The Church: Organism or Organization?

Part One: A series on the church

What does the Word of God teach regarding the church in its form, function and expression? Anyone who ponders this issue begins at the point of asking the question from one, if not all three of these areas. This question surfaced many years ago in my life because of the struggles I was having in applying Biblical rational to a career in full time ministry.

Coming from the perspective as a professional pastor I had to wonder why church leadership was so difficult to implement and maintain. Ministry was rewarding at times yet filled with many complications that had no biblical explanation or justification. One day those irreconcilable differences piled so high I decided to start from scratch and revisit the meaning of the church. The physical church, of which I was a part and the professional job I sought so diligently to acquire, wasn’t representing what I would see from New Covenant thought and early church activity. I continued to wrestle through this period of confusion, having the Lord point out many areas within the church that had become important frameworks for business maneuvering, yet made no sense biblically. So I set out to find answers to my questions.

To begin answering these questions I looked around at what the church had become in the 21st Century and contrasted it with the days of the Apostles and their first Century writings. The dissimilarities were obviously shocking. I noted how our contemporary church had incorporated a business style or institutional structure within its daily existence. Amazingly this strategy has permeated the church in almost every area of form, function and expression. Today’s “ministry box” is well defined and almost unquestionably accepted as a legitimate role model. As I spoke to others about my doubts and discoveries, I found the majority of people uninterested in the topic of “Do we need another Reformation?” To have someone question the current model and suggest we might be out of step biblically was usually looked upon with suspicion. My prayer for those who read this article is to eliminate cultural suspicion and rediscover the core values and simple patterns of ministry that made the early church a life changing force twenty-one centuries ago. My hope is that you are enlightened from scripture and not from years of unsupportable Christian tradition.

Is The Church an Organism or an Organization?

One day I had a break-through in trying to understand the nature of the church by asking myself this fundamental question, “Is the church an organism or is it an organization?” If you answered “organism,” your home-study doctrinal certificate is ready to be mailed out. We hear it regularly taught that it is indeed an “organism,” but which is it really today, an organism or an organization? Truthfully, I believe God designed it to be an organism, but man in his limited wisdom redesigned God’s original intent and converted it into an organization. I had to be honest with myself and admit I had been part of the problem. Not knowing it, my years in professional ministry were spent giving lip service to the expression “organism,” but living out my Christian life in the “organization.” Every question and every problem I was having with the church found its way back to the fact that I was trying to benefit from the best of both worlds. Like most, I had fallen into the trap of thinking “organized religion” was a good thing.

Oddly, many of us have the assumption that organized religion is a positive addition to society. The word “religion,” as defined in Webster’s Dictionary, means “that which binds.” If it consistently binds people together and compliments people’s beliefs we deem it as a positive quality. But, let me ask you this question. What if it doesn’t bind people together, but separates people into their protected religious worlds? If so, is “organized religion” a good thing then? Perhaps a better interpretation for “that which binds” would be “that which binds people up.” Like a lawn mower bound-up and stalled from trying to cut tall grass, organized religion serves to restrict people into religious sub cultures, defending religious laws and mandates while trying to protect religious organizations. If one willingly enters the “binding category” you are gladly received as an accepted member. But what if others look upon all of this as foolishness, because the end result produces a collective of “bound-up” and stall-out assemblies of world religions and fractured denominational Christian groups? Is organized religion then perceived as a meaningful addition to society? I would answer “no” to that question since the “big picture” belief of Jesus’ mission was to eliminate organized religion by taking on the most bound-up and rule based religion of the day, the Jewish faith. No world religion could hold a candle to the legalism and religious expectations Judaism offered. Is it any wonder the Jewish religious leaders regularly confronted Jesus on the reasons for “why” or “when” He healed, taught or served others? Every time He was directed by the Father to do something supernatural it resulted in a direct violation of religious law or tradition.

In addition, have you ever thought about and concluded that Christianity is the only faith birthed on the planet with no sacred rules and traditions, no sacred individuals and no sacred spaces besides God Himself? Given this premise, Christianity isn’t a religion or a system but is the only offer to mankind to form a simple and personal relationship with God through Christ free from the interference of “organized religion” and powered by an inward Life-the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.This intentional vision by God, designed within the framework of the New Covenant, came about so that homes, courtyards, market places, privately owned public buildings, schools and roadsides would become fluid meeting places for an organic movement that would surpass the influence of the Roman Empire and sweep around the world. So how does God implement His plan?

