Monday, September 1, 2014

Is the Church an Organization or an Organism or Both?

            The church is an assembly of professing believers with the unique presence of Jesus Christ indwelling the believer which seeks to be submitted to the discipline of the Word of God which is organized to carry out the Great Commission, administer the ordinances, and minister to people through the spiritual gifts given to every believer by Christ.[1] I believe the Bible calls us to think pf the Church both as an organism and an organization. Oftentimes, overwhelmingly the American church predominantly thinks organizationally and minimizes the organism part of the church. It is routinely understood that if a church is to flourish, one must adopt the right organization paradigm. This is only half true. The church as a whole must also function as a healthy organism if she hopes to flourish.
Therefore, to accomplish the task of building a healthy church, it needs to function both as an organization and an organism well. While a the right organizational structure is vital for success, I will focus my attention on the church as organism. Both ideas are indeed important, however.
Abraham Kuyper, the 20th century Dutch Reformed thinker once said, when referring to this two-fold purpose of the Church, “The organism is the essence, the institution is the form.”[2] (I will use the word institution and organization interchangeably) When referring to the Church as an institution (or organization) Kuyper states,

Since Christianity does not animate merely an individual, but binds many together, there necessarily comes into existence a legal relationship that degenerates into confusion if there are no judicial rules. Since it places a task not simply on the individual but also on all believers together, there must be an organization that regulates the mandate for everything that happens in the name of everyone.[3]

