Institutional Church Body
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29. Institutional Church Body

Church Disrobed

Cathedral InteriorChrist's corporate body is the church disrobed! The institutional church is not a part of Christ's Body but more like a heavy coat wrapped around a person. Like a garment, the institutional church has both good and bad qualities. It protects the body and keeps it warm in Winter, but it also restricts its movements because of its weight.

Authorized Religion

Household Faith SignThe institutional church's current model developed several centuries after Christ when Christianity emerged after Emperor Constantine the Great's (272-337 AD) religious freedom decree in February 313 AD. No doubt, Constantine was under the good influence of his Christian mother, Saint Helena (c246-c327 AD.) It produced religious freedom in the Roman Empire, and Christianity was now an authorized religion. As an institution in society, congregations developed in many neighborhoods modeled on the Jewish synagogue system. Ten households in the Synagogue gathered as a local worship group, meeting first in a member's house and then in a purpose-built worship place. Their purpose was to serve their Jewish community. So, the institutional church began and continues to this very day.

Living Stones

Christian development is like Christ's bodybuilding or erecting living stones one upon another. When purpose-built churches developed in the late Fourth Century AD, they were modeled not on Greek or Roman Temples or even Synagogues but on secular meeting halls or market places, called basilicas. Christians felt that they were the building blocks in Christ's body, the true church, and not stone or brick.

Secular Meeting Halls

Stone HouseThe Apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 2.5-10 in this regard, "you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." Like stones built one upon another in Christ's body, the house's structural parts share and transmit the roof's load. They shield those people inside from the storms of life. The Apostle Paul adds to this symbolism in Ephesians 2.19-22, "In him (Christ), the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. God is building you too together in him to become a dwelling in which God lives by the Spirit."

Christ the Corner Stone

StoneworkThe cornerstone was generally the largest stone foundation block. It set the building's lines and the windows, doors, and roof elevations and heights. The cornerstone was large enough to spread all the load from the walls to the underlying foundation. From this massive stone emanated all the lines and elevations in the structure formed by the artisan builder. Jesus was a "carpenter," but the Greek word used for "carpenter" actually can mean "artisan." An "artisan" in the Oxford US Dictionary is "a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand." Several scholars believe this indicates that Jesus worked in stone, wood, and other materials as a general builder. He would know all too well how to build a substantial house. The cornerstone in the Christian building was Jesus. Saint Paul wrote in Ephesians 2.19-20, "Consequently, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone."

Establish Building Lines

As a site engineer with a large building contractor in North West England, one of my jobs was to survey new sites and establish the building lines. It always began with locating the elevation and lines at one corner. Using a surveyor's theodolite, I would mark out the rest of the building, its level, and lines on survey posts and boards. Even a large construction required that it was perfectly square and level to 1/8" or 1/4".

Problem Building

Interestingly, I remember working on a new production facility for Squibb Pharmaceuticals on the coastline. It rested on sixty-foot steel piles in soft clay. Whenever the tide came in, it moved one to two inches in one direction then back when the tide went out. Our instruments could see this movement, but we could do nothing about it. The plant was perfectly safe, level and square - it just moved around a bit! It was a surveyor's nightmare.

Earthquake Fault

House FoundationIn Jewish villages and towns, a house's first few courses were large masonry blocks high enough so that the rainwater running down the street did not wash away the vulnerable clay brickwork above. Massive corners were also essential in an earthquake zone like Palestine. "The Jordan Rift Valley results from tectonic movements within the Dead Sea Transform (DSF) fault system forming the boundary between the African Plate and the Arabian Plate. The Golan Heights and all of Transjordan are part of the Arabian Plate. The Galilee, the Judean, and Samarian highlands (West Bank), the Coastal Plain, the Negev and the Sinai Peninsula are on the African Plate. This leads to a relatively high seismic activity in the region." Christ's substantial and robust building for Christians means they are locked together like stones in Christ's body. They are well able to take whatever earthquake-like forces society has to throw against them because of the Christ cornerstone. ✞

