the weblog of Alan Knox

Examining the differences between simple church and institutional church

Posted by on Apr 7, 2011 in definition | 67 comments

In this post, I’m going to examine some of the differences between modern, traditional, institutional churches and simple/organic churches. If you are looking for a rant against or a condemnation of institutional churches, then this is not it. Those who have read my blog for a while know that I prefer more simple, more organic church.

This post is primarily for those who are part of institutional churches. Many have been told of the dangers of simple or organic church, but no one has explained the main differences between simple church and institutional church.

To begin with, I need to describe what I mean by simple or organic church. A simple or organic church is a group of brothers and sisters in Christ who attempt to live together as family in the way that they understand the church is described and taught in the New Testament. [A house church, on the other hand, is a group of believers who meet in a home. A house church can be more simple/organic or it can be more traditional/institutional.]

Now, we must remember that no group of believers is purely simple/organic just as no group of believers is purely institutional. Instead, it is more like a gradient or spectrum, with some groups being more simple/organic while more groups are more institutional. So, my description will be generalizations by necessity.

Any group of believers (or any group of people, for that matter) will naturally contain a certain amount of organization. Even when two friends meet for a cup of coffee, organization is involved: where to meet, what time to meet, etc. But, on the spectrum, simple/organic churches will include much less organization than institutional churches. Plus, the organization of simple/organic churches will tend to be more fluid and flexible than the organization in institutional churches. Finally, any organization among simple/organic churches depends upon the people involved, while the organization among institutional churches is often implemented apart from the people involved.

Simple/organic churches tend to depend upon God using all believers, while institutional churches tend to rely more on God working through a special subset of the church (leaders, ministers, clergy, etc.). A lesser dependence on leadership have led some to state that simple/organic churches do not have leaders, but this is not the case. There will be leaders among any group of believers, whether those people are specifically singled out or given special titles or static or not. Similarly, it is also not true that institutional churches only depend on the work of leaders. However, simple churches tend to rely on the whole body more than institutional churches, while institutional churches tend to rely on the work of special leaders more than simple churches.

When it comes to serving, the more institutional the church, the more likely that service will be accomplished through certain static programs. More simple churches will be more likely to serve in more dynamic fashion as opportunities present themselves. This does not mean that simple churches do not work through programs, but instead it means that those programs typically only last as long as the service is needed. Similarly, this does not mean that institutional churches cannot meet new service opportunities. However, the new opportunities tend to be placed within existing program structures.

From these differences, it is easy to see that the framework (or support structure) for simple churches will be much different from institutional churches. Institutional churches require certain amount of money, staff, and other resources to support their organizations, leadership, and programs. Simple churches, on the other hand, will typically not need to set aside as much money, staff, and other resources for support. Simple churches will require a certain amount of support, but not as much as institutional churches.

As far as I can tell, these are the major differences between simple/organic churches and institutional churches. Obviously, these differences will present themselves in different ways. For example, when the church studies Scripture, that study will look different depending on whether the church is relying on leadership for that study or whether the church as a whole is taking part in the study. Again, all churches desire to care for those in need, but that care will look different in institutional churches working through programs than it looks in simple/organic churches which do not work through programs.

I would love to know what you think of my descriptions. Do you think they are fair or not? Why or why not?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 4-7-2011


    I think that is a fair synopsis. You’ve touched on some key differences. The first issue really, regardless of our preferences, is to “not give up meeting together” (Heb. 10:25). There are many ways to do that; it doesn’t have to be one way only as opposed to another, and I think we would all be wise to remember that.

    I’ve enjoyed following your thoughts on this. Blessings.


  2. 4-7-2011

    Generally speaking, the simple church side of the spectrum tends to integrate children, singles and the elderly into the time together, where the institutional church side tends to separate the family during the “worship/preaching” time, and separates teaching times (Sunday school) through age grading, marital status, etc.

    Likewise, simple church rarely requires permission and supervision of ministry, where the institutional church tends toward tight control ministry opportunities, especially any new ministry that a member or members want to take on.

  3. 4-7-2011

    A few others that tie into what you are saying is that the insitutional church has a passive audience where the senior pastor (minister) is the leader and the organic church has all the people participate and the shepherds are plural.

    Also, the leadership in an insitutional church is set up as a hierarchy similar to how government and corporations are set up and there is no hierarchy in the organic style church (all equal within the Body of Christ)

    and last.. an institutional church is unified a round a set of customes or doctrines (rules) and the organic church is unified in Christ alone.

    I personally have always simply defined “institutional church” as any form of church that man tries to set up in an effort to create what God has already created.

    I see the organic form of church as where The Body of Christ just IS.

    Just my theological 2 cents 🙂

  4. 4-7-2011

    I think it is important to point out the differences between House Church and Organic Church:

    Here are a few: House Church is usually a shrinking of and a change of venue of the traditional/institutional church, you will typically find a central leader other than Christ who does the vast majority of the teaching and talking, I’ve even seen/attended examples were there is a pulpit and the “chairs” are arranged like traditional pews set up in rows and all facing towards the central leader/public speaker whose primary function is to reinforce the doctrinal distinctives or pet issues that the group finds its unity in and rallies around. Usually the decision making is also done by the central leader or a very small number of the group instead of by consensus.

    I love and fellowship with my brethren from traditional, house, hybrid and organic assembles, I just think it important to point out that house church is not the same as organic church. 🙂

  5. 4-7-2011

    Something else I have noticed that really impacts the way institutional churches function versus simple churches is that institutional churches, by design, are a blend of believers and unbelievers. The simpler churches I have been to tend to be mostly or entirely made up of professing believers. The blending means that many institutional church gatherings are trying to do two things simultaneously and that is pretty hard to do. Not that having unbelievers in our gatherings is inherently a bad thing but the mindset is different, on the institutional side inviting unbelievers to “come to church” to hear the Gospel versus the church gathering to be equipped to take the Gospel to unbelievers.

