More than 120 years before the American Revolution, the charter of Harvard College was established. But the “Rules and Precepts” of the college adopted in 1646 show that the leaders saw education (and all of life) as an arena in which God was central, and theology they considered the crown jewel of the arts and sciences. Almost 350 years later, the professors of law, ethics, theology, and history at this esteemed institution hold convictions and teach perspectives that would chill the already cold bones of the school’s founders, not to mention those godly people who endowed the school with their fortunes.
Similarly, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was started in 1844 by a group of 12 men in London. As it spread west, the Boston branch declared “a strong desire for the promotion of evangelical religion among young men,” they hoped to be “a social organization in whom the love of Christ has produced love to men; who shall meet the young stranger as he enters our city, … introduce him to the church and Sabbath school, and in every way throw around him good influences.”
“Rules & Precepts”
Adopted by Harvard College in 1646
1. When any scholar is able to read [the classics] ex tempore, … speak and read Latin … and decline perfectly [Greek paradigms of nouns and verbs], then may he be admitted in to the college.…
2. Every one shall consider the main end of his life and studies to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life.
3. Seeing the Lord giveth wisdom, every one shall seriously by prayer in secret seek wisdom of Him.
4. Every one shall so exercise himself in reading the Scriptures twice a day that they be ready to give an account of their proficiency therein, both in theoretical observations of language and logic, and in practical and spiritual truths.…
Just a century later (1947), the San Francisco branch showed institutional decline, saying, “The YMCA believes that its Christian objectives can be realized even though its members consist of Jews, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and persons who have no religious affiliation. This belief is based on a simple philosophy: In its [YMCA] program, … everyone … is encouraged to find the spiritual home that meets his own needs.”
When we consider the history of faith, it seems almost axiomatic that over time institutions tend to liberalize and apostatize. There is at work in the universe of institutions a law of entropy. Organizations begin with great heat and intensity. But over time this fire cools, and the intensity eventually dissipates until the school, church, or ministry completely detaches itself from its founding vision and purpose.
The Tides of Institutional Drift
Why does this dismal hypothesis have so much historical support?
First, while growth is always a goal in order to further the Gospel, as ministries grow, bureaucracies develop to handle such growth and the hard edge of belief soon becomes soft. The intention is usually good—more impact on more people—but almost unavoidably, pragmatism creeps in to keep the growth curve climbing. The school or ministry begins practices which may not overtly contradict the founding belief, but, though they help growth, they weaken the grip on belief. Soon, the once well-defined distinctives of the organization have degenerated to a more generic, mediocre state.
We can draw an example of such entropy from the commercial realm. One can eat “Buffalo wings” in Miami or a “Philly cheese steak” in San Diego. But as the popularity of such local specialties demand mass distribution, pragmatic production means the experience in Miami will not have the “local Buffalo flavor.” So also with evangelical belief—in order to translate the belief to the masses, to package it for greater public consumption, certain distinctives invariably seem to disappear. This is nothing less than cultural accommodation. Charles Colson has correctly said, “Accommodation always dulls the Gospel’s sharp edge. The church must never confuse technique with truth. Times change; truth doesn’t” (The Body, p. 239).
Second, history is replete with groups that began to tolerate beliefs ever-so-slightly divergent from the past. This done, it is a short step to pluralism—the view that these differing perspectives are mutually valuable and appropriate. Such pluralism springs from a desire for unity and peace. The ecumenical movement believed that compromise on certain distinctives could bring unity. But Luther rightly said, “Peace if possible, but truth at all cost.”
Finally, there is the tendency to forget. Having first tolerated heterodox belief only eventually to embrace it, the original is soon forgotten. How many students or faculty at Harvard know the founding rules and precepts? Such loss of memory leads not only to violations of historic belief (of which we are all guilty), but to outright repudiation of the covenants and promises of the past. In Israel, those who forgot always were the first to leave. Thus said the psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.”
Swimming against the Tides
What about you? Perhaps your church is drifting into heresy. Since institutions tend to liberalize, such drift is virtually inevitable. History shows that no church has ever come back once the slide begins—although for the first time we may be seeing such a recovery with the Southern Baptist Convention. Maybe your parachurch ministry or educational institution now denies its founding vision. Do you stay and fight or do you separate?
Dr. John Gerstner suggests three considerations. First, if your church has not embraced apostasy, you must stay faithful to your membership vows. Second, if the organization has undeniably capitulated the faith, embracing heresy, you must leave (Col. 2:8). Third, and most common, when the lines are blurry (it seems the slide has begun, but the present situation may not qualify as outright heresy), ask yourself this question: “Where can I most effectively serve Jesus Christ?” If unbelief in your institution inhibits your service to the King, and you can better serve Him elsewhere, there is no question as to the course you must take.
In 1934 a retiring leader in the YMCA wrote, "We have chosen, rated, and retained our [local leaders] primarily on the basis of their financial and business ability at whatever cost that might be to our spiritual and religious leadership. Ours is not the only flaming youth movement in religious history which has been cooled, hardened, and cramped by the commercial mind, … and the failure to be both conservative and progressive, both stable and mobile.… We should have done much better."
Remember: individuals, not institutions last forever. The goal is to hear our heavenly Father say, "Well done good and faithful servant."