You Are the Church

The term (ekklesia-translated church in English) was never applied to a building or hand-built temple, but instead it was an expressive title given by the grace of God to describe His holy people. Take note on how Paul drives this point home to the Corinthian church as they were struggling to realize God’s new plans. For we are God’s fellow workers, you are God’s field, God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:9). There are three points he is making that he hopes they will understand. If you are of the institutional mindset then you are probably thinking of three points that would be opposites of Paul’s. Your thoughts might fall along these lines; the first is hire staff, the second is purchase property, and the third would be to construct a building.

Take careful observation of how God’s plans differed under the New Covenant. The first point is that there is no staff. Paul and everyone else were fellow workers. They were all spiritually and equally employed in God’s kingdom with gifts, talents and time. The second point is that no one needed to go out with a realtor to purchase land. He makes it clear that they were now the field. Every world religion sought property to own, but the early church was going to stand out from the rest as ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom. And the third point is that they were to resist the temptation of hiring an architect and raising money for the purpose of constructing a building. God’s ideas for the church were much simpler-they, as believers, were the building! In just a few more sentences Paul finishes his radical presentation by saying, “do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells within you?” (1 Cor 3:16) Surprisingly Paul’s question, “do you not know?” applied to me! For years I did not know. When God revealed these concepts to my mind and heart they shattered the roadblock that hindered me from understanding the true nature of the church. In simple to understand terms, every believer in Christ became the church!

I believe a key reason the church is less effective today than in those early years is that we have taken a very important spiritual identity, “the church”and for the most part, misnamed it and misrepresented it as a building with nicely designed church signs facing the street. Place a cross near the top of the building and you have a legitimate church structure. To reassure this Old Covenant concept we hear people everyday calling the building “the house of God, the Lord’s place, or the sanctuary,” Given this, we now have created the artificial need for everyone to incessantly, “get to church.” Unlike Jewish believers, the first and second century converts never asked the question “Where do you go to church?” That would have been a ridiculous question in those days. They were aware of the fact that you couldn’t attempt to go to a place when you were that place (the church).

In today’s culture, Christian reaction to the knowledge that we are the church is not necessarily liberating and life changing information. Most believers have the impression and the experience of being the church only when they are in a marked church building and actively participating in an officially prescribed church service. Upon departing that experience, most disconnect themselves from their true “identity in Christ” as people who are the church and they slide comfortably into more understandable roles as husband or wives, fathers or mothers, employers or employees and relatives and friends. “Worldly boxes” for daily living become just as rotational as “spiritual boxes” for supernatural living. So a cultural tradition has come about where we believe we are only the church when we are in a “big box” called the church building. Since we are in the mega church era, the bigger the box the more successful that church looks to the rest of the world.

I would like to illustrate my observations about this cultural tradition because it is now the norm rather than the exception. Imagine if the only time men and women understood or experienced their respective genders was when they visited buildings designated as “Men’s or Women’s Restrooms.” What if Christian leaders misinformed the populace for centuries with the message that men or women, which ever the case, would only have the capacity to think, act and enjoy their masculinity or femininity after they entered and stayed for a time in the “Men’s/Women’s Restroom”? How much productive time, living as men and women apart from the “Restroom Facility,” would be lost due to a false expectation and tragic misconception of reality? Can we conclude this misunderstanding is clearly the case today as most live out their Christian lives? The majority of believers perceive of themselves as the church when they are trained to visit a building marked “The Church.” How much valuable time and quality of spiritual life is lost with that misplaced identity? Thus, many don’t authentically experience who they are on a continual basis so they remain ignorant or sheltered from the “abundant life” offered to those who know who they are in Christ as the church. Is it any wonder why frustrated pastors are passionately preaching week-after-week for their congregants to get off the sidelines as spectators and participate on the field. Either knowingly or unknowingly, professional ministers have created and defined the spectator sidelines with refreshments and comfortable benches where everyone can sit and watch power point presentations about what they could do for the Lord if they were only given the opportunity to get onto the field. If people were set free to be themselves in Christ as the church, the organized religious sidelines and power point presentations would be over and a thing of the past. There would be many unemployed professionals set free from the bondage of organized religion to be blown about by the Spirit of God to new and more purposeful endeavors.

Organized religion has always tried to justify and legitimize their belief systems with buildings. The early church lived around the religions of their day with buildings containing committed followers. With that awareness, they understood that God had decided to do something incredibly creative by discarding the template of buildings as temples and churches. His alternative plan came about by miraculously creating within each believer the knowledge and the ability to stand on their own or corporately, as “temples of God.” Jesus, the High Priest, placed His Spirit into believers twenty-four hours a day, performing His worship service within their hearts and minds. What did this do for them?