  6. 4-7-2011

    From a visitors perspective, you pretty much know what to expect when you walk into an institutional church. When visiting an organic church, it’s kind of a toss-up for a few reasons.

    First, “organic church” is not a term with a standard definition, so there isn’t really a “typical” gathering like you might experience in a Baptist church or a non-denominational community church. Second, many organic churches won’t explicitly define an agenda or the expected outcomes for a given meeting, so visitors are subjected to the direction of the Holy Spirit, or the whims of a leader or charismatic attendee.

  7. 4-7-2011


    Yes. It is important for believers to get together with one another. While one way of gathering may be more beneficial than another, we need to remember the purpose of gathering together and encourage that.


    I think the distinction between children/no children and controlling who speak relates to the purpose of meeting together. I’ve known of simple churches who have the same type of meetings as institutional churches, and vice versa. But, I think you’re right. The tendency is there.


    The leadership issues that you raise are outcomes of the second difference that I mentioned: Relying on God to work through a special subset of the church (i.e. leaders).


    Yes, I think “house church” generally means something a little different than “simple church” or “organic church,” which, as far as I can tell, are used interchangeably.


    Like Will’s comment, I think yours demonstrates differences in the purpose of meeting together. I’m still trying to decide if this is a difference between simple church and institutional church, or simply a difference in understanding why the church meets together. However, I agree that the tendency is there.


    Yes, again your comment is about how churches meet together. Since so many people brought that up, perhaps it is a difference. I’m still thinking though that part.


  8. 4-7-2011


    I think you did a fine job of simplifying the differences. If I could dwindle it down to just one difference it would be total and continual reliance on the outworking of life from Christ (organic) or initial and occasional reliance on biblical principles to build and tweak a system that works the way we think Christ wants it to (institutional).

  9. 4-7-2011

    Re: “house church” vs organic or simple church – This is simply my personal experience (not necessarily the facts, but how I experienced these names).

    When I first started meeting that way in 1974-6 (on Okinawa, Japan, and later in Oscoda, Michigan), we didn’t call it any of these names. Around that time, the book “The Early Church” by Gene Edwards was published. Many started describing ourselves as house church (responding to the old problem of “where do you go to church?” Heb 10:24-25 was also the “holy grail” verse in those days.

    Over the next 25 years, “House church” became, to a large extent, a rallying place for people wounded by and objecting to authoritarian leadership (lots of discipleship movements, the early charismatic movement, etc. were directed by “leaders” wrecking a certain amount of havoc). There were a lot of people angry about “the IC” (Institutional Church), and anyone remaining in the “unclean thing.”

    By the mid 90’s, Frank Viola, who was just another brother on the HCDL (House Church Discussion List) identified 11 streams of house church. Some were too IC-like. Some restrained women from participation. Some had various theological perspectives. Some were more, or less, sensitive to God’s leading and presence. Etc.

    The “organic” name came up in the 90’s to distinguish from the “angry-reactionary” reputation of what most then called house church. I think Frank’s writings helped spread that term. The focus there was on the church being a family, on it being “natural” if given time to develop under God. On it not being forced and artificial.

    The “simple” name is most recent, and I think was spread largely by the adoption of the SBC in some of their mission agencies and books. It was more looking at the house/organic church model as simplifying the complex structures and processes of doing church the traditional way.

    As I say, these might not be “the truth” but they are how I’ve experienced this movement and the terms over the past 37 years.

  10. 4-7-2011

    I may be wrong, but I think T. Austin Sparks first coined the term “Organic Church”.

  11. 4-7-2011


    I don’t think our brothers and sisters who are part of institutional churches would agree that they have “occasional reliance on biblical principles to build and tweak a system.” Instead, like you say at the end of that phrase, they would say the church is institutional because it is the way “Christ wants it.”


    Thanks for the historical background. That is a good addendum to this post. I haven’t seen “simple church” used in the SBC that much, except for a book by that title which has nothing to do with the way I use “simple church” here.


    I’ve also heard that Sparks used the term “organic church.” I don’t know who coined it though.


  12. 4-7-2011

    Seems like the differences you mention (in my experience) are valid, but not really the point of meeting outside the institutional church. These seem to me to be the results of meeting organically.

    I meet in an organic church to know Christ more fully, to see Him expressed by and through a corporate body, and to mature in living by His indwelling life together within a loving community. The results of this (if it is done in a healthy way) play out in the things you mention, as well as every member functioning equally, each beholding Him and revealing Him to the body. When God is given room to build His spiritual temple/dwelling in us (the temple is corporate), these other things tend to flow out of it.

  13. 4-7-2011


    I again appreciate your insight into the ekklesia and certain terms.
    I have come to realize how different names can have different meanings in the organic/simple and house church. Just as different denominations have differing ways in the I/C.
    After reading your post, I would say that our little group could be classified as organic/simple that meets in a house.
    We only have about 5-6 of us in a given meeting not including our 4 children. Yet we have so much fun expoloring the bible without a set agenda each week.
    We greet, eat and meet. Lord’s full supper every Saturday.

    We are just one of many groups that meet in a house in our city. Again as you stated in your post some of those groups are just a small scale version of the I/C who wanted to meet in a smaller setting.
    Plus I know of a group in a nearby city that don’t allow the women to speak and they also wear head coverings.
    The one thing we all have in common though is we love the Lord and we occasionally visit with each other without division.


