Michael Metzger

“Institutions don’t have a good reputation among evangelicals,” writes Uli Chi. “We tend to focus on the merely personal.” That’s largely why we’re not viewed as legit.

Uli Chi is a Senior Fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller furniture company, famously said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. If evangelicals defined reality, they’d recognize their suspicion of institutions is why they’re not viewed as legit.

By legit, I mean taken seriously by serious institutions. The Western church is in exile, an outsider when it comes to our nation’s influential institutions. I felt this as a pastor. I was invited to give the opening prayer at the Senate—but was politely asked to leave when elected officials got down to business. Religion is not viewed as legitimate player.

Evangelicals can’t correct this without a correct view of institutions. Chi says they are meant for the common good. Government, for example, is a human authority structure intended as “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4). That’s true for business as well. If evangelicals had a positive view of institutions, Chi asks how they could assist institutions. He turns to Andy Crouch’s book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.

Crouch argues that human institutions need trustees. These are leaders who sit on boards that have formal responsibility for an organization’s mission and well-being. They serve an institution by helping it fulfill its purpose that leads to human flourishing.

Crouch is right. His emphasis on institutions was absent in his previous book, Making Culture. Or maybe I missed it. I’m not critiquing Crouch. Truth be told, I didn’t think about institutions for decades. I’m learning. But as I learn, I have a question. Trustees are given powers of administration because they’ve earned them. These leaders are viewed as legit. What would it take for influential institutions to view evangelicals as legit?

We’ve have to earn it. Legitimacy is a credibility to be listened to and taken seriously. It is earned. Scripture defines it as the power to name things, to define human flourishing, for example. Naming is how God caused the cosmos to come into existence. Adam continued creating cultures by naming the animals. Individuals have to earn the credibility and authority to name things. It’s called “legitimate naming.”[1]

This is how a networks of leaders changed the world in the late 1800s. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and William James were part of a generation of leaders who shaped influential institutions.[2] They were viewed as legit, so they had the power to reframe facts as the sole province of science and values as the sole province of religion. Facts deal with truth. Values are merely personal—preferences—like preferring pepperoni pizza. The result is that evangelicals, by focusing on the merely personal, are viewed as not in the reality business. They’re not legit. It’s tragic.

The issue of legitimacy is mainly why I could not at this time sit on Kevin Plank’s board. Plank is founder of Under Armour. I have not yet earned the cultural capital necessary to be viewed as legit by Plank. In the Babylonian exile, the sons of Judah had earned the right to be taken seriously by Nebuchadnezzar. They had previously served in King Jeconiah’s courts. That’s why Nebuchadnezzar selected them to be among his trustees.

Evangelicals don’t have a good reputation in institutions largely because institutions don’t have a good reputation among evangelicals. Evangelicals could one day be viewed as legit—but they’d have to start taking seriously the legitimate influence of institutions.


[1] Nicholas Brown & Imre Szeman, Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), p. 89.

[2] Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001), preface.


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  1. Mike,

    This Blog resonated with me.

    The problem we have with institutions not taking us seriously, like Plank not wanting one of us on his board, stems from the fact that institutions are increasingly dealing with reality stemming from the natural order of things as the politically correct world wants to see them.

    The institutions are not attributing creation , the natural order of things in the universe, nor the good that results when an institution produces profits, to God.

    It’s that simple. The Planks, Musks and Cooks of the high profit producing institutions all see their flourishing coming from a world without God–one that came into existence from the big Bang theory—no God needed.

    That proposition put up by these profit generating institutions is at a minimum an image they need to carry in the PC world we now occupy. Every one of them it seems, is fears admitting to their Faith, if they have any. That fear is worldly fear of losing customers. That’s why Chick Fil A backed down on their stance against Gay Marriage and anti-homosexuality. They folded to the world’s view, instead of sticking to God’s view.

    The largest institutions today not only do not stand behind God’s Commands, but they openly avoid being associated with anyone who says they believe in Christ and want to obey His commands.

    This is the reason you would have a difficult time serving on the Board of Plank’s company. He’s afraid if you try to apply your faith to human flourishing he will lose customers. The PC world dominates. And Plank himself may not have any faith–if he does, he will keep it in the closet.

    What a reversal. When the closet dwellers once were the sinners, now the closet dweller are the Faithful. Sin is in vogue.I’m not so sure God will reward that.

  2. Mike,

    I am not sure how this piece exactly fits, but I get an impression from history that American Christianity in the last 150 years (perhaps longer) has increasingly disqualified itself as a legitimate resources for civil institutions.

    One form of disqualification occurred when within Christianity sentiments shifted from respecting and protecting the civil freedoms of all (most importantly non-believers)to aims of legislating religious behaviors Christians found acceptable, regardless of what civil liberties were over run.

    For example, prohibition.

    Would it makes sense that a requirement for Christians to be considered legit is that they are experts at distinguishing between civil liberty (freedom insomuch as not violating another’s freedom) and moral liberty (wanting to love others as God loves) and knowing when not to cross the civic line into legislating religious behaviors?

    Also, I wonder how many non-Christians feel treated as equals by Christians. Or do non-Christians feel that “they are the problem that Christians are going to fix” rather than “they are desired and equal partners in building a more free and civil society”?

    I tend not to take advice from those who do not esteem me as an equal.

    I find that it is more god-like to give a man freedom and then let him be accountable for his actions (e.g. if you don’t work you don’t eat) than to deprive a man of his freedom (e.g. to drink or not to drink) so that his personal manners are acceptable to others.

    Grateful for you column; I look forward to reading it every week.

  3. Hi Gerard: Correct on many accounts. The problem of American Christianity is at least 150 years old. Worse, few American Christians correctly understand it.

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