The Spirit and institution-building
The Spirit and institution-building

The Spirit and institution-building

To be sure, the Spirit's transforming work among the people of God is vital to considering human organizations, and I will not neglect it here. Before entering familiar territory, however, we must begin elsewhere. There is more to the Spirit's work than regeneration and sanctification. The Spirit fulfills an unacknowledged, foundational role in the arduous task of institution-building.
August 19 th 2005

Why focus on the Holy Spirit with regard to institution-building? For many Christians, the relationship between the Holy Spirit and institution-building might seem tenuous at best. The institution that comes to mind in respect of the Holy Spirit is the church, which some better understand as a community brought into existence by the Spirit at work among God's covenant people. Or, others think of the Spirit's work as an applied dimension of our sanctification. If we limit the Spirit's work in this way, we betray ourselves and disclose a diminished view of the Third Person of the Trinity, focused only on the application of the benefits of Christ's work to us. To be sure, the Spirit's transforming work among the people of God is vital to considering human organizations, and I will not neglect it here. Before entering familiar territory, however, we must begin elsewhere. There is more to the Spirit's work than regeneration and sanctification. The Spirit fulfills an unacknowledged, foundational role in the arduous task of institution-building.

The relationship between the Spirit and human organizations goes all the way back to the beginning. The presence of the Spirit at Genesis 1:2 is no mere warm-up act to the main attraction of God's speaking creation into existence. The "formless and void" is attended by the hovering presence of the Spirit. Theologian Sinclair Ferguson refers to the Spirit as "the executive member of the Trinity" who carries out divine prerogative, meaning that the Spirit's presence was not strictly a precursor to the drama of creation, but a central player in bringing divine design to completion. As the agent of order, the Spirit tames the chaotic, unformed creation and helps accomplish the ordering that follows. Abraham Kuyper described the Holy Spirit's possessing a perfecting role in creation which leads creation to its God-glorifying destiny. Creation arrives at its initial orderliness through the Spirit's work.

The crown of creation and ultimate expression of God's ordering work, humankind is called to claim the cultural mandate as an essential function of their purpose. Humankind is called to claim dominion over the created order as God's vice-regents, stewards of the world. Stewardship focuses on developing the world's latent potential, cultivating the creation in ways beyond agriculture—an active participation in directing the world to its ultimate purpose. The construction of economic systems, schools, art, and politics all arise as humankind exercises care over creation—although history records hit-and-miss results. No system of any kind in any arena has fulfilled God's will perfectly. But no response to the cultural mandate moves forward apart from some form of human organization.

What's pneumatological—of the Holy Spirit—about this, and what does it have to do with human organizations? For two reasons, without the Spirit it is impossible to fulfill the cultural mandate. First, the Spirit is foundational to existence itself, to "being." The Spirit gives all life. Without the Spirit's animating role, our globe would be an uninhabitable vacuum. Second, without the Spirit's restraint of sin and its preservation of the world—after the Fall—history cannot move forward, and creation cannot direct, develop, and move itself toward God's glory. I am describing common grace. The dynamic force of common grace is the Spirit's work in creation—God's unmerited mercy toward His entire creation. Without this foundational work of the Spirit, human organizations are impossible.

Common grace serves as a rationale and impetus for Christian engagement with the world, especially for neocalvinists. The Spirit's common work enables and encourages humankind to work within the creation, and reminds us that the world still belongs to God, even though it is far from perfect. In the midst of imperfection, humankind creates culture by building organizations directed toward making human life flourish in all its dimensions. When Christians are consciously engaged in the formation of human organizations, the common work and the particular work of the Spirit converge. Here is where a more familiar perspective on the Spirit's work comes into play. As one response of sanctification, Christians transformed by the Spirit into the image of Christ work within the created order to form organizations and institutions which reflect the realities of the kingdom to greater and lesser degrees. In the convergence of the common work and the particular work of the Spirit, creation and redemption participate in God's overarching plan. They are not opposed to each other. Redemption is not exclusively related to spiritual matters that keep us from "the world." Instead, the convergence of the Spirit's work leads us to view redemption as the expression of God's desire to renew creation. Christian institution-building, then, is a response of God's covenant people who are serious about fulfilling the cultural mandate.

