What is the
I.C., or the Institutional Church?
About seven years ago, Western Christians coined the term
"Institutional Church." This term is probably derived from the words
"religious institution," but it is not meant to convey something that
is all that complimentary. Instead, "institutional" conveys a rather
self-limiting structure, which due to its own underlying assumptions,
ends up restricting growth, discovery, and creativity.
For instance, if we were to think of a church or fellowship as though
it were a high school with a principal, teachers and other staff, we
would expect our students to eventually graduate into spiritual
adulthood and lead productive lives. When we say "Institutional
Church," however, we are describing a place where our hypothetical
student is never really expected to graduate. Furthermore, the staff do
not consider this a failure, but rather a perfectly acceptable way to
run their school.
When it comes to the spiritual well-being of their fellowships, many
modern Christians are taught to accept things just as they are and to
look no further. Yet when our hypothetical students are "managed" to
the point that they become passive observers and no more, it is often
already too late. By that time, our most promising "students" and some
of our best "teachers" have become demoralized. Such a thing is
happening in too many churches, fellowships, cell-groups and even home
Just what exactly are we saying here? If we do not know which road we
are traveling on, it means that we are lost. When so many of our
fellowships become increasingly troubled with no open accountability
and no good prospects for change, it is time to wonder what happened.
Did they already start out that way or did they stumble into it later
on without noticing? It is important to answer these questions as best
We have found that the Institutional Church typically promotes Old
Covenant-style teachings that encourage people to adhere to practices
that were originally parts of the Law. Sometimes this is not so
obvious, since many Christians unknowingly live under the Old Covenant
with some New Covenant added on. Still, our studies and observations
over the course of many years have led us to conclude that these
teachings play a important role in the making of an "institutional"
We believe that whenever we re-enact the Old Covenant, we end up
reproducing Old Covenant results. Therefore, we believe it is wise to
avoid the following developments:
- Priesthood/laity definitions and practices that resemble
more the Levitical Priesthood under the Old Covenant (Heb 7:11-12; Heb 8:13) rather than the
priesthood of all believers under the New Covenant (1 Pet 2:5-10; Rev 1:5-6). This starts out with,
or leads to, any of the following qualities:
- a narrow definition of who a Christian "minister" is,
using "credentials" that are either unnecessary or restrictive (2 Cor 3:1).
As a result, people are excluded or discouraged from opportunities to
minister according to their gifts and callings by the leading and
direction of the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:28;1 Cor 14:26).
- an encouraged dependency upon these narrowly defined
ministers, resulting in an active clergy and a passive laity (Heb 5:12-14); a corresponding
exhaustion of the active clergy often results.
- the exchange of money for spiritual services; the belief
that a few paid professionals or titled ministers are more devoted
and/or competent than the untitled and unpaid (Acts 20:34-35; 2 Cor 12:14-18; Matt 23:7-10; John 10:11-13);
a corresponding exaltation of these ministers regardless of their true
competence, and/or a contempt for the truly dedicated minister (2 Cor 11:5-12:11).
- a "Law" based tithe teaching or other obligatory or
forced giving plan for the support of these paid or titled ministers (2 Cor 9:7).
- the absence, over control, or disallowance of "open
church" (1 Cor 14:26).
- the assumption that believers are too immature to
function in simple gatherings ("simple church")
without the guidance and approval of a designated official
representative of a church or organization, or that free gatherings or
exchanges are illegitimate or inferior to anything that would occur
under the "supervision" of a pastor or other paid or titled official
leader (Matt 18:20).
- a pastoral or prophetic leadership who considers
indispensable to believer's understanding or interpretation of
scripture, or who seeks to replace the leading or witness of the Holy
Spirit. Examples might include anything from a Senior Pastor or other
who strictly defines the "vision" for a fellowship with the expectation
that everyone should follow him or her (1 Cor 1:11-13),
to a self-defined scholar, historian, teacher, prophet, apostle,
bishop, or leader by a variety of names or titles, or a committee or
association or board of the same, who claim or expect intellectual,
spiritual, or mystical superiority and authority over others, whether
locally, regionally, nationally, or universally (Luke 7:30-35; Luke 11:43-46; Luke 11:52; Matt 24:24; 1 Pet 5:1).
doctrines and other authoritarian practices that establish an abuse of
power and the corresponding problems inherent in that abuse (Luke 22:25-27; 1 Pet 5:1-5; 2 Cor 11:1-20).
- A focus on "temple worship" practices (1 Chr 6:32), such as:
- a de-emphasis of the people as the "temple" of the
Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19; John 4:20-24)
- inflexibility in meeting place, day, time, or
direction (John 3:8; Rom 14:5)
- the assumption or message that "real" Christian
fellowship does not exist outside of formalized meetings (Matt 18:20).
- the assumption that our walk in Christ is defined or
justified by attendance and duty to "approved", that is, regulated,
religious services and meetings (Rom 8:14-15).
- an inappropriate emphasis on "holy" days, customs,
foods, places, buildings, or times (Luke 13:10-17; Col 2:16; Heb 8:1-6).
