Organized religion isn’t popular in today’s trendy world. The Emerging Church has been defined, in some ways, by a disillusionment with the institutional church and an emphasis upon community. This is also seen in the modern-day “house church movement.” Assemblies gather in homes without any real structure or leadership, and many regard this as the “relational” or “organic” church. This, they imagine, is what the Apostles envisioned the church to be. The question, of course, must be resolved by Scripture. Does Scripture define the church only in terms of community, in terms of institution, or in terms of both? That is to say, is it organism, organization, or both?
That the church is an organism is clear from Scripture. One of Paul’s favorite metaphors for the church is the body. He wrote to the church in Corinth, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). To the church in Rome he wrote, “so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5). The body metaphor is used elsewhere too in Ephesians 5:23 and Colossians 1:18, 24. Thus, many have rightly concluded that the church is an organism, and this organism spans denominations, culture, and time and is being knit together into one body under the head, Jesus Christ.
But this in no way means that the church is not an institution. To say otherwise simply lacks biblical witness. One cannot help but read the New Testament and see that though the church is a body, it’s also an organization. Scripture doesn’t identify an unorganized group of Christians as a church. Rather, the church has rules (1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Corinthians 11-14; Titus 2), the church has appointed officers to enforce these rules and oversee the body (Matthew 16:19; Acts 6:1-7, 14:23; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5; Hebrews 13:17), the church is called upon to compensate teachers (1 Timothy 5:18), the church has disciplinary actions if someone breaks the rules (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-12; Jude 1:22-23), and the church has a specific mission (Matthew 28:16-20). None of this would be possible if the church were not, in some sense, an organization.
The challenge is, of course, aiming for a balanced view and avoid either extreme. The church is found in the organism and the organization, together. It’s absolutely necessary that we have this balanced view. Not just because we live in a society that is increasingly postmodern and antiauthoritarian, but because it’s this church which Christ died for, it is this church that Christ has promised the gates of hell shall not prevail against (Matthew 16:18).