Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Church and Institution: Two Overlapping Circles

The complex relationship between church and institution is much like two overlapping circles.

Before I proceed any further, please let me offer a couple of definitions. By "church," I'm referring to all God's people everywhere (followers of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior). By "institution," I'm talking about man-made traditions that are often confused with the church. These include things such as large buildings, worship services, and clergy.

In the above diagram, the blue circle represents the church (the colors have no specific meaning to this post). The red circle represents the institution. What we have is actually three groups of people. Those who fall in the blue are Jesus followers, but who are not part of the institution. This is where I fit. People in the red are those who are part of the institution but not the church. These are the thousands who attend worship services, sit through Sunday School, and may even preach from the pulpit but who do not know Jesus Christ.

What about the overlapping purple section? The purple represents people who are part of both the church and the institution. These are Christians who take part in institutional church life.

The above diagram is not perfect for what I'm writing about here because the purple section should actually be larger. However, it was the best I could find. My primary point in this post is that three groups of people exist. We need to keep this in mind as we think and talk about the church. Many, many people confuse the church and the institution, never considering the difference between the two. For example, here in the Bible Belt of the USA, people often ask others they have recently met, "Where do you go to church?" I almost never hear anyone ask anyone else if they follow Jesus.

When I was younger the world seemed simpler. In my mind Christians "went to church," and the lost did not. I knew some oddballs existed who claimed to be Christians and who didn't attend worship services, etc. Those I tried not to think about.

Now that I'm older I realize that thousands if not millions of people who love Jesus want nothing to do with institutional practices. Count me in this group. While I hope to be united with all my brothers and sisters in Christ, I have no desire whatsoever to take part in most institutional programs and ventures.

Many Christians are confused about the church because they have simply never thought about the difference between church and institution. They certainly haven't considered how the two interact with one another. We do well to keep these things in mind whenever we get into church-related conversations.

I'm part of the growing number of believers who fall outside institutional practices. I do not wear this as some sort of odd badge of honor. Rather, it is out of conviction. As we go forward, I believe more and more Christians will depart from man's traditions. We need to be ready to help them see that this is not only acceptable, but preferable. Many, many of us are thriving in the blue circle.


Neil Braithwaite said...

Do you think Jesus would say the same about your analysis of your diagram?

21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed. 22 But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder. 23 He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me, scatters. Luke 11

What was Jesus' and the Apostle's take on those who would try and follow Christ while continuing to remain in the Jewish "church?"

Based on the words of Jesus in this and other passages, once we understand the truth of the definition of His "Ekklesia," do you really believe we can have it both ways?

15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Revelation 3

With regard to continuing to use the term "church" in our defense of the truth about the Body of Christ - the Ekklesia - I found an interesting take on using the term "church" versus the term "ekklesia" here: http://www.aggressivechristianity.net/articles/ecclesia.htm

Eric said...


Christ's church is one at the most basic level. All who call upon Christ for salvation are part of it.

At a secondary level, some take part in institutional practices while others do not. This in no way separates them foundationally.

My hope is that all of us who care about the church will help others see that the church and the institution are not the same thing. Many still fail to see this.

Anonymous said...

I hear your heart and it matches mine. However, I'm in an unusual situation. The Salvation Army (which is an institutional church) 7 years ago asked my wife and me to start a "non-traditional" church in their denomination. We have been give complete freedom to set it up as we feel led. So we chose the organic church model where, instead of a one-man sermon, anybody present can share what God puts on her/his heart. It's been amazing. So I guess I'm purple right now. Here's an example of how we live in the purple: http://stevesimms.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-salvation-army-bill-hybles-evangelism-berry-street/

Eric said...


Yours sounds like a unique and very positive situation. It is definitely not the norm that a denomination would give support to churches that function in non-institutional ways. Good for you!

Neil Braithwaite said...

I appreciate your thought provoking posts.

Jesus was a Jew and observed all the Jewish laws and practices, yet He called the Scribes and Pharisees of His day (The leaders of the Jewish church) “sons of Satan.” He said they did not know Him or his Father, and that their father was the Devil. What should we suppose Jesus thought of those people who followed their leadership and teachings? That they were being deceived? What did Jesus say about the blind leading the blind?

The gospel of John states that the Jewish leaders threw anyone out of the Synagogue that followed Jesus’ teachings. In fact, Jesus even said that those who followed Him would be thrown out of the Synagogue.

But did Jesus tell them that being thrown out of the Synagogue was a “bad” thing? And did he tell them to try and stay in the Synagogue? Or did He tell them to set up their own “Christian” Synagogues? Scripture does not show that Jesus looked for ways to incorporate the Jewish church or it’s teachings into His teachings or what He came to establish on earth – the Ekklesia. In fact, the definition of what Jesus said he would “build” on earth – the Ekklesia - is “the called out.” So the question is, called out of what?

Jesus called His people OUT of the Jewish church that was led by leaders he called “sons of Satan.” How then can we believe that Jesus would call people out of one institution created by man and into another institution created by man?

Is not the Ekklesia a community with Christ as its head? Is the Ekklesia a hierarchical institution run by man that meets on the weekend? Is today’s “church” a model of what Jesus came to establish as His bride?

What is called “church” today no more resembles what the early Christians practiced than what the Jewish leaders were practicing in Jesus day. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know that Jesus could say some of the same things to today’s “church” leaders that he said to the Scribes and Pharisees in His day. And if He can say some of those same things to today’s “church” leaders, then what of those people who follow their teachings and are “members” of their churches? Are they not being deceived? Are they the blind being led by the blind?

And what of those Christians who know the truth about the Ekklesia Jesus established but continue to be a part of and support today’s “church?” (Those in your overlapping area of the 2 circles) Jesus told the Pharisees that they weren’t condemned because they had not heard the truth; they were condemned because they HAD heard the truth - and chose to reject it.

It would seem that those who know the truth about a corrupt false “church” today and chose to remain a part of it put themselves in a very dangerous position.

You say: “What about the overlapping purple section? The purple represents people who are part of both the church and the institution. These are Christians who take part in institutional church life.” And also: “Many Christians are confused about the church because they have simply never thought about the difference between church and institution. They certainly haven't considered how the two interact with one another.”

Can we truly believe that the God Jesus preached is OK with fence-sitters and the ignorant?

Since about 300 years after the resurrection of Christ there have been those who practice the man-made religion called church. There have also been those who reject that man-made church and adhere to the Ekklesia Jesus established. We must choose to follow one or the other – but we can’t follow both and we can’t plead ignorance.

So if we believe that Jesus did not come to establish an institutional “church,” how then can we who know this truth believe that God will be OK with those who choose to align with a false church made by man and reject the Ekklesia Jesus established?

Should not those who have come to know the truth “come out” of that false church and into the truth of the Ekklesia?

Unknown said...

Hi Eric,
It's interesting. I found your blog just by chance a few weeks ago. I have been out of the I.C. for over five years. I have been searching for like-minded believers who choose the Gospel over Man-made traditions. Thanks a lot for your posts. They are at the heart of what I believe.
Thanks Again

Randi Jo :) said...

Maybe that's how I can answer "where do you goto church?" .... I will say "ohhhh I'm a blue" :) hehe

Tim said...

Another way to view your circle diagram is to view all of those in any circle are followers of Jesus. The different circles only reflect the degree of sanctification in the truth of our identity and it's function. The blue color refers to those who pursue organic body function. Those in the red are those led to pursue institutionalized functions. They have never heard of any other option than the red. The over lap is when believers in institution actually do some organic functions by the grace of God. Some organic folks may still have some institutional behaviors mixed in with their organic practice.