For one thing, this gave the church the needed mobility and flexibility to go anywhere and minister. Have you ever wondered how the words spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus would apply to the church? Let me remind you of part of that conversation so that you will see how it fits into this discussion. “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going: so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Can you see what you have been created to do? God’s people were literally designed to be blown through neighborhoods and around the world by the Holy Spirit like leaves being scattered about by the wind. They were not meant to be confined and tied down to a business model for the purpose of producing spiritual results. Instead, supernatural productivity would be the result of spiritual transformation with radically different ways of existing in the kingdom building process.

Living in Christ with a Divine Nature

Since the church is spiritual, it was designed to be organic in form, function and expression. We are told in I Corinthians 12 that God made this possible by including every believer into a supernatural body that is identified as Christ’s (I Corinthians 12:27). To make that work effectively He gave us new natures by being born again, “…putting on a new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” (Ephesians 4:24). Peter says that as a result of this we are now partakers of the divine nature free to function in the world with His spiritual DNA. How is this manifested and employed?

When operating in the nature of God’s DNA, as did the early church, we see a freedom to function and display signs of spiritual life. For example, an organic church model is free from ritual, hierarchical leadership and a group dependent upon one key leader or professional staff with a building to maintain. It generates relationships of brotherly love and a commitment to one another. Those gathered together are inquisitive seekers asking questions and forming biblically based ideas that apply to individual and corporate living. It fosters mutual appreciation of each other’s contributions in an open participatory body. It believes Godly living is dependent upon Christ’s life living in and through each believer and not upon a set of moral or ethical codes or principles or rules. One will see men and women who have discovered their spiritual makeup is understood through their identity in Christ. Lastly, Biblical teaching communicates that Christians are now under the New Covenant which revoked the Old Covenant and made it obsolete.

Any form of institutional worship, service or practice can not be recognized as spiritually innate and genetically driven by God. What is seen as traditionally religious must be ignored and set aside in order to hear the word of God and trust the Holy Spirit to freely manifest Christ in our life. Religion should never be an allowable substitute for the freedom we can experience in Christ. This was why the Apostle Paul cautioned fellow believers with the following words to the Galatians. “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1). In this setting the yoke of slavery was Jewish legalism that distracted people from their freedom to live in the life of Christ and trust Him fully for godly living. Organized religion has an abundant supply of what looks good on the surface, enticing men and women into traditional, religious Christian lifestyles instead of an authentic life in Christ. Adopting such practices will always suffocate God’s expressive DNA within a person by building a trust and dependence upon man instead of God. What can we anticipate when believers gather together freely with Christ as the source of our life as the cornerstone for our uncontained living?

Gathering Together Organically

When believers “go to church” within an institutional setting are they benefitting spiritually? Are they being built up and edified as God would desire? Is there a biblical basis for what takes place so that the experience is authentic and fruitful? These are tough questions to ask any person who is attached to the organizational model, but they must be asked if one views scriptural principles as fundamental for gathering together. Where do we start if we are open to discovering answers to these questions? Let’s look at the early church model and see how close we are in following their lead.

As I stated before, the early church had an organic element to it. The gathering times were fluid as it allowed and benefitted from the expected and unexpected contributions of its participants. Jesus Christ was the focus of the meeting, as He is the Head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23). There was an expectation and a trust that He would lead during those times of assembly. He would be the “senior pastor” organizing the fellowship and all aspects of worship, which involves all facets of our life.

Along with this, He has placed each of us as members of His body to function just as He has desired (1 Corinthians 12:18). There was a belief that as God brought people into His body of believers each would have a valuable role to play within the assembly. Therefore, organic church life trusted the Holy Spirit to provide the freedom to express what the Lord had taught each member through the week. Paul’s words describe the organic church movement when he says, “What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has as a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” (1 Cor 4:26). What stands out as God’s blueprint for collective worship?

First of all, if you have roots in the organized church movement then you are going to have problems trying to apply these instructions. Paul directs the church assembly to include each one who attends as a participant rather than as an observer. Everyone was a leader by the very nature of the priesthood of the believer. There were no divisions within the group in terms of clergy/laity or professional and non professional status. For example, God’s voice would not be restricted to a “worship minister” with a background choir in colorful robes and a one man bible message delivered by a “senior pastor” week after week.

The second point, if we are to apply these words then we must believe each member has learned something very important about God and the Christian life through the week. Given this, it may mean Jesus Christ might lead that person to contribute what he has learned for the benefit of all. I think we can also assume God has built within each person the desire and need to participate in a meaningful way. Within our spiritual DNA, as born again believers, we are wired for spiritual participation and a passion to build each other up. When not given this opportunity, we are left unfulfilled during the gathering times and the assembly is worst off because of it. What can we anticipate with each member being a participant?

