Organisation or Organism?

The Church - 5

Organisation or Organism?
Biblical Images of the Church
(1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

As a human institution, the church is influenced by forms of social organisation popular at different times in history. But the Bible’s descriptions of the church point to dynamics of community life which go beyond secular models of social organisation. The church is not just an assortment of isolated individuals. It is a divine society, in which individuals find their unique fulfilment as members of a larger whole, and their selfishness is overcome in God’s workshop of personal transformation. This message, fifth in a series on ‘The Church’, was given by Rob Yule at St Albans Presbyterian Church, on 22 August 1999.

Non-Biblical Models of the Church

Before we look at biblical pictures that show what the church of Jesus Christ should be like, we would do well to note three widespread, popular models of the church that the Bible does not validate.

1. The Lecture Room

The standard picture of the church in our Protestant or Reformed tradition is that of a lecture room. Seats are arranged facing a central, elevated pulpit, formerly sometimes literally ‘six feet above contradiction’, from which a preacher reads and expounds the Bible to a largely passive congregation. This pattern is intellectualistic, has disenfranchised God’s people from active participation in worship services, and has contributed to the modern backlash against sermons. ‘Poor, talkative Christianity,’ lamented E. M. Forster in Passage to India.

2. The Theatre

In contrast to Protestantism, the Catholic Church has used the model of the theatre. The church service is a high drama, involving choral music and processions, led by people dressed in colourful costumes, with visible props like candles, crucifixes, pictures, and statues. There is a strong aesthetic appeal in these kind of services, but again a performer / spectator disjunction that is at variance with the New Testament descriptions of the church as a vital fellowship.

3. The Corporation

Today, in our entrepreneurial society, the secular model claiming the church’s attention is more likely to be a business or management model - the church viewed as a corporation, managed and promoted like a successful business. Some American church growth literature reflects this model; for example, in recommending that the church survey its ‘market’ and that it package and promote itself to meet the needs of the surrounding community.

Each of these models has elements we can learn from. The one nearest to the New Testament is the first, which can claim some support from the Jewish synagogue. But none of them reflect the real essence of the church as described in the New Testament itself.

Biblical Models of the Church

New Testament scholar Ralph P. Martin, in his book The Family and the Fellowship: New Testament Images of the Church (Exeter, Paternoster Press, 1979, pp. 112-21), contrasts the foregoing secular models of social organisation with the characteristic biblical descriptions of the church.

1. The People of God

The Greek word for ‘church’ is ekklesia, from which we get ‘ecclesiastical’. It means ‘a calling out’ or ‘those who have been called out’. It is the word used in the Greek translation of those passages in the Old Testament which refer to the great assembly (qahal) of Israel - when Israel was called out of Egypt to meet with God and worship God at Mt. Sinai, and then live as distinctive and holy society among the nations. The nation of Israel was the ‘people of God’, God’s ‘called-out ones’, God’s distinctive or ‘peculiar’ people (1 Peter 2:9).

The people of God are not only ‘called out’, but ‘called together’. The church is not just a collection of isolated individuals; it is a group of people called by God to live together as a community to model a new way of living. Michael Griffiths points out that the word ‘saint’ occurs sixty one times in the New Testament. Sixty of those references are in the plural, ‘saints’. Only once is the singular used and that is in the phrase, ‘greet every saint’ (Philippians 4:21)! So Griffiths concludes, ‘The concept of a solitary saint is foreign to the New Testament writers.’ (Cinderella with Amnesia [London, Inter Varsity Press, 1975], p. 24). Christian experience is essentially social or communal.

When we are called by Jesus to believe in him we are also called to belong to a great corporate society, the people of God. Hans Kung, the German Catholic theologian, says, ‘The church begins, not with a pious individual, but with God. Pious individuals cannot by themselves achieve the transformation of isolated sinful people into the people of God. How could an atomised crowd of pious individuals be a home for the homeless and isolated people of today.’ (The Church [London, Search Press, 1971], p. 24).

