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Why Bother With Church Structure?

Establishing and maintaining structure in a local church takes a ton of work, especially when, as with Calvary Grace, a church has started without any denominational or mother-church support. And we as elders are keenly aware that our efforts to establish and maintain structure in our church have not kept up with the growth of our fellowship, and that’s not good. As Clint put it to us recently, we need to “set up some desperately needed trellis, lest the vine start to rot as it lays on the ground.” So in the weeks and months to come, the elders will be placing an increased focus on our structure, including such elements as small-group studies, our mentorship system for emerging leaders, and our church membership structure.

Why bother, though? Why is all that work important in the first place? I’ve been reflecting on that question in the past few days, and my own growth in understanding this issue might be helpful. When I was a college-aged, young adult, I wasn’t well-informed about my faith. Like many young people, I looked at the church and questioned many things. Does membership in a church really matter? I didn’t think so. After all, I believed in God, and I prayed on my own, so as long as I did those things, I wasn’t very concerned about commitment to any particular fellowship. Why bother with doctrine? Some of my most unpleasant memories came from my days in a Reformed church, listening to a pastor droning on in a monotonous tone about fine points of theology. Yet that congregation, for all their attention to doctrine, always seemed to keep our family on the outside. If doctrine just made people cranky and unloving, I thought, what value did it have?

It’s not surprising, then, that by the time I had graduated college and moved to New Brunswick I was questioning other key elements of Christian faith and practice. When I heard about an excommunication in my brother’s church, for instance, I reacted with disdain and indignation. What right did a church full of fallible human beings have to excommunicate someone? How dare a church pass judgment on a fellow sinner when it is God who will judge? Then there was the fact that a large and active church in the city I lived in denied the doctrine of the Trinity. I wasn’t prepared to go that far, but I found myself questioning how we could be so certain about yet another “fine theological point,” especially one whose term appears nowhere in the Bible. God’s too big for us to understand, I thought; shouldn’t we be a bit more tentative in our conclusions about him?

These questions were, frankly, the result of youthful immaturity and a deeper lack of seriousness about my relationship with Jesus Christ. They all bear one thing in common, however. They all have something to do with church structure. It wasn’t coincidental that, surrounded as I was by a deeply secular military environment and by people with ever-moving moral values, I would wind up questioning the value of structure and organization in Christian faith and church life. I had internalized what Francis Schaeffer termed a divide in man’s view of the universe between the “upper story,” where matters of faith belong, and a “lower story” for matters of science and rationality. I had begun to think as if Christianity offered only religious or moral truth, and that its statements regarding more practical matters like organizational theory were of less value. For example, I deeply understood and advocated the importance of structure and order in army life, while at the same time practically denying and increasingly doubting the need for order and structure in the Christian church and walk.

A similar skepticism is becoming apparent in some parts of the evangelical church. It is more and more common nowadays for Christians to think of the church as a “centered set” as opposed to the more traditional “bounded set.” Here is an example:

We work at clarifying who is in, who is out; what the leadership structure is to be and not to be; what we believe and do not believe; which activities belong, which do not; and what behavior is appropriate and what is not. So the line between insiders and outsiders is clearly drawn. Paul Hiebert calls this kind of thinking “bounded-set thinking.” That is, there is a boundary that sets the standard. . . . We need to move from bounded-set thinking to what Hiebert refers to as “centered-set thinking” in our understanding of the church. (Len Hjalmarson)

In other words, while the “old-fashioned way” defined the church according to boundary lines, the church is better described as a cloud with Christ at the center and an increasing commitment from believers as one approaches that center. Several years ago I would have agreed. Structure and dividing lines can’t create genuine fellowship, can they?

While they cannot create such fellowship, I now realize that they are indispensable elements for promoting and facilitating genuine fellowship. Formal church membership may sound quaint, but without it, pastors and elders cannot be certain just who is in their flock, and fellowship in a church is made to feel like an optional element of the faith rather than being the non-negotiable that it actually is. As for doctrine, yes, it does divide. Yet in the example of a centered-set church, a Bible study leader advocating heresy is not only formally unaccountable to others in the church, but under the assumptions of the centered-set model is simply on a journey to find Christ. Some kind of doctrinal dividing line is necessary, for without one, the church risks incorporating beliefs that simply aren’t Christian at all and therefore risks losing its Christian witness.

Church discipline is a vital part of church life. Yes, it needs to be understood in both its formative (that is, teaching, mentoring, and edification of the believers) and corrective (rebuking and excommunicating offenders) aspects. Yet if the church is not permitted to expel the immoral one from its midst, it is forced to tolerate poison in the fellowship and expose those who are young in the faith to eternal peril. I have to assume that a centered-set fellowship would expel a pedophile who was found to be preying on children in the church. However, if we really and truly believe that there is both truth that gives life and sinful beliefs that can kill, how is the one advocating modalism or prosperity teaching any less dangerous from an eternal perspective?

The example of the Trinity is no less important. While we can never know everything about God, even with our limitations we are surely capable of knowing some true and certain things about him! We know there is only one God, that the Bible calls the Father, Son, and Spirit “God,” and that these three are distinct and have meaningful relationships with one another. Perhaps our collective lack of appreciation for this doctrine could be the reason for our skepticism toward church structure. After all, the Trinity is a community in that the three persons are both a unity and a plurality. The church is called by Christ to imitate this fellowship in its own life, as he prayed that “they may be one even as we [Christ and the Father] are one” (John 17:22b). So if the Trinity displays particular features of structure and organization, such as the headship of the Father (1 Corinthians 11:3), the obedience of the Son (Matthew 26:39), and the intercessory ministry of the Spirit (Romans 8:26-27), surely the church is expected to establish order and structure in its corporate life.

Paul the apostle, speaking to a church that devalued order and structure, pointed out that “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33) before going on to say: “all things should be done decently and in order” (verse 40). The solution to the disorder in the church was, and is, to remember the very nature of God. This God is both one and three, and so structure and headship and submission and order are inherent to his very nature. This is why he is a God of peace. This same peace can be ours, at Calvary Grace—provided that we strive to imitate this Trinitarian unity, as Christ desired and prayed, by respecting rather than resisting structure and order.