Question: "What is the institutional church?"
Answer: An institution is an established public organization. The term institutional church refers to organized groups of professing Christians who meet in designated church buildings and follow prescribed schedules for weekly worship and teaching. Institutional churches often offer separate classes by age, such as nurseries for preschoolers and services for children and youth, in addition to regular weekly services. The typical weekly service usually includes corporate worship through music, giving of offerings, and receiving teaching from a pastor. Many institutional churches also offer Bible studies or other classes throughout the week. Some also encourage weekly meetings of small groups (community groups) in homes. An institutional church can be denominational, such as Baptist, Lutheran, or Methodist, or it may be non- or interdenominational, but all institutional churches are “established” in that they follow general patterns for organization and worship.
The word translated “church” in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklésia, which means “a called-out assembly.” It is used throughout the New Testament to refer to gatherings of Christian believers. Some complain that the institutional church does not resemble the ekklésia that Jesus had in mind when He said He would build His church (Matthew 16:18). According to some, traditional, institutionalized churches do not meet the need for intimate fellowship as described in the book of Acts (Acts 2:42–46). They cite the many references to “house churches” in Paul’s letters and believe that small, personal gatherings more closely fit the biblical model (Romans 16:5; Philemon 1:2; Colossians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 16:19). In short, they see the institutional church as a man-made creation that does not fulfill the purposes for which Jesus established His ekklésia.
Some Christians walk away from the institutional church in frustration to certain elements they find distasteful; others reject the very concept of institutional churches. The rituals and traditions that have accumulated in various institutional churches seem to them to stifle the real work of the Holy Spirit. Many people abandoning institutional churches have a real hunger for God and aren’t finding that need met in traditional ways. These Christians are not leaving the church so much as they are leaving a certain way of “doing church.”
Some who dislike the institutional church say that, in many cases, the worship they promote is a cold formality that looks nothing like the fiery passion evident in the New Testament. It’s true that many traditional churches have substituted religion for worship and inserted man-made elements that feel jarring to hearts intent upon meeting with God; however, it’s also true that many traditional churches practice heartfelt, sincere worship of God.
Whether a person is part of an institutional church or attends a house church, the biblical pattern for the church must be followed. That pattern includes the following aspects:
1. Pastor and/or elders. The presence of senior leadership has been a part of church gatherings since the beginning. Leadership began with the apostles, who appointed qualified men to be pastors as the church grew. These leaders were never self-appointed or randomly selected. It took more than simply aspiring to the office to become a pastor. Strict guidelines had to be met for anyone desiring the office of elder or deacon. First Timothy 3:1–15 details the qualities required for those in spiritual leadership. In Acts 20:28, Paul exhorted the elders at Ephesus to “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Hebrews 13:17 charges Christians to honor spiritual authorities “because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” And 1 Timothy 5:17 states that elders/pastors who are faithful are worthy of double honor.
2. Corporate worship. Consistently throughout the Old Testament, God called His people to come before Him as a group (Exodus 33:10; 2 Kings 10:18; Deuteronomy 31:12). God still desires His people to come together as one and lift up their voices and hearts to call upon His name. The New Testament contains no evidence that obedient Christians ever decided they “didn’t like church” and refused to participate.
3. Stewardship. A few years after the church began, churches in one city were communicating and sending support to churches in other cities (2 Corinthians 8—9; Acts 11:30). When Paul or his representatives visited a church, the congregation gave the funds they had collected to help meet the needs of brothers and sisters in other regions. By pooling finances and manpower, churches are capable of doing much good in the world.
Members of an institutional church should make sure they are following a biblical pastor, worshiping together in spirit and in truth, and practicing good stewardship of the church’s resources. They should be active participants in the ministry of the church, both to other members of the church as well as in outreach to non-believers. The same can be said for members of a house church. What we should not do is drop out of the church or pull away from the Body of Christ.