In the United States today, the vast majority of people are born in hospitals, are educated in schools, find their recreation in groups ranging from Boy Scouts to investment clubs, pursue their life’s work in all sorts of companies and firms, and are buried from funeral parlors. In other words, contemporary America is an organizational society. In the city of Chicago alone, the sociologist Louis Wirth once identified literally thousands of organizations, including organizations of organizations, such as the Association of American Medical Colleges and the AFL-CIO. He even found one organization called the Independent Organization of Unorganized Independents, for people who do not like organizations.
Organizations may be generally defined as social systems that are specially designed to achieve particular objectives. Unlike families, whose basis is kinship, and unlike cliques, whose basis is friendship, organizations are groups of people who associate specifically to pursue certain goals.
Churches today are quite obviously organizations. They are formed so that people can engage in collective worship and service to their God. To provide a framework for this intended activity, those forming the church create a social structure by designating certain functions to be performed by such persons as the pastor, the deacons, the trustees, and the Sunday-school superintendent. Often the founders describe the structure they establish, together with their reasons for starting a church in the first place, in a document called the constitution and by-laws. And often, too, they incorporate the organization as a legal entity, empowered by the state to enjoy certain rights and privileges.
Critics often charge that the contemporary church is no church at all—at least not in the New Testament sense of an intimate fellowship of believers. And in part they are correct. But the organized church may be seen to play an essential role among twentieth-century disciples nevertheless. It is a very useful structure for people who live out their lives in a society thoroughly pervaded by organizations.
Most people find it easy to take part in virtually any church’s organizational processes because they are generally familiar with organizational ways of doing things. And twentieth-century people are marked also by extraordinary physical mobility. They continually travel from one community to another, going miles from home for employment and recreation and even for groceries. The narrow confines of neighborhood and village no longer limit social groupings as once they did. The organized church, therefore, with its scheduled services and its age-graded programs, provides an easily identifiable and relatively well understood social context in which people may expect to find others “of like precious faith” and get to know fellow believers whom they might otherwise never meet.
Out of these organizational encounters, then, can arise the genuine koinonia of the New Testament church. For some persons, fellowship in worship and service may be experienced wholly in organizational activities; others may find it in extraorganizational activities; and still others may experience it in both. But regardless of where or how the New Testament church develops among the local church’s organizational participants, it is clear that the local church can survive and effectively perform its function of a catalyst among twentieth-century believers only if a great deal of time, resources, and effort is devoted to it. And all this must come from the church’s members and friends.
But the church’s organizational activities do not necessarily constitute worship or service. Some persons may take part in the church’s activities because to them those activities are in fact genuine worship and service. But that is not because these activities are conducted by a church, even if by an evangelical church; it is only because such persons are God’s own and are rightly motivated to please him in all they do. Both pseudo-disciples and non-disciples can and do participate in the so-called worship services that take place at stated times, and in the “work of the Lord” that is pursued in group after group. They may even lead these activities. They participate, not out of an allegiance to Christ, but because of such motivation as upbringing, or desire for prestige, or a purely humanitarian concern.
Yet this by no means suggests that the church and its activities serve no legitimate purpose. It means only that their value is solely instrumental. Their function is to provide the opportunity for men committed to Christ to fellowship with one another in the worship and service of their God.
In short, the contemporary organizations called churches are simply means to an end. There is absolutely nothing intrinsically sacred in their structure, their procedures, or their paraphernalia. Any view of these organizations that makes them indispensable to the worship and service in fellowship that God requires of his people is unwarranted and unfortunate. It is the equivalent of turning a means to an end into an end in itself.
And that is just what has happened. Over the years tradition has sanctified the church, and men have turned it in their thinking from a means into an end. One bit of compelling evidence for this may possibly be the reader’s own response to the statement that there is nothing intrinsically sacred in the local church. Other evidence may also be suggested.
Few evangelicals today would insist upon the applicability to twentieth-century Christians of, say, the dietary restrictions against blood placed on first-century Christians as reported in Acts 15:28, 29 (no blood, no roast-beef gravy!). Yet many insist that the best possible church for today is the one that most closely resembles the church of the early believers, at least in some aspect that these particular advocates consider basic. Groups in many denominations include in their organizational patterns certain characteristics of the churches of New Testament days, and they readily cite the appropriate instructions in Scripture. Often these distinctives are written into the organization’s constitution, specifying perhaps “silence” among women in the church (there are all sorts of variations on this one), forms for particular ordinances or sacraments (notably “the Lord’s supper” and baptism), or criteria to be met by candidates for the offices of “bishop and elders” (usually taken verbatim from First Timothy, though the requirement of “ruling their houses well” is often ignored, and “husband of one wife” occasionally gives rise to controversy). But men today need not so much to mimic former procedures—as if the social and cultural differences wrought by two millennia were of no significance—as to find contemporary devices for achieving today what the early church did in its time.
Again, evidence that many view the church as an end instead of a means may be seen both in the criticisms that are raised against it from within and in the responses made by its defenders. Dissidents within the church who press for such organizational virtues as “relevance” and “commitment to truth,” and who challenge the wisdom of certain programs and procedures and teachings of the church, often find themselves accused not simply of challenging church leaders but of challenging Scripture and even God himself. Unfortunately, instead of responding to their accusers with gentle but clear words of caution against the serious danger of blasphemy in confusing the Carpenter with his tools, these dissidents too often respond as if the organized church per se were in fact a special object of God’s delight, and as if they, the critics, had a special insight into what God wants its organizational activities to be.
Neither the critics nor their accusers are correct. God has not indicated that he has any vested interest at all in any particular organizational operation. (Chapters 9–14 of First Corinthians are instructive here, for they emphasize the reason for given procedures, and not the procedures themselves.) Cathedrals and liturgy, simple sanctuaries and sermons, living rooms and cell groups, lessons and discussions—all are of only peripheral importance. God desires worship, and neither locale nor service format is important in itself. Similarly, God has not made it known that he is any more impressed by one’s Spirit-led participation on a board of deacons or on a Christian-education committee than by one’s Spirit-led participation in a PTA. He has clearly stated he wants priority in “whatsoever we do,” but not a word has he spoken requiring organizational activity in whatsoever evangelical church we find. In fact, if a believer substitutes liturgy or cell groups or deacon boards or sermons for genuine koinonia, service, or worship (or worse yet, worships them in themselves), it would have been better for him had he never heard of the local church.
But, just as important, to the extent that such things as liturgy and cell groups and deacon boards and sermons promote, either directly or indirectly, the worship and service of God by fellowshiping believers, then to that extent such things are instrumentally, even though not intrinsically, good. This means that the local church is a potentially invaluable means to an end. And when it is kept in such perspective, it deserves the organizational loyalty of those who benefit from it in their worship and service of the Master. It deserves their time, their money, their prayer, and their support of its leaders. Not least it deserves their constant sympathetic and considered review of its effectiveness as a catalyst among twentieth-century believers.
What the church does not deserve—indeed, what it cannot take without losing its distinctive usefulness—is to be regarded and treated by either its critics or its defenders as something extra special in and of itself. Its rules and regulations, its programs, its official structure, even its particular emphases, should be taken with a grain of salt. The organized church is to be perceived and used as an instrument, not an idol.
Given a proper view and utilization of the religious organization called the church, people today can gain ever greater opportunities to develop a genuine fellowship of believers, worshiping and serving their God well in this twentieth-century organizational society.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.