“What other church is there besides institutional?” – Eugene Peterson

Entire books have been written on the subject of “the institutional church,” both pro and con, so I don’t propose to offer anything new or comprehensive with a blog post. But the urging to ditch the “institution” of the church just seems so plainly misguided I thought I’d offer some reasons for the good of the institution.

None of this is to say that institutionalization is good, of course, or bureaucracy or professionalization; the church is not essentially an organization but a people called out by God, saved by Christ into his kingdom and image, and powered by the Spirit. The institutionalization of the church is what happens when the Spiritual reality of what the church is disappears and all that’s left is the “local” expression/form. But local expressions/forms are important. Here’s, I think, why:

1. The New Testament presumes church governance
2. The New Testament commands church discipline
3. The New Testament designates insiders and outsiders in relation to the church
4. The image of “the body” presumes unified order
5. The New Testament churches had recognizable structures. The apostles sent their letters to somebody
6. “Spirit-filled community or institutional organization” is a false dichotomy that presumes the Spirit is powerless against institution
7. Logically speaking, there is no such thing as “no institution” except chaos or anarchy. Every community made up of people is institutional to some degree
8. That institution is not eternal is not grounds for jettisoning it. Marriage isn’t eternal either.
9. The subjection of kings and nations presumes institutional subjection to Christ and therefore that God works in, with, and through institutions
10. No one in 2,000 years has successfully cultivated an enduring institution-less expression of the local church

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11 thoughts on “10 Reasons for the Institutional Church”

  1. JMJ says:

    I'm not sure what you mean by institution. If you mean a church with more than local leadership; i.e. a central body with central leadership for an a series of churches, I'm not sure I agree. I would 100% agree if you're referring to the plurality of leadership at a local church level.1. The New Testament presumes church governanceThe New Testament presumes local church governance. Other than the council of apostles in Jerusalem, which preceded the "gentile expansion" there's no record of any sort of hierarchy other than elders in a local church.10. No one in 2000 years has successfully cultivated an enduring institution-less expression of the local church.Assuming you mean a central leadership model, I can think of 1 prominent example of such an church. Despite our problems, the plymouth brethren have endured for a very long time.

  2. Jared says:

    JMJ, I am referring to any organizational form, but not specifically denominations or networks. In my list I have local leadership/structure in each congregation in mind.I can think of 1 prominent example of such an church. Despite our problems, the plymouth brethren have endured for a very long timePlymouth Brethren churches have leadership, though, don't they? Or at least local organization. That's all I mean.I mean, they are identifiable as "Plymouth Brethren," so even the recognizable label implies a semblance of institution.I really think it's unavoidable so long as an expression of church includes a) an attempt at New Testament resemblance, and b) people. :-)

  3. JMJ says:

    You're right. The local representation should have recognized leaders-elders.I am uncomfortable with the concept of a central body of hierarchy that governs many churches.

  4. bullets says:

    "That institution is not eternal is not grounds for jettisoning it. Marriage isn't eternal either."lets not give anyone any ideas at abandoning the idea of marriage now…because, believe me, someone somewhere is working on this concept.

  5. Wenatchee the Hatchet says:

    People invented jettisoning the concept of marriage before we were born, bullets. That many such people also jettison the institution of the church is not something we can change. God, however, can.

  6. jeffandwendy says:

    Is there someone out there actually arguing for a church body absent organization (or institutional-less as you put it)? I haven't heard or read anyone fighting for that. Even the most hard core house church crews will speak of a leader facilitating. I have heard lots of people rightly (in my opinion) state that the institution has gotten way out of hand and has become the focal point of faith. Isn't that the problem? Are there people really out there declaring for anarchy church?

  7. Jared says:

    No. But that's what an institution-less church is.What I'm saying is that "institution" is not bad, and all those against the "institutional church" are like all those who are for "literal interpretation" of the Bible. It doesn't make sense.As I mention in the post, I am against institutionalization myself; but the criticism of institution is silly and nonsensical. That's all I was trying to point out.

  8. Brad says:

    The online dictionary gives these three definitions for the word "instiutional":1) of or pertaining to organized establishments, foundations, societies, or the like2)of or pertaining to the organized establishments' buildings3) characterized by the blandness, drabness, uniformity, and lack of individualized attention attributed to large institutions that serve many people My conclusion: The "institutional" church is bad if defined using definitions #2and #3. The "institutional" church is good if defined according to defintion #1. It sounds like everyone agrees. I guess the disagreement isn't over substance but the sense in which the word is being used.

  9. jeffandwendy says:

    I agree that institution / organization is not something that can be done away with. It would be like trying to display a picture without a frame or matting. But wouldn't you also agree that people attempt to defend rituals and rules (and try to enforce them onto others) that are far beyond the basic institution needed for the body to grow; even to the point where these rituals and rules actually hinder growth and discipleship? I agree. Institution is necessary. But the arguement I have been subject to is not a yes or no but rather how much.Where does the institution end for you?

  10. Art says:

    I like something I read recently: "Church" is WHO WE ARE, not WHERE WE ATTEND." (We are all the Body of Christ.)Unfortunately, mankind will always seek to place labels on a group of people and separate groups from each other based on the predominate set of beliefs within the groups, – hence denominations.I dislike institutional churches,… and my definition of "institutional" is where the building or the denomination becomes more important than the Gospel.

  11. Jocelyn says:

    This is interesting because this was what I was discussing about, but specifically on the topic of four spiritual law open air evangelism (i.e. mandatory program for the college ministry of a local church). I voiced that I was against it because first of all it's a wrong evaluation of people coming to Christ and wrong sense of righteousness in how many people they have evangelized to. Not that the evangelism itself is bad but the way people get conditioned is still subconsciously saved by observing the law and not by grace you are saved. But I kept running into the wall when the opposite view kept voicing about how if those programs are not established, no one would evangelize from that church because they have weak faith… I was just very frustrated how God had nothing to do with the motivation for evangelizing, rather people and program and sense of checking of a to do list. I have a strong belief that discipleship training (evangelizing those within the church) is the core of this issue.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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