- buildings, rituals, or other outward trappings become
important than the people they serve, leading to the neglect of those
in need (James 2:14-17; Gal 6:2).
- prayer meetings, conferences, and the like become
shameless sources of merchandizing and income (Mark 11:15-17).
Since Christianity was never intended to be a reproduction of the Old
Covenant (Gal 4:21-5:1
we believe that these practices take the "Christ" out of Christianity.
Perhaps that is why the Institutional Church has been accused of
encouraging devotion to man rather than devotion to Christ.
Accordingly, many believers or leaders have privately or publicly
objected to the following aspects of man- or money-centered religion:
- A pastoral or prophetic "priesthood" who considers
separate, and/or superior from their brothers and sisters in Christ by
reason of gifting, title, or "outward success" in ministry, such as
paid salary or amount of money received, appointment by like-minded
peers, lofty revelations, religious education, approval by an official
organization, or numbers of followers and devotees (James 3:13; James 4:4-6);
the corresponding assumption that no one can be spiritually discerning
unless they are part of this priesthood class, pastoral or prophetic
"inner circle", or other "big name" Christian. (Heb 5:12-14; Eph 4:14-15).
- Absence of sound, practical teaching about false ministers
false teachings; promoting gifts over character, or titles or status
over character (Matt 16:6; Matt 7:15-27).
- Ministers or others who refuse to reprove, chastise or
rebuke other ministers publicly, regardless of their error (Gal 2:11-14; 1 Tim 5:20-21).
- Even the mildest public scrutiny, fact-based review, or
questioning of a "successful" or favored minister or ministry over
verifiable public acts and teachings is discouraged or disallowed in
some way (2 Tim 3:12-17; Acts 20:30). This sometimes
results in separation or expulsion from the group.
- A leadership that is above approach, reproof, or
accountability; Hero worship (Deut 5:7).
- The belief that a minister or ministry should be protected
maintained at all costs, including deep sacrifices in mental,
emotional, spiritual, physical, or financial health in order to
perpetuate said ministry rather than re-examine it, restructure it, let
it run on its own, or close it down (temporarily or permanently) (Deut 11:16).
- An emphasis on money; bondage to the god of mammon (Matt 6:24); manipulations to gain
financial support (Rom 16:18).
- Favoritism is shown toward those who are wealthy or those
donate or "pay" more than others can toward projects, leaders, or
organizations (James 2:1-9).
- "Ministers" or "religious corporations" accumulate
corporate wealth off of tithes and donations, or high-paying salaries. (1 Tim 6:3-10)
Many Christian believers and leaders today do not wish to enable or
participate in wide-spread corruption, yet much to their dismay, they
find that religious systems are unwilling to change. In addition to
this, many believers have noticed a disintegration of the "family life"
in their fellowships. Examples include:
- An expectation of perpetual spiritual childhood is placed on
the "sheep" with continued dismissal of their needs, concerns, or
talents, and/or a disrespect or disregard is shown for the older, wiser
workers (Rom 15:14; Eph 5:21; 1 Tim 5:17-19; 1 Cor 12:23-25).
- No apology or restitution is expected from some, while
apology over minor offences is expected from others (Phil 2:1-6).
- Maltreatment of those who confess sin or weakness (1 Cor 13:1-2; Gal 6:1); messages of condemnation
instead of love and hope (Phil 1:6).
- Toleration of immoral, unethical, or abusive behavior
without appropriate concern expressed or action taken (1 Cor 5:1-2; 2 Tim 3:1-8).
- Examination of one's own beliefs discouraged; questions,
concerns, or challenges ignored or deemed intolerable (Acts 17:11; 2 Tim 4:1-3). Misdirects (Eph 4:14-15) may include the
- shaming, confusing, or threatening the conscientious
objector into silence or submission (guilt trips or intimidation).
- baseless attacks against the motives, character, or
state of objectors (irresponsible judgmentalism; false accusation).
- misrepresentation of the original objections or reports
(bearing false witness).
- assurances to loyal followers that if they continue
allegiance to a leader or the movement they represent, they will
somehow fulfill the will of God, or warnings that if they do not, they
will miss out on a promising move of the Holy Spirit, or that they will
somehow be punished by God (the carrot/stick approach).
As fellowships begin to resemble religious social clubs rather than
loving families of believers, the following qualities or practices
- A self-righteous contempt toward the secular or other
"inferiors" (Luke 18:10-14; Rom 12:16).
- Membership required to attend a church or fellowship (Rom 15:7).
- An elitist mentality which leads to open or subtle refusal
fellowship (as brothers in Christ) with those who are not loyal
followers or members of a certain religious leader, club, sect,
denomination, or an alliance of fellowships or churches. (Matt 22:35-40; James 4:6).
- Shunnings and/or secret expulsion (excommunication)
employed against those who, purposely or not, break the unspoken rules
of the church family, group, or "club" (3 John 1:9-10).