  14. 4-7-2011


    Thanks for the comment. If you don’t mind, let me ask a question based on your comment. Why do you find that you are able to “know Christ more fully, to see Him expressed by and through a corporate body, and to mature in living by His indwelling life within a loving community” in a simple church as opposed to an institutional church? Could some of the differences that I mentioned above be the reasons that you find those things more possible in a simple church? (And, by the way, some would say they are possible (and even more possible) in institutional churches.)


  15. 4-7-2011

    I think the Church is a lot like energy in that it cannot be created or destroyed. The idea of “Organic” (I don’t care for this word because according to Wikipedia organic matter = matter that has come from a once-living organism, is capable of decay or the product of decay, or is composed of organic compound.) form could therefore be compared to, for example, energy in the form of nuclear fission in that it is highly efficient, because once it was set in motion it is using its energy to perpetuate itself, forever chain reacting and growing.

    “Institutional” could be compared to a device that harnesses/harvests/captures energy and stores it, then transforms/converts it to propel the machine that controls how, how much, and where to do its work. The problem with this process is that it is energy inefficient and is losing/wasting energy in the form of heat during conversion, i.e. corporate entropy (red-tape, waste)

    The, Christ as it’s head, “organic”(?) Church, will/can never be destroyed.

    The church as we see it in its “institutional” form most definitely initially receives its energy from the organic to produce it’s matter, but this ‘matter’ that was created from the energy can be destroyed and converted back to energy. However, some energy will inevitably forever be lost to heat(burn-out?), never to be regained and used again. Yes, the institutional church can be: shut down…lights out…doors locked…destroyed, very similar to our federal government. 🙂

    This is just my odd way of thinking through things though…sorry. After I post comments and re-read them I usually want to delete them. 🙂

  16. 4-7-2011

    “A simple or organic church is a group of brothers and sisters in Christ who attempt to live together as family in the way that they understand the church is described and taught in the New Testament.” – That is to say that the “institutional Church” does not do this. If this is what makes the “simple Church” what it is apart from the “institutional Church”, it means the “institutional Church” does not consider itself a family of brothers and sisters modeled after what the New Testament teaches.

    “Finally, any organization among simple/organic churches depends upon the people involved, while the organization among institutional churches is often implemented apart from the people involved.” So the “simple” Church is together, the “institutional” Church is apart from the people.

    “Simple/organic churches tend to depend upon God using all believers, while institutional churches tend to rely more on God working through a special subset of the church (leaders, ministers, clergy, etc.).” – Thus the “institutional” Church squelches the spirit by its established “hierarchy” (another yucky word in American Christianity), but the “simple” Church just lets God do what He can.

    “When it comes to serving, the more institutional the church, the more likely that service will be accomplished through certain static programs.” – If that’s not loaded language, I don’t know what is. Static?

    Notice your two “similarly…however” statements. Anything you say that could be remotely positive (and even then, it’s guarded) is met with a “however.”

    Words used to describe the “institutional Church” in both your post and comments: “institutional”, static, “apart”, separates, “tight control”, passive audience, “similar to corporations” (because those existed when the Church was formed…), “doctrines and customs” (ewww – who wants those?!), “man…create[d]”, “central leader other than Christ”, “doctrinal distinctives and pet issues” (a very charitable way to discuss the importance of right belief), “occasional reliance on biblical principles”, a “system”.

    Words used to describe the “simple Church” in both your post and comments: fluid, flexible, dynamic, integrates, “all the people participate”, “reliance on Christ”.

    I wholeheartedly reject the phrase “institutional Church” for its obviously negative connotations. I can’t believe that any of you think this is a fair, charitable description of the historical (what you call ‘institutional’) Church.


  17. 4-7-2011

    Hi Josh,

    I appreciate your passion for God’s people. I wonder if your passion extends to the model?

    Are there any forms of the church you find troubling?

  18. 4-7-2011

    Art: I’m not sure what you mean about passion extending to the model. I’m passionate about the whole Church, if that’s what you’re asking.

    I’m not necessarily troubled by any ecclesial communities. I hope people who are seeking continue to look back through history and read the Bible in the context of the community in which it was written and in which it was canonized.


  19. 4-7-2011


    That’s an interesting analogy. I’ll have to think more about it. I agree that the church will never be destroyed. Specific groups of believers my cease to interact with one another and church organizations by disband, but the church will never cease to exist.


    I did not use some of the terms in your list. I also did not come up with the terms “simple/organic” or “institutional.” Those terms are used and championed by people at each end of the spectrum, and for their own “type” of church. So, I’m comfortable using those terms. I did not intend my four differences (organization, reliance on leadership, programs, and support structure) to be pros or cons, but descriptions. Obviously, as you know and have pointed out, we all have biases. I’ve stated my bias: I prefer that churches fell on the simple/organic end of the spectrum.


  20. 4-7-2011


    Your comment got caught by the spam filter for some reason. That’s been happening to my comments on some WordPress based sites as well.

    I think your last statement is very important. Whether we prefer institutional churches or simple/organic churches, we must learn to seek fellowship with one another in spite of our differences.


  21. 4-7-2011

    Alan: Those were words used in your post and in the comments section of the post. I didn’t say they were all used by you. You are, of course, only accountable for the language you used.

  22. 4-7-2011


    Thanks. Since you’re part of the Roman Catholic Church, do you not find it on the side of the spectrum that is more organized, with more reliance on special leaders, more likely to work through existing programs, and more support structures?


