Institutional Church Body
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30. Institutional Church Body


Cathedral InteriorChrist's corporate body is the church disrobed! The institutional church is not a part of the Body of Christ but more like a heavy coat wrapped around that Body. 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 the body in its movements because of its weight.

Authorized Religion

Household Faith SignThe current model of the institutional church developed several centuries after Christ when Christianity emerged by the decree of Emperor Constantine the Great (272-337 AD) in February 313 AD. No doubt, Constantine was under the good influence of his Christian mother, Saint Helena (c246-c327 AD.) There is religious freedom in the Roman Empire, and Christianity is now an authorized religion. As an institution in society, a congregation develops in each neighborhood modeled on the Jewish synagogue system. Ten households in the Synagogue, gather as a local worship group meeting first in a member's house and then in a purpose-built worship place. Their purpose is to serve their community. So, the institutional church begins and continues in some areas to this very day. Christ's bodybuilding is the development of the Body of Christ of Christians built like living stones on one another. In the late Fourth Century AD, when purpose-built churches develop, they are modeled not on Greek or Roman Temples or even Synagogues but on secular meeting halls, or market places, called basilicas. Christians themselves feel that they are the building blocks in Christ's body, which was and is the true church and not a stone or brick building.

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 structural parts of a house 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. And in him, you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by the Spirit."

Christ the Corner Stone

StoneworkChrist's building has Jesus as the cornerstone, which is generally the largest solid foundation block. This cornerstone sets the lines of the building, and the windows doors and roof elevations and heights. The cornerstone is large enough to spread all the load from the walls to the underlying foundation without settling. From this massive stone emanates all lines and elevations in the structure formed by the artisan builder. Jesus was a "carpenter," but the Greek word used for "carpenter" actually can means "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 as well as wood and other materials as a general builder. He would know all too well how to build a substantial house.

Built On Other Christians

House FoundationSaint Paul writes 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." In Jewish villages and towns, a house's first few courses are large masonry blocks high enough so that the vulnerable clay brickwork above is not washed away by rainwater running down the street. Massive corners are also essential in an earthquake zone like Palestine. "The Jordan Rift Valley is the result of 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, while the Galilee, Judean, and Samarian highlands (West Bank), Coastal Plain, and the Negev along with the Sinai Peninsula are on the African Plate. This tectonic disposition leads to a relatively high seismic activity in the region." Such is Christ's substantial and robust building for Christians who are locked together like stones in the 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 very earliest stone church buildings still standing today is Dura-Europos (or Dura-Europus) in Syria. The Dura-Europos Church was used as a Christian meeting place and sometime later renovated as a church by third century Christians. It is one of the earliest surviving Christian buildings from 232 AD. A. E. Kraeling writes 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." It was the ultimate in simplicity for Early Christians need no "god houses." Their rites are little more than a sacred meal, worship, and fellowship. Initially, Christians attend both the Temple in Jerusalem and local synagogues in outlying towns. Still, when excluded from these because of their message about Jesus the Messiah, they began to assemble in homes. The truth is that true Christianity does not need buildings. One of the significant problems with the institutional church of the Twenty-First Century 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 with buildings, music, and friendships in those places.

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 gathered Body of Christ is the real Christian building made out of not material but spiritual stones. We are so addicted to buildings that we keep some going even though the Body of Christ has departed. An excellent example for me was when a nearby country church burned down. It was a terrible disaster, but the congregation responded by building a half-scale replica where worship occurs only once or twice a year. It is 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 the Garden of Eden. 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 warned the people, time, and again 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 decides 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 blossoms as a people who are chosen and called apart to worship and obey the living God. Almighty God tells us 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 who are 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. Every year, massive injections of resources and energies are required to keep them going and to satisfy their congregations. The genuine body of Christ, however, 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 wind several feet from side to side as the concrete and steel stretches and contracts. All buildings expand, contract, and settle. Nothing is quite as immovable as we imagine. The institutional church draws its power, devotion, and spiritual resources from the members of the spiritual body couched within her. The institutional church, however, is not the same as the spiritual body.

Churches Pass Away

Malcolm MuggeridgeChurches pass away, the Mystical Body only 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 the body of Christ 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 the fullness of Christ." 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. 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' spiritual temple is not built with concrete like the John Hancock Centre or the 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 above Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Fifty-eight reinforced concrete caissons hidden below ground support its weight, extending one hundred and forty-five feet to bedrock. The superstructure towers can so high because its foundations are so strong. Jesus' Spiritual Temple is strongest when it trusts totally in Christ, the cornerstone, and foundation.✞

St Peter's Caverswall

St. Peters Church CaverswallIn the English Midlands, stands the ancient Saxon church of Caverswall. The Doomsday Book, mentions this church in the record of 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 a population of 12 households, measured in heads of households, so the real community is likely 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 glare out over the north door of Caverswall church. Metal rings, where horses and cows were once tied, hang inside on whitewashed walls. 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 secure but was extraordinarily bare and simple. 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 Christ

Household of FaithThe called apart church of Jesus Christ in members' homes develops in the fourth century into the corporate body of Christ. The larger institution absorbs its small worshipping groups. Unity and diversity still exist in the household of faith, but this church is 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." We note here that the phrase "baptized by one Spirit" means equally, "baptized with or in one Spirit." The emphasis on "being baptized in one Spirit," Saint Paul regards as a necessity for every Christian, is widely neglected in the Church today. The Christian church lost its household roots in the fourth century AD in the Constantine era, moving out of homes to become more focused on worship buildings as in the synagogue model. The New Testament Greek word for "church" is "ecclesia." It translates the Hebrew word "kahal," which means "assembly." "Ecclesia" has two parts, "ek," meaning "out of," and "klesis," meaning "a calling." These words combine to make the "Church" "an assembly called apart to the Lord."

Twenty-First Century

In the New Testament writings, "church" invariably means a small local worshipping group of Christians rather than an institutional building. In New Testament terms, it is merely a group of people who are "called apart" to worship the Lord. The corporate Body of Christ though mostly absent from the New Testament church, 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 © 2019

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