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The Church Without Institutions (part 2)

Posted by thethousandmarch on February 9, 2014 at 2:25 PM

In my last post I discussed the nature and role of institutions. In this post I will discuss the nature and role of the Church. The Church is a worldwide collective made up of every true Christian. I distinguish a true Christian from a person who merely professes to be a follower of Jesus. If I may be so presumptuous, the use of the terms true and professing are a better way of describing what Augustine described as the visible and invisible. There are many who claim to be Christians who do not actually love and trust Jesus. A person may make a public profession of faith which they do not actually believe for a variety of reasons – and they may not be consciously aware of the duplicity of their profession. Others may “truly” believe in an entity they call Jesus, but it may not be the real Jesus. Conversely a person may not even know the name Jesus, or have much of a comprehension of his true nature, but still have a faith which God counts as righteousness. (And before someone gets upset with me and says such people do not exist, I would point out that the Old Testament saints belong in this category). Every person who actually trusts and follows Jesus is a member of his Church – this we call the universal Church. The institutions which we call churches are made up of both true and professing Christians.


In Greek the Church, in its abstract universal sense and manifested as a local gathering, is referred to as the ecclesia – a gathering of people who have been called out. The universal abstract body is a bit difficult to get our minds around so we generally think of the Church as it is manifested in a portion of the body gathering in a particular time and place. But it must never be forgotten that this manifestation of the Church is not a separate entity, but is rather part of a larger whole. It is improper to speak of a church here and a church there; instead we should speak of the Church here and the Church there. This is a subtle but significant difference. The lack of such a distinction is perhaps why we English speakers use the word church in the first place. This word actually derives from a different Greek word which means the Lord’s house – in other words the building. So then the word we use to attempt to speak of a universal body, actually means the building in which that group meets. How did this happen? Perhaps it is because for hundreds of years institutional churches have focused upon their separation – not the congregation’s separation, not the sacredness of the entire universal body of believers. Instead the institutions focused upon the sacredness of their leadership and their buildings. In this way each institution set itself and its priests up as the mediators between God and man, making it necessary for people to pay them for their salvation. And of course a variety of institutions emerged competing with one another for the title of the true Church, making it worthy of the fees it charged.


Many people still seek to find, or establish a pure church. But no such thing can exist on this earth. And Jesus makes it very clear in his parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt 13:24-30) that no such endeavor should be attempted. It is impossible for us to determine who is a true Christian and who is merely a professing Christian. Our institutions will be filled with both types; the leadership of these institutions will be of both types. Therefore no institution can claim to be the true or pure church. Being accepted and approved of by an institution – making all the necessary public professions of allegiance, and performing all the duties and rituals which one’s chosen institution requires does not in and of itself make a person one who God counts as righteous. Institutions may be helpful to the Church in helping us accomplishing the mission God has given us, but we must stop focusing on the institutions, because formal institutions emphasize our separation. We must stop focusing on our separation and start recognizing our unity, which would make a very significant difference in the way we related to one another.


Each institution is a separate entity. This is when we start talking about churches. Each formal institution exists to create for itself a unique identity and boundaries. There are clearly insiders and outsiders who are identified by external criteria such as a public profession of faith. Each institution has a formalized leadership structure whose job includes protecting the institution – not just the congregation who the institution is intended to serve, but the self-interests of the legal institution. And really whose self-interests are synonymous with the institution’s – the leaderships. I’m not saying all or even most church leaders are bad people; but the responsibility of leading an institution comes with particular incentives which make it difficult at times to distinguish between what’s best for the institution and what’s best for the Church. As a result most institutions compete against each other for power, influence, and property/money; too often churches work against each other as we pursue many interests counter to that of the mission given to us by Jesus.


What is the mission Jesus has given his followers? Of course we can start with the ‘great commission’ – “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” (Matt 28:19-20). Let’s also consider the words of Jesus found in Acts 1 – “. . . you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”, which we see throughout the book of Acts means telling people the “Good News about Jesus” (8:4). What I do not find in the New Testament is any description of particular rituals we are to practice, or form of institution we are to create. Certainly we are told to gather for the purposes of discipleship and corporate worship (which goes beyond just singing). We are told to take communion together and we are told to baptize disciples. But we are never given descriptions of how we are to do these things – no particular order is prescribed. The form of the early Church is briefly described to us, but no form is prescribed. Elders are appointed to lead the Church in particular localities; deacons are appointed to make sure that everyone in the Church in a particular area is being taken care of; and particular individuals are recognized as servants of the Church are therefore deemed worthy of being supported by the Church (though they do not always chose to be). But again no particular way of organizing these activities is prescribed. Yet one thing which is particularly special and potent about the Christian faith is that it has no particular prescribed form.


Christianity has no particular culture or ethnicity. It’s identity has no particular set of rules that set Christians visibly apart in the way they dress, eat, worship, or where they live, etc. We are told to obey all that Jesus commanded, but the focus of these commands is placed upon our motivations, not outward conformity. Because of this “obeying all that Jesus commanded” may look different from one person to another. The early Church realized that people did not have to become Jews to become Christians. As a result Christianity has spread throughout the world taking different forms, and institutions. But none of these particular forms or ways of organizing the work of the Church can claim to be the correct way of being the Church.


The Church is not a sacred space in which we encounter the transcendent. The Church is the people who follow Jesus. The Church gathers in various forms to do the work given to them by Jesus. How formal must the gathering be, how big, and what must happen at it for it to be considered Church? These are questions which are relevant only if the Church is simply a thing Christians do when they get together, rather than a thing which they always are and the work of which they should always be doing.


Many of the topics which I have brought up should be explored in more depth. I have sought to point out some of the major issues which cause confusion. No particular institution can claim to be the Church, or claim that its way of doing things is the only and correct way. Christians must maintain a distinction between the body of Christ, universal and local and the institutions which call themselves churches. These institutions may help or hinder the Church in accomplishing its mission; they may have self-interests which are entirely different from that of the Church. Leaders of these institutions should remember that their institution is not the Church; it is a tool of the Church. Leaders of different congregations should seek to emphasize the unity they have with other congregations, and must consider how the institution which serves their congregations may seek to serve the larger Church. We are not in competition with one another and we should always seek to do that which would have the greatest impact for accomplishing the mission of the Church, which may not mean the survival of a particular institution.


In a future post I will discuss what a Church without institutions may look like and what benefits will result from a less formal structure.


If you liked this post you may also like a past post, “Are Institutional Churches and Denominations Really Para-church Organizations?


Categories: Church Without Institutions, Being Missional , The Emerging Church