Grace Life Church
Proclaiming Jesus Christ and the Gospel of God's Grace
THE MAN-FOCUSED INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH SYSTEM PROBLEM
God's program for the world today is that He continues to build the church, the Body of Christ, that He started 2,000 years ago. People anywhere can be saved by putting their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Unlike Israel's law program we read about in the Old Testament and in the gospels, the program in the church age operates under grace, not law (Rom. 6:14). It's an amazing and wonderful work of God that is only possible through the cross work and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
The Body of Christ is the one true church made up of all true believers all over the world. It's the mystery program God kept secret since the world began until He revealed it soon after the resurrection of Christ (Rom.16:25-26). We are the church! The building you go to and gather at on Sundays is NOT the church.
We are blessed to have clear and detailed instructions in the Bible on how we are to live as God’s children under grace in the Body of Christ. The epistles written by the Apostle Paul, chosen by the glorified Jesus Christ to be the apostle to the Gentiles (or the nations), our foundational for understanding God's grace program and living victoriously under grace. God has given us all the information we need to live victorious Christian lives and bring glory to Him!
Unfortunately, though the intentions may have been good (though many were and are not), the man-made systems, practices, traditions, and religious thinking that have strongly influenced and shaped church life through the centuries greatly hinder real spiritual growth and maturity in the Body of Christ. They don't line up with God's instructions in His word in several important areas. This is a significant problem!
Countless church leaders claim to love the word of God and rightly say that the Bible is our source book for everything we need to know in order to live our Christian lives God's way. However, what is regularly practiced in the institutional church system is not in agreement with clear instructions in God's word. The institutional church system, because it was formed in large measure by not following God's word in key areas and adheres to man-made, worldly practices instead, negatively impacts the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.
Those who bring up the problem with the institutional church system that dominates Christendom today are met with strong resistance by many church leaders, others who work in the religious establishment, and other believers. If that's the price that has to be paid, so be it. It is always vital that biblical truth is taught and preached, especially when the church has departed from it! In this article I will address three regular practices in the church system that are based on man-centered traditions and worldly thinking, rather than following God's word.
The result is a church system that fails to encourage, strengthen, and edify the saints GOD'S WAY. Because these things have been going on for so long (many centuries) most believers think there is nothing wrong or possibly unbiblical about them. They can't be wrong! Unfortunately, when the truth light of God's word shines on these practices, the pride of men and worldly thinking become very evident.
The institutional church system FAILS to edify and encourage the Body of Christ according to God's word in the following three ways:
1. The way almost ALL churches hold their services/meetings.
2. The way pastors/elders are chosen.
3. The use of titles.
All three of these strongly entrenched practices must be addressed for the benefit of the saints in the Body of Christ. Furthermore, I'm calling on church leaders to examine themselves and the practices they religiously follow and make the necessary changes. If pastors (aka elders, bishops, ministers, etc.) love and honor the word of God as much as they say they do, I would expect positive changes would be the result. Of course, I understand this will be a very long-term process since the current system has its deep roots in Roman Catholicism and has been growing and building for around 1,700 years! This centuries-old church system is so embedded in the thinking of most church leaders and other believers, there is little or no room for the possibility that it could be wrong.
1. CHURCH SERVICES/MEETINGS
One important way we show our love for God and the saints is to follow His Word to us in all areas of our lives as the Spirit leads us. The word of God and the Holy Spirit opened my eyes and heart to see how regular church services/meetings should be held.
The Bible gives us clear instructions on what should be regularly happening in church services/meetings. All the saints should have the opportunity to be INVOLVED and INTERACTING in an orderly way according to 1 Cor. 14:26-33. Instead, what we have in the institutional church today is a few people leading the saints in songs from a stage and one man who does all the teaching from that same stage. The rest of the people are basically spectators sitting in chairs or pews. This is definitely NOT what the Apostle Paul instructs us to do in church meetings.
Paul never envisioned that the primary and regular way the saints would gather would be dominated by one speaker, with little or no involvement and interaction among all the other saints gathered! This is abundantly clear from 1 Cor. 14:26-33:
“26What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. 27If anyone speaks in a tongue, two -- or at the most three -- should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. 29Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” (1 Cor. 14:26-33)
This is the primary Bible passage where the Apostle Paul prescribes what should be happening in church services. Does it look like anything like your typical church service today? Not at all! The vast majority of all church services are pastor/preacher dominant. It is extremely rare that the saints are encouraged to ask a question or to speak. If you do speak apart from the program, you'll possibly be asked to keep quiet or even escorted out of the building! What you really have in church services today are performance/spectator events with a few people leading on a stage.
This is completely contrary to the biblical model prescribed by Paul! Tragically, this gulf between church leaders and and the rest of the saints (called the laity) started around 1,700 years ago during the early formation of the Roman Catholic Church. It then carried over to Protestantism after the Reformation that swept through Europe in the 1,500s.
The result? What we have today are spiritually weak churches that are vulnerable in several ways — especially to FALSE TEACHING! It is far easier for false teaching to spread when one person is doing ALL the speaking and teaching in a church gathering. Your're only hearing one person's interpretation of the Bible! You're only hearing one person's thoughts on spiritual matters! The saints are not being edified God’s way! A biblical church meeting should have many people actively participating and interacting in some way in an orderly manner. Paul says this "must be done" for the strengthening of the church. Whether a man in the assembly has a seminary degree or other formal training should not restrict the speaking to only that person.
