I Like My Church Organized and Institutional
What do you think about the church? Is it boring? Outdated? Out of touch? If you think any of those things, then I’d love you to keep reading… you’re what I’d like to refer to as my ‘target audience’. It’s quite different to think that the church is any of the previously mentioned things rather than not to think about the church at all. The more time I spend in pastoral ministry the more people I encounter who are open to the idea of God, but don’t want anything to do with the church.
Perhaps my next post will be to show scripturally that God always intends for there to be a church, that is, a group of individuals, saved by his grace who meet together regularly to stir one another up to love and good works and to worship Him. What I want to do first though is attempt to answer another difficult but important question: is the modern church anything like what God intended it to be?
1 Corinthians 3 describes Jesus as the foundation and the church as the building. Surely no building can be built without a solid foundation, but similarly no one builds a solid foundation without the intention of building on it. Ephesians 1 describes the church as a body with Jesus as the head… another striking metaphor for the interaction between the two. As bad as it is (I imagine) to get decapitated, a head without a body is similarly absurd. Decorpulation (the removing of the body from the head) is as undesirable as decapitation. So I think the New Testament makes it pretty clear that you can’t have Jesus without the church.
But that’s not what we’re asking. The question is, does the organized, institutional church we see in modern North American culture resemble, at all, what God intended? That’s a much more complicated question. Certainly we don’t have time to explore it in any detail now, but let’s look at two passages and see if they can help us.
It seems to me that the outcry of disgruntled Christians who don’t like the church is that “the church” Jesus was planning to build was the people of God rather than a building full of structure and organization. To paraphrase one of the many best-selling Christian books promoting this kind of backward thinking, the church Jesus had in mind was organic, it was the people meeting in homes, parks and coffee shops rather than meeting in large groups at set times with a hierarchical leadership structure.
First of all, let’s look at a few things the New Testament has to say about the specificity of how the church operates:
Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 5 talk about the role and qualifications of elders. The word elder, pastor or overseer are all interchangeable terms in the New Testament, but the point to consider is that Paul (the author of these books) was clearly advocating for an organized leadership structure where not just anyone could teach or preach. Furthermore it is easy to see elsewhere is the scriptures where specific roles within the church are differentiated and the individuals set aside for specific tasks are equipped by God to do them well. So however you break down what you think ‘the church’ is, it must include some sort of role assignment.
Next let’s look at some specific words of Jesus. In Matthew 18 Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
If the argument is that ‘the church’ is simply comprised of the people of God rather than some sort of organization, then how does what Jesus said just make sense? If the church is nothing more than the people how can someone, after taking the accused before people THEN go on to the church… isn’t the church the people?
My answer would be no. The church includes the people, but it is more than the people. It is the collection of many people, brought together under the sole purpose of worshipping God by magnifying Christ. And it must be organized, must be structural and must be institutional because of the qualities the New Testament requires it to have: a leadership structure (Titus 1, 1 Tim 3), a way of discipline (Matt 18, 1 Cor 5), an organized way to collect tithes (Matt 17, 1 Cor 16), the preaching of God’s word by qualified individuals (1 Tim 3, James 3) and many more qualities too numerous for a newspaper article.
If you are open to the idea of God but have been unsure about the church, I’d invite you back to obedience. Is the church perfect? No. Do we (even and especially pastors) make mistakes? Absolutely. But is it worth the mess? More than you know.
Find a church. Connect with Jesus. Meet the people. Start serving. Grow in your faith. And begin to love the church for all its imperfections, all its issues and begin to be part of the solution.