Is The Church An Institution?

IndividualsAnyone who has been a Christian for very long should know what the church is – we know that it is people. The Greek word that is translated as “church” is “ekklesia” (ek-klay-see’-ah, Strong’s #1577) and it was used to refer to a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place for the purpose of deliberating. The word is primarily used in the New Testament to describe “the assembly” of God’s people. When you see the word church, generally speaking, you could substitute it with the words “a group of people” and not change the meaning of the passage as long as we understand that this “group of people” refers to God’s people. This “group of people” could be referring to all Christians everywhere, or to Christians in a particular area. The context makes it clear which is being referred to.

I think most of us are aware of this although it can be easy to forget. The world’s concept of the church can be quite different from the Bible’s concept and sometimes it is easy for us to lose sight of the real meaning. It is very common for us to fall into the trap of thinking that the church is some sort of organized institution akin to a business like corporation. Such thinking is revealed when we say things like:

  • I belong to ___________ Church of Christ.
  • I am a member of ___________ Church of Christ.
  • We just moved our membership to a different church.
  • I give money to the church.
  • Our church just hired a new preacher.

Most of us know full well that the local church is simply a group of God’s people. Yet, our speech, attitudes and actions reveal that we make the local church out to be something more. The Scriptures never hint that there is any formal organization for the church. Yes there are elders, deacons and preachers, but the Bible does not describe these roles as being part of a hierarchical authority structure within the local assembly. Christians are not to have authority over one another (Matthew 20:25-26). Before we go too far, lets define some words.

in·sti·tu·tion [in-sti-too-shuhn], n,  1.  an organization, establishment, foundation, society, or the like, devoted to the promotion of a particular cause or program, esp. one of a public, educational, or charitable character

If we carefully examine the definition of the word, is “institution” a good description of the local assembly of Christians? Local congregations do (or should) promote a cause (the cause of Christ). But the words establishment, foundation or society don’t seem to compare very well to the description of the church in the Bible. On the other hand, all local congregations that I know of are organized. That is to say that they are not chaotic, uncoordinated or disordered. However it is not an organization in the way the word is most commonly used. Most organizations are a formally structured, legally recognized corporate entity. The “ekklesia” in the New Testament is portrayed as a close knit association of people with common spiritual goals and interests. It is a spiritual family. The words “organization” or “institution” don’t come to mind when we think of a family do they? No, these words really don’t do justice to the Bible’s concept of the ekklesia. The common usage and definition of these words implies something more formal and complex. Do you think that an institution is what the first Christians thought of when they spoke of a local assembly of their brethren?

cor·po·ra·tion [kawr-puh-rey-shuhn], n,   1.   an association of individuals, created by law or under authority of law, having a continuous existence independent of the existences of its members, and powers and liabilities distinct from those of its members.

What about a corporation? The local church is an association of individuals. It is created under authority of law; Gods law. So far this is looking promising, but consider the next two traits. If the association of individuals that make up a local church is for some reason dissolved the local church would cease to exist, but a corporation would not. A corporation is a legal entity that would not necessarily cease to exist if all of its membership went away. We also see that the last trait of a corporation does not gel with the New Testament description of a local church. The New Testament never hints that some entity called a local church has powers and liabilities distinct from those of its members. Never do we see a command, work, power or responsibility ever given to a corporate entity in the Bible. So, the local assembly isn’t well defined by the word corporation either.

The “church” is a collective composed of individuals

We should purge from our minds the idea that the local church is anything more than a group of Christians who are in fellowship with one another working together toward common objectives. When the word church is used, the emphasis is always on the people; upon individual Christians. Consider just a few passages to underscore this thought.

  • Acts 5:11,   So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.
  • Acts 8:1,  …At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered…
  • Acts 8:3,   As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
  • Acts 11:22,  Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch.

In Acts 5:11, was a corporate entity afraid or were the people afraid? Can an institution feel fear? Notice in Acts 8:1, that when persecution rose against the church, they (people, individuals) were scattered, it was not an it (institution) that was scattered. Paul didn’t harass a corporation in Acts 8:3, rather he entered into peoples houses and carried off men and women and placed them in prison. Finally, in Acts 11:22, they (people) sent Barnabas on a mission. The text does not say it (an organization) sent him.

