I come from a tradition that is all about restoring the New Testament church. For this very reason, we like to call ourselves the Restoration Movement. The movement came out of a desire to strip away all of the muck that built up around denominations over the years, and to simply try to be like the church was in the New Testament. Its a great concept, but as I sat in my church history class last week, it occurred to me that it is the wrong one.
The very nature of the church is not the form it takes, but the function it has. At its elemental level, the church is completely organic and without form. It exists for the sake of it’s purpose, not for the sake of its institution. It is a continuation of the work that Jesus started, and it’s function is to teach people what it means to follow Jesus and live within the Kingdom of God. As Lee Camp said, in yet another quote from Mere Discipleship: Typically, many interpret Acts 2 as an account of the “birth” of “the church,” a fair enough interpretation to a great extent. But the assembly of people described there only continues the story of Jesus’ ministry.
This does not mean that the church should be without form, but it does mean that the form the church takes is for the purpose of continuing it’s function in whatever cultural setting it is in. We very much see that, in the first few chapters of Acts, the church was about the relationships that people had, and the apostles passing along what Jesus had taught. However, in Acts 6, we see the church formalizing for the first time. There was a problem with the way food was being distributed. The apostles new that there was more going on than they could care for, so they formally appointed people to care for this issue.
This is the first instance of the church creating structure, and it was in response to what the church was facing within the culture. As history goes on, we see that everytime the church institutes different forms, they are in response to what is happening around the church. In order to respond to heresy, bishops were appointed to designate who truly carried on the work of the apostles. The canon of the Scriptures was formed because heretics were trying to say other books had equal authority.
What does this mean for us today? Is it wrong for the church to exist as an institution? Should the church only exist as underground cell groups. Absolutely not, although that is one way it can exist as well. The church began to form itself to help it pursue it’s mission from the very start. However, we must always remember that any forming that the church does is so that it can best pursue the mission and function of the church within the culture it is in.
I find great freedom in this. Rather than critique how others do church, let’s just evaluate ourselves. Let deeply look at how we do things today that are a result of forms the church has taken, and not a result of us wanting to BE the church in our culture. Lets continue to look at how we can restore what it means to be a follower of Jesus today, and how we can assemble together in pursuit of that.