The Church: Organism or Organization?

By Larry Ray Hafley

In order to promote a greater sense of spirituality, some ask us the question of our title. Is the church an organism, or is it an organization? Dutifully, we are supposed to respond that the church is an organism. That being true, we are then told and taught that we ought not to think that faithfulness to an organization is required of us. Rather, we are to seek a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” a “covenant fellowship with the person, Jesus Christ.”

Continuing their usage of the “trendy” terms of fundamental, evangelical denominationalism, these modern spiritualizers berate the “ten step mentality” of the “organizational mindset which is so common in the Church of Christ’s institutional concepts.” (Note: The “ten steps” are: hearing, belief, repentance, confession and baptism, followed by singing, praying, giving, communion and teaching.) These ten steps reveal your trust and reliance on the organizational, institutional church to save you. What you need to do is to see the church as an organism, not an organization. You need to trust in the living, loving Lord, not in a cold, sterile, ritualistic organization.

While it is good to stress our faith and trust in Jesus the Christ, I find as much direct and specific reference to a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” in the Bible as I find certain warnings against trusting in a “ten step organization or institution.” Neither admonition appears in those terms. And what is a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”? Define your terms. Is there any such thing as an impersonal relationship with Jesus Christ?

The church is a divine organism, a living, vibrant spiritual body (Eph. 2:19-22; 4:11-16; 5:23-33; 1 Cor. 12:12-27). It is also a divine organization or arrangement. Some ridicule the idea of the church’s being an organization. They say it is an organism, not an organization. The church is both an organism and an organization. It is a spiritual body, hence, it is a spiritual organism (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5; Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1: 18,24). This divine organism has been designed to function and to work and is equipped with parts with which to act (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 4:11-16). As such, it is arranged or organized and exists as a unit; thus, it is a divine organization.

To show that the Holy Spirit is a divine person, we cite passages that reveal the attributes of personality – the Spirit teaches, testifies, speaks, can be grieved and lied to, etc. (Jn. 14:26; 16:13; 1 Tim. 4:1; Eph. 4:30; Acts 5:3,4). Likewise, observe the features of arrangement, the characteristics of an organization, that describe the nature and function of the church.

1. People were added to it (Acts 2:47; 1 Pet. 2:5; Col. 1:13).

2. The church feared (Acts 5:11).

3. The church was persecuted (Acts 8:1,3; Gal. 1: 13; 1 Cor. 15:9).

4. The church had rest (Acts 9:31).

5. The church had ears, could hear (Acts 11:22; Rev. 2:7).

6. The church assembled (Acts 11:26; 14:27; 1 Cor. 14:23).

7. The church had elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17,28).

8. The church provided transportation (Acts 15:3).

9. The church received guests (Acts 15:4).

10. Churches were confirmed (Acts 15:41).

11. Churches were established in the faith (Acts 16:5).

12. Churches grew (Acts 16:5).

13. Churches sent and received greetings (Acts 18:22; Rom. 16:16).

14. Churches had a treasury (1 Cor. 16:2; Phil. 4:15,16; 2 Cor. 11:8).

15. Churches sent “wages” (2 Cor. 11:8; Phil. 4:15,16).

16. Churches are to “relieve” widows indeed (1 Tim. 5:16).

17. Churches preach the gospel (1 Thess. 1:8).

Let no one be deceived. The church is an organized entity, a divinely authorized body, thoroughly equipped to do the work God gave it to do.

I would like for these people who decry the church as an organization while describing it as an organism to cite one organism from the material or animal world that does not also possess organization or arrangement to act, to function. Amoebas and armadillos are organisms. They are also functioning bodies or arrangements, and they possess the organization, the equipment, with which to work. Paramecium and porcupines are organisms, but they are also organizational arrangements designed to function. The church, too, is an organism. Like all organisms, it has duties, work, to perform. It performs these tasks through its organization, through its parts or members.

Therefore, all of this talk about the church being an 91organism” or a “fellowship,” a “relationship with Jesus Christ” and not “an organization or institution,” is out of focus and balance at best or it is a false doctrine at worst. All organisms require proper arrangement, an integration of a plurality of parts, or organization with which to function, and the church of our Lord is no exception.

Is it possible to have this nebulous, undefined “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and to “love and trust Jesus Christ” without also serving as a functioning unit or part in his organism’s arrangement or organization (Eph. 4:11-16)? Is it possible for one to love and serve Jesus without performing his assigned duties in the organizational arrangement that Jesus left for us? That question needs to be answered before anyone rails against devotion to the church of the Lord. In other words, can I love and trust Jesus and have a “deep and meaningful personal relationship with him” while refusing to assemble with the saints, to give of my prosperity and perform other actions which he has authorized in his word? My answer is, “no” (Rom. 6:16; Rom. 12:4-7; Eph. 4:16).

“But,” we are told, “you have misunderstood us. We believe in keeping God’s commandments and in doing his will as members of his body. We just think that Christians should trust in Jesus and not in an institution.” Well, I do not know any sincere Christian who trusts in an abstract institution or organization and not in Jesus Christ, and I do not think you do, either.