There is a need for an organizational structure to be sure. For instance in the Old Testament, when Moses was overworked fulfilling his duty to lead God’s people, his father-in-law, Jethro, who was the priest of Midian, suggested an organizational model that would help him addresses the oversight needs of the people he was leading more efficiently. Part of his job was to oversee the people and fulfill the judicial tasks of the community. Yet, he was unable to handle the administrative load, so Moses’ father-in-law suggested that Moses choose “able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves” (Exodus 18:25-26).  This organizational model allowed for a diversity of leadership gifts to be used to fulfill the oversight needed to allow the Children of Israel to enjoy a well-functioning productive community.
Examples also abound in the New Testament showing the Church had an organizational structure. For instance, Luke in the Book of Acts records the first New Testament church (Acts 2:42-47), which was characterized by many conversions, almost overnight. The new converts were baptized, assembled daily, prayed corporately, and were instructed in the Apostles teaching regularly. Earthly possessions were also set aside and redistributed to the people who were in need. With so many people being converted, being ministered to and disciple at one time, there had to be an organizational model in place to perform this wide scale ministry.
What’s more, idea of spiritual gifts being differentiated in the body of Christ, as is shown in Paul’s Epistles, and those gifts that each individual Christian possess are to function as one body suggests a need for an organizational model to maintain a semblance of order. Also, there is a clear expression of church government represented in the New Testament. The church is to be led by a plurality of qualified elders and assisted by deacons and deaconesses. Thus, the church is clearly taught an organization. It is imperative that a church to be a healthy organism church wide.
While the Bible teaches that the church is an organization, it also teaches that the church is an organism, an aspect that is oftentimes misunderstood by Western minds and Western approaches to ministry. The West has been greatly affected by Enlightenment thinking and its mechanistic impulse. During the Industrial Revolution hand manufacturing was replaced with mass production which required an overhaul in thinking how one does business. Efficiency and productivity replaced hands craftsmanship.  Business thinkers studied how workplaces could come up with ways to best promote efficiency and productivity in the best possible way. They employed a mechanistic organization structure would best facilitate growth and mass production, which defined how business was to be carried out. It is the organization that produces the growth, which was correct. If this idea is carried over into the church world at the expense of the church being an organism, as it often does in America, then the idea of the church as organism is greatly undermined. 
According to Kuyper, the “organism [aspect] is the heart of the church. From that heart her lifeblood flows, and where that pulse of her life ceases, the institution alone never constitutes the church. …  A church cannot be manufactured; a polity, no matter how tidy, and a confession, no matter how spotless, are powerless to form a church if the living organism is absent.”[4] It is the ministry of the Holy Spirit that fuels the organism.   
The church as an organism is designed to operate much like the human body, with the Body of Christ serving as a metaphor for the entire church. This body consists of individuals indwelt by God’s Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22), who are being made increasingly healthy by growing in their relationship with God (Eph. 4:11-16), with each individual utilizing his or her gifts to fulfill God’s purposes (I Cor. 12:12-17). This body is a spiritual organism that has been given different responsibilities (I Peter 2:5) to fulfill God’s mission. The body is led by Christ who functions as head of the body (Eph. 1:22-23) which also means he functions as head of the church (Col. 1:18-21). The Apostle Paul sums up quite what has been already stated quite well when is says Christians are to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16). All members are vital and essential for the body to function properly. Every Christian is gifted by the Holy Spirit to participate in the ministry of Jesus.
The premier job of the church is to facilitate health and growth of the church as a spiritual organism. God has designed the church to be “a living system … [comprised of a] well-organized, highly complex, and highly interrelated collection of living parts that work together to accomplish a high level goal when in proper relationship to each other”, to which the Holy Spirit plays an integral role.[5] For this to happen, the body of believers must be growing in their faith built upon the Rock Jesus Christ and becoming increasingly more like Him. This is done by yielding themselves to God and the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. But “if a social system is dysfunctional or lacks vitality (evidence of life), it is not fulfilling its purpose as a healthy social organism.”[6]  This requires that a church develop and maintain a healthy ecosystem in order to nurture the organism.  
An ecosystem is “a system formed by the interaction of the community with their environment.”[7] A healthy ecosystem must ward off things like legalism, antinomianism, self-reliance, and whatever Satan seeks to do to thwart God’s mission. These sins operate as a cancer to the church and curtail the Holy Spirit’s ministry within the church. The ecosystem I call for is one that is rooted in the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the power of God’s Spirit, facilitated by prayer. The gospel, with its focus on Jesus Christ, is powerful according to Paul (Rom. 1:16). It includes the power of salvation, sanctification, and the motivation for mission.[8] With the focus on the gospel coupled with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the church’s ecosystem becomes an “a healthy system with a properly operating immune system, [becoming] a social environment in which Christianity thrives. Even when there is hurt or threat to the community, the whole group coalesces (comes together to form one whole) its ecosystem level immune system goes to work, and eventually the entire ecosystem begins to heal itself.”[9]  When done correctly, the twin options of legalism and antinomianism are replaced by a faith that is rooted in the gospel, which is the faith handed down to us from the Apostles.

