An Organism and An Organization
George Geftakys takes an extreme position when he says, "The Assembly is an organism, not an organization." (Testimony to Jesus, page 192). "Organizationalism denies the headship of Christ and the leadership of the Holy Spirit, which is Christ's representative on the earth today" (Testimony to Jesus, page 186). This article is an excerpt from chapter 18 of The Glorious Body of Christ, by Dr. R. B. Kuiper. He specifically addresses the Plymouth Brethren teaching on the organism of the church.
A very good dictionary defines an organism as "a body composed of different organs or parts performing special functions that are mutually dependent and essential to life." The same dictionary defines an organization as "the systematic union of individuals in a body whose officers, agents and members work together for a common end." An organism is something that is alive, as a plant, an animal, or the human body. An organization, although consisting of living beings, is not itself alive.
Is the Christian church an organism and not an organization? Or is it an organization and not an organism? Or is it both an organism and an organization?
The Teaching of Scripture
There cannot be the slightest doubt as to the Scriptural answer to those questions. The Bible speaks unmistakably of the church as both an organism and an organization.
The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome: "So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Romans 12:5). To the church at Corinth he wrote: "For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13). In these and many other passages Scripture likens the church to a living human body. Obviously it conceives of the church as an organism.
It is just as clear that the Bible regards the church as an organization. Therefore it speaks repeatedly of the church as a building. A building, in distinction from the human body, is not alive. When Jesus said: "On this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18), He was thinking of the church in that way. Hitherto an internal, invisible kingdom had loomed large in His teaching; now He went on to speak of His church as an external organization. It was the practice of the apostles to form an ecclesiastical organization wherever there was a group of believers. For instance, when Paul and Barnabas, on their way homeward from their first missionary journey, visited the various places where they had recently preached the gospel, they "appointed elders for them in each church" (Acts 14:23).
Scripture is not at all careful to distinguish between the church as an organism and the church as an organization. Often it speaks in one breath, as it were, of the church in both capacities. For but one example, church members are told: "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house" (1 Peter 2:5). As a stone house the church is an organization, as a spiritual house, consisting of living stones, it is an organism. Nowhere does Scripture speak of an unorganized group of Christians as a church. Therefore it is hardly proper to suppose that one group of believers constitutes the church as an organization. A voluntary association of Christians conducting a Christian day school, constituting a Christian labor union, or establishing a Christian recreation center, is sometimes denominated the church as an organism, but such language does not excel in precision. It has no basis in Scripture. Strictly speaking, such an association is not a church. The truth of the matter is that one and the same group of believers is at once the church as an organism and the church as an organization. The church is both in one.
An Extreme View
Throughout the history of the Christian church there have been within it numerous individuals and several sects which stressed the truth that the church is an organism to the practical exclusion of the truth that it is an organization. To name but one of such groups, the Plymouth Brethren make that error. The only tie that binds them together, say they, is their common faith in Christ, not an external organization. They have no ordained ministers or other officers. Of church government they will have nothing. In view of the organizational connotation of the word church, some go so far as to refuse to call their communion by that name.
In line with this one-sided conception of the church is the so-called pure church idea. Since only those who have been born again are living members of the body of Christ, it is affirmed that all others should by all means be excluded from their fellowship. The practical impossibility of doing this does not keep those who hold this view from insisting that it must be done. In consequence, it is not unusual for them to presume to be able to tell well-nigh infallibly who are born again and who are not.
A logical consequence of this unbalanced view is an almost total disregard of the ideal of organizational unity for the Christian church as a whole. Scripture teaches that all believers the world over are one in Christ. They constitute His one body. Ideally this unity ought to manifest itself in oneness of organization. In other words, the visible church should manifest the unity of the invisible church. This important truth is lost sight of by those who exalt the church as an organism out of all proportion to the church as an organization. They say that, since all believers are united spiritually, it matters little whether they are in one church or in many churches or in no church at all. An undenominational church is said to have as much and as little right to exist as any denomination. Schism is not a sin, for the simple reason that ecclesiastical organization is of no account. For the same reason attempts to reform a denomination have little or no value. The only thing, it is held, that really counts is the fact of the spiritual unity of all true believers constituting the church as an organism.
There are those who hold this extreme view in a less extreme way than do others. These are perfectly willing to grant that a particular church is an organization as well as an organism, but the church in a broader sense they regard exclusively, or nearly so, as an organism. That conception underlies what is known as Independency, according to which each congregation is a law unto itself and is independent of every other congregation. Congregations may confer with one another, it is held, for mutual counsel, but such conferences have no authority over the particular churches. A logical consequence of this view is that only the needless disruption of a congregation is schism and that each particular church is to all intents and purposes undenominational. In a word, this less extreme view still puts a premium on the organizational disunity of the Christian church.
The Opposite Extreme
Others there are who stress the fact that the church is an organization out of all proportion to its being an organism. The prevalence of this view within the church of our day is one of its most flagrant faults.
Many a pastor is much more concerned about the size of his church than about its purity. Therefore he receives with open arms into the church anyone who professes to be a Christian. Because the church is unable to look into the hearts of men, he considers himself excused from attempting to ascertain the credibility of an applicant's profession. He offers the same excuse for the church's failure to discipline its erring members. He is more interested in church management than in teaching the Word of God, and he would rather be known as a good organizer than as a faithful shepherd.
The organization complex is not confined to particular churches and their pastors. Many a denomination prides itself on well-oiled and smoothly running ecclesiastical machinery while it largely, or even completely, neglects sound doctrine. Literally hosts of church members boast of their loyalty to a denomination without ever inquiring whether the denomination is loyal to the Word of God. One reason why church union is so very popular is that it results in bigger and supposedly stronger organizations. A temptation besetting all federations of churches is that they will do too much thinking in terms of size, and there is evidence that several of them have yielded to that temptation. It does not seem to occur to the World Council that the smallest church which contends uncompromisingly for the truth once for all delivered to the saints is contributing incomparably more to the coming of the kingdom of God than is a globe-encircling federation of churches that darkens the truth by ambiguous words. Nor does it realize that the former is a manifestation of the body of Christ, while the latter is not.
A Balanced Position
Only he who holds to the Scriptural teaching that the church is both an organism and an organization can maintain a balanced view of the church.
The fact that the church is an organism and an organization makes imperative both the purity and the unity of the church.
The church that is conscious of being both an organism and an organization will be careful not to judge the hearts of men and will thus avoid extremes in discipline, but it will also be zealous for discipline with a view to keeping the church as pure as is humanly possible.
From the fact that the church is both an organism and an organization it follows, on the one hand, that its spiritual unity is a fact, but also, on the other hand, that it may never cease striving toward the ideal of organizational unity.
The truth that the church is an organization as well as an organism demands its organizational unity, not only on the congregational level, but also on the denominational level, and even on the universal level.
Because the church is at once an organism and an organization, it is supernatural without being unnatural, invisible but also visible, heavenly and therefore not of the world, yet for the present definitely not in the world.