There is a conversation–some might even say a debate–concerning the nature of the church. What is it? How does it function? How might we define it? These questions, of course, each have multiple answers. It’s not going to be an “all of the above” sort of answer, because there are certain things that the church is not. I don’t think it useful, right now, to define the church by what it’s not.
The conversation takes us between “Church as an institution” and “Church as an organism.” I remember that we had this discussion in Church History 1 or Historical Theology 1, or (more likely) in both.
The bottom line, of course, is that the church is both. It is an institution and it is an organism. Here I welcome any thoughts, but in my own opinion we find elements of each.
We have an organism: something that is living, growing, at times even declining. It goes through changes and develops to meet the needs of each new generation. It is made of living human beings which make up the Body of Christ, no part of which is complete without the others.
We have an institution: something that contains a hierarchy of leadership, statutes and stipulations, canons and codes of discipline. It changes based on the decisions of committees and governing boards. In many ways the church acts as a business, with revenue and marketing and a need to sustain itself.
There are elements of both an institution and an organism within what we call church. Some of us may prefer one construct over the other. I see it as both. Because of the tradition I am a part of, I more readily label the church as an institution. But if it truly is an instution, it is an uncommon one. The church here on earth is meant to be reflection of the heavenly banquet and mansions and communion and kingdom which we will one day share with all the saints when heaven and earth are one.
I cannot think of a better way to describe this uncommon institution than in the words of Peter Chrysologus. Commenting on Luke 12:32 (“Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”), Chrysologus wrote:
The flock is little in the eyes of the world, but great in the eyes of God. It is little–because he calls glorious those whom he has trained to the innocence of sheep and to Christian meekness. The flock is little, not as the remnant of a big one, but as one which has grown from small beginnings. This little flock denotes the infancy of his newborn church, and immediately he promises that through the blessings of heaven this church will soon have the dignity of his kingdom.
This is an uncommon institution.