I believe the creative and edifying energy of God’s plans for worship surpasses anything humanly structured because of its potentially rich content. The meetings might have familiar songs or new ones freshly written and taught for all to learn and sing. Visual artwork, poems and drama can also be the expressive elements in worship. Teaching, planned and unplanned (i.e. topical or expository), along with testimonies and prophetic insights (casting light upon truth and life), will be additional witnesses to the Gospel. Anything glorifying Christ is to be anticipated through the prayers, the lyrics, the teachings and the participation of those attentive to the Lord’s voice. And let me add, this comes about when young and old are blended together to share in each other’s unique gifts and contributions to the church body. Young and old need each other to grow in the Lord.

In contrast, the institutional church will seldom allow and present this type of freedom and liberty for those attending. The risks for a professionally led church, designed to run on a business model are too great if operated organically. The following are some of these risks and probable reasons for keeping tight control over what occurs during primary gathering times. Perhaps some of these observations and experiences have been yours as well.

• When there are many contributors to edify the body of Christ a very healthy spiritual atmosphere can be developed. Thus, when gifted leaders surface and mature, paid staff can be threatened by job insecurity due to the lack of being the primary visionaries for the church.

• A meeting designed and orchestrated by God can be unique and unwieldy. For example, the amount of time when people gather together may be longer than conventional church settings might allow. In addition, one never knows what to expect from those attending a fellowship which is Christ driven instead of staff driven.

• Those in attendance actively participate instead of being compliant bench-warmers waiting to be spoon-fed or entertained. Each weekly meeting is different because of the variety of those attending and contributing.

• No one can be manipulated into joining ministries that directly support the vision of a structured church environment. Out-of-the-box ministries are started and sustained amongst those who are led and indwelt by Jesus to meet the needs of those in their communities and the world.

• Financial support will be by faith (believing God sustains His work and supports His workers) instead of by sight (line item budget supported by an Old Covenant tithing system).

• When a person views the church as an organism, those attending are not members who are comfortable with attendance roles and numbers being sent to church offices and denominational headquarters for methods of evaluating a spiritually active community. Growing in the grace of God and trusting Him for all things spiritual are the practical expressions of church life. People are free to come and go as Christ leads. There is nothing employed as a way to control commitment or size within a group.

• In contrast to the organically driven church, professional pastors are faced with the daily pressure to keep what has been built sustained and to grow the base spiritually and numerically. Every paid staff person knows these two stated goals are what guarantee and safeguard their jobs. Therefore, in an institutionally driven church any number of problems can occur. Workaholic schedules, competitive atmospheres, strained relationships due to unrealistic expectations and excessive worry are just a few downsides that immediately come to mind. If the church chooses to run as an institution then the world’s standards for success will also produce problems associated with career accomplishment.

• Every institutionally minded purpose, goal and structure is at risk when an individual or a group of people decides to live their lives based on an organic church model. What has been achieved organizationally may not fit or work within an organic model. When making the shift to the organic model one must always be mindful that a foundation laid by man will usually be unharmonious with plans set by Jesus Christ. (I Cor 3:12).

The organizational church methods have had centuries to develop and regretfully most Christians do not believe or realize there is another way. There are many who proclaim the organic model will never work in today’s culture. My response is twofold. First, why go to the trouble of teaching anything in the Bible if human nature and its needs have changed from that of the first century? And secondly, if we believe our culture will not accept and flourish with an organic model, then what can we say about the success terrorist groups are having by using it? Everyone in the news media acknowledges the organic nature of terrorism and the inability to define, locate and extinguish it. Amazingly Satan saw the success of the early church and decided to use the technique for his own destructive purposes. He possibly had the following thought centuries ago. “If the church is not going to use it, then I will.”

My hope is for biblical discovery that takes the church into a modern day, second Reformation. Clearly, the first one started with high expectations but never completed the job. If given the opportunity by God, we shall all have the revelation to see ourselves as God views us. We are the church, designed to live freely in His spiritual DNA and given the tremendous ability to minister organically in an organizational world culture. My prayer is that it will happen in my lifetime and yours as God calls out more believers from organized religion into organic church.

An organic model exists to express Jesus Christ and depend upon Him as the Head of the church and the visionary and support for the rest of the Body (1 Corinthians 12). In the next part I will examine how the reverse pyramid style of leadership is demonstrated in the organic model.

By Bill E. Rose

Nicole Thomas

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