The Church is Both Institutional and Charismatic


Typically questions of church renewal have been viewed in one of two ways. They have been seen either from what may be called the institutional or the charismatic perspective (understanding neither term pejoratively). This distinction is roughly parallel to Ernst Troeltsch’s distinction between church and sect.

The Institutional View of the Church

From this perspective, the church is God’s saving institution on earth. Church history is seen positively as the unfolding drama of God’s purposes. Existing structures of the church (theological and especially organizational) are not fundamentally questioned. Periods of decline or unfaithfulness in church history stem from the personal character of church leaders or external factors, but not from the church-as-institution itself. In fact, the institutional stability and survival of the church in spite of periods of decline, opposition, or weakness are seen as part of the glory and indestructibility of the church. They reveal God’s providence in establishing the church as the institution of salvation.

Thus from a Roman Catholic perspective, the survival of the papacy in spite of periods of corruption or weakness attests to the validity of the church. Or similarly, from a Protestant perspective, the endurance of preaching or the “ministerial office” is seen as a source of God’s renewing work even when many people are unfaithful.

From this perspective, nothing is ever fundamentally wrong with the church. The question of church renewal, therefore, is exclusively (or nearly so) a question of the spiritual renewal of particular persons or the general body of believers. Thus one of Philip Spener’s opponents could argue, “It is not the Church but the ungodly in the Church that must be reformed.”12 The problem is simply that people fail to believe or act as the church tells them to. Renewal, however it comes, means restoring people to the level of belief or action defined by the church as normal. Any genuine renewal is seen as beginning with the ecclesiastical leaders and affecting the whole church more or less evenly.

From the institutional perspective, any kind of renewal movement immediately provokes suspicion, if not actual hostility. A new structure dedicated to church renewal is intuitively, and correctly, perceived by the keepers of the institution as calling into question (at least potentially) the validity of the institutional church itself, at least in its given form. Thus tension is inevitable, and the results are predictable. The renewal body will either: (1) become increasingly radicalized and eventually leave or be forced out of the institutional church, as with the Waldenses and the Methodists (and inevitably it seems forces are at work on both sides tending toward schism or separation); (2) lose its vitality to the point where it is no longer a threat to the institutional church (the Continental Pietists); or (3) become accommodated to the institutional church by being given a recognized but limited place within the structure (as with Catholic religious orders).

All three of these options seem to be compatible with a greater or lesser degree of renewing impact on the church by the renewal structure or movement.

The Charismatic View of the Church

In the charismatic view, the church in any age must be in direct contact with God and a clear channel of his grace (charis) in order to have life and power. The church is essentially a spiritual organism and community, whatever its institutional form. Institutional forms are viewed ambivalently or totally rejected.

The charismatic view naturally sees church history in a different light. History and tradition do not automatically validate the present form of the church. Since the stress is on immediate and direct spiritual life, history is evaluated according to evidence of such life at various points in the past and according to whether past events are seen as contributing to or undermining the church’s spiritual life.

The charismatic view is especially attracted to the picture of theprimitive church in the New Testament, or to an idealized model of that picture. Typically it measures the history and present state of the church by this picture (primitivism). Since any substantial decline from the New Testament ideal must be explained without calling God’s existence, sovereignty, or immediate availability into question, this line of reasoning leads naturally to some theory of the fall of the church and to the present need to restore the church to its primitive purity (restitutionism).

Because of its emphasis on immediate experience and its religious idealism, the charismatic view is typically concerned with the whole experience of the church and with the visible expression of the church as a renewed community and people, not just with private, personal experience. This places it in conflict with the institutional view, because champions of the charismatic view typically perceive (often correctly) that many of the obstacles to renewal are enshrined in traditional and institutional forms. Either these forms must change or, failing that, a more renewed and virile form of Christian community must be implanted within the institutional church so that the charismatic ideal may become a reality (ecclesiola; the Pietist collegium pietatis; the Moravian communities and bands; the Methodist societies and classes).

Thus the same three options emerge. Depending partly on the radicality of the charismatic group and its critique of the institutional church and partly on the response or reaction from the institutional church, the renewal group will either: (1) form a totally separate body or sect; (2) dry up and blow away; or (3) strike a deal with the institutional church which allows it some autonomy in exchange for its recognition of the authority and validity of the institutional powers that be. Again, which of these options occurs depends not just on the spiritual temperature of the renewing body, but also on other factors, and on the response or reaction of the institutional church to the would-be renewers.

