Having been in Christian communities for some time, I have heard lots of opinions and feelings expressed about the church, and I have also recognized that various denominations and traditions view the church quite differently. On the one side, we have the approach of the Roman Catholic church, which strongly emphasizes the hierarchy of leaders going all the way up to the pope. In Roman Catholic church councils, the popes have made it clear that the true church is identified by the institution under the authority of the pope.
On the other hand, I’ve known many believers in Christ who argue that the church is purely those who confess him as Lord. In this view, the church is simply believers gathering together, whether it be at a coffee shop for a conversation, or at Chili’s for dinner, meeting up for a game of golf, or meeting together for a “let’s all share what we are learning” Bible study. This end of the spectrum could be described as emphasizing the church as organism, that is, the simple gathering of those who confess Jesus is Lord.
This difference in understanding of the church (the doctrine of ecclesiology) has some significant implications. First, while in the Roman Catholic view, there is a rigid distinction between clergy and laity (even in how they are supposed to live), in the second, any distinction between ministers in the church and church members is downplayed or even eradicated. Secondly, emphasizing either the institution or the organism over the other often leads to divergent views on the role of the church in social justice, care for the poor, cultural and political involvement, and so on. If the church is primarily an organism, a group of individuals bound together in belief, then the scope of the church’s involvement in the world is as broad as the involvement of those individuals. If, however, the church is primarily an institution, then the scope of the church’s involvement is determined by the scope of the clergy’s involvement in the world. The mission is often more refined. These are broad generalizations, but they often play out in the lives of churches.
What then is the essence of the church? Is it primarily a gathered group of individuals, or is it an institution with officers and a specific calling? All would agree that the church is not the building in which people meet, but is instead about the people. But given that, how can we define or describe the essence of the church?
As with many things in life, the answer is not in either of the two extremes, but somewhere in the middle. Herman Bavinck has some helpful things to say about this topic:
The church on earth is both passively a gathered community or organism, and actively the mother of all believers, an institution. Neither must be played against the other; both are the work of Christ. [Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4, 326]
…the question concerning the priority of the institution or of the organism betrays its own one-sidedness. The two are given in conjunction and continually interact with and impact each other. [Ibid., 332]
In other words, the church is an organism, a community made up of those who confess Jesus as Lord, but it is also an institution with officers, wish a mission, and with a certain role in the world. Does that mean the Catholic view and the “we don’t need an institutional church” view are both right? No, what it means is that the church is essentially a community of those who confess Jesus as Lord, but who, this side of eternity at least, are organized in the manner that God has prescribed, namely under the shepherding of elders. These elders do not have a special status before God or a different manner of godliness (contrary to the Roman church’s insistence on celibacy, for example).
One does not have to approach God in prayer or confession through a specialized person because every believer is a priest. But this does not mean that we should overlook the divine institution of the church. Instead, we affirm both that the church has an established order and mission on this earth and that every believer has a relationship with God.
I hope to think through more of the implications of this in future posts, but for now, a couple come to mind:
(1) Christians should not be loners, or even “group-loners.” Christians need community, and they even need the institutional community with elders who shepherd their souls. I love my friends, but while getting together and spending time together is essential, it is not sufficient. We need the institutional church because it is established by God.
(2) The church as an institution has a narrower calling in the world than does the church as organism. They are tightly interconnected, but what individual Christians may do is not necessarily what the institutional church must do. That is, while a member of the organism of the church may be influencing politics and running for office in order to effect positive change in society, the institutional church’s mission is not to do the same. Her calling is to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, pray, and enable the people to fellowship, not to force political events and change to happen.
Now certainly, figuring how those apply in every single situation is not easy. Godly wisdom has to pervade reasoning through the application of these, but it seems to me that there are dangers in ignoring either one of these aspects of the church’s essence.