When we say, “I belong to or I am a member of the ____________ Church of Christ“, do we really stop to consider the thinking process behind that statement or the message it might convey? The New Testament no where speaks of church membership! The closest you can get is when Paul compared the church to a human body to illustrate that the members of that body (hand, foot, eye, etc.) all had different functions and abilities (1 Corinthians 12). Do we understand that Paul used the word “member” to refer to human body parts as an illustration? When Christians in a particular area join with one another, they make up the local church in that place. If we use the words “member” or “belong” in the same sense that they are used when speaking of family members, or belonging to a family I’d say that would be an accurate usage. However, in every congregation that I have been involved with, the idea of belonging and membership always meant a formal affiliation; like being a member of a club or society that has rules and qualifications for membership. Most congregations won’t permit an “unaffiliated” man to regularly serve during the congregation’s meetings (leading prayer, serving communion, etc). These actions and requirements reveal that we think of the local church as some type of entity or institution such as a club or civic organization that one must place membership in. The local church consists of nothing more than the Christians who make it up. We may say that we are in agreement with this statement, but actions speak louder than words. Where is the book, chapter and verse for a formal membership requirement in a local assembly of God’s people?

The idea of “moving one’s membership” is also another concept that can’t be found in the Bible. Some say that this is exactly what Saul (Paul) was doing in Acts 9:26: And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. From this passage some among us see the authority for church membership, moving one’s membership and a local church being able to reject a potential member. Notice that this passage says nothing about membership. He simply tried to join them. The word “join” is from the Greek word “kallao” (Strong’s #2853) and according to Thayer it means:

kollao  kol-lah’-o

1) to glue, to glue together, cement, fasten together
2) to join or fasten firmly together
3) to join one’s self to, cleave to

The idea is that Saul wanted to keep company with them. He desired to associate with them because they were the Christians in the place where he had relocated to. Incidentally the definition of this word reveals how tight knit a local assembly of Christians ought to be. There is no hint of placing or moving membership in this passage! Also notice that they weren’t rejecting his “application for membership”. They were scared to death of him and didn’t believe he was really a Christian. This was the man who had formerly imprisoned and killed Christians. Some of their own acquaintances quite possibly were either dead or in confinement because of this man. To put it in modern day terms, imagine that Osama bin Laden came to town claiming that he had renounced Islam and is now a Christian. Wouldn’t you be skeptical? This was not an example of a local church deciding who could and could not be members. This passage simply conveys the fear of the dreaded pharisee named Saul. Now if we had a gym membership at some national fitness club franchise we could definitely move our membership if we relocated to another town. We can do that with institutions and corporate entities. This idea of corporate membership isn’t bound upon the local church by the pages of the New Testament. We should just do what Saul did and join with our brothers and sisters in our local area; nothing more and nothing less.

We often say that we “give money to the church“. That is an odd statement if you think about it. Here I am, a part of the church, giving my money to the church… the church gives money to itself? But, its not such an odd statement if we think of the local church as some sort of institution. People give money all the time to charitable organizations and they can rightly say that they gave to an institution. When we give on Sunday, do we think of it as giving to some abstraction, or in our minds are we pitching in to do our part to help pay for the expenses that the assembly incurs? If the former, then we have an institutional perspective of the local church.

Is the preacher an employee of the church? If he is, then that is a sign that we have an institutional concept of the local church. In the New Testament, preachers were undeniably supported financially by churches. However, an employer/employee relationship is never hinted at. The preacher was out teaching the lost, or helping to strengthen and edify some local congregation. He was sent wages to help him in his endeavors. The New Testament no where implies that the preacher was an employee of the local congregation, but rather it portrays a partnership or cooperation between Christians working for a common goal. A man devoted himself full time to preaching the Gospel and others shared with him in this work by supporting him financially. If we think of the preacher as an employee of the church, then we have adopted a concept not found in the Scriptures.


There are those who claim that the local church is a corporate body or body politic and that it has a work to perform that is unique to it that individual Christians cannot perform. What work would that be? What work has God given that isn’t carried out by individuals? The premise that the church is a corporate body stems from a basic misunderstanding of what the church is. If the word “ekklesia” was consistently translated as “congregation” or “assembly” in the English Bibles, much of the confusion would disappear. The only work that I am aware of that God gave the church is a work that only individuals can carry out. The group of God’s people (AKA the church) is to spread the Gospel, build up one another spiritually and provide for one another’s necessities of life when some aren’t able to provide for themselves. This work can be carried out individually, or the whole group of Christians (the church) in a given location can cooperate together to accomplish these works. Either way, the burden is upon individual Christians and not upon some abstract organization.

The church in not an institution. The church is a community of individual believers who work together.  The church is not an “it“, but a “they“! God designed the church to exist and function as a community, not as an institution