  23. 4-8-2011

    Alan: I don’t use “Roman Catholic Church” as it’s nomenclature invented by Anglicans to support the branch theory of the Church. I’m simply Catholic. Am I in communion with Rome? Of course. I wouldn’t abandon the chair of Peter.

    It’s organized, of course. Do we ever see the Bible promoting disorganization? God all throughout the Bible organizes folks to do His work. We rely on the entire body of Christ. Does God call some out to do various things? Well of course He does. He did this in the Hebrew Bible, Christ did this with His own Apostles, etc. As far as “existing programs” – well, we can’t work through non-existent ones. If some new “program” needs to come along, it will.

  24. 4-8-2011


    Exactly. Like I said, the terms were not intended pejoratively. You’ve shown that someone who is part of a more institutional church recognizes the distinctions that I’ve made. And, you recognize them in a positive sense. That doesn’t mean that others will agree that they are positive, but they are positive to you and to others.


  25. 4-8-2011

    I do not agree with all the distinctions you’ve made, nor the emphasis put on the distinctions, as I noted above.


  26. 4-8-2011


    I understand that you don’t agree with the distinctions that I made.


  27. 4-11-2011

    Thought this brief document might be useful:

    The Organic Church




  28. 4-11-2011


    Thanks for linking to this document. It would be interested to see our how brothers and sisters who are part of institutional churches would react to the “seven characteristics”.


  29. 4-11-2011

    Although I already know that this idea will most likely be scoffed at here, I have been increasingly brought to the unavoidable and sobering conclusion that all the core elements of “institutionalism”, i.e., things like hiearchical rule, an elite leadership, emphasis on ritual, relying on the existance of an external organization, etc., etc., all trace back to the same, occult source, and ultimately back to the Babylonian Mystery Religions…

    This is essentially why “institutionalism” is at odds with living in a relationship with the True Christ both as individuals and as the Body as a whole.

    This is a great video series which carefully traces the full historical progression of what I have just mentioned:

  30. 4-11-2011


    “Although I already know that this idea will most likely be scoffed at here…”

    Why do you say that? Do you think your position is scoff-worthy?

    “and ultimately back to the Babylonian Mystery Religions.”

    You think an organized hierarchy is Babylonian in nature? Leaders are Babylonian? Didn’t God establish a hierarchy in the Old Testament? Weren’t the Levites called out for special purposes? Didn’t Korah raise similar objections to the ones you’re raising?

    Likewise, why “Babylonian”? This wouldn’t have anything to do with Hislop’s work, would it?

  31. 4-11-2011

    Daniel and Josh,

    Babylon? I don’t think I’ve ever heard Babylon suggested as the source of organization and hierarchy in the church. I’ve heard people say that source was God using the OT as example (as Josh has done here), or say that the source was Roman culture with the OT system as justification. Have you written or read anything else about Babylon as the source?


  32. 4-11-2011


    Are you unfamiliar with Alexander Hislop’s book?

  33. 4-11-2011


    I’ve heard of it now. Thanks.


  34. 4-11-2011

    The video I linked to would provide a far better response to any of the questions you raised than I could venture to come up with in any blog comment. But simply put, in order to understand what I am even infering here, it must begin with coming to an understanding that everything that comes out of the occult realm is not ultimately of human origin. The video series does an excellent job of tracing the progression of the “Mysteries” (which is nothing other than the worship of demonic entities which have been worshipped since Nimrod established the first Babylonian Empire, and been passed down throughout all of history under and almost countless number of different names). These videos serve as a veritable “Mystery Babylon 101”. In it, you will learn how “Babylon” is not primarily regarded as simply a human kingdom, or a government, but simply the core of what lies behind every false religion, every occult society, every form of paganism, and every false representation of true Christianit throughout history…

  35. 4-11-2011

    Oh, one last tidbit…

    Alan you said, “I’ve heard people say… … that the source was Roman culture with the OT system as justification.”

    But then that would beg the question, where did Roman culture learn hiearchy from? Where did things like Emperor worship, or their pantheon of “gods” come from? Again, the video series does a fantastic job of addressing all these questions and much more…

  36. 4-11-2011


    Thanks. Somehow I missed the video link the first time I read your comment. I’ll try to watch it tomorrow.


  37. 4-12-2011

    Here’s a question I’ve been thinking about today and I figure I’d post it here: At what point does someone who visits your meeting become part of the covenant community? How many times does one have to show up to be ‘part of the group’? Likewise, what happens when that person leaves? What sorts of things do organic/house/whatever churches do when people stop showing up?

  38. 4-12-2011


    I can’t answer for all who prefer more a more simple church. Anyone who professes Christ is welcome in our community. This week, a couple met with us for the fist time, and immediately began taking part. If God accepts them, then we do also. Of course, it’s up to each person / family to decide how much they want to share their lives with others. If someone decides that they no longer want to be part of the community, then we first try to understand why. If there are problems, we want to address those problems together. If not, we try to help them find another group of believers.

    Remember, that our concern is not who “shows up.” Someone can “show up” and not be part of a community or not fellowship with us. Our desire is to fellowship with one another, because, as John said, our fellowship with one another is indeed fellowship with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ.


  39. 4-12-2011


    How do you know whether God accepts someone? What if someone just ‘showed up’ but wasn’t part of the community in a way that you think is appropriate?

  40. 4-12-2011


    Of course, we cannot know (with certainty) if God has accepted someone. We accept people based on their profession, and then we learn what God is (or isn’t) doing in their lives when we share our lives together. We all need discipling, so we seek to help one another grow in Christ. Whether I think something is appropriate or not is beside the point. If someone refuses to repent of sin or seeks to be divisive or teaches contrary to the gospel, then we stop fellowshiping with them.