Key Element in a Healthy Ecosystem
Yet, there is necessary element is needed to produce a healthy ecosystem, and that is prayer. To sum it up, the Spirit’s ministry “is to do God’s work in the world.”[10]  God, being all-powerful, all knowing, and ever present, has chosen prayer as the means by which He acts in creation. He certainly does not need men and women to pray as he is not dependent on them to act. He is free to act as He wills, along as the act is consistent with his nature. God forms a partnership with man to do His work, making prayer God’s tool to extend his Kingdom on earth.
One reason prayer is needed is because there is spiritual opposition that desires to thwart God’s plan. There is a force that seeks to damage the spiritual ecosystem of every church. The Book of Genesis teaches that God created the world then created the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. The environment where they lived was perfect and so were the first two human beings. However, prior to this creation, God’s angels were given the opportunity to choose if they wanted to obey God or rebel. Unfortunately, one third of the angels decided to do the latter and rebelled against God.  The cosmic rebellion soon descended to earth which inaugurated an earthly cosmic rebellion, which is recorded in Genesis 3:1-24. “Mankind has joined the fallen angels in rejecting the revealed will of God. Thus, “… humanity not only participates in the conflict between the two kingdoms but also becomes the central person around who the conflict revolves. Thus, [unredeemed] human beings by nature and by choice belong to Satan’s kingdom.” Satan now seeks to resist God’s work of redemption here on earth through people.  God desires to redeem humanity from their sin and Satan desires to dramatically hinder this plan.
The central means God uses to oppose Satan’s opposition is prayer, and Jesus left us with a great example to follow. Jesus understood that if the Church’s mission was to flourish, prayer played an integral part. Karl Graustein captures the model Jesus left for us when he said, “Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:9-13), told us to always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1-18), encourages us to ask, seek, and knock (Matt. 7:7-11), got up early to pray (Mark 1:35), modeled how to pray (John 17:1-26), and in the Garden of Gethsemane prayed in preparation for his arrest and death (Mark 14:32-42. Jesus modeled prayer and expected his followers to pray.”[11] Prayer is also modeled by the disciples as well as others in the early church, and the Books of Luke and Acts, understood originally to be one book, shows how Jesus incorporated prayer to advance the Kingdom and make disciples. “The prayer materials [in these two books] are rare and unique.”[12] The practical examples illustrate through the prayer life of Jesus of how he used prayer to further God’s Kingdom and make disciples. The practical examples offer a larger theological truth. “The theological implication is that by prayer God guides the course of redemptive history …”[13] This point is illustrated no less than eight different times in the Book of Luke.
Luke’s two writings, better than the other gospels, provides an excellent example of how prayer plays an important role in allowing the organism to flourish because, as Stephen S. Smalley observes, “... it is only Luke [among the other gospel writers] who gives us the extended teaching of Jesus on this subject, illustrated by parables and following the request of one of the disciples, "teach us to pray"”[14] Redemptive history is what Luke has in mind, says Smalley, when he writes his books reflecting on how prayer plays an important role in advancing that history. In a paper titled A Theology of Prayer in the Book of Luke, Kyu Sam Han shows the twofold nature of Luke’s exposition of prayer in his gospel which is relevant to the book of Acts. The prayer materials that Luke offers are both didactic as well as revealing the role of prayer in redemptive history. While this paper will not address the didactic nature of Luke’s emphasis on prayer, this paper will instead summarize the redemptive role prayer played. Han does this by looking at prayer texts related to Jesus’ life and ministry. For instance, in Jesus’s baptism (Luke 3:21), he prays immediately after this experience and continues to pray until he hears a voice from heaven. Hang believes this signifies “the coming of the Spirit … [which] depicts the presence aspect of the Kingdom of God.” Two chapters later, Luke notes how Jesus made it a point to pray regularly, which helped him when he faced spiritual opposition (Luke 5:16). “According to F. Danker, since Jesus was headed for a series of conflicts in the events that followed, Luke makes clear that before Jesus faced opposition he spent time with God.” To be sure, Satan will always attempt to thwart the advancement of God’s Kingdom, and Jesus sets the example for God’s people to pray in order to withstand the opposition of the enemy. Then one verse later in Luke 6:12 Jesus prayed the entire night before choosing the Twelve. This was an important choice given the future of the Twelve and needed to be chosen carefully. Han points out, “The calling of the disciples stresses the continuation of Jesus’ work after his death. Since the entire context of Luke/Acts develops how the disciples follow Jesus’ way, Jesus prayer had to do with the life of the disciples.” Their future ministry entailed furthering the ministry of Jesus after his death.    
Han examines other passages in Luke that illustrate the furtherance of God’s kingdom through prayer, such as in Luke 9:18-27, where Luke links Jesus prayer with Peter’s confession. Another example is in Mark 8:32-33, where Peter is rebuked for his arrogance, but, as a result of prayer, he bravely accepts and affirms Jesus as Messiah. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Luke intends to show a connection between the cross and discipleship. “In sum, Jesus’ prayer is linked with bringing the kingdom of God through taking up the cross, which is also the pattern for discipleship. This demand of discipleship is valid during the period of the resurrection (v.22; cf. v.27) and the second coming (v.26), and continual prayer is suggested as a means of fulfilling it.” Other passages are observed by Han, such as Luke 9:28-36; 22:32, 39-46, echoing further the point that Jesus prayed for the kingdom to be advanced. 
The persistent prayer life that Jesus modeled, which is vital to nurture a healthy organism, was carried over after his death and was part of the DNA of the early church. Glen Hinson, in his article titled Persistence in Prayer in Luke and Acts sees prayer as the overarching theme that runs through the aforementioned books, which is delineated by Jesus in his parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8). He states,

