As much as nebulous references to “organized religion” tend to elicit a lot of bad vibes these days, the early church was still organized1. I think that its early members also knew what true religion was, as described in James 1:26-27, rather than the “religiosity” that turns many away from specific church groups. Even with a common purpose, some structure was still required to effectively achieve the purpose that Jesus had for His church.
- The Apostles served as early leaders in the church. Their time spent directly with Jesus gave them experience, and God gave them authority.
- Shepherds (elders or bishops) were appointed in specific towns, to serve the body of Christ. (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5)
- The physical needs of those in the church resulted in an appointment of seven “deacons” (as some might call them), to ensure that food was successfully distributed to those who needed it. (Acts 6:3-4)
- Regional groups of the church existed. (Revelation 1:10-11)
- Funds were raised to provide for others. (2 Corinthians 8:3-6, Philippians 4:15-16)
That is, while the early church had the benefit of Jesus’ teachings, and special gifts of the Holy Spirit, there were still some very practical elements of its organization, allowing it to spread rapidly, serve others, and maintain its message. As a result, I think that we can be comfortable that the idea of pastors, congregations, missionaries, and collecting money are consistent with the model of the church that we find in the Bible. (I don’t pretend that every one of these is implemented perfectly today, but the principles certainly have precedent.)
While there was no church board or by-laws in the early church, modern congregations are often bound by a number of additional, external rules. In my country:
- Tax-exempt organizations are expected to be registered, in return for their status.
- Ownership and management of property and other goods requires a formal organization, with officers and designated people who can sign papers.
- Larger denominations have their own hierarchies and rules.
There are various points of view on many of these subjects2, but in a country where freedom of religion exists (to any degree), thoughtful Christians can discuss these matters in the framework of the Bible and their own leading by the Holy Spirit. In other countries, there are no governmental requirements except that followers of Jesus must hide from the police and meet in secret, so that they are not arrested…or worse. May we not forget to pray for the persecuted church.
Still, we must be able to separate out these two functions. On the one hand, there is a “business” aspect to many congregations:
- When the expectations of a pastor, minister, or other staff member exceed what someone could reasonably balance simultaneously with a full-time job, it makes sense to pay them for their service to the congregation, missionary opportunity, or ministry.
- A church building (and sometimes, even a home where Christians meet regularly) typically needs a person (or team) to manage the upkeep, as well as a team of experts to keep it clean.
- A congregation that takes in an offering needs one or more trusted members to manage the money, and distribute it among the staff, ministries, and expenses of the church.
Here’s the tricky part: the organization that makes up a specific congregation is typically limited by resources – whether money, staff, or time. Sometimes, congregants will ask the leadership to start up a new ministry or program, but there just isn’t enough horsepower among the “official” leaders to add one more thing to the list.
On the other hand, there is the Body of Christ: the collection of individuals who follow Jesus. This has nothing to do with location, congregational association, or people group. Within this body, there are a different set of expectations:
- Each member is called to make disciples (see Matthew 28:18-20). This may range from sharing the good news about Jesus with those who don’t know, to passing on wisdom (gained with age, study, and experience) to newer followers of Jesus.
- Each person in the Body of Christ has received one or more specific gifts that are intended to be used for the good of the Kingdom of God (see Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11).
- Each individual who is part of this Body is expected to play a part in maintaining the unity of the Body (see Ephesians 4:1-6, John 17:22-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10).
This means that, no matter what God calls one of us to do individually, we are expected to step up and do it. Our success in fulfilling our purpose is not a function of whether or not we are working in a ministry sponsored by a particular congregation, but is rather a function of our submission to God’s direction, and our choosing to let Him exercise His power to achieve His plan.
Based on the way that these two entities [should] co-exist and work together, there are several implications:
- Your pastor may report to you, or collect a salary from the money you give to your local congregation, but both you and he are accountable to God for your respective actions.
- Christians who sit in the pews have just as much responsibility to fulfill the commands of Jesus as those who speak or serve in a professional capacity.
- A Bible degree is not required to live out the responsibilities of following Jesus, nor does it make someone any more righteous or holy. It’s great that there are those who can invest in study and learning advanced topics about the Bible, but we shouldn’t somehow expect preachers to be more perfect than any other Christians of similar maturity.
- When an organization is no longer to keep the doors open on a building, or to continue to meet regularly, that is often a source of sorrow. However, the movement that Jesus started (and made possible) marches on.
- In the same way, anyone who follows Jesus doesn’t get to abdicate personal responsibilities as part of His body, just because he or she isn’t presently affiliated with a structured sub-group of the church.
So, don’t expect a formal church leader to do your work in the Body of Christ, but don’t leave them out of the plans that God has given you, either. May the organization of the church always be a means to serve the Body of Christ, and not a replacement for it.
- That is, we must separate the label – and its baggage – from the concept. Watch out for labels that we place on things (Fundamental, Evangelical, Organized, Christian), so that we don’t forget that principles contained in these labels might still be worth pursuing, even if the connotation of associated phrases has become negative. ↩
- For instance, formally becoming a non-profit organization isn’t the only option for a congregation. Groups of believers can also worship and grow effectively without registering with the government (not unlike what has happened for much of church history) and many do so. ↩