2. The Body of Christ

Today this is perhaps the best known biblical image of the church. It wasn’t always so. Before the Charismatic Renewal Movement of the 1970s, this term was never heard of outside of Catholic and Anglo-Catholic circles, where you would sometimes hear the church described as the ‘mystical body of Christ’.

Today by contrast we refer almost glibly to the church as ‘the Body’, without really pausing to think what the term means, and what it implies for our relationships together as Christ’s people. The term ‘body of Christ’ implies three things:

• The church is not just a social organisation or institution. It is an organism, a living entity, animated by the very life of God himself. When we become Christians and are born again of the Spirit, we receive God’s life. God’s life is abundant life, able to overcome life’s difficulties; and it is eternal life, capable of overcoming death itself. This is the secret of the church’s amazing ability to rejuvenate and renew itself, just when it has been dismissed as outmoded and irrelevant.

• The church doesn’t just follow its own policies or agenda. We are attached to Jesus Christ as ‘head’, and should seek to receive our instructions and directions for life from Christ himself. Just as the brain and central nervous system gives direction to the body, so Jesus Christ as head gives guidance and leadership to his church.

• The church is not all the same, but is made up of different members, an incredibly diverse and varied collection of people, as diverse in their function and purpose as are the different parts of a body. Each ‘member’ has a distinctive part to play in the life of the whole community. ‘Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. . . . Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.’ (1 Corinthians 12:12).

This is a challenge to us - not to be a dyslexic organism, but a healthy body in which all the members play their part. We all consciously need to pull our weight, to make our own personal contribution to the life of the fellowship, and at the same time honour one another’s distinctive contributions.

3. The Household of God

Paul also refers to the church as ‘the household of God’ (Ephesians 2:19, 1 Timothy 3:15). The biblical concept of a ‘household’ is wider than our modern nuclear family. The New Testament oikos, ‘household’, was an extended family, like the Maori whanau, including relatives and friends, perhaps several generations of a family, and also domestic servants and resident aliens.

Today the term ‘Christian Family’ is being used by many churches, even as part of their church title. But sometimes those very same fellowships are using ‘Christian Family’ in an exclusive rather than an inclusive sense. If the church is God’s family, then this is bigger than our modern concept of a family. The church family, for example, is not just for married people, but for singles too, not just for domesticated and conventional people, but for social misfits and unconventional people as well.

God has given us a new birth into his household, his extended family - whether our background experience of our own human families has been all it should be or not. Social outcasts as well as the socially successful, the poor as well as the rich, singles as well as marrieds - all are called by God into this wonderful divine family. Indeed, the early Christian movement spread particularly among the servant classes, and this may be how the Christian faith reached even the household of the emperor in Rome (as John Rutherford suggests, ‘Caesar’s Household,’ International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, ed. James Orr [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1946], pp. 537-8).

Family life of course can be challenging. Paul says we need to know how we ought to behave in God ‘s household (1 Timothy 3:15). It’s been observed that ‘You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family!’ It needs grace, humility, and cooperation to get on with our fellow Christians. Living with them rubs off the rough and angular corners of our personalities.

The Gemstone Tumbler

The church as God’s family is like a machine owned by a woman in my previous congregation in Christchurch. It was a gemstone tumbler - a rotating drum like a horizontal concrete mixer. Inside was placed abrasive sand paper. Into it were put the semi-precious stones she gathered from the exposed beach at Birdlings Flat on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, where the Canterbury Bight meets Bank’s Peninsula. It was plugged in and switched on - then left rotating for 36 or 48 hours. The stones tumbled and banged together, and were worn smooth against one another and against the abrasive paper. Their rough edges were smoothed and polished. At the end of their treatment they emerged splendid and beautiful.

That is what God is doing to us through our life together in the church. Our common life may not be pleasant for our individualism. We may complain and make lots of noise - like the din of the pebbles protesting their treatment in the rotating gemstone tumbler. But God is transforming us though our life in community into human beings of great splendour. The church is his laboratory for transforming humanity.

Rob Yule
22 August 1999

© 1999, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand