What is Wrong with Institutional Church?
In an idealistic sense, when this question is phrased, “What’s wrong with the institutional church?” the answer is: nothing. God responds to the pure faith in His people’s hearts and He continues to bless and use many expressions of church. In an honest sense though, it doesn’t take rocket science to see the systemic inconsistencies in the modern church when compared to the simplicity and power of the early church.
When the question is put this way: “What’s wrong with institutions as a context for missional community?” the problems become more readily apparent. Perhaps this question could be answered with another question: “What is the best place to raise a child: an orphanage or a family?” In other words, the problem is not a “people-issue”; it is a “system-issue”. Too often, the modern church depends on institutional systems that askew our foundational dependence on the Lord Himself; soliciting our loyalties, usurping both our affection and attention.
What’s more, in an institutional construct, structures and systems always trump relationships; that is, the true relational design implicit in being a Kingdom community is lost in the labyrinth of institutionalism. As the saying goes, the “house (in this case, the institutional system) always wins”.
Continue reading as we look at how the church lost its simplicity and became entrenched in a man-made institutional construct. We also begin to explore how we can respond today in rediscovering church as organic, relational, missional and fluid instead of institutional, hierarchical, attractional and rigid; a family community rather than a business enterprise or religious establishment.
So, what’s wrong with institutional church?
I can’t think of an article that is more dangerous; more open to misunderstanding than this one. However, it was a question I needed to answer for myself and for over a decade now, I have had the privilege of helping others answer this question. It is a risk I think that is worth taking.
Two qualifications upfront may help (or may not).
Firstly, I’m not pointing fingers at any person or spiritual community. For me, the problem is not a people issue; it’s a “systems issue”. We “do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers …” (Ephesians 6:12). As I’ve tried to pursue something “new,” at least in my experience of church, I’ve also tried to honour my past. This is not about “Honey, I blew up the church”. I’ve just become convinced that the structures and systems which we too often depend on are inconsistent with the New Testament. Perhaps a better title to this article would be, “What’s wrong with institutions as a context for spiritual community?”
Secondly, having been a senior pastor of a seemingly healthy cell-based church over a decade ago1, I know firsthand how these systemic inconsistencies sabotaged the Kingdom values I cherished and attempted to model and impart. Among other things, I became frustrated by my inability to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. The more I strove towards this end – the better I honed my leadership, preaching and ministry gifts for instance – the more dependent on me the church became; the less equipped they were for ministry.
I decided to get really honest; over time I concluded, through a lot of listening, that the institutional construct in which we found ourselves – mainly through inherited traditions2 – opposed the Spirit and intentions of God.
So this is my take on why I found myself in an institutional construct. Having now had the privilege of walking with a number of other pastors and their congregational churches in considering transition, I think it is valid for many others too.
Like most people, when I first came to Christ, I was gripped with the power and simplicity of the early church. Again, like most people, I failed to see that their simplicity was a key to their power and so, unquestioningly flung myself into “church” as I knew it. Not only did I jump through every hoop to becoming a “senior pastor”; going full-steam ahead, for too long, I never paused long enough to consider that our lack of power was due to our reliance on a complex, institutional construct.
God is so merciful and in His faithfulness I have been the beneficiary of many godly men and women, despite these systemic inconsistencies, who have enriched my life in ways that words cannot describe. I also am very grateful for how God enriched others through my life and ministry in spite of these discrepancies. God remains faithful for sure; the question remains: is there a better way?
So as I offer what is admittedly a simplistic snapshot of history I do so sincerely believing I’m honouring the courage of those who have given me the chance to honestly and, at times, brutally assess why so many of us find ourselves in an institutional, hierarchical construct of church.
The Thriving Early Church
Though by no means perfect, the early church was organic, relational, missional and fluid rather than institutional, hierarchical, attractional and rigid; a Kingdom family rather than a business enterprise or religious establishment.
Too often the contemporary church depends on a pastoral-figurehead, pulpiteering and programs. Even a casual read of the New Testament reveals that the early church did not need these props.
Some may criticize this looking back and claim that we’re guilty of nostalgia for doing so … guilty of pining for the “good old days”. But we do not look back romantically; rather, we look back humbly with two burning convictions:
- If we want to enjoy the power that the early church had, then we must rediscover what the early church was. To embrace our destiny we must honour our legacy.
- Every revival in history … every society-impacting move of God through the centuries … was sparked into flame through rediscovering something of the power and simplicity of the early church. Every church historian knows this.
