members of the community who suffer under its exercise, as well as to those who are not part of the community to begin with. Finally, part 4 provides an analysis of how a member of the family or the community of the church might go about coping with the exercise of institutional authority. In other words, this section will reflect on what it is like to [End Page 133] live in a home where chaos seems to be order of the day and where the hope of ever having everything in its place is at best a very distant one. The goal here is to seek to make clear to the non-Christian visitor why, despite the chaos, a Christian can still feel at home in, and even cherish, the Christian family that is the church. But let us begin with the description of the Christian home.

The Nature of the Christian Religion

Orthodox Christianity is perhaps best summarized in the proposition that God engages in a personal relationship with human beings in and through the processes of human history. Let us look more closely at the central notions that make up this proposition.

The first notion that merits consideration is the description of God as “personal.” What Christianity claims (and this is the fruit of its roots in Judaism) is that the origin and goal of all that is, has disclosed itself to human persons as a Being possessed of “person-like characteristics,” such as “individuality, intelligence, and love.” 1

The second notion that needs to be considered is that of “relationship.” The possibility of some sort of relationship between human beings and God is predicated on the first notion, namely, that God is in some sense “personal.” According to the Judeo-Christian...