Dura-Europos Church

One of the earliest identified Christian house churches is "Dura-Europos" (or Dura-Europus) in Syria. The Dura-Europos Church was a typical domestic house converted for worship between 233 and 256 AD when the town was abandoned after conquest by the Persians. It was used as a Christian meeting place and later renovated as a church by third-century Christians. It is one of the earliest Christian buildings from 232 AD. The church structure's fate is unknown after the occupation by ISIS who may have destroyed it. Archeologists removed its famous frescos after discovering them to Yale University Art Gallery. A. E. Kraeling wrote in "Excavation at Dura Europos Final Report 8, Part 2: The Christian Building" (New Haven 1967), "The Dura-Europos church is little more than a modified house. Two rooms knocked together for the assembly, and another turned into a baptistery with a canopied font and elaborate wall paintings." The murals in full color showed the Samaritan woman at the well, the women at the tomb, Christ and Peter walking on water, the healing of the person with paralysis, and the Good Shepherd. The house was the ultimate in simplicity for Early Christians who needed no "god houses." Their rites were little more than a sacred meal, worship, and fellowship.

Temple Plus Synagogue

In the early days, Christians attended the Temple in Jerusalem and their local synagogues in outlying towns. They began to assemble in homes when excluded because of their "Jesus the Messiah" message. True Christianity does not need buildings. One of the significant problems with the Twenty-First Century institutional church is that many Christians are hopeless temple worshippers. My wife and I have attended large churches of 5,000 and 7,000 people in Houston, Texas, where there is no personal contact with the church leader. Yet, people still seem to fall in love even with modern buildings, music, and friendships in those places. It is even more challenging to stop this from happening with English Saxon and Norman churches and lofty cathedrals.

Christian Buildings

First Century ChristiansChristians and worshipers have come to rely more and more on material things, convincing ourselves that four walls and a roof make a church. We have forgotten that the church is the gathered Body of Christ. Spiritual stones and not material ones make up genuine Christian buildings. We are so addicted to facilities that we keep some going even though the Body of Christ has long since departed. An excellent example for me was when a nearby country church in Ontario, Canada, burned down. It was a terrible disaster for those whose families had attended for generations. The congregation responded by building a quarter-scale replica where worship occurs only once or twice a year! It is today just a shrine and not a church. The Early Church realized that worship palaces were secondary and temporary.

Called Apart People

Adam and Eve in the Garden of EdenThe called-apart people of God in the Mystical Body of Christ are God's new creation where he transforms disciples. From the dawning of time, God has possessed a people for himself. As the founding family, Adam and Eve lived in communion with God in Eden's Garden. They were the primary "called apart ones." When Joshua led the nation of Israel across the Jordan River, even though "a called apart people," it still did not flourish because of its sinfulness. God repeatedly warned the people through the prophets, but they refused to hear him. All this time, God was planning a new thing!

A New Thing

Shepherd of the SheepGod decided to come down in the person of Jesus and personally shepherd his people back to himself. From the root of Israel, the Body of Christ blossomed as a chosen people called apart to worship and obey the living God. We were all pre-planned! Almighty God speaks to the prophet in Jeremiah 1.5, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart. I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." The phrase "I knew you" may be translated as "I chose you." Isaiah repeats this sentiment in Isaiah 43.1, "But now, this is what the Lord says, "he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel, 'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have summoned you by name; you are mine." The early apostles and disciples become "a called apart people, known and special to God." ✞

Spiritual Body Temple

Church in LightThe spiritual body within Christians becomes Jesus Christ's dwelling place here on earth. Some church buildings and congregations flourish, and others pass away. Our church buildings are very different from the Early Church's. We inhabit luxuriously glazed and richly appointed worship palaces complete with air conditioning, plush carpets, and marble. On a visit to the Chrystal Cathedral, one observer noted more fountains and water here than any baptist church he had been in before! Massive injections of resources and energies are required every year to keep these churches going and satisfy their congregations.

A Living Thing

However, the genuine body of Christ is not fixed like a building but is a moving and breathing organism, a spiritual body. A physical structure may appear unchanging and inert, but it is swaying and shifting with temperature, wind, and other forces. The twelve hundred-foot high C. N. Tower in Toronto is an example of this as it sways in the gusts several feet from side to side as the concrete and steel stretch and contract. All buildings expand and contract, bend, and settle. Nothing is as immovable as we imagine. The institutional church draws its power, devotion, and spiritual resources from the spiritual body members couched within her. The institutional church, however, is not the same as the spiritual body.