We ought to look back conscious that the early church came off its wheels into the second century. We reflect on the New Testament record knowing it provides only in seed vision what we are yet to become. “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:7). We ought to be freshly impregnated with the seed of the early church to ensure we don’t settle for less than His full harvest to come.
A thorough study of the New Testament church, alongside historical research of the first century, reveals that God’s people were a Kingdom-advancing phenomenon …
- devoted to communal family; a spiritual community of believers, parent-led by fathering elders, whose essential covenant life revolved around “the church in” their homes (1 Corinthians 16:19).
- intentionally aligned to apostolic mission; a defined and mutually affirmed relational connection with an apostolic team who serve them as “fathers” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17).
- working synergistically as the Body of Christ; an essential commitment to the (capital B) Body of Christ fleshed out in a love for “the church of” their city, free from sectarianism and denominationalism (1 Corinthians 1:2, 12, 13).
How Did the Wheels Come Off?
When we look at the landscape of today’s church we see the continued influence of the second and third century slide away from the rich apostolic life of the first century; a slide that was in fact preempted at the end of the first century in some of the later epistles (3 John 9, 10, Revelation 2:6, for example).
The following three factors cemented this backward shift.
The church lost most of its key servant leaders to a martyr’s death. All of the first apostles, and most of their spiritual sons, had paid the ultimate price for following Jesus. A dearth of apostolic leadership further exasperated the second factor.
Heresy was a disease the apostles had tenaciously kept in check; in their passing, the disease mutated into forms and cultic expressions that threatened the apostolic faith. Fearful, the church began to centralise and control what had been an organic, free-flowing community of life. The church God intended started to slide off the foundation of His delight.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced the church for his own political benefit and made Christianity the state religion in his Edict of Milan. (A.D. 312); this marrying of church and state was the final agent in confirming the church’s doom from those awesome early days of power.
Bent on merging Christianity with pagan chaos, Constantine and the Emperors to come cemented the change in the structure of the church away from an organic “apostolic wineskin” to an institutional “congregational model” … and, of course, opened the door for a whole host of other atrocities, such as the idolisation of Mary and the saints.
What was Lost?
Firstly, establishing a “congregational model” of church which revolved around the “temple,” “altar” and “priests”; crushed the freedom of worship expression that characterised the early church. The church service emerged in which the “laity” watched the “clergy” perform religious activities on their behalf.
Secondly, deploying the “clergy” – professional ministers/priests – an elitist group separate from and over the “laity” – the common people – emerged. The brotherhood of all believers was replaced by a specialized group of men who arose as mediators between God and the “common man”.
Thirdly, building large temples that became known as “The Church” sadly institutionalised, and began to define, the essence of what church was. The organic, missional life of the church fossilized in the institutional tomb of the cathedral.
So, what was lost?
In a nutshell, we’ve lost at least three essential things (and, in my opinion, a number of other secondary things too).
We’ve complicated relationship with God to the point we need “experts” to help us live the first commandment (Matthew 22:37). To “love the Lord your God” is an invitation to a personal and communal love affair with God made wonderfully possible by His all-enabling Spirit; however, too often we’re dating a “pastoral system” to try to improve our relationship with God. We give our affections and allegiance to an institution hoping it will somehow bring us closer to God. The Bible has a phrase for it but surely we can’t be guilty of spiritual “adultery” (Hosea 1:2; 2:1; 3:1) … can we? Ouch!
We’ve subverted authentic relationships with others into institutional configurations that often oppose the second commandment (Matthew 22:39). To “love one another as you love yourself” is an invitation to a revolution of agape-community that would change the world; however, too often these structural relationships exist only for self-enrichment and self-advancement. As long as everyone toes the party-line, things are hunky-dory. If a disagreement arises, we throw our toys out the cot. Why? Because it threatens our “vested interest” in the institution – whatever this may be.
We’ve so invested in organisation and structure and systems and programs and buildings and events and meetings and (of course, we could go on and on), that we’ve lost complete grasp of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). To “go and make disciples of all nations” is an invitation to a Kingdom perspective and a missional, communal life of sublime adventure; however, too often it’s relegated to a missions department or organisation that we may pray for or send some money to, but mostly it’s a guilty reminder of what we’re not doing. The bottom-line is that the institution exists for the benefit of either its hard-to-please members or, even sometimes, its power-hungry leaders. It thus consumes all our resources – time, energy, money – to keep unsatisfied ‘customers’ from ‘shopping’ elsewhere or sometimes to appease the ego-vision of the leaders3.