  41. 4-12-2011


    Not to be a gadfly, but how do you know if someone’s teaching is against the Gospel? Couldn’t it be the community who is wrong and not the individual?

  42. 4-12-2011


    Either a community or an individual can teach contrary to the gospel. I think we see evidences of that in history. I also think that in every case, the individual or community strayed from what is taught in Scripture. Plus, the Holy Spirit is always present to help those who are his recognize the truth of the gospel. (And, if the Holy Spirit isn’t present, then the group isn’t a church and the individual isn’t a child of God anyway.)


  43. 4-12-2011


    Since you mention Scripture: I’ve brought up the issue of canon a few times on here. I’d still be interested to see someone write a post or a response on just how organic churches would propose to establish a canon if they had to do so today. I think it would be impossible.

    What if two communities of organic churches disagree? What if “the Gospel” to one group is something entirely different to another? Does either (or neither) group have the Holy Spirit? Do you believe that the majority of Christians who have ever lived lacked the Holy Spirit because they believed the Body and the Head taught them differently than you and your group believe? Or does the Holy Spirit generate competing theologies in various communities?

    Thanks for helping me to understand the organic church movement.

  44. 4-12-2011


    When do you think the Canon came into existence?

    Did you know that simple churches get together with other simple churches often?


  45. 4-12-2011

    The use of Scripture throughout the worship of the earliest Christians is evident. We could reproduce the entire Bible without a few verses from the first 300 years of Patristic quotes. However, a set, established canon wasn’t created until the late 4th century. There was obviously an idea of the contours of the canon, especially by the mid-4th century (Athanasius’ 367 Festal Letter is evidence of this). Pope Damasus’ canon was set in 382 and later affirmed in Carthage in 397. Jerome’s vulgate came about in 405.

    The interrelation of Liturgy and Canon is important, I think, in studying the canon. The liturgy shaped the canon and thus, if I can steal Scott Hahn’s words, is the privileged locus of Biblical interpretation (see his essay “Canon, Cult, and Covenant” in Zondervan’s “Canon and Biblical Interpretation”). So, that’s why I’m interested in what you think about organic churches today trying to decide on a Bible. I think it’s impossible without a central authority. Yes, Jesus is the head of the Church, the authority, but if you have 60 organic Churches all saying Jesus told them 60 different things about the canon, to whom can you appeal?

    Undoubtedly simple churches get together, which is why I ask my questions. If a variety of simple churches all preach a different gospel, how do you know which ones are preaching the right one? If you appeal to your community’s exegesis of Scripture, so will they.

    Also, I’ll ask my questions again: What if two simple communities disagree? Do you believe that the majority of Christians who have ever lived lacked the Holy Spirit on the basis of the fact that they believed radically different things than you? Do you believe that the Holy Spirit generates competing theologies within various communities?

  46. 4-12-2011


    I agree that Christians (individuals and groups) have been using Scripture since it was written. (Although, as we see today, different groups accepts different writings as Scripture.) I think we would still be using Scripture today even if the Church councils had not “established a canon.” By the way, you do know that there was disagreement even about that established canon, right?

    I also agree that Jesus is the head of his church. Just as the authors of Scripture encouraged their readers to seek unity in Christ and direction from Christ, I think the church can still do this today. 60 organic churches can come to unity in Christ just as 300 bishops can.

    If two simple communities disagree, then I hope they would all turn to Christ and allow him to move in their midst. He is their head; he is present; he is able; and he does this all the time when we allow him.

    Do I believe that the majority of Christians who ever lived lacked the Holy Spirit? Of course not. Most competing theologies have less to do with the Holy Spirit than the concerns and preferences of the people involved.

    If we agree that Jesus Christ is the son of God; that he was human; that he died, was buried, was raised on the third day, and ascended to the right of God; that he indwells his children through his Spirit; that our salvation is based on God’s gift through our trust in him; if we agree on these things, then we agree on the gospel. If we allow other things to separate us (not if we disagree), then we are not living as God’s children (following the Holy Spirit) should live.


  47. 4-12-2011


    Thanks, but I don’t think you touched my questions at all. No doubt you would have some Scripture, but which ones? How would organic communities decide if Hebrews is canonical? Or the Didache? Or the Gospel of Truth? Also, imagine if the organic church had existed in the 4th (or earlier) centuries – what sort of canon could they have created?

    Do any simple churches you know of follow the 4th century canon and not Luther’s?

    If the Holy Spirit has been present in those historical Christians and those historical Christians have held beliefs that disagree in major ways with the organic church movement, then it looks as though we have two options: 1) the Holy Spirit creates competing theologies in different communities. He tells one group that they should have Bishops, priests, the Eucharist, liturgy, and another that they should have none of that…or 2) The Holy Spirit isn’t really behind one of those groups. If you can think of a third option, I’m all ears.

  48. 4-12-2011

    Just to clear things up a bit I thought I’d add a little helpful commentary.

    The early church functioned quite well without canons or rifles, but they did have a pretty sharp sword. (Heb. 4:12)

    Enjoying the discussion.

  49. 4-12-2011


    4th century canon? Or 3rd century canon? Or 2nd century canon? Or what about 5th century canon. How would communities today (whether simple or not) determine if a writing in Scripture? The same way they did then. Why could God not help us understand like he did for them?

    Obviously there is a 3rd option. The Holy Spirit is guiding all of his children (and group of his children), and we all hear and following imperfectly.


    Yes, that sharp sword is perfectly capable of leading his church today just as he did before the canon was established.


