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Ethics and Religion Talk: What is the place of Religious Institutions in Society?

What do you feel is the place of church in society?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Presbyterianism teaches that ‘the visible church … consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God’ (Westminster Confession, Ch. XXV.II)​. As such the church exists in society as a ‘new humanity,’ the body of those whose lives have been brought under the power of the gospel. We have been set apart from the mass of mankind and called to live in this world as the people of God, and the followers of Jesus Christ.

As ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ (I Timothy 2:15), the church has a creed to confess and a message to proclaim, the ‘glad tidings’ of salvation in Christ.  As ‘a city set on an hill’ (Matthew 5:14) the church is commanded to vindicate this creed and authenticate this message by doing those things that please God: ‘To do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God’ (Micah 6:5). The great power of the church is the power of ‘faith which worketh by love’ (Galatians 5:6).”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“I think when things are good and prosperous many feel the church has less importance in their lives. I have noticed when there is a crisis or challenge, either in someone’s individual life or in a society as a whole the church becomes more relevant, more people in the pews on Sunday mornings. What I appreciate most are the people who value the community that is created by a church. Faith communities can celebrate the joys of life and can also be supportive during the challenging times. Those who come to church for community understand the importance of the church as a place of friendship, belonging, connection whether times are good and prosperous or not.”

Chris Curia, the Director of Youth Ministries at Fairway Christian Reformed Church, responds:

“The church is the quiet place that we visit to remind ourselves, upon entering back into the noise, to hold on to the peace and stillness that always remains within us. It is the community, the universal body of belonging, that gathers to tell stories of freedom and create space for others to experience the same freedom for themselves. It is the people who decry oppression, exclusivity, and marginalization. It is the institution that creates space for a change of heart and mind. It is the living hope for the world, about which Christ himself declares, ‘Truly I tell you, you will do greater things than these.’ It is the space that reminds us that everything we need is all that we already are.

“Does the church live up to these ideals? Hardly ever. Much of the modern church is repulsed by human suffering and therefore offers escapism as its antidote. It believes that it has to operate with the latest bells and whistles to stay relevant but ends up just contributing to the noise of modern life. It is the community that so often ignores racism and other forms of discrimination that it becomes complicit in it. It has turned into a school of conformity that cannot be trusted.

“I like the idea of what the church can be and am terrified by the notion of what the church can become. Both reasons, the ideal and the reality, are what keep me acknowledging its place in society.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“If we can expand that term to include all sacred spaces of worship and communities of faith then I would say that they should exist to provide the opportunity for those seeking a deeper meaning of existence a place to collectively explore the transcendent.  They should also exist to encourage a sense of community, and to speak truth to power when the situation calls for such moral honesty.

“I am pleased that in this more enlightened era, ecclesiastical bodies have more competition for the hearts and minds of the laity. For centuries there has been too much influence wielded by religious leaders who abused their positions and embraced a love of political power and social status.  For organized religions to survive they need to foster a sense of humility among those who propose to be teachers of virtue. I would also suggest that those institutions which will thrive in the coming decades will be the ones that encourage a direct experience of divine connection, not mere dry theology and moral platitudes.”

My response:

I see the role of religious institutions as primarily to create a community which supports the spiritual and moral growth of their congregants. Secondarily, they speak to the ethical issues facing the larger community around them and society as a whole, locally and worldwide.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up ina the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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