Thus, institutions subvert first-hand relationship with God, sabotage authentic relationships with others and squash communal mission in this world. In my opinion, an institutional construct works against the Great Commandments and the Great Commission. This is certainly not the intention, of course, but it is too often the end-result. Why? God never intended an institution to do what He delights to do in His family by His Spirit.
So what’s wrong with institutions as a context for spiritual community? Perhaps it could be answered with another question. What is the best place to raise a child, in an orphanage or in a family?
Thus, within three hundred years from its conception, the once organic, Kingdom-advancing force was tamed and devoured by a new ravenous, religious empire-building monster; compelling allegiance to the institutional “Church” enforced by clerical control, eventually spawning denominational sectarian the world over. (If you think I’m overstating the case, read through the dark pages of church history).
Incredibly, the concept of meeting in homes was not just ignored at this point; it actually became illegal! By AD 380, every Roman citizen was forced to believe in the “Orthodox Church” and the church outside the confines of the institution was forbidden. Sadly, the church fell into an institutional “congregational model” led by a “bishop”.
Consider the interesting development of this unbiblical character, the religious professional, who single-handedly leads a congregation. The first title used to elevate him over the common people was “Bishop,” but over time it changed to “Priest,” then “Father,” then “Minister,” then “Reverend,” (depending on one’s denominational affiliation) until today, “Pastor” is the most popular version. It is a little sad, to me, that today some are again calling themselves “Bishop”.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Can we recapture something of the dynamic of the early church? Oh, yes … we are part of a five hundred year come back! Peter prophesied about the “times of restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21) and in so doing gave us this promise: before Jesus’ second coming, He would restore His church to her former glory and more.
From the sixteenth century, Martin Luther opposed the Roman Catholic Church with his 99 theses; the principle truth of “justification by faith” being restored. This could be seen as the first wave of restoration, one of theology. God gave His Word back to His people.
Following this, a second wave of restoration, one of spirituality, swept the earth through the Wesley brothers, the Moravians, the Pentecostal revival, the Charismatic renewal and others. God gave His Spirit back to His people.
We may have the Word and power of the early church but we do not enjoy their liberty.
Many are sensing a third wave of restoration, one of “wineskins”, to build on the first two waves and restore His “glorious church”. We’re anticipating “new wine”. God is giving back His church to His people. We believe this new wineskin liberty will bring an unprecedented release of the Word in the power of the Spirit.
Rebels or Heroes?
We’re not being disloyal to the heroes of the faith when we press out from what they’ve restored in the past. The best way that we can honour Luther, Wesley and co. is by being loyal to God in our generation as they were in theirs.
These men were reformers who pressed on from “church as they knew it” to rediscover “church as God intends it”.
We are to stand on their shoulders and reach further than they did, not camp in their shadows and “hold the fort”. It is our vested interests in what “was” that will keep us from discovering “what could be”. When we defend our positions we retreat from exploring our horizons.
Restoration or Cosmetic Face-lift?
The Lord has, without doubt, been restoring His church ever since just as Peter predicted. However, by and large, our structures remain in the same rigid, static form that Constantine established to some degree or another. We may have the doctrine and Spirit of the early church, but we still do not have their liberty.
Even vital principles recovered by the modern church remain only cosmetic changes to a wrong structure. One principle recovered, for example, is “team ministry” as opposed to “one-man ministry”. Another principle recovered is “community” and specifically, small groups or “cells”.
Again these amendments have been vital, but have only been adjustments to the old, unbiblical wineskin. The incorrect “congregational model” still underlies our recovery attempts. Clearly, we remain frozen within a wrong pattern!
In order to recapture the New Testament liberty and power, we must rediscover the apostolic mindset of the New Testament. We are not just talking about a new way of doing small groups. We are not just looking for a new way to arrange the ‘furniture’ so to speak. No! We are talking about a whole new way of thinking.
Yes, a completely different paradigm.
Apostolic thinking addresses the internal, foundational values rather than making surface amendments. It deals with core issues rather than superficial changes. An apostolic mindset realigns our very foundations with the truth of God’s Word. Churches that are not founded on the correct Biblical, apostolic foundations can never – no matter how much transitioning or reorganising or cloning – make up for a lack of Biblical architecture4.
Mere changes to our structures will not, in itself, recreate the “glory days,” so to speak. Structure will certainly not, in itself, create life. That is a critical statement. Only the Father can create life. Yet our dependence on unnecessary and even unbiblical structures certainly restricts or hinders the life the Father desires to create. Jesus made this point very clear: “new wine” needs “new wineskins” (Luke 5:37, 38).