  50. 4-13-2011


    “60 organic churches can come to unity in Christ just as 300 bishops can”

    The flip side is true and 300 bishops can be agreed and still be in error just as easily as 60 organic groups.

  51. 4-13-2011


    You have once again avoided my questions.

    “The same way they did then”? Considering the canon was born out of liturgy (which you reject) and canonized by the decision of Bishops and ultimately the Roman Bishop (whom you reject), then what apparatus is there for the organic communities to come together and do this? It seems to me there is none. It would be too structured. My question about Luther is pertinent here. Have simple communities made any sort of declaration on the canon? Do you know any who use anything other than Luther’s version? If not, why not? Has the Holy Spirit told one community one thing and a second community something entirely different? Is 1 Maccabees (for example) Scripture (as has been believed since the early Church) or isn’t it? I would hope the simple community has answers to such questions.

    I’ve never doubted the ability of the Holy Spirit to lead God’s covenant community. I’m a Catholic, so I see a historical continuity from Adam to my time. I cannot see how a group that is not the historical Church can say the same thing. My question is not “Does God lead His Church?” but “Which Church does God lead?”.

    So if the Spirit was working with the Bishops of the early Church (I think you have Nicea and the later councils that dealt with the canon confused – I’m not sure where you’re getting 300 other than Nicea), does the Spirit not continue to do so today in that very same community? If so, how does this account for the fact that the simple community is very different from this historical Church? If not, when did the Spirit stop working in that community? Where is the Scriptural basis for the belief that such a thing can even happen?

    Concerning your statement about 60 organic communities vs. 300 Bishops: I was unaware 60 organic communities have ever come together and made theologically normative declarations that they believed to be binding on all the faithful. The Bishops of the Church are held together as a single community with a Creed. Are organic communities held together by more than “Jesus is Lord”? Saying “Jesus is Lord” is great, but there are a lot of Jesuses out there and a lot of ideas about what it means to be “Lord.”

    I think your third way is a pretty dire option for the “pillar and foundation of truth.” If everyone is just in error and there’s no way to figure it out other than each man appealing to his inner testimony that the Spirit has said X or Y to him (which sounds pretty LDS, if you ask me), then we’re in pretty bad shape and the Spirit has not led us to all truth as Christ promised (Jn 16.13).

    Maybe I’m over-simplifying here, but in my idea of “Church”, the Spirit continues to lead the singular covenant community which Christ Himself began to the truths (and Truth) promised to it. Under yours, who knows? Maybe the Spirit was at work here or not. Maybe the Spirit leads us to believe “This is my body” and maybe He leads us to think otherwise. That seems like no option at all.

    I think the simple/organic movement has a lot going for it when it comes to building up communities. I do not think such a radical divorce from historical Christianity is necessary.

    How do you determine if someone is in error?

  52. 4-13-2011


    You know that we approach Scripture from a different interpretive basis. Your statement that “the canon was born out of liturgy” is meaningless to me. You see it as being very important; I see it as anachronistic. Your other questions reflect your interpretive basis; not mine. Of course a group of simple churches would not attempt to “come together and [make] theologically normative declarations that they believed to be binding on all the faithful.” They would not want to do that because they would not feel it is any person’s or group’s responsibility. The question “Which Church does God lead?” is the wrong question. The church is God’s church. Period. He leads it as he sees fit. We do not always obey. That is also clear from Scripture and history.

    I do not know what books all simple churches accept as Scripture. I’m sure that if I’m wrong about which books are inspired, that God can still teach me from I believe to be his Scriptures, just as he did before “the canon was established.” Do you believe that God can teach you or “The Church” that you or they may have been wrong about something?


  53. 4-13-2011

    I don’t see how the statement can be meaningless since it corresponds to the historical reality of the development of the canon. If we’re not speaking about reality, what’s the point? So yeah, of course I see it as important that what we say corresponds to historical realities.

    Anachronistic? You think the early Church didn’t have a liturgy? We have their lectionaries, their discussions of sacraments, their discussions of worship, etc.

    If it’s not the responsibility of the Church to make those sorts of statements, then why Acts 15? Or any of Paul’s epistles? Or, why have a canon at all? The canon is itself a theologically normative declaration (these are our Scriptures, no more or less). I agree there’s only one Church and I know God leads it, but there are lots of groups out there calling themselves the Church. So figuring out which one is the real one is pretty important. You don’t think God leads schismatic communities, do you?

    God not only can teach me that I’m wrong about something, but has done so many times in the past. And of course God guides His Church and teaches them if they go astray.

    Also, I just want to mention that most of my questions went unanswered again.

  54. 4-13-2011


    What is the earliest extant lectionary?

    I did not say that individuals and groups should not be concerned when others teach or live contrary to the gospel. That’s what I read in Scripture, not councils deciding what is theological normative for all times and all believers (especially things that are not related to the gospel).

    Do you believe that the Church (in the way that you are using the term) can be wrong? Do you believe that the Church (in the way that you are using the term) has ever been wrong?


  55. 4-14-2011

    Josh – I believe the questions you are asking regarding the Canon are quite pivotal ones, because they really force us to deal with some very challenging fundamental issues…

    Firstly, since we all know and agree that the NT scriptures were not “canonized” until several centuries after they were penned, does this mean that they were any less inspired by the Holy Spirit before “canonization”? Were they any less authoratative?

    Unavoidably the conclusion must be “No”… God’s Word is His Word because He said it!