“We have heard folks talk about blessings in the church, and they do not seem to realize that ‘all spiritual blessings’ are in Christ, not in the church (Eph. 1:3). So, we think people are emphasizing the church, an organization, and that they are not really looking unto the person of Jesus.” Now, that sounds good, and that it is often well-intentioned, I have no doubt, but here is how and where it misses the mark. The church is his body (Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1:18,24). The only way to get into Jesus Christ, which is where the blessings are, is to get into his body. Note 1 Corinthians 12:12, 13, in this connection. Paul refers to the physical body as being one unit while having “many members.” Next, he says, “so also is Christ.” In other words, so also is the church, the body of Christ, for Paul says we are “baptized into one body,” the church. Hence, when we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his body, the church (Gal. 3:27; 1 Cor. 12:13). The only way to be in Christ is to be in his body.

If a germ or microbe is going to partake of you, the germ is going to have to get into your body. There is no way for a germ to partake of you, to share with you, to derive nourishment from you, without getting into your body. In like manner, the only way to share and partake of all spiritual blessings is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ, you must be in his body, the church. Suppose a germ were to say, “I want to be in you; I want to have a loving, sharing, trusting relationship with you, but I do not want to be in your body.” How could you accommodate such a foolish germ? You could not. Suppose the germ said, “But I want a personal relationship with you; I do not want to trust in the organizational arrangement of your body; I want to live with you.” Could you offer the germ any hope of consolation? No, apart from your body, the germ cannot partake of you. Similarly, apart from the church, one cannot partake of Christ and of his spiritual blessings (Eph. 1:6,7; 2:16,19-22; 3:6).

Suppose I began to preach, “Brethren, you had better beware of the mentality which says that you can glorify God in Christ. The Bible says, ‘Unto him be glory in the church,’ not in Christ (Eph. 3:21).” Would that be acceptable, scriptural? Should we preach that glory to God is “in the church” and not in Christ? God forbid! It is a false choice. It is an attempt to make a distinction without a difference.

That salvation can be obtained by cold, callous ceremonialism or by rote ritualism is equally false as both of the Old and New Testaments testify (Isa. 1:10-20; Jer. 7:21-23; Amos 5:21-27; 1 Sam. 15:22; Psa. 50:7-23; Prov. 15:8; 21:27; Hos. 5:6; 6:6; Mic. 6:6-8; Matt. 22:37; 23:23). No one argues that a large contribution or a pinch of bread and a sip of juice is righteousness, or that attendance at every service punches one’s ticket to heaven. Let that be understood. However, we must be wary of those who would denigrate and trifialize “the ordinances” which were delivered unto us by the apostles through the Spirit (1 Cor. 11:2,23; 14:37).

It is unsettling to listen to the way of the Lord being spoken against in subtle jibes and sarcastic jabs. There are those who speak against vague and hazy “traditions of the Church of Christ” (“vague” and “hazy” in the sense that they are not specifically identified). With fervor, cutting criticism is leveled against those who contend for strict adherence to New Testament worship. If we will not tolerate unscriptural additions to singing (such as humming or playing), if we will not take the Lord’s supper except on the first day of the week, we are denounced as legalistic Pharisees. The inference is that if we demand such things that we are relying on our own works of righteousness instead of the person of Jesus Christ to save us.

Ironically, the very ones who satirically slander and facetiously portray the faith as a farce, the very ones who resort to ridicule of the way of righteousness and mock and scoff at the old-fashioned, trite (“three songs and a prayer”) religion, are the very same ones who go into orbit if you reprove and rebuke infant baptism or show that the Pope is a “false apostle.” It is alright to scorn and scathingly skewer the worship habits of faithful New Testament saints, but do not be so “unloving” as to show that Baptist baptism is not Bible baptism! Yes, from the podium of a building provided by sacrificing saints it is acceptable to mock and ridicule those who cling to the New Testament ordinances and traditions of work and worship, but do not dare to scripturally show, from the same pulpit, that Pentecostal tongue speakers are duped and deluded. Where is the consistency (not to mention truth) in all of that?

Excuse me, but I have a difficult time allowing someone to occupy a pulpit and take support from a treasury that was provided by the very spirit that these people condemn If it were not for the “narrow-minded, legalistic, antis,’ those who were abused as “Campbellites” and seen as religious bigots, these modern darlings of the kingdom of sweetydom would have no place to preach.

Listen for the sounds, the “buzz words” of contemporary “Christendom.” They are uttered by every sectarian who ever answered an altar call and “received the Spirit and got saved and baptized.” Sadly, they are being parroted in some circles among New Testament Christians. “The church is an Organism. You cannot be saved by being faithful to an organization. Jesus did not die for an institution. He wants you to have a close, personal relationship with him, not with the five step program of the Church of Christ.” Have you heard similar sentiments? Again, it is acceptable to rant and rail against scriptural New Testament practices, but calling attention to these devious devices and their dangers makes me and this paper “a classic example of all that is wrong with the Church of Christ today.”

The refrain of an old hymn is an appropriate melody with to close.

I love Thy kingdom Lord, The house of Thine abode;

The church our blest Redeemer saved with His own precious blood.

I love Thy church, O God! Her walls before Thee stand,

Dear as the apple of Thine eyes, and graven on thy hand.

For her my tears shall fall, For her my prayers ascend;

To her my cries and toil be giv’n, Till toils and cares shall end.

Beyond my highest joy I prize her heavenly ways,

Her sweet communion, solemn vows, Her hymns of love and praise.

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 7, pp. 208-210
April 2, 1992