In the book of Acts, this theme is demonstrated by the actions of Peter, Paul, and the early community of faith. Throughout Luke and Acts, persistence in prayer is not a matter of persuading a reluctant God, but rather it is a matter of disciples remaining faithful. In this interval between the "D-Day" of the cross and the "V-Day" of the parousia, not all our prayers are or can be answered. Persistence in prayer is how we remain faithful as we await the eschatological fulfillment of the gospel.

Hinson is correct when he says that Luke records a consistent prayer theme throughout much of his book. This fact serves as model for the contemporary church. Luke begins Acts summarizing Jesus’ instruction to the disciples prior to his Jesus’s ascension in which he told his disciples that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit and be witnesses to further God’s kingdom (Acts 1:8). Following this call to arms, the disciples responded with persistent prayer together in one accord (Acts 1:14). The result of their prayers is recorded one chapter later where the promise of the Holy Spirit is poured out (Acts 2:1-4).
A little later in the chapter, Luke gives his reader a glimpse into how the early fellowship functioned.  The church was devoted to prayer among other spiritual disciplines (Acts 2:42) and continued to persist in it fervently (Acts 2:46). The early church was also committed to the ideal that its leaders should be committed to prayer coupled with the twin commitment of the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). Practical examples of prayer are recorded as well like the prayer for Tabitha (Acts 9:3-43), and the intercession that led to Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:5).
What’s more, prayer and fasting played a pivotal role in the furtherance of God’s Kingdom (Acts 13:2, 3; 14:13, 20:36; 21:15). For instance, it resulted in the Holy Spirit leading the church to separate Paul and Barnabas for ministry. Subsequently, as their ministry grew, prayer and fasting was utilized to assist them in choosing men to serve as elders (Acts 14:23). These men understood that the Holy Spirit plays the central role in guiding the church, not just relying on their own ingenuity. In other words, they understood that the church was a living organism, which prayer provided the right ecosystem for the organism to flourish.  To establish this healthy ecosystem, the church leadership needs to establish an ethos of prayer that becomes “the fundamental spirit of [the church] culture”[15] or to put it in simpler terms, it is what is jointly valued as a group. 

[1] Elmer Towns. Theology for Today. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomas Learning).  2004, 650-651

[2] Kuyper, Abraham (2013-03-23). Rooted & Grounded: The Church as Organism and Institution (Kindle Location 529). Christian's Library Press. Kindle Edition.
[3] Kuyper, Abraham (2013-03-23). Rooted & Grounded: The Church as Organism and Institution (Kindle Location 529). Christian's Library Press. Kindle Edition.
[4]  Kuyper, Abraham (2013-03-23). Rooted & Grounded: The Church as Organism and Institution (Kindle Locations 443-447). Christian's Library Press. Kindle Edition.
[5]  Cat and the Toaster p. 58-59

[6] Cat and the Toaster p. 60

[8] Trevor Wax. Gospel Centered Teaching.  Pp. 26-35

[9] Cat and the Toaster p. 61
[10] Grudem p. 634
[11]  Karl Graustein. Growing Up Christian. P&R, 2005, p. 208

[12] Han, Kyu Sam. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society  (Dec 2000): 675.

[13] Han, Kyu Sam. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society  (Dec 2000): 675.

[14]  STEPHEN S. SMALLEY  SPIRIT, KINGDOM AND PRAYER IN LUKE-ACTS Source: Novum testamentumDate: January 1, 1973

[15] Erwin Raphael McManus. An Unstoppable Force: Daring to Become What God had in Mind. Group Publishing: Orange, CA, 2001) 97

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