    (it’s kind of a “chicken or the egg” sort of issue…)

    Furthermore, it’s hard to see how such a conversation like this one can really play out without addressing the elephant in the room, namely, that the Roman Catholic Church does NOT rely solely on the authority of scripture… Getting caught up in the process of hair-splitting questions like “How do we know if a particular book is scripture” is to completely ignore the fact that Catholic Church teaches scores of things which blatantly go against what we find in the TOTALITY of scripture, regardless of whatever particular “canon” you adhere to…

    You seem to stumble against all these questions surrounding simple/orgainc churches, and this should not be surprising, since anyone coming from a Catholic perspective is trained to think in terms of the “Church” being the intermediary between God and Man. The perspective of those you are conversing with here is that Jesus Himself is the one and only intermediary between God and Man! You have to understand just how deep the division between these two perspectives is before you can try and approach anything, whether it is the matter of scripture, or how to gather, or whatever else…

    “Organization” or “systems” are one thing, but erecting a monolithic, worldly government structure that is regarded as earthly representation of Christ is quite another. There is no “chair of Peter”. There is no human being that speaks “infallibly” for God. Even Paul did not regard himself as infallible! (Galatians 1:8,9)

    If you’re really wanting to talk about “reality”, then we could hardly avoid addressing the dangerous and blasphemous teachings that have come from the so-called “Chair of Peter”, such as praying to Mary, the veneration of “saints”, the idea that the “sacrements” are “vehicles” of God’s grace, etc., etc…

    If the Catholic Church (as you regard it) is really the officieal, infallible vehicle of the Gospel that you believe it to be, then we are forced into the unenviable position of trying to square such heretical teachings with what the Bible itself clearly says. So it’s more than a little self-contradictory to appeal to the notion that the “Canon” by necessity came through the Catholic Church, when it is that “Church” which sets itself up in direct contradiction to the content OF the Canon…

  56. 4-14-2011


    That’s a great rant. Unfortunately, I think it’s more than just a bit of a straw man. If you’re interested in learning about what Catholics think, my email is listed on my blog in the “About me” section.

  57. 4-14-2011

    “Straw man”?

    So I suppose things like the belief in “transubstantiantion”, the rosary, “Immaculate conception”, and the idea that the Catholic Mass is necessary means to receiving Jesus’s work of atonement are all just figments of my imagination…?

    Furthermore, even if I could find ten Catholics who personally did not believe in any of these things themselves, that would not negate in the slightest the fact that the Roman Catholic Church does in fact teach these things…

  58. 4-14-2011

    Am I incorrect in my understanding that the priest holds up a little circular wafer and says, ““Receive…almighty and everlasting God, this spotless Host, which I thine unworthy servant now offer unto thee… for my countless sins, wickedness and neglect; and for all those here present, as also for all the faithful in Christ, both the quick and the dead, that it may set forward their salvation and mine, unto life everlasting. Amen.”?

  59. 4-14-2011

    Have I been mislead about how the First Vatican Council of 1868 ratified the doctrine of “Papal infalibility”..?

  60. 4-14-2011


    This is Alan’s blog. Out of courtesy to him, I suggest you contact me if you have questions about those things. They’re entirely off topic for this thread. If you want to discuss any of the above, I’m happy to do so. However, as it’s entirely unrelated to what I was asking Alan or the post itself, it’s best to do it elsewhere.

  61. 4-14-2011

    This has been an interesting exchange.


  62. 4-15-2011

    Josh, If Alan feels that I have veered away from the “topic”, then he has every right to tell me to chill out…

    But I’m kind of confused by the suggestion that I am being “off topic” here, since the title of the post is “Examining the differences between simple church and institutional church.”

    In your first comment you stated, “I wholeheartedly reject the phrase “institutional Church” for its obviously negative connotations. I can’t believe that any of you think this is a fair, charitable description of the historical (what you call ‘institutional’) Church.

    We could hardly have any kind of meaningful discussion about institutionalism throughout historical Christianity without talking about the Roman Catholic Church, could we!??

    That would be like trying to talk about the history of film in the 20th century without talking about Hollywood…

    Overall, I find it curious that you want to redirect my questions and comments that I have put towards you, apparently because you find them too contentious or something, but yet you yourself had no qualms about raising your own objections to the basic premise of Alan’s post (objecting to the use of the world “institutional” simply because it’s being used with obvious negative connotation…)

    But the reality is that so many of the questions you asked (At what point does someone who visits your meeting become part of the covenant community? How many times does one have to show up to be ‘part of the group’? Likewise, what happens when that person leaves? What sorts of things do organic/house/whatever churches do when people stop showing up?), are actually quite impossible to give legitimate answers to without at least a cursory comparison to how an institution like the Catholic Church approaches such questions…

    The thing is, you can’t even begin to a very meaningful conversation about those sorts of questions until you highlight the basic difference of there not being any sort of “clergy”, no special “priesthood” which acts as the intermidiary between God and the people through a vast litany of ceremonies and rites. And if their is no “clergy”, then there certainly is no hiearchy within the clergy. As such, the Church of Rome would cease to exist if you removed that element alone. For someone such as yourself, who sees the entire experience of having a relationship with God through the lens of the Roman structure, it is most likely very difficult to grasp the idea of simply being a part of Christ’s Body, simply through putting faith in Christ. It is not the affiliation with any particular group that makes you “in” or “out”, but it is faith that makes you “in”, and so seeking out fellowship with others who believe is simply an extension of that faith…

    All of the questions you asked about “canonization” and such are further evidences of how your thinking has been structured in such a way as to see the “Church” (the Institution) as being the defacto means of God working in the world. In the end it just leaves me incredulous as to how you can ask all those questions, and object to anyone using the term “institutional” in a “negative” sense, and yet balk at anyone wanting to roll up their sleeves and delve into the guts of all that truly lies behind that word “institutional”, and explain the reasons for using that word…

    (I suppose I could instead use the word “cult”? But I have a sneaking suspicion that wouldn’t be received any better…)

  63. 4-19-2011


    I’ve been meaning to respond to your question for a while, and I’m finally getting to it.

