Wineskins Archive

December 5, 2013

Institutional Idol (Aug 2012)

Filed under: — @ 11:55 pm and

By Keith Brenton

When I was a college student thirty-five years ago, a distant cousin on my mother’s side worked in the library of the Christian college we both attended. A few months after I graduated, I heard that he had lost his job. The reason? He attended a “house church.” Not one of the approved churches in the area, with their own ministers and elders and buildings. Not an institutional church. A “house church.”

I thought that was a pretty peculiar action for a university which then prided itself on following the Restoration ideal of duplicating the first-century church down to the nth detail. For in Century One, there were probably few if any institutional churches occupying former synagogues owned by the congregation and employing a single, full-time minister. As nearly as we can tell from scripture, believers met in homes … enjoyed a meal together, often capped by the Lord’s supper … two or three people spoke, including women … and it may well have been more frequently than one time each week.

That’s the “pattern” we have in the letters to Corinth where, due to the immaturity of some of the believers, things tended to get out of hand. Yet there were no directives among Paul’s correctives to buy a building, hire a preacher, listen only to him, and sing three or four songs plus an invitational hymn – and only on each Sunday, lest the gathering not have significance.

Or any of the other trappings of what I’ve come to believe is an Institutional Idol.

I fear we’ve become more concerned about our Institution than its inspiration in scripture. We’ve defined what scripture says about the church by our needs and comforts rather than letting scripture define the church by the needs of others and the comforts Christ wants to provide them through us.

In other words, we’ve created it in our own image and in our own likeness.

To be sure, every institution grows, changes and develops to fit the culture around it.

At the same time, the church is something designed to be countercultural; something that should form culture rather than be formed by it.

The church was never really intended to be an institution, but a gathering; an assembly of saints. That’s what “church” means.

There have been (what we have thought of as) bold experiments for a longer time than the years since my unfortunate cousin’s dismissal over a “house church.” There are non-traditional churches, church plants, and even life groups/small groups that supplement our institutional churches. Some succeed; some fail. Some succeed in ways that we don’t always plan for: they ironically grow to become institutional churches.

I wish I knew the magic formula for what God sees as success in a church. But as I’ve said in other writings before, I think it’s possible that we haven’t reached far enough back into the first century for the “pattern” for the assembly of believers.

That pattern is Christ, who gathered twelve around Himself and shared good news with whatever audience was available: one woman at a well, or dozens in a Pharisee’s home, or hundreds in the temple courts, or thousands on a mountainside or on the plain. His followers did exactly the same, whether it was one Ethiopian in a chariot, dozens in the homes of a seller of purple or a jailer, hundreds in the temple courts, or thousands in an arena of shouting protestors. Church was wherever He was; wherever His Spirit was; wherever two or three were gathered in His name.

Because two or three were enough to provide credible witness.

When a synagogue became unfriendly, the church moved to a house next door. When an arena became threatening, the church moved to a dungeon prison.

As far as I know, no effort was made to rent a Roman stadium and preach and take up a collection. No megaphone crew was hired. No building, no facility was needed. For Jesus, a hillside would do; or a lake’s beach where the crowd could sit while, from a boat, His voice could be reflected off the water.

Is there anything wrong with having a church building or other assets?
Well, any church administrator or sharp set of elders could quickly give you a list of its assets and liabilities connected with owning and maintaining property. Personally, I believe that if a church owns one, every effort should be made to put it to use toward God’s glory every possible moment of every day. That’s not gospel; just me talking. If you view a building or other asset as a gift from God, it should be regarded as His, on loan, to be used for His purposes – just like any other gift He gives.

And – as Paul says about marriage – those who are not married to a building are more free to be concerned about the Lord. They are also likely to be more aware of their reliance on the Lord to provide: a place to meet, an opportunity to share good news.

Is there anything wrong with having a full-time, part-time, paid or volunteer minister?
Probably the earliest believers heard a lot from Peter and Paul and Barnabas and Silas. But the latter four didn’t travel alone, and Peter was not the only apostle who usually remained in Jerusalem. There were other evangelists like Phillip and Timothy as well. I can’t overemphasize the biblical tradition of the credibility and value of having more than one witness (2 Corinthians 13:13). It’s a sound principle. The practice of having multiple proclaimers prevents fiefdoms ruled by a single pastor or minister. It takes advantage of the value of different points of view. If that sounds chaotic to you – it can be, and it was in Corinth … because the church was not gathering in love and guided by the Holy Spirit. It was dividing over self-importance and allegiances. It was dividing because it was no longer about Jesus, but about themselves.

Two or three speaking, in turn, in order, helps prevent the arrogance of presumed authority and reduces the temptation to hire someone to do the work of the church when the church needs to be out doing the work of the Lord. There is no proxy system in scripture for that.<br><br><br><b>Is there anything wrong with meeting on Sunday, only Sunday, every Sunday?

Sunday has great historical significance as the day of resurrection; I can’t see anything wrong with recognizing that by gathering as saints. At the same time, to limit that gathering or the sharing of the Lord’s supper to only Sunday flies in the face of the practices of the church in Acts 2. Read the whole chapter. Read it right to the end. They didn’t go to church. They lived as the church. They met in homes and the temple courts, daily, and broke bread. That’s the term scripture uses for the Lord’s table; the same one used in Acts 20 where only man’s convoluted and unsupportable logic limits the celebration to Sundays only.

I understand the desire to remain faithful to what scripture describes in order to obey and glorify God through Jesus Christ; I really do. I have that desire, too, and have it deeply!

What I question is whether we have done that: remained faithful to ALL of what scripture describes – or just the parts of it that fit our definition of church: our Institutional Idol.

The different definitions of Institutional Idol that believers have contrived over centuries have also served to support the divisions and rivalries and judgments and condemnations of others that far too many have tried to thrive upon for far too long. These idols are man-made, not God-mandated, and proscribed by Christ in favor of His prescription: the unity of the Spirit.

The church was – and was one> – wherever Jesus was. The gathering was centered on Him – even when He was no longer physically present, except through His Spirit in the believers themselves. It was assembled whenever He was there.

If you’ve assembled in His name on a Sunday morning, but failed to call on that name, failed to preach it, failed to repeat it (except as part of the perfunctorily requisite/correct phrase to close a prayer), then I’d say there was a chance that He wasn’t even there. You didn’t invite Him. He wasn’t the center. Something or someone else was.

If you’ve gathered around His table on Sunday morning because it was the right thing to do and the only right time to do it and your prayers were about your duty to do so and your obedience and your guilt and your shame, then your table was yours, and not His. It was about you, and not Him.

And as long as we worship the Institutional Idol over the Immaculate Immanuel, it will continue to take priority over His purpose and His glory and His desire and will for us. The misplacement will spread to every ministry and outreach and even the other institutions we have tried to create.

About that Christian college where I matriculated: That was many years ago, and although some things have remained the same, many others have changed – and for the better. I still have fond memories of it … as well as some not-so-fond. One of my roommates used to say about it, “It’s a great institution. But who wants to live in an institution?”

1 Comment »

  1.   Pdt. Agung — January 23, 2014 @ 4:40 am    Reply

    Institutional is one of God’s Grace, it is a mean not the meaning, I assume that your writing must be able to discerned church using visible community in an organization or in organism way, they are never seperated between organization and organism although The Church is the body of Christ, it means that the church is not the organ that be made by man but God. We cannot blame the chruch as organization or as organism, GBU.

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