Examining Institutional Religion

By Clinton D. Hamilton


Among the people of God, there appears to be a tendency to swing from one extreme to another. Even in the New Testament times, there were those who were moving away from truth to error (Gal. 1:6,7; 5:1-4). There is also the tendency in some brethren to become obsessed with one point and look at everything through this perspective. Consequently, one’s thinking becomes clouded and the observations made are warped, Exegesis of Scripture becomes eisegesis because the point of obsession causes the Scripture to be explained so as to advance this one point that seems so centrally important and pivotal.

Apparently it did not take long for the early church to leave the simple mission for her expressed in Scripture and to become a bureaucracy with layers of officials and titles. The functions and duties associated with these officials and titles did not conform to the scriptural teaching. Throughout the history of religion, as soon as a restoration of New Testament religion is accomplished there is already at work the deterioration into a bureaucratic structure with functions and titles that again violate the scriptural teaching. When these excesses occur, an attempt to correct then also occurs. Sometimes, there is an over reaction to the abuses manifested in another arrangement that likewise does not conform to scriptural teaching.

Our generation is witnessing such a phenomenon. In responding to the error or a highly bureaucratic, institutionalized arrangement, some brethren have ignored plain scriptural teaching that in effect denies the New Testament arrangement. This article is addressed to this issue.

Meaning of Some Basic Terms

Church in English translations of the Bible and ekklesia in the Greek text are terms the understanding of which is crucial to a correct understanding of the New Testament arrangement. Ekklesia means an assembly or company of people. The particular context in which it occurs must define the nature of the assembly or company. It could be a mob gathered from the street in a place of meeting (Acts 19:29,32,41). On another occasion and in a different context, the term can mean an assembly as provided by law and regularly constituted (Acts 19:39). Another sense might be a group of people called into being under the leadership of one individual (Acts 7:38). It can also mean the group or company of people built by the Lord upon the bedrock of his deity (Matt. 16:18) and this would include all such people throughout the world for all time. The term is also applied to disciples of Christ called out of the world into special relation to him and residing in certain geographical areas but never meeting in a single assembly (Acts 9:31). A group of people persecuted in their homes and possibly other places but viewed as being part of a company or assembly (Acts 8:1,3; 22:4-5; 26:10-12; Phil. 3:6) is also referred to by the term. Sometimes the term is used to refer to the assembled group during which assembly certain rules or laws are to be observed relative to order, number, and gender of those who are permitted to address the group or company that is assembled together (1 Cor. 14:23-35). It should be observed that in all the uses of the term in all these contexts, although the precise meaning is different, the basic meaning of company or assembly is evident. The company may be assembled as a body or dispersed but in the broader sense they are still a company or an assembly. This company of believers, when it refers to those saved by the Lord Jesus and laid upon the foundation of his deity may be in the whole world in all generations, in a single locality (1 Cor. 1:2; Acts 20:17; et. al.), in more than one geographical region, assembled in one group, or disassembled.

Those constituting the body of Christ are saints (1 Cor. 1:2, et. al.) but among them in a local assembly there are elders and deacons (Phil. 1:1; Acts 20:17,28; 14:23) who must possess certain qualifications prior to being appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23). Presbuteros, elder, refers to one who is older and experienced in the word of God and its application to one’s life. Bishop, episcopos, is used interchangeably with elder (Acts 10:27,28). These two terms refer to one and the same. Poimen, pastor or shepherd, also is used interchangeably with elder or bishop (1 Pet. 5:1-4). The elders are to pastor or shepherd the flock with Jesus being the chief shepherd. These persons are given specific responsibilities in relation to the saints among whom they are elders, bishops, or pastors (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12-14; 1 Tim. 5:17-20). A church when fully constituted, without lack, will have elders (Tit. 1:5). It is obvious there is a differentiation of functions among members of the church (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Cor. 12:28).

Appoint, cheirontoneo, originally used in connection with showing of the hand in the Athenian legislature, was used in the New Testament to indicate a recognition of someone for a special function or service. It was used when Paul and Barnabas appointed or ordained elders in every church (Acts 14:23) and in connection with churches who chose certain individuals to convey their contributions to the poor saints in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:19). In this latter case, it is obvious that the collective group took the action of choosing the individuals.

Another word for appoint is kathistemi which means to set apart an individual to a position or office. This is the word used in Titus 1:5 which reference to elders,

The churches of Galatia and the church at Corinth were given charge to lay by in store on the first day of the week and what they laid by in a treasury was to be conveyed by messengers of the church that produced the treasury (1 Cor. 16:1-3). The funds the brethren contributed were stored or in a treasury to be conveyed to those in need in Jerusalem. It was to be stored up so that when Paul arrived there would not be the need to take up a collection. The treasury jointly built up by divine arrangement was to be conveyed by messengers whom the church chose also by divine arrangement. This is clearly collective action of the assembly of disciples.