    I can only respond out my own experience, and those that I’ve talked with personally. I do not in any way want to speak for or negate others who may have different experiences. Also, simple/organic/home/house/cell/etc churches vary widely in how they function, so even experiences in simple churches may may not line up. I also want to apologize for using labels such as “simple” or “institutional”. I personally don’t like using labels, but I’m not sure we can compare things without some kind of categories.

    You refer to the differences you mention in the article as the framework of a simple/organic church. I would agree that they are part of the framework, and the framework always comes after the foundation. However, it seems to me that the institutional churches I’ve been exposed to make the framework the foundation. My experience in organic church is much deeper in Christ and a much richer community experience than I ever experienced in institutional church. Much of that richness comes from every member functioning together in meetings, and being committed to sharing life together outside of the meetings. This gets very real very fast when there are no clergy to sort out messes. 😉 But this all comes from a revealing of Jesus Christ as our All in All. This revelation of Christ is the only foundation of our church. Everything else is built on a sighting of Him.

    Watchmen Nee said something to effect of “life doesn’t follow the form, the form follows the life”. In other words, start with learning the indwelling life of Christ together as the foundation and the rest (the framework) will follow naturally as He leads.

  64. 4-19-2011


    If Jesus Christ reveals himself through God’s children (and I think he does), then our experience with Christ will be deeper the more God’s children are allowed to function.


  65. 8-27-2011

    You description is fair and balanced at the level where you have made comparison. I agree with Mark about the deeper experience. “Worship” is another are where simple church looks different from the institutional church. And within the simple church paradigm, worship will can different from believer to believer and gathering to gathering. This is the area where “how we function” as members of the body where the differences between simple/institutional are most distinguishable for me. Worship has been so much more meaningful, viewing it as a 24/7 lifestyle of living sacrifice instead of as an hour or so on Sunday “at the church building”…I can never go back to “institutional” again.

  66. 11-6-2011

    I’ve really enjoyed reading the totality of the posts on this subject. I’ve had a unique experience from helping to plant an institutional based church that started with 20-30 people and within a few years numbers over 3500. As of last year I stepped down from my associate pastoral position because of some inherent weaknesses that I’ve seen from that particular design. Our church focuses on developing programs that intersect to lead people to serving. Our services are geared to preach messages that are biblical in content but intersecting in value so unbelievers and believers are captured in listening. Such as- how to raise children, finding fulfillment in life, building a lasting marriage…these are subjects that I’ve talked about with believers and unbelievers. Back to programs, front door ministry (greeting/welcoming), childrens ministry and the actual service are the are the only main “actions” that we focus on. The taught mindset is- If you can move people into an environment where they feel welcome by being invited by there freinds, subject matter taught touches there heart and convinces them of Gods divine authorship of “true life” (true life being, Gods design for handling money, marriage, children,etc.) and salvation and then take them through orientation classes that get connected to the vision of the church and its processes…then presto, you have automatic growth, community and people serving. Personally, not from viewing from the outside, but from building this church from the ground up, community is the last focus. We are so focused on moving people through process and getting them into being apart of the machine they get lost. The front end is great, but once your in it is very much a business model.

    1) Service should be the natural outflow of community. Personally, I believe whether you bend more institutional or organic, community should be the focus…NOT, so the church is inward focused, but true community is the platform for outreach and spiritual growth.
    2) Once again, this is just my desire because of seeing inherent weakness. When there is a large building payment and overhead, leadership will tend to rush the process, like herding cattle. It’s unique to read of churches overseas who are not laden with the weight of maintaining a facility but their churches number in the thousands.
    3) Because this type of church is so focused on “we need more workers”, administration becomes heavy ended, and pastoral leadership is overloaded. We, through process, have taught people to look for direct leadership by a clergy-lay division. Example- Our front door team for weekend services numbers over 200 persons. Take that and our average family size for our city is 3. So here is a group of 600 persons. They are shuffled into church, processed, given church vision orientation and a gifts examination, connected to a team to where they serve to help reproduce the experience they went through themselves and we chalk that up as growth and community.
    Problem is that these teams are not developed for spiritual equipment, they are established to accomplish a strategic goal. These people are excited on the front end about church life but then end up in the process and feel lost.

    I’m leaning strongly to more of an organic model just because discipleship and community have the opportunity to be more central. I’m also leaning strongly towards a non-building expression because of the ability to free up resources to really…reach the poor, minister to the orphan and widow, etc.

    So, does this mean I’m anti institutional church…nope, not at all, but church expressions have to understand and define values that truly bring people into discipleship and community.

    Just like our country, healthy families build healthy homes, healthy neighborhoods, healthy cities, etc.

    I still think that you could establish accountability in a home expression and have actually talked to some creative leaders who had made a jump to very unique community expressions that empower the individual but still employ safeguards for accountability.

    Once again I’m not anti institutional. But personally, I believe that Americans are starting to truly hurt for true community. The Sunday thing is not cutting it anymore. People are experimenting in alternate forms of “bodylife” because they want true connection and want to know that they’re making an impact past building another facility or marking another person on the attendance list.

  67. 4-20-2012

    A slightly different comparison with a side-by-side chart: “Traditional Church versus New Testament Church”