IS THE CHURCH AN INSTITUTION?
REMOVING THE VARNISH SERIES
If I use the phrase, "blood-bought institution," what do you think of? I make these
predictions. First, I predict that a visitor unfamiliar with the Church of Christ may be
wondering, "Whatever is he talking about?" Second, I predict that most of our teens
and twenty-year-old adults assign no meaning to that phrase. Third, I predict that many
of our thirty- and forty-year-old adults think that phrase has a familiar ring to it. Fourth, I
predict that everyone over fifty who grew up in the Church of Christ immediately assigns
a meaning to that phrase.
When I was a teenager, the phrase "blood-bought institution" was commonly
used in the church. In Acts 20:28, Paul reminded the elders of the church in Ephesus
that the Holy Spirit made them overseers to shepherd the church of God which the Lord
purchased (or acquired) with his own blood. Clearly Paul said the church was
purchased or acquired by Jesus' blood.
Are elders to be overseers in the church? Yes. Are they to be shepherds in the
church? Yes. Does the church belong to God and to Jesus? Yes. Did Jesus acquire
or purchase the church with his own blood? Yes. Is the church an institution? We
need to think about that question carefully before we answer.
Remember our key illustration. Grandma's funeral has just been conducted. The
adult children and grandchildren are looking around in the attic of the old home place.
They see an old table that looks awful--it has so much paint and varnish on it that it
looks like a piece of junk. The oldest son takes it home, carefully strips off all the paint
and varnish, and finds a priceless treasure. It is hand-crafted by excellent craftsmanship
and made of beautiful walnut. This valuable treasure appeared to be junk because it
was covered with so much paint and varnish.
The church is like that table. It was hand-crafted by the superb craftsmanship of
Jesus Christ. It is one of God's unique treasures in this world. But to too many, it has
the appearance of a piece of junk. It has been varnished and painted so many times
they cannot see the divine craftsmanship nor the exquisite material.
We want to remove the varnish to allow the beauty of God's treasure to be seen.
- Our concepts are formed and shaped by our known realities and experiences.
- Each time we conceptualize something, each time we understand something,
each time we picture something in our minds, we combine our knowledge and
- That is all that we can do.
- We cannot generate concepts and understanding that are based on things
that we know absolutely nothing about.
- Every one of us is a product of the industrial world.
- Those of us who are older have spent most of our lives in the industrial world,
and those of us under retirement age have spent every day of our lives in the
- All of us live in a world created by the industrial revolution.
- There was a very different world prior to the industrial revolution, and that world
had no industrial concepts.
- Some of us love and appreciate the craftsmanship of the pre-industrial world;
we value antiques.
- We value antiques because we appreciate the creativity of personal
- Consider the differences between the productivity of personal craftsmanship
and the productivity of industry.
- The product of craftsmanship depended upon the knowledge, skills, and
understanding of a craftsman.
- He had the "know-how."
- He had the creativity.
- He understood the product he was producing, the materials he worked
with, and the necessary steps to make the product.
- He was involved in each step from beginning to end.
- The product of industry depends upon the knowledge of management.
- A person is just a part of the labor force that produces the product.
- As a laborer, the person does not have to possess creative skills, he
does not have to understand the materials being used, and he does not
have to know how to produce the product.
- All he has to know is how to perform his job well.
- A craftsman depended on himself, his mind, his skills, his understanding,
and his creativity.
- A laborer in industry depends on management--he does his specific job
well and with understanding, but that is all that is basically required of him.
- Look at the contrast (I am not making a good versus bad comparison):
- An individual with talent and experience produces a product that exists as
a result of his own creative craftsmanship; he uses but is not dependent
upon those who assist him.
- A laborer in an industry partially produces a product and is dependent on the
industry's ownership, board of directors, management, and his fellow
- This is the point that I want you to consider:
- In the pre-industrial world, our concept of institution did not even exist.
- After the industrial world existed, the institution was life's common reality.
- Today our daily world is increasingly complex because of technological revolution.
- Now our economic world is marrying skilled, creative jobs to institutional
- As a result, creative teamwork is evolving as we watch whole industries
become dependent on creative teams and their skills.
- And, too commonly, the institution with its layers of owners, boards of
directors, and management is a liability instead of an asset.
- What is my point?
- In the world you and I live in, the institutional concept is a part of the
foundation of our thinking.
- The institutional concept is a basic concept in all of our lives.
- When we think about any body of people working together to accomplish
something, we use our institutional concepts.
- The church is a body of people working together to accomplish God's
- Because the institution is basic to our everyday life and world,
we automatically think in institutional terms.
- We assume that the church is an institution--that assumption is so
common that it is accepted as fact.
- It is natural for us to form our concepts of the church by using our
institutional thinking and understanding.
- It is natural to use the institutional concept to decide how the church
should do things.
- It is natural to use the institutional concept to decide how the church
should be led and directed.
- It is natural to use the institutional concept to measure success in the
- Let me show you how this is done.
- Consider the congregation:
- God is the owner.
- Jesus is the C.E.O., Chief Executive Officer.
- The elders are the board of directors.
- The deacons and ministry leaders are management.
- Members are the work force.
- That is the institutional concept.
- Most members of the Church of Christ who either grew up in the church or
spent most of their lives in the church think of the church in these institutional
- But there is a critical problem with our institutional concept.
- We have made a critical assumption for a long time.
- We assume that the church is an institution.
- All reasoning about the church begins with that assumption in place
- Many of our common concerns about what the church should or should
not do are based on the assumption that the church is an institution.
