Previously we examined denominationalism by determining the definition of what a “denomination” is. We saw that a denomination is essentially an organization of different congregations of religious groups for essentially administrative purposes. Such a group, and in fact any group of organization, may also be deemed an “institution.” Let us now examine the impact of the concept of the institutionalism in the “Christian” world.
Before the discussion begins, it must be said that this discussion is not specifically concerning the issue of institutionalism (the belief of the church giving to organizations supporting non-saints from the treasury) per se. The concept of “institution” that we are examining is on a higher level, regarding how a congregation sees itself: is the church a collective of individual Christians or is it an organization independent of its individual members? Let us now examine the Scriptures to see what the church was in the New Testament.
First, can the church be viewed as an institution? Absolutely. One definition of “institution” as given by Webster’s is “an act of instituting,” and the church was assuredly instituted by Jesus Christ through His death on the cross (1 Corinthians 3:11) and in a much lesser role by the apostles and prophets by the inspired dissemination of the truth in Jesus Christ throughout the world (Ephesians 2:20). Furthermore, the church (understood to refer to the collective of individual Christians unless otherwise noted) is given commandments in the Scripture which require organization: meeting on the first day of the week (Hebrews 10:25), short-term benevolence for saints (1 Corinthians 16:1-2, 2 Corinthians 8), long-term benevolence for saints (e.g., for supporting the widows on the “list” in 1 Timothy 5:9-16), and supporting evangelists (Philippians 4:15-16), demonstrating the need for a treasury for the church to perform these latter works. Moreover, the appointment and existence of elders and deacons to shepherd and serve the flock, respectively, demonstrate a need for some organization (cf. Acts 20:17-38, Titus 1:5) within the local congregation.
Unfortunately, however, many such groups of Christians have transgressed the boundaries of Scripture and have established large and often complicated bureaucratic systems and have divorced the idea of “church” from the people that would comprise it. One of the first and certainly the most extreme example of the “institutionalizing” of a “church” is the Roman Catholic church, whose doctrines now lead one to believe that the “church” is some vague organization to which individual Roman Catholics technically belong but yet is really a structure which exists independently of its members. Roman Catholics are taught that they are “born” into the church, are “saved” by the church, and can only commune with God through the church. This assuredly is an extreme example, but it clearly demonstrates the completion of the path that is begun much more subtly.
Do we see in the Scriptures that the “church” is divorced from its individual members? By no means! The term used to describe the collective group of Christians is in Greek ekklesia, defined as “assembly.” It refers to a group of people, whether actually assembled or who share some common form of identity. Who can comprise such an “assembly,” individuals or an organization? Individuals, of course, because God has declared that individuals ought to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4)! In the conversion accounts in the book of Acts, do we see people joining a bureaucratic organization to which they only nominally belong or do they become part of a collective deemed the “church?” Is the focus of the New Testament on the actions of the institution of the church or do the Scriptures mostly speak of the responsibilities and actions of the individuals that comprise them? When we examine these issues, it is evident that we are to view the church more as a collective of individual Christians, not as a bureaucratic organization from which derives salvation.
What kinds of issues and perspectives, then, lead to the “institutionalizing” of a church? An example of such can be seen in the issue with a similar name, that of “institutionalism,” the giving of the collective funds collected on the first day of the week for the purpose of the Lord’s church to organizations assisting non-saints. This type of arrangement requires exactly that: arrangement. It requires organization and therefore a form of institutionalism. The church ceases to be a collective of saints whose existence is for mutual edification materially and spiritually and the support of evangelism and becomes an institution dispensing funds as it sees fit. The mentality demonstrated by this practice of “the actions of the individual can be done by the church” perpetuates this “institutional” mindset: if the individual is not distinguished from the church, the church can no longer be a collective of individuals but instead becomes an entity in and of itself.
This example may not seem to be relevant directly to those of a more conservative viewpoint, yet those who believe themselves to be Christians following the New Testament and emulating the church described in the Scriptures also must be wary of having an attitude that fosters institutionalism and the denominationalism that follows. How often do many of us say that we are “going to church?” Or, perhaps, “at church?” What, did Christ die for brick and mortar? Or, how can we go to something or be at something that we, in part, are? This type of discussion may sound to many to be semantical, and I assuredly do not believe it to be sinful to say such things. We must recognize, however, that we can never really “go to church” or be “at church:” we go to assemble with the saints or we are in assembly, as seen in Hebrews 10:25. The difference between the terms lies in the mindset: is the church an entity to which we must go or is it a group that we are a part of and thus go to join?
This attitude is also prevalent, unfortunately, in the naming of the collective body. It is very interesting to note that in the Scriptures only the individual disciple of Christ is given a name: Christian (Acts 11:26). The “called out” (otherwise known as the “church”) is only given descriptions: Church of Christ is assuredly one of them (Romans 16:16) but it is by no means the only description given. The “called out” are also described as “the Way” (Acts 9:20), the sect of the Nazarenes (Acts 24:5), the Church of the Firstborn (Hebrews 11:23), and many others. We may surely describe the collective of saints to others (and even to ourselves) as the church of Christ, but we must always recognize that this is not a name, but a description. No one is a “church of Christer” or can adhere to “church of Christ doctrine” or any such thing; looking at the Church as the “church of Christ,” in the minds of some a denomination and in others a name, is an institutional and thus denominational attitude: we must remember that the “church of Christ” is a description given in the Scriptures of the Body of Christ, the collective of Christians in a local area and/or universally.
We have seen that the church is not to be an institution in the form taken by many denominations today, an organization divorced from the collective of individuals that should comprise it. Instead, the focus of the Scriptures is always on the Christian and the collective of Christians either locally or universally: the Church is nothing more than the collective of Christians that comprise it. This collective assuredly may perform collective actions to its own benefit and for the benefit of the evangelism of the world, yet any further action foments a division between that organization and the members that it should comprise. We must make sure that we maintain the organization of the church as God has set forth, and be vigilant against attitudes and practices that cause an institutional belief in the church. When Christ returns to bring His Church to Heaven, there will be no organization, institution, vague entity, or bureaucracy taken up; instead, He will bring the collective of His individual disciples and followers that have been found faithful. Let us strive to be a part of this group and forsake any attempt to be chained to an organization that God did not sanction in the Scriptures.