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The church is not the institution. The institution is not the church.

Posted by on Apr 9, 2012 in community, definition, fellowship | 16 comments

The church is not the institution. The institution is not the church.

The title of this post came from my good friend Eric at “A Pilgrim’s Progress” and his post “Not the Same.”

In the post, Eric is making a distinction between the church and the organizations and institutions that are often created by the church. I think this is an important distinction. Why is it important? Because these organizations and institutions (in all of their varieties and flavors) tend to overshadow and even hinder the work of the church.

Eric writes:

The church is not the institution. The institution is not the church. They are not the same. In fact, they are fundamentally different. The first is God’s creation. The second is man’s. They not only differ but in many ways oppose each other.

This has become increasingly clear to me over the past few months. It has helped me in discussing the things of the church. For quite a while I’ve been frustrated with the way things at large are going within the church in this country. This was because I saw so many man-made traditions shackling the life of the church. It all seemed like one big jumbled mess to me.

Yes, it is “one big jumbled mess.” And, it is often confusing to the people involved. What part is the church? What part is the organization? What part is of God and what part is of man? It really is “one big jumbled mess.”

Please take the time to read the rest of Eric’s post. I agree with him that understanding that there is a difference between the church and the organization/institution is the first step in recognizing the church.

Then, what happens when we DO recognize the church? At this point, brothers and sisters in Christ make different decisions. Some decide to separate from the organization/institution. Some decide to continue with the organization/institution. Perhaps others make other decisions.

For me, the important part is living in Jesus Christ with the church – either with the help of or in spite of the organization/institution.

Which decision have you made, and why?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 4-9-2012

    Abandon the institution and it’s name…problem solved.

  2. 4-9-2012

    Would you consider yourself involved with the institution at any level?

  3. 4-9-2012

    Abandon the institution. I worked for many years as a pastor and have not been able to deal with the fallacies and flaws within. I suppose if my experience had been apple pie I may still be a part, but that wasn’t the case.

    I long for fellowship, but not contrived, programmatic fellowship. Oh the quandary…

  4. 4-9-2012

    The church is about giving, not receiving. We shouldn’t necessarily abandon institutions just because they are man-made. We should be an influence for good whereever we are. Jesus spoke often in the synagogues, another man-made institution.

    Find the dark places and let your light shine there. God may use you to produce change within.

  5. 4-9-2012


    I’m not opposed to abandoning the institution as long as we don’t also abandon our brothers and sisters in Christ.


    I’ll respond to you the opposite of the way that I responded to Marc. I’m not opposed to working with the institution as long as it doesn’t hinder the work of Christ’s body, the church.


    I’d love to hear more about the “quandary”…


    Yes, it seems that Paul discipled among the synagogue also, until they (Jesus’ followers) were run out.


  6. 4-9-2012

    Thanks Alan! This realization has come as a breath of fresh air to me. I thank the Lord for it.

  7. 4-9-2012

    I came to an analogy that worked for me. If the people that make up the church are the body than the institution are the clothes. Sometimes those clothes are cumbersome and restrictive and actually hinder the body from doing what it was meant to do. Sometimes the clothes are dirty and rotten and terribly unappealing. Some are so nasty people would rather go naked.

    I do believe that any body of believers needs some measure of organization. While the institution isn’t the church, the church needs some measure of organization just as the body needs clothes.

    I’m a strong advocate of simple expressions of church. Our group does some some measure of organization, even it isn’t much more than an email list, a little simple seminary we support, and a website. Our body has clothes, but they are simple, straight forward and don’t require a lot of resources to maintain.

    One of our problems is that the clothes have begun to matter more than the body.

  8. 4-9-2012

    Alan- I love your both/and approach to the issue. For me, I always have a difficult time with terms like “institution” vs “the church” and you nailed it on the head… it is one big jumbled mess (great verbiage).

    When I look at church history, even in the scripture, it is hard to separate institution from the body. For example, was the choosing of the seven in Acts 6 an institutional move, and if so, was it God ordained or man ordained? Maybe it doesn’t matter… as long as the widows in the end get food.