How is the sanctification of individuals significant in human organizations? Christians will want to relate to others, by virtue of their humanity, as Jesus would. The Spirit's transformation of character should be on display as Christians work with others in creating and implementing a group vision directed toward improving our world and serving the common good. Tests of character emerge in bringing vision to fruition, and the Spirit's transformative work is vital to smoothing out the difficult process.

Personal piety is important, but an aspect of sanctification needing more attention is the manner in which the influence of the Spirit is refracted by the human person's relationship with God, to the very structure of an organization itself. I do not demean the significance of personal values, since the character of a person is very important, but that is not enough to make an organization function "Christianly." A good question for every Christian organization to ask is whether or not they truly aim to be in step with the Spirit. What do I mean? Beyond having a mission statement, is the organization seeking to function according to God's creation ordinances, or is it merely modeling itself according to the local school board, to Wall Street, to the halls of justice, or to the politics of the day? The business world is of particular interest here, not least because churches have generally failed to link faith and work beyond the insertion of piety into the workday. Are businesses run by Christians distinctive or do they merely add a veneer of faith to an existing paradigm?

Let me complicate matters. Because of common grace, we must ask if the common work of the Spirit means that it is possible organizations and institutions built by those not of Christian faith also possess the potential to bear the marks of the Spirit. Since many Christians work with human organizations composed of "mixed company," it is important to add this wrinkle to our inquiry. Whether explicitly Christian or emerging from another worldview, how can we tell if an organization functions as the fruit of common grace, if not the convergence of common and particular grace? What enables the discernment of human organizations that correspond to the Spirit's ways?

Look at organizations which sprang from renewal movements, since the catalyst for their existence is the work of the Spirit in a group of individuals who are then "inspired" to band together to do God's work in evangelism, social work, or even cultural transformation. These institutions are workshops of the Spirit that regard themselves as expressions of the Christian mission. The more difficult task is discerning the Spirit in businesses, artist guilds, educational institutions since, today, these are not typically outgrowths of revival, though they are central to human flourishing. Whether the organization is Christian or otherwise, a Christological criterion can be helpful. As Kuyper, and even Clark Pinnock in Flame of Love (1996), asked: Does the life of the organization reflect self-giving love, does it care for the community, commit to and long for justice, seek peace, uphold beauty, and model generosity? Is virtue to be found in the structure and practice of the organization? Additionally, how does a particular movement fit into God's overarching plan of redemption? Does the organization glorify God as it fulfills its own aims? A word of caution: We must be wary of hastily declaring that organizations carry the stamp of the Spirit, not because it is unlikely, but because our discernment and the organizations in question are imperfect. Whatever judgments we make we should adopt provisionally, because seemingly great organizations can take a turn in the opposite direction. In the end, what do we do? With the Spirit's aid, we must look carefully at human organizations and affirm their congruence with the ways of the kingdom as best we can. If done in community, our judgments will be sharper.

The convergence of the Spirit's work in common grace and particular grace is important as we consider human organizations. The Spirit's common work enables and compels us to create organizations as one response to the cultural mandate. The regenerative and transformative work of the Spirit allows us to recognize and respond to common grace, and helps us discern whether organizations are socio-cultural fruit of the Spirit, irrespective of faith. Failing to recognize the Spirit's role in organizations is to experience loss greater than we might imagine, for we are left to our own devices.

Vincent Bacote
Vincent Bacote

Vincent Bacote is Associate Professor of Theology, and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics, at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (2005). He is also co-editor with Dennis Okholm and Laura Miguelez of Scripture in the Evangelical Tradition (InterVarsity Press, 2004). He is also the editor of the Precepts for Living Annual Commentary (UMI).


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