So, What’s the Answer?
The answer is not in finding some secret “methodology” – there is none5 – or even “copy-pasting” something of the New Testament on our existing situation.
We first and foremost need a fresh encounter with God in which we receive a renewed revelation of His Lordship and glory. Yes, we need a fresh download of the Holy Spirit! Essentially we need to re-establish our utter devotion and complete dependence on the Lord as “Head of the body … that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:18). And in this quest … I am convinced that our dependence on an institutional construct of “church” hinders the flow of God’s Spirit and our ability to respond to Him fully.
Firstly, we need to repent of our false dependencies and misplaced loyalties. What are the idols in our heart that rob us of a foundational reliance on the Lord Himself?
Some “dependencies” to consider…
- Our denominational loyalties?
- The pastoral structure?
- Our “anointed” style of worship?
- Our “senior pastor”?
- Sunday morning services?
Some of these things, like teaching, are not wrong in themselves. If, however, we’re reliant on them; we’re putting out trust in them rather than God Himself.
Secondly, as we repent of our misplaced affections, we can trust for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit upon us. God is so merciful and gracious. This is more than just an obvious statement. Actively pursuing a fresh drenching of the Spirit is absolutely critical.
Then, as we respond to His freshly restored Preeminence in our midst; we can, thirdly, engage with the monumental challenge of renewing our minds. In my experience, and having now served many others in this journey, there is plenty of unlearning to do.
When a Pharisee named Nicodemus arrived in the dark, private hours of the morning to flatter Jesus, he was in for a rude awakening. Jesus cut through the facade and said: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Today we use the word “born again” incorrectly as an adjective to define a “real Christian”. Jesus used this metaphor of child-birth to say to this so-called expert of religion, “Nicodemus, you don’t know anything. You will need to go back to the very beginning and re-learn all that you know if you are going to even begin to grasp what the Kingdom of God is”.
As I embarked on this journey over a decade ago, I had to admit that I could relate to Nicodemus more than I would have liked. I too needed to go back to the very beginning to re-learn all I knew to embrace a Kingdom-shaped church rather than a church-shrunk kingdom. I had a lot of unlearning to do.
But He is faithful! He is well able to perfect that which concerns us (Psalm 138:8); well able to complete that which He has begun (Philippians 1:6).
As we set ourselves apart to allow Him to have His way in us, we can trust that in Him we will become a glorious church; a Kingdom-advancing phenomenon devoted to communal family, intentionally aligned to apostolic mission, working synergistically as the Body of Christ.
“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
(Ephesians 3:20, 21)
Can I Make a Suggestion?
If you’re ready to embark on this journey of rediscovery, can I suggest some articles that may at least provoke some thought for you?
How did your story begin? <The Story of Us>
What are Hebrew values? <My Big Fat Greek Mentality>
What is simple church? <Honey, I Shrunk the Church>
How does authority work? <Like Father, Like Son>
Can anyone start a simple church? <Field of Dreams>
1 For a fuller account of the origins of our journey, please see the article, How did you begin? <The Story of Us>
2 For the record, as an independent, non-liturgical cell-based church we certainly did not have a lot of denominational tradition. However, we had tons of tradition – we only realised how much once we undertook our three-year transition from a congregational church into a network of simple churches.
3 Please forgive me for my candid if not brutal assessment here. I am speaking honestly of the ego that was subconsciously in my own heart as a “senior pastor,” an awfully sobering reality that many other “pastors” have acknowledged openly to me too. A verse that God used to open up my eyes here was James’ cutting words: “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3:16).
4 Some may not like the word “architecture” here. However, it is in fact the word Paul used of his apostolic role as a “master builder” (Greek: architekton) in 1 Corinthians 3:10. In Ephesians 2:21, he also uses a mixed metaphor describing the church as a “building” that “grows into a holy temple in the Lord”. Structure is not a ‘bad’ thing in itself; if we view it as primary and subvert our relationships to it, then we miss something of God’s heart. But if we build from relationship to structure, a skeletal structure emerges evolves through appreciation of spiritual fatherhood and God-given gift that serves our relationships.
5 We do not believe that the New Testament provides some “one-size-fits-all” methodology that we are to slavishly adhere to. The New Testament certainly reveals the values and principles which, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, will enable us to be all God intends. As already stated, the early church provides in seed vision all we will become. And just an oak tree looks very different from the seed from which it germinated, let us allow the Spirit to create in us and through us “the city … whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10).