Churches Pass Away

Malcolm MuggeridgeChurches pass away. Only the Mystical Body remains. The writer Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) writes in "Conversion." "All those churches raised and maintained God's name, from the tiniest, weirdest conventicle to the great cathedrals rising so sublimely into the sky, they are for the dead, and must themselves die, are, indeed, dying fast. They belong to time, you to eternity." The only things that last forever are the human soul and the Word of God.

Christ's Body Ministry

Lady and ChildChrist's body ministry bulges with leaders trained for denominational executive positions rather than Christians called to serve. Saint Paul explains how Christ's body ministry functions and what part each person takes. He writes in Ephesians 4.11-13, "So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors, and teachers, to equip his people for works of service. So that Christ's body develops until we all reach unity in the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of Christ's fullness." Unlike the Early Church, which trained up Christians by doing ministry in the body of Christ, the modern church educates degreed leaders for denominational executive positions in the institution. ✞

Ministry Stumbling Block

Most Christian denominations call for at least two university degrees, one of which should be a Bachelor's Degree and the other a Master's of Divinity degree or its equivalent. These have little real or practical relevance to "Christ's body ministry" and can be clogging up a ministry or be a stumbling block to God's work in the world. Many Christians who wish to develop their ministry in the home or the workplace separate off for ordination. What a tragedy!

Jesus' Spiritual Temple

John Hancock CenterJesus builds his spiritual temple not with concrete like the John Hancock Centre or the 1815 ft high C. N. Tower in Toronto but with living Christian stones. Jesus is the one strong foundation for his spiritual temple, the Body of Christ, and his people are the stones. The John Hancock Center towers eleven hundred and twenty-eight feet and a hundred stories above Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Fifty-eight reinforced concrete caissons below-ground support its weight, extending one hundred and forty-five feet to bedrock. The superstructure towers can be so high because their foundations are so strong. Jesus' Spiritual Temple is strongest when it trusts in Christ, the cornerstone, and the foundation. ✞

St Peter's Caverswall

St. Peters Church CaverswallDuring my Church Army training, they sent me to work at St Peter's Church in Caverswall. This ancient Saxon church stands in the village of Caverswall in the English Midlands. The Doomsday Book mentions this church in the Great Survey of England and Wales in 1086 AD by King William the Conqueror. In 1066 AD, Caverswall in the county of Staffordshire had 12 households, measured in heads of households, so the actual community size was likely to have been five times larger at about 60. It had a meadow of 6 acres, and the Lord of the Manor's name was Wolfgeat. Evil-looking stone gargoyles glared out over the north door of Caverswall church. Metal rings hung inside on whitewashed walls to tie horses and cows. In times of peril, great storms, or invasion, this building was the only secure stone shelter for men, women, children, and even cows and sheep in the village. It kept them warm, safe, and protected from danger but was extraordinarily bare and uncomplicated. Perhaps those early Christians looked beyond the chiseled stones and carved wood. Maybe they realized that Jesus' spiritual temple was not really in bricks and mortar but the hearts of his people. I like to think so!

Corporate Body of Christ

Household of FaithIn members' homes, Jesus' called apart church developed into Christ's corporate body in the fourth century. The larger institution absorbed its small worshipping groups. Unity and diversity still existed in the household of faith, but this church was still the corporate Body of Christ. We read in 1 Corinthians 12.12-14, "Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit to form one body, 'whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free," and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so, the body does not comprise one part but many." Here, we note that the phrase "baptized by one Spirit" means equally, "baptized with or in one Spirit."

Twenty-First Century

Saint Paul regarded it as a necessity that every Christian be part of the Body of Christ. In the Constantine era, the Christian church lost its household roots in the fourth century AD, moving out of homes to become more focused on worship buildings as in the synagogue model. In the New Testament writings, "church" invariably means a small local worshipping group of Christians rather than an institutional facility. In New Testament terms, it is merely a group "called apart" to worship the Lord. Though primarily absent from the New Testament church, the corporate Body of Christ still has a place in our church's organization in the Twenty-First Century. By scaling back on the church's institution, we can discover a new freshness and vigor in ministry based upon Christian homes.

"Institutional Church Body"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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