A Mediating Perspective

Is there any middle ground here? Can both views be incorporated into one understanding of the church and church renewal that affirms both the necessity of a present, vital experience of Christian community and discipleship and also the validity of the church in its more institutional form?

In the first place, both the institutional and charismatic views are open to criticism. The institutional view is often blind to the great gulf between the church’s profession and its possession, and to its own institutionalism and self-interest in keeping its status at precisely quo. Consequently, it often underrates the truth in the charismatic claim and misreads the importance of the renewal movement. Thus it finds itself in the unfortunate position of fighting in practice the very things it favors in theory.

But the charismatic view has parallel problems. The renewers often have no sense of history (or force history into an ideological framework) and too easily identify God’s purposes exclusively with their side in the renewal debate. They are typically naive concerning institutional and sociological realities and blind to institutionalizing tendencies within their own movement.

In their concern with present experience they may fall prey to bizarre apocalyptic, dispensational, or millennial views that are unbiblical and unrealistic and may lead to extreme hopes, claims, or behavior. It is partly for these reasons that some renewal folk burn out and seek liturgical worship for its sense of history, stability, mystery, and deep tradition.

Yet both the institutional and charismatic views have their strengths—something to offer the church. Whatever the church’s state of decline, it still carries (except in the most extreme cases) the Scriptures, the sacraments, and a deposit of Christian doctrinal truth—historical Christian DNA. The very birth of a renewal body is presumptive evidence that some spiritual life still remains in the old church. If one takes historical processes seriously, some real continuity—and therefore validity—must be granted to the institutional church. This Wesley firmly believed. Otherwise the renewal movement would have to be seen as a totally new, unique, and unprecedented phenomenon, a church sui generis, or one generated uniquely by the Spirit’s action unrelated to history. Such a view would be unbiblical, as well as sociologically and historically naive.

Just so, the charismatic view cannot simply be rejected on either biblical or sociological grounds. Institutions decline and need periodic renewal. When the institution is the church, the renewal certainly must spring from or result in a new or renewed experience of God’s grace, whatever other features it may have. Further, the charismatic stress on community and on charismatic (rather than institutional, authoritarian) leadership often points to real problem areas in the institutional church.

One cannot deny the internal dynamism of many renewal movements. Nor can one deny that in many cases this dynamism has contributed hugely to the renewal or rebirth of the institutional church itself. A prime example is the Franciscan movement, but there are many others.

This dynamism must be explained in some way. If evaluated spiritually, it presumably is either good or bad. If the renewal is in fact biblically based, shows marks of the New Testament church, and sparks new life throughout the church, it can only be evaluated favorably, whatever its weaknesses. Even if evaluated on purely sociological grounds, the beneficial impact of the renewing force on the institutional church has, in most cases, to be admitted.

If this line of reasoning makes sense, it logically points toward a theory of church life and renewal that combines insights from the institutional and charismatic views. This then points toward a mediating model of the church that seeks not merely to steer a middle course between the two views but to incorporate the truth of both (a very Wesleyan move).

Such a mediating model would need to see both the institutional church (even in periods of decline) and also renewal movements and forces as valid and perhaps even normal in some sense. Perhaps like the cycles of nature and physical life. Obviously not all renewal movements are equally beneficial. From a Christian theological standpoint the validity of particular renewal movements would have to be settled on primarily biblical grounds. But a mediating model would expect renewal movements to arise and would anticipate them making a genuine biblical and spiritual contribution to the church’s life.

Are you interested in learning more about how this model of church, that accounts for both its institutional and charismatic nature, can be realized in the life of the church? 18th century leader of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, held these two dimensions in tension and successfully helped lead the church through a spiritual awakening. Howard Snyder writes about life and ministry of Wesley in his The Radical Wesley: Patterns and Practices of a Movement Maker. Get it from our store now.


International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder's main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.


  1. How does Wesley’s sermon on “The Nature of Enthusiasm” fit in here? Wesley wouldn’t accept all Charismatic practices, would he? Should we?

  2. Thanks, Gary. No, he wouldn’t. Purported gifts or manifestations of the Spirit needed to be accompanied by the fruit of the Spirit. Otherwise they’re invalid, he felt.

    In other words, gifts or Spirit manifestations are not self-authenticating. On the other hand, we need to be open to things the Spirit might do that we might initially find surprising or even uncomfortable.