Is the Church and Institution?

This question was the focus of a longer internet discussion, probably not the first or last.  Many who participated in that dialog aggressively defended their idea that the church was and is an institution.  Yet, in the midst of all the discussion, what seemed to fall into the background, drowned out by personal views and hosts of tradition, is the question "How does God view the church and what did He intend His church to be?"

Words matter.  It's potentially dangerous and certainly misleading to refer to the church as an institution.  Institutions are by definition an "it".  The Bible never uses the word "church" in this fashion.  The Greek word translated as church is "ekklesia," a term meaning "the called out ones."  Since the word itself references people the church must never be thought of as an "it", rather the church is always a "they."  This makes the church a living entity; God does not inhabit any "its" (buildings included), He inhabits and empowers His people (and "they" gather and worship and serve Him).  For the record, even the Old Testament temples were not dwelling places for God, only a place for His name (1 Kings 5:5; 2 Kings 21:4; 2 Chronicles 6:8-9). 

An institution is typically destroyed, damaged, or rendered non-functional by division or being scattered.  In contrast, the church can, and does, thrive when it is scattered (e.g. Acts 8:1).  Likewise even when the church is a single person empowered by God's word and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it still lives.  Consider the newly believing Eunuch who was divinely left by himself to return home, having nothing but the Holy Spirit and God's Word (see Acts 8:27-39).  And yes, together or apart, all this is God accomplishing His mission through the "they," unbound by time or geographic proximity, irrespective of any "it."    The church finds its identity in Christ; an institution finds its identity in edifices and/or organizational constraints, meetings, or leading personalities.  God's church is still the church regardless of any building, earthly leaders, or ability to meet. 

One significant problem in understanding this issue rests in defining a specific word, namely "institution".  I human tested a part of this, prior to writing the first version of this article, posing a question to a younger generation (teens and college age).  I would say that my test group was typical of the western world, but in this case they were all Christian in profession.  The question posed was, "When you hear the word 'institution' what comes to mind?"  Their answers should come as no surprise because of how the word "institution" is represented in widespread popular usage.   For the record, five formal dictionary definitions exist, they are:

  1. An organization, establishment, foundation, society, or the like, devoted to the promotion of a particular cause or program, especially one of a public, educational, or charitable character: This college is the best institution of its kind.

  2. The building devoted to such a work

  3. A public or private place for the care or confinement of inmates, especially mental patients or other disabled or handicapped persons.

  4. Sociology.  A well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture, as marriage: the institution of the family.

  5. Any established law, custom, etc.

In my queries, about the word "institution," I quickly heard #3, #2, and #1 (often merged with #2) as responses.  #5 is virtually non-existent in modern thinking and #4 is only cursorily and occasionally acknowledged if you happen to raise marriage as a specific. 

So, to specifically lay this issue to rest by definition, consider the following comparison of the church to the five dictionary definitions of "institution" as listed above:

  • The church is not #1.  It is far more than an organization, a charitable foundation, society, or merely some educational institution.  Divide or scatter that college and it will cease to exist. 

  • The church is not #2.  Buildings are nowhere in view in the New Testament use of the word church.

  • The church is not #3.  Many neo-atheists try and misconstrue the church (building) as being this type of institution.

  • The church is not #4.  Nowhere is the church represented in Scriptures as being a well-established or fundamental part of this culture (e.g. the world).  In fact the church is "called out", by definition counter-culture.  Marriage is sadly almost becoming counter-culture these days too, perhaps why fewer even raise this as an example of "institution."  God did establish marriage as a fundamental part of culture, from the very beginning, so it is a good example of an institution throughout most of human history.

  • The church is not #5.  But to be fair, many groups and individuals have reduced their idea of church to merely being an established group of laws and customs.  Here Roberts Rules of Order (or Parliamentary Procedure) reign supreme and are often used to manipulate, control, and force submission.  But, by the standard of God's word, this too is not the church.

Unquestionably, the church is not an institution and merely calling an institution a church does not make it one.

Martin Luther called the word "church" meaningless and obscure and suggested that even using a simple translation of "Christian holy people" would better help people understand that the unholy people that fill buildings or head institutions were not the church (Part 3, On the Councils and the Church).  Along with writing an article in his "Table-Talk" outlining 14 points of what a church is and isn't, Luther also frequently wrote of the subject in other works trying to better define the word and how it was understood (or misunderstood).  In summary, this father of the Reformation believed that misuse of the word "church" had enslaved hosts of people to an institution, represented by a building, as an establishment of human authority (i.e. the pope), and tied to hosts of unscriptural traditions and laws.

If it ("church") is to be rendered plainly, it must be expressed quite differently in the German idiom; for the word ecclesia properly means (in German eine Versammlung), an assembly. But we are accustomed to the word church, by which the simple (e.g. common people on the street) do not understand an assembled multitude, but the consecrated house or building, although the house ought not to be called a church...  (Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, Part 2 of the Creed, Article III)

The church is a God ordained, God empowered; a living organism.   Though institutions will come and go and crumble into ruin, God's church will live forever.

(c) 2012 Brent MacDonald, LTM.