14. Church — Organism or Organization — or System?

Debate continues as to whether the church is best defined as an organism or an organization. The tendency is to see the term ‘organism’ as more adequate, because it seems to emphasize the dynamic, relational, social realities that mark a local church in its best expression. Conversely, the word ‘organization’ conjures up images of the corporation and institutionalization and communicates a sense of top-down, authority-laden, static structure that seems inimical to the Messianic assembly Jesus initiated to carry forward his mission.

The primary metaphors that Jesus and Paul used to capture their sense of the church were the family/household,  the human body, and/or the temple. The realities behind these metaphors, i.e. household, body and temple, all represent some kind of system. The family or household is a social system, incorporating relational, structural, and practical components that work concurrently and with some degree of integration to enable the family/household unit to sustain itself. Similarly the human body, incorporating many sub-systems, presents a complex network of living, highly structured, dynamic elements that collaborate to nurture, protect, and energize that body. In antiquity temples were tightly regulated religious entities, hierarchical in structure and carefully organized with a view to sustaining the worship rituals appropriate to the deity associated with that precinct.

Perhaps then the whole debate about whether the church is an organism or an organization is misdirected. The New Testament presents the local church as a social system designed to nurture and advance the Kingdom vision that Jesus Christ initiated. As with any system, a local church will have some elements of organization. However, any organizational components will be in the service of the system. Because the church is constituted from individuals committed to Jesus Christ, it has organic character, i.e. it is relational, dynamic, Spirit-inspired. With incredible synergy this system, the local church, cares for believers and they in turn through their participation sustain and develop the system, i.e. the community of faith, so that Jesus Christ, their Lord, will accomplish his mission. Of course the language of Kingdom that Jesus used to define much of his message also incorporates system features.

Jesus and Paul who employ the term ekklesia to define this new, Kingdom community, were quite aware that this term in their day also characterized  assemblies of people organized in all sorts of different ways to run cities, societies, and guilds.

Since local churches are human systems (aided by the Holy Spirit) and require some structure to flourish (as the New Testament metaphors imply), church leaders should not hesitate to incorporate insights, ideas and processes that other organizations have discovered to be useful. Some of these ideas will come from diverse organizations whose purposes are quite different. However, if the ideas are compatible with Kingdom values and are helpful in sustaining the community and mission of the local church, then they deserve consideration. If, as Evangelicals are frequently heard to say, "all truth is God’s truth", then organizational "truth" may be helpful, so long as it remains the servant and does not become the boss.

For example, there is much written about leadership today and within the church we are concerned similarly that we have good, competent, godly leadership. But we also know that much of the current leadership literature assumes values quite incompatible with our Kingdom commitments — ideas about power, profit, ambition, ruthlessness, ego, and self-fulfillment. The leadership style and philosophy of Attila the Hun undoubtedly should not be replicated within the local church. However, we might discern that good governance principles expressed in approaches such as Policy Governance may be very compatible with Kingdom values, enhance excellence in church governance, and enable the local church to sustain its community more effectively. Always we must  remember that such processes or governance methodologies are tools, means to an end, never an end in themselves. Good organization, implemented humbly, honestly, and wisely, can serve powerfully to support and enhance the church community and its Kingdom mission.

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