- A forced, false unity under a leadership who are expected
in full agreement on everything, with "sheep" who are expected to
follow and agree for the sake of "unity". This is maintained through
silencing of differences, various manipulations to "convert"
dissenters, and expulsion. (Eph 4:1-3). False unity may also
be found where believers temporarily "set aside" their integrity under
false pretenses (Gal 2:11-13; Eph 4:25).
- The "One True Church" syndrome-- A denial that other
or expressions of Christianity is of value, or a refusal to recognize
other individual Christians in other sects as saved or in possible good
standing in the Kingdom. This assumes that the only true followers of
God are found in their group, and denies that there is a larger Family
of Christ which includes believers from other groups (Rom 10:9-11; Eph 4:4-6).
The above lists contain qualities that most would agree are disturbing
developments in any fellowship or ministry. Yet at the same time,
others might consider a few of the above items to be "business as
usual". Even so, a careful, thoughtful, inspection of these items would
show that a large number of them are interrelated in some way. Does
this mean that "business as usual" is not the right way to go?
A Christianity where money and traditions are more important than God
has thrown away its godly qualities (Matt 23:23
; John 15:9-12
In fact, non-Christians not only notice the items on our list, but
often express deep cynicism about them. They have long observed
"Christian" con-men becoming rich off of the gullible, and shallow
religious clubs full of status seekers, hypocrites, and insecure
gossipers. This has become all too often the norm for them and for many
others as well. As a result, they want no part of it.
Christians who acknowledge serious error often blame it on the
hypocrites, pretenders, and false leaders who are allowed to operate
under a shroud of apathy or secrecy (Luke 12:1-3
; 1 Tim 5:24
) They may also resign
themselves to these problems being a sign of the "end times" (Matt 24:11-13
; 2 Tim 3:1-5
). While these things
may be true, resignation is not our best or only option.
Christian fellowships and individuals need to be a source of salt and
light (Matt 5:13-16
rather than a source of discouragement and confusion. Do we want to be
a part of Jesus-style Christianity, or do we want to follow the
well-worn path of just another religious cult of manipulation and pain?
Certainly, an atmosphere of spiritual abuse is not God's best for us!
It therefore behooves us to examine what practices cause what harms and
to steer away from those harms.
Billions of people have been taught for generations that certain
traditions or practices are absolutely necessary for the survival of
Christianity. Yet Jesus did not say these things were necessary.
Indeed, sometimes he preached against them. One thing is for sure,
neither He or His apostles operated according to the latest recommended
business model, or had their ministry approved by the religious
institutions of their day.
Although we are aware that many people all over the world are forced
into a variety of difficult positions and choices due to persecution,
we would ask those in the free world (mostly Western countries) to
examine the results of their compromises. In a sea of apathy, ambition,
greed, and cynical sell-outs, it is the brave man or woman of God who
chooses the "road less traveled" in order to follow the road that Jesus
also traveled. Such a person will know God's rewards (Matt 6:1-6
Just as Christian reformers of the past choose to dig deeper than the
assumptions of their day, Christian reformers of the present do as
well. They have examined these things not because they wanted to find
fault, but because it was crucial for their own spiritual walk. As in
earlier times, these new reformers or "revolutionaries"
have found themselves re-examining the foundational beliefs of
Ultimately the terms "Organized Religion" and "Institutional Church"
may mean much the same thing. In any case, since good intentions do not
necessarily cancel out or atone for certain harms, there comes a point
where even the apostle Paul might say, "your meetings do more harm than
good" (1 Cor 11:17
). This is because in
the end, any false belief system or practice becomes an all-too-willing
repository for severe problems.
In closing, this writing is a result of this author's efforts to "dig
deeper" for the sake of those who have been disillusioned or
spiritually stunted by the restrictions of Organized Religion or the
problems of spiritual abuse. It is also for those who are discouraged
about the love of Christ because of a misrepresentation of Him on
earth. We need to care about things instead of pretending they do not
exist, because pretending does not make it go away.
All good efforts have the potential to disintegrate and to become less
than what they were hoped for or intended to be. Therefore, even some
who claim that they are no longer part of "Organized Religion" may fail
in their efforts. Because of this, it is our belief that we need to pay
attention to our beginnings so that we do not start out on the wrong
track. In addition to this, we need to take care that we do not become
incapable of self-correction and flexibility ourselves (Matt 9:16-17
). Regardless of where
or how we fellowship though, it is wise for all Christians to consider
Unless the LORD builds
the house, its
builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the
watchmen stand guard in vain.
By Teri Lee Earl, Copyright © Oct. 28, 2006
HarvestNET Ministries (http://www.harvestnet.org)
This article may be distributed
without charge for nonprofit use only
with no changes to the content
and with appropriate attribution
 "This type of
worship has various names including "house church," "home church,"
"organic church," "conversational church" or "simple church." From the
article: "Path to God is nearer than
traditional church for some ..." Oct. 05. 2006 by Lyn
Stegemiller, Tribune Staff
fill "all points on the continuum of [traditional] church involvement."
… "The Revolutionary mindset is simple: Do whatever it takes
to get closer to God and to help others do the same. Obliterate any
obstacle that prevents you from honoring God with every breath you
take." From pg 37 of the book,