- Yet, the truth is this: the church existed hundreds of years prior to the
industrial revolution, prior to the institutional concept.
- In Jesus' day and Paul's day, there had never been a board of directors, a
C.E.O., or management and labor as we know them today.
- If we are serious about being the church of the New Testament, we cannot
base our concepts on the assumption that the church is an institution.
- The institution of today and the nation of Israel in the Bible have something
in common: both used a hierarchy.
- We have already noted the hierarchy of an institution: owner(s), C.E.O., board of
directors, management (several layers), laborers.
- Any idea or problem from labor must go through the layers of that hierarchy.
- Any institutional directive must come down through the layers of that
- The religion, Judaism, had a hierarchy: God, high priest, priests, Levites, Israelite
man, Israelite woman.
- Typical government in the ancient world had a hierarchy: king, his counselors or
advisors, his officers in charge of specific assignments, the citizen (who existed
to serve the king), slaves (the work force).
- Just as we naturally think in institutional terms, first-century people naturally
thought in hierarchy terms.
- Both the institutional concept and the hierarchy concept share some common
concerns: who has the power? who is in control? who has the right to make
decisions and enforce them?
- In the church we commonly combine both concepts: we function as a church on
the basis of hierarchy and institution.
- In both the institution and the hierarchy, we theoretically vest power in the
- The number one issue that causes so many problems in the church is the
- So many of our problems involve control.
- So many of our problems involve struggles for power.
- Too often the issue is not what scripture actually says.
- An issue may involve reasoned conclusions.
- The real issue is not what scripture actually says; the real issue is
- Control becomes an essential concern because the church is viewed
as an institution, and control is the primary issue in an institution.
- In both the institutional concept and the hierarchy concept, you create territories
- Law #1: You shall at all times correctly identify territorial boundaries.
- Law # 2: You shall at all times respect those boundaries.
- Law # 3: You shall not, for any reason, invade the territory of someone who
occupies a position higher than yours.
- Is the church an institution?
- Please consider the evidence for yourself by examining the book of Acts.
- The first congregation came into existence in Acts 2.
- Verse 42: They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, fellowship,
the breaking of bread (Lord's supper), and prayer.
- Verse 44, 45: They shared their material possessions and provided
financial assistance to those who were in need.
- Verse 46: Daily they assembled at the temple courtyard and joyfully ate
meals together in their homes.
- Verse 47: They praised God and had an excellent reputation in Jerusalem.
- Verse 47: Every day the Lord added those who were being saved to them.
- Are those the activities of an institution?
- Acts 4:32-37 tells us more about their activities (the apostles have been
arrested and released.)
- Verse 32: They were of one heart and one soul.
- Verse 32: They regarded their material possessions as common property.
- Verse 33: The apostles were powerfully serving as witnesses of the
- Verse 34: No one was in need.
- Are those the activities of an institution?
- In Acts 5 Ananias and Sapphira were caught in their lie and immediately died.
- Verse 11 says, "And great fear came upon the whole church..."
- Acts 8 gives us some very specific insights into the concept of church.
- Verse 1 states that on the very day the Christian Steven was killed a
great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem.
- Verse 3 states that Paul ravaged the church by making a house-to-house
search, by entering the private homes of Christians, and by dragging
Christians out of their homes and taking them to prison.
- Acts 9:30 tells us that Christians in Jerusalem helped Paul return home to
Tarsus because his life was in danger.
- When Paul left, Jerusalem and the area quieted down.
- And the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed peace,
was built up, and--in the fear of the Lord and comfort of the Holy
Spirit--continued to grow in number.
- Acts 11:22 tells us that news about a new congregation in Antioch of Syria
"reached the ears of the church in Jerusalem."
- Acts 11:26 states that Paul and Barnabas spent an entire year in Antioch
meeting with the church and teaching considerable numbers; and it was here
that for the first time disciples were called Christians.
- Acts 12:1 states that Herod the king arrested "some who belonged to the
church" and mistreated them.
- Verse 5 says that the church prayed fervently for Peter when he was
- Acts 13:1, 2 states that at Antioch in the church there were prophets and
teachers who ministered to the Lord and fasted.
- Acts 14:23 informs us that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders "for them in
- Acts 14:27 states they gathered the church together in Antioch to give them a
report--they were the church whether gathered or ungathered.
- Acts 15 states:
- In verse 3 that Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem by the church.
- In verse 4 that when they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the
- In verse 22 that the decision to send letters to Gentile congregations about
a controversial doctrinal decision was made by the apostles, elders, and
the whole church.
- In verse 41 that Paul and Silas traveled through the areas of Syria and
Cilicia strengthening the churches.
- Does the collective evidence of those scriptures support the idea that the church
is an institution?
- In my understanding, it does not.
- In my understanding, the evidence confirms that the church is a community, a
community that places its faith in Jesus, that exists in the love of God, and
that loves and cares for all community members as they seek to share Jesus
In your thinking and your studying, I ask you to seriously consider this: is it
possible that one of the reasons the church continues to experience so many unspiritual
problems is because we are trying to force what God designed to exist and function as a
community to exist and function like an institution?
I submit this for your consideration: when we present the church as an institution,
we paint a very heavy coat of varnish on God's masterpiece.
How do we remove the varnish? By each one of us learning how to be a loving
part of the community instead of trying to belong to an institution.
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
previous next in series
Evening Sermon, 16 March 1997
Link to next sermon
Link to other Writings of David Chadwell