Many contemporary Christians have finally “had it” with institutional churches. They’ve not rejected Jesus or Christianity, but they no longer think attending a traditionally organized church is the best way to live as a Christian. In the previous two essays in this series (“Are you “Done” With Church,” May 14 and May 19, 2018) I expressed a great deal of sympathy for the critics of the institutional church. I hope you will read those essays along with this one. I argued that the essential nature, purpose, and activities of the church are very simple and can be accomplished by a small group meeting in a home. None of the trappings of traditional churches are necessary. We don’t need property, budgets, employees, professional clergy, or tax exempt status. Indeed, the activities that occupy, the motives that drive, and the resources that are consumed by institutional churches quite often crowd out the essential elements of the church as they are described in the New Testament. What are we to conclude: are all Christian institutions beyond house churches illegitimate? Or do ecclesiastical or para-church institutions have a place?
Are there things about the essence of Christianity and the church that drive us out and beyond our small-group churches? I believe there are, and I can think of three. First, Christianity exists throughout the world, and the church is one body even though scattered the world over. In the words of Paul, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Hence every Christian and every local church ought as far as possible seek communion with every other Christian and every other local body. We ought to encourage and be encouraged by the faith, hope, and love of other believers. Just as in a local church, so in the universal church each can learn from the knowledge, experience, and wisdom given to all. Christians from different places can challenge each other to remain faithful and correct each other when they stray.
How can (or may) small-group churches do this? In many ways! Modern forms of communication have made our task so much easier than in the past: books, articles, essays, blogs, electronic discussion groups, and recorded sermons and lectures are ours in abundance. And word of mouth is still a very effective way to communicate with those in our networks. But what about creating institutions to facilitate communication? Conferences, city-wide and regional meetings, and workshops? Or, what about creating networks of small-group churches, forming fellowships, and working within denominations? Do seminaries and other educational institutions have a place? As you can see, there is no end to the ways individual believers and simple churches can seek to establish communion with Christians world-wide. And I believe creating such institutions is permitted—as long as we do not allow these specialized institutions to replace the simple church or exercise dictatorial authority over the faith of individual believers and local churches. But these abuses are almost inevitable, and the history of the church can be written as the story of abuse and reform.
The second and third reasons believers may create institutions beyond simple churches are: for co-operative action and to pool scarce resources. Preaching the gospel and ministering to sick, abused, and destitute human beings are essential parts of the Christian mission. In most cases, an individual or a small-group church does not have the financial or human resources to accomplish the task. Hence Christians have from the beginning cooperated to establish hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphan homes, foundations, missionary societies, and other institutions devoted to these tasks.
Study, learning, and teaching are also essential functions of the church. If a small-group church has access to a Bible and someone that can read, it can get along for a while. But it would be much better off if it had access to deeper knowledge of the Bible, church history and doctrine, and much else. The small group I meet with contains five PhDs with one of them in New Testament and another in theology. But not every group of 20 people is blessed with such highly educated teachers. Hence from the early days believers sought educated teachers. Sometimes teachers stayed only a little while and then move on to other churches. At other times they were appointed to an enduring office. Some were supported and some volunteered their services free of charge. As with the first reason for institutionalization, so with the second and third, abuses are common and reform is necessary. Volunteer teachers become resident clergy and resident clergy become a ruling class.
It has not been my aim in this series to argue that it is always wrong or misguided for Christians to establish institutions to facilitate the work Jesus gave us to do. I have argued, rather, that we ought to get clear on the difference between the simple church and para-church organizations. Most institutional churches are a mixture of the two. They demand the kind of loyalty due to the body of Christ, but most of their aims, activities, and structures are, though good and desirable, non-essential and perhaps extraneous to the meaning of church. Christianity is by definition life together in service to God with other believers. But Christianity is not defined by membership in a para-church institution or a mixed institution like so many “churches.” It’s not always wrong, and it can be a good thing, to participate in an institutional church. But how much better to be also a simple church and simply a Christian! It is possible.