The Church: Organism or Organization

One of the questions that desperately needs to be answered in our day is whether we should view the Church as an organism or as an organization. The answer to this question has enormous implications for how the church functions in the world. If we were to poll church attendees in America it goes without saying that the majority would insist that the church is an organism, not an organization; or to put it another way, we have all heard professing Christians reject any notion of “organized religion,” or the idea of the church as “an institution.” It has commonly been asserted that “we (as the people of God) are the church” in contrast to any idea of a visible, governed and organized community. When this is said, what the individual who is saying it usually means is that “I” as a believing individual “am the church.” This is, of course, not taught anywhere in the pages of Scripture. The Bible does indeed unequivocally call the New Covenant people of God “the Church,” “saints,” “the body of Christ,” “the Bride of Christ,” “the Temple of God,” and the “New Jerusalem.” But all of these terms carry with them the idea of the collective whole.

In the New Testament (NT), the Greek word (εκκλησια)–from which we get our English word “church”–always implies the idea of the “gathered assembly” or the “organized and governed people of God.” The latter is often rejected out of hand, but is sufficiently supported by 1 Tim. 3:14-16 where the apostle Paul tells Timothy, “These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” If this is the case, why do so many have a hard time accepting it?

While several reasons that could be given to explain the aversion that so many have towards the idea that God intended the church to become an organization, the most common error has to do with a failure to grasp the biblical-theological development of the idea of the church of God (Old and New Testament). In regard to the NT, so many fall into the error of reading an earlier, descriptive portion with little or no regard to the progression of revelation, and the development of the concept, in the later portions. For instance, many read the book of Acts and see the church meeting in the homes of private individuals. The conclusion is then drawn that this is a binding description of what the church ought to do throughout the ages. The immediate context gives us a clue that it was merely out of necessity that the early church met in homes. The apostles were going in and were being driven out of the Synagogues when they were preaching the Gospel. Had the masses been converted to Jesus, it is altogether right for us to conclude that the early church would have then met to worship in the Synagogues. This was not the case. Under Roman rule, it would have been nearly impossible for what a appeared to be a sect of Judaism to get permission to build places of worship. It has also been wrongly inferred that every Christian ought to have leadership in a local church, since, in the first days of the apostles there did not seem to be a superstructure of governing officers. J. Gresham Machen, in his The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History, explained so well the development of the church as a living organism to the church as an organization when he wrote concerning the pastoral epistles (I and II Timothy & Titus):

The principle subject of these Epistles is the organization of the Church, both for the preservation of sound teaching and for the conduct of the government. The first period in the history of Christianity was over. Christianity had been established in many of the cities of the Empire. The existing churches had grown enormously since the writing of Paul’s first epistles. The church at Ephesus, for example, at the time of First Timothy, was no longer a small group of believers with all of whom the apostle could be intimately acquainted. it had grown, no doubt, into a community of very considerable size.

The increase in numbers brought with it certain disadvantages, and certain needs. One disadvantage was the impossibility of intimate personal acquaintance of all members of the church with the apostle. An epistle of Paul, intended for the church at Ephesus or for a circle of churches in Asia Minor could no longer be an unrestrained outpouring of affection for intimate friends and disciples. It is no wonder that the Pastoral Epistles are different from the earlier letters. In them Paul is thinking not merely of intimate friends, but of great churches with a complex life.

With the growth of large Christian communities there arose an increasing need for stability of tradition and for organization. At first Christianity was a mighty upheaval. Revelation followed revelation with marvelous rapidity. The full glory of Christian truth seems to burst upon the world at once. It was a glorious time–that first entrance of the Church upon her world-wide conquest. It was glorious, but it was also insufficient. Something else was needed if the Church was to retain her power. Conquest had to be followed by defense; production by conservation. It was not God’s plan that every new generation should be obliged to rediscover Christianity afresh. The divine method is the method of growth. Not every age need begin at the beginning. Rather, must the children stand upon the shoulders of the parents; the second generation must build upon a precious deposit of truth and of experience. Such is the divine law of progress.

The Pastoral epistles may be regarded as marking the second stage in the life of the church. The age of origination was nearly over; the age of conservation had begun. The church must now be looked upon as an established institution. Great principles were needed for guidance, principles which should serve not only for special circumstances, but for all generations1

This being so, we must conclude that the church is first a living organism, but that it is also necessarily an organization with its God appointed elders and deacons working for the well-being of its life and the protection of the truths that bring that vitality.

J. Gresham Machen The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1997) p. 181-182

5 Responses

  1. Nick,

    So which organization is it? NAPARC? Is that the Church Christ founded?

    Or is it some invisible and presently unnamed institution larger than NAPARC but not-yet-institutionally-united?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  2. Bryan,

    I can tell you which one its not–one with a Pope. The church of Jesus is established throughout the world-in every tongue, tribe, nation and language. It is governed, according to apostolic authority, by elders and deacons (see I and II Timothy), and has no head-other than King Jesus. It is one in which there is one Mediator. It is not infallible, though it is called to protect, preach and contend for the inerrant truth of Scripture.

  3. Bryan,

    Have you read Salmon’s The Infallibility of the Church? If not, I would recommend that you do so.

    The argument you wish to make for the exclusivity of Rome is undermined by a plethora of Scriptural facts that no Roman apologist can answer. If Rome is the true visible church, why were the apostle posting up in Antioch (the nucleus of the Gentile church in the NT) in the book of Acts. Of course, you know that I am not advocating Eastern Orthodoxy at this point, but it destroys the argument for a Rome centered church.

    To answer your question above, the true visible church is discerned by the proper administration of the word, sacraments and discipline. I think the true marks of the church (which Rome has perverted) stands as the test. Wherever the Gospel in its pure form is found, there the church of God is manifested in all its glory and power. It is the truth of the Gospel, not the pretended unity of the organization that makes the organization legitimate.

    If you are asking what form of church government is most biblical, you know I would say a Presbyterian form. That being said, I think that all the Baptists who preach the true Gospel and are elder led are legitimate forms of church government. We must always distinguish between what is legitimate and what is biblical. The Roman form of government is illegitimate because it is unbiblical. When Jesus said, “Call no man Father,” He meant it. So, any church that says a fallen man is the vicar of Christ, and is prayed to as “father” is a false church.

  4. Nick,

    You said in your post that the Church is an institution. What I’m asking you is: Which institution is it? I know which institution you think it is not, i.e. the Catholic Church headed by the successor of St. Peter. But that wasn’t my question. You say that the institution which is the Church is governed by elders and deacons. Ok, but again, which institution is it?

    If it weren’t an institution, but only a plurality of institutions, congregations, believers and the children, then how would it be any different? You claim it is an institution, but you have no single, catholic institution. All you have are many institutions (i.e. PCA, OPC, etc.), unless you want it to be NAPARC, or the World Communion of Reformed Churches, or the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, although presumably you are not a member of those latter two.

    So there is a kind of contradiction between what you are claiming the Church to be (i.e. an institution) and what you have in front of you, i.e. an alphabet soup of denominations, unless you want to claim that NAPARC is the Church Christ founded.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  5. Nick,

    Yes, I’ve read Salmon’s book, and Butler’s reply (The Church and Infallibility).

    Nothing about what took place at Antioch is incompatible with Catholic doctrine. Jesus gave the keys to Peter, and so that authority went with him wherever he went. That authority went with him when he went to Antioch. Then when he went to Rome (in fulfillment of prophecy) that authority went with him. And he established an episcopal seat there in Rome, and handed on the keys there at his death. Only then did the Church at Rome take on an essential ecclesial role in the Catholic Church.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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