Institutional loyalty is a thing of the past. We can lament the fact and wish it were not so; we can pester people to take more seriously their institutional commitments. We can use guilt and manipulation in an attempt to generate involvement in our organization. But nothing will change the reality that institutions no longer command the unquestioning allegiance they did fifty years ago.

Institutions that think they can demand participation and support simply out of habit or social convention, are deluding themselves. Most people today will walk away from any organization they come to believe no longer merits their allegiance.

To be fair, most institutions have done everything in their power to undermine the loyalty of their adherents. It may not have been intentional, but the failures of institutions in the past fifty years have gone a long way to cause people to become at best passive adherents and at worst aggressive opponents.

Companies that abuse their employees with a view to nothing more than maximizing profits and minimizing employee care should not be surprised when those employees walk away as soon as they get the hint of a better offer. Volunteer organizations that take their volunteers for granted and manipulate and abuse them in an attempt to generate support have only themselves to blame when their volunteer pool runs dry.

Recent history of institutional relations with the people they were created to serve and on whom they depend, does not paint a pretty picture. The tragic example of church officials using children to gratify their sexual desires and hierarchical attempts to hide this abuse are only the most blatant illustration of institutional structures that have forfeited any right to support.

Perhaps existing institutional structures should simply be abandoned. Like a building rotten to its core, the only solution might be to bulldoze the entire structure, excavate the foundation and rebuild from the ground up. Is this the strategy Jesus advocated when he argued that “no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed”? (Luke 5:37) Do we need to throw out the old wineskins if we hope to contain new wine?

It is not obvious to me that Jesus would have advocated the complete abandonment of existing institutional structures. Indeed, Jesus goes on after having pointed out the incompatibility of new wine with old wineskins to suggest that “no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke 5:39) Perhaps it is possible to preserve that which is good about the old, while opening to the new.

Jesus describes what is good in the “old” in a discussion about sabbath observance, when he asks, “is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9) The purpose of the sabbath, like the purpose of an institution, is to “do good” and “to save life.”

When institutions intend to serve the “good” and desire to honour “life” they will not be concerned with institutional loyalty. They will trust that their members’ commitment to goodness and life will guide them to the level and degree of involvement that is best for their personal well-being. Leaders will understand that institutions do not rightly exist to preserve themselves. They exist to serve the life and goodness of all people.

It is not clear to me that institutional loyalty was ever a good thing. It has always been a dangerous undertaking to invite people to give allegiance to an organization. In the church more than anywhere, we desire to call people, not to institutional loyalty, but to the deeper principles our institutional structures exist to embody. I do not want anyone to give themselves to the activity of church simply out of loyalty to the church. I hope people will give themselves to life and goodness and pray that they find their commitment to such qualities supported and enriched by church structure.