    I think it is human nature to attempt to organize the movement of Jesus in such a way that is expands rather than implodes. Even the most “organic” of communities has hints of institutional structure to keep it alive. Scheduled meeting places, a general flow of what will take place (even if we plan to make the meeting “unplanned”). I’ve personally come to a place of recognizing that structure or “the institution” in and of itself isn’t bad… but looking at WHAT structures and institutions generate the type of community life that Jesus longs for us to have.

  9. 4-9-2012


    Yes, I can remember when I started recognizing the difference also. Thanks for a great post!


    I love the clothing analogy, especially your last line: “One of our problems is that the clothes have begun to matter more than the body.”


    When two people meet for coffee, there is a measure of organization. But, when those same two people cannot meet for coffee because of they way they have organized, there’s a huge problem. I think this happens alot with the church. The church (i.e., the people of God) cannot function as God has created them to function because of the organization.

    I do not think that structures and institutions are able generate community life in Jesus Christ. They can either aid the community life that the Spirit generates, or they hinder it.


  10. 4-9-2012

    We, who want to follow Christ, are naturally focused on ‘church’, why? I think it is because we understand at the heart of our faith in Christ, is the relationships in the body of Christ. I propose that ‘church’ as we know it, is the greatest hindrance to both, life in the body, and new members being added to the body.
    If we abandon the name ‘church’ and the institutional structure. We have a much better chance to both, regain our ability to relate to one another in new/old first century ways, and have an audience with those who will not turn us off (and rightly so)instantly if we even mention the name church.

  11. 4-10-2012

    Alan- Correct. “Generate” wasn’t the best word there… probably “facilitate” would have been a better choice to explain my thoughts.

    “looking at WHAT structures and institutions facilitate the type of community life that Jesus longs for us to have.”

  12. 4-10-2012

    The situation, in it’s most simple form, came against my beliefs in a few ways. The “senior leadership” was not pastoring but managing. The vision was contrived and also ran short of the biblical imperatives which left the body unhealthy. There was a false premise that became a core value, which was, support the senior pastor at all cost or leave the church.

    Needless to say, I saw a lot of the body get seriously abused and hurt. (myself included) “If you’re not an asset, you’re on your way” was the mindset.

  13. 4-10-2012


    “Church as we know it” can be a hindrance… depending on what we think it is.


    Yes, organizations and structures exist when any 2 or more people come together. I think it is important for us to constantly question and change that organization and structure to make sure we are able to help one another live in community and that the organization/structure is not hindering that community in Christ. To me, the most obvious sign is the ability to carry out the various “one anothers” found in Scripture.


    Unfortunately, that situation happens too often. I think that’s definitely an example of the organization/structure becoming more important than the people (i.e., the church).


  14. 4-11-2012

    Alan, For those we wish to reach with the Real Good News of the Jesus’ Kingdom, it would be how they (outsiders)perceive church, then would it not? There is no confusion in the western worlds mind. Church is that building where all of the Hippocrates go. We will not gain any new reputation in our life times by attempting to get the word out to them that there are two churches. The bad ones, the ones with all of the big name evangelist belong to who are taking grand ma’s ss check and buying jets and mansions with it. The bad ones, who’s priest rape little boys in their care, the bad ones who make head lines all of the time in the local papers…”
    When we are bold enough to say, hey Church was not God’s idea”, do not blame that BS on my Lord, He is not like that. When we do this, then we are truly at the doorway of spiritual kingdom of God. No work has been done yet, but now for the first time in 1700 years we confess that we have been apart of something that God did not build.

  15. 4-11-2012

    Oops, correction hypocrites

  16. 4-11-2012


    Regardless of what term is used, there will always be confusion about the true of nature of God’s church (ekklesia) until it is explained and demonstrated. You might want to consider the Spanish term iglesia and the French term eglise, where they originated from, and how they are used today.

    Again, your statements “there are two churches” and “Church was not God’s idea” are not correct in the way that I (and many others) understand the term “church.”