All these New Testament terms clearly indicate that there are to be actions taken ip a collective sense. The local assembly acts as a unit to accomplish an objective which God has charged to be done. It is true that the actions authorized are not designed to be accomplished only by a complex bureaucratic organizational structure. However, on the other hand, neither does the New Testament demand that there be no collective or unit action. When a church does what the New Testament charged her to do, that church does not become an institutional one in the bad sense of this term. When a church contributes to the doing of what God commands the church to do in the manner in which he commands, there is not the building up of an institutionalized arrangement which runs counter to the New Testament teaching. True, the church may become institutionalized in a sense that would violate scriptural teaching. On the other hand, an arrangement can be set up that circumvents the collective action commanded by God. Brethren need to observe Scripture and not create figments of their imagination that in fact cause them to violate Scripture.

Collective Actions

The whole church can come together in one place (1 Cor. 14:23). In this case, the assembly at Corinth gathers together in one place. It is the assembly assembling. Saints are not to forsake the assembling of themselves together (Heb. 10:25). On the first day of the week, saints laid by in store (in a treasury) to carry out a work authorized by God (1 Cor. 16:1-2). When the church assembles, edifying takes place through teaching and exhortation (1 Cor. 14:26). Those engaged in such edifying are worthy of their hire (1 Cor. 9:7-14). It is obvious that the assembly can provide the place of assembling which act (assembling) is commanded by God. Further, the evangelist who preaches the gospel should live of the gospel as ordained of God (1 Cor. 9:14). Therefore, the treasury put together by the contributions of the saints on the first day of the week when they assemble can be used to do what God commands. This is made clear in the instruction given concerning the putting together of a collection for God given purposes (1 Cor. 16:1-3).

When the church assembles on the first day of the week, the Lord’s supper is to be observed (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:2334). Being instructed to observe the Lord’s supper in assembly (1 Cor. 11:33), the church is certainly authorized to provide that which they are commanded to do when assembled in one place. Collective action is authorized to provide what is necessary to carry out the command which is the obligation of all of them and not just one of them. To carry out these instructions as an assembly is not to institutionalize the church in a bad sense. In fact, to raise the issue of institutionalizing in this context is preposterous.

The Lord commands on occasion that, when assembled together, certain brethren overtaken in sin of which they are not repentant shall be committed to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 5:4-5). This is an action taken by the assembly in assembly. Since all things are to be done decently and in order in an assembly of saints, it follows that some collective decisions would need to have been made (1 Cor. 14:40).

Churches that put together collections for a purpose which God commands, make the choice of how the collections are handled (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:23; 11:8-9). This required collective action, that is the congregation acted as a unit. The same is true in the case of Acts 11:28-30 when the brethren in Antioch sent relief to the saints in Judea. Paul and Barnabas were the ones the church chose by whom to send their contribution to the elders in Judea (Acts 11:30).

Evangelists in areas remote from contributing churches were and are to be assisted in proclaiming the gospel (Phil. 4:15-17; 2 Cor. 11:8-9). Of necessity, the contribution had to be collected into one treasury and then a decision had to be made about how to convey it to the evangelist. Furthermore, a prior decision had to be made by the congregation about which preacher would be assisted and by how much. Doing all this does not involve the church in violation of the will of God by institutionalizing it as some are wont to say. When a church does what God authorizes, without violating some other instruction of the New Testament, one cannot charge that there has been a departure from God’s way.

Churches with poor among them who need assistance certainly should contribute to their necessities (Acts 4:34-35; 6:1-6; 11:30). When the brethren make a collective decision about whom to help and in what way, they are doing what God commands if they do not violate some other command in the doing of it. The fact that collective action occurs is not sinful. The church is not thereby institutionalized.

On the other hand, in seeking to carry out what God commands, it is possible to create arrangements or organizations which would violate scriptural teaching. Institutions may be created outside the church or arrangements made within the church that would be wrong. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, we ought to do what God commands without omitting obedience to all that he has commanded (Matt. 23:23).


It is clear from the preceding study that collective action of the church is authorized or commanded by God. When the church does what is authorized in the manner in which God commands, there is no sin. But if one moves the church into acts not authorized, structures the church with officers and functions not authorized, or builds appendages to, or creates organizations through which the church seeks to accomplish what God commands, then there is an institutionalizing of the church in a sense that God never authorized. But let ut not condemn as sinful the doing of that which God commands.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 19, pp. 594-595
October 4, 1990