Even though I believe the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues and prophecy (speaking new revelation and predicting the future) have ceased now that the apostles are gone and we have the complete revelation of God in the Bible, this does not in any way diminish what 1 Cor. 14:26-33 teaches us about what church services/meetings should generally look like. The bottom line is all the saints are encouraged to speak, teach, and interact! They are not to be spectator gatherings! This is abundantly clear.
Again, read 1 Cor. 14:26-33. The Apostle Paul is writing to bring order to the church meetings in Corinth where there was much disorder. We see the following key instructions:
1. Everyone may have a hymn (song) to share.
2. Everyone may have a word of instruction.
3. Everyone may have a revelation — sharing something already revealed in God’s word (not new revelation).
4. All of the above “must be done for the strengthening of the church.”
5. Two or at most three preachers/teachers should speak.
6. If someone sitting down has a biblical revelation, the person speaking should stop so everyone can hear what the person has to share.
7. All can prophecy (share biblical truth to edify and encourage) in an orderly way.
8. As many saints prophecy (share biblical truth to edify and encourage) in an orderly way, “everyone may be instructed and encouraged.”
Tragically, most Christians aren’t even aware that what they’re strongly led to do every Sunday is contrary to God’s word! They simply believe that since this is the way it’s always been done, it must be the right way! It isn't.
Let me be clear, because of our freedom in Christ there is certainly a place in the Body of Christ for large gatherings in buildings with song leaders on a stage and one person giving a sermon. However, this should NOT be the way the saints gather almost all the time. It should NOT be the primary way. The Bible does not teach or encourage a spectator approach at all!
Finally, to those who say that Paul is not prescribing what should be happening in church gatherings but is, instead, simply describing what is going on (usually said by people IN the institutional church system), I say that God's word does not allow for that interpretation. What Paul is writing is the Lord's command! Just a few verses later Paul writes this in 1 Cor. 14:37:
"If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command." (1 Cor. 14:37)
There is also certainly no biblical reason to think that what Paul is prescribing in 1 Cor. 14 to bring order to the church in Corinth was only for that church at that time, as some claim. That makes absolutely no sense! Does that mean the other things Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians only applies to the church in Corinth 2,000 years ago and not to us today? What about the other epistles Paul wrote? Are they also only for the first-century church? Of course not! What Paul prescribes for the church gatherings in Corinth are instructions/commands we should follow today. Since Paul wrote that his instructions/commands "must be done" for instructing, encouraging, and strengthening a church 2,000 years ago, he would certainly believe his instructions/commands would always be necessary for the Body of Christ when the saints gather!
GOOD NEWS: Countless Christians are responding in a very positive way to this church system problem! House churches have been started all over the world in the last 50-60 years -- and not just in places where Christianity faces persecution. This great expansion of house churches is a clear testament to the strong desire among countless believers to gather regularly in a way that's in line with the word of God. They want to live out in all aspects of their Christian lives the freedom they have in Christ and have left the religious church system which often stifles that freedom. The house church movement and the desire for small church gatherings, wherever they meet, is accelerating in the world today! On the other hand, the brick and mortar churches that "do church" the traditional way are losing people who desire authentic, biblical fellowship. This reality could pressure the traditional church system to make some changes. Let's hope so.
Let us be saints who are not afraid to call out unbiblical church practices even if the cost is being unpopular and ridiculed. The only affirmation we need is found in our spiritual union with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and all that He has done for us! It's a beautiful thing! Praise God for His incredible grace!
2. HOW PASTORS/ELDERS ARE CHOSEN
The reality is that most churches today are run like businesses, with the pastor acting as the “CEO.” Almost all churches are led by professional paid pastors that are almost always brought in from another church that is often far away. They generally go through a multi-faceted process to get hired from among other professional, seminary-graduated, pastor candidates.
The elders and deacons that are chosen in the churches to serve with the “senior pastor” or “lead pastor” (or the several other titles that are used), often just rubber stamp what the professional, hired pastor wants to do. Tragically, there is little or no reliance on the Holy Spirit to raise up elders/pastors within the churches to be the entire leadership group.
By contrast, during the first several hundred years of the church, the saints in a local church trusted in the Holy Spirit to raise up men within the churches to shepherd/pastor the flock -- and He did that beautifully! The New Testament teaches us that elders (or overseers, bishops -- same names for the same office) should lead the church as a group with equal authority, not one man with a title.
Furthermore, when you see the list of biblical qualifications to serve as a pastor/elder in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:4-9 it becomes obvious that the only way to determine if a man is truly qualified is to know him and his family if he has one. There is absolutely no way this can be properly done by choosing a man from outside the church after going through some interviews, watching videos of sermons, etc. No one in the church knows him or his family! People in a church need to be together for some time to be able to determine who is biblically qualified to serve as a pastor/elder.
The process used today by nearly all churches to select a "professional senior pastor" from outside the church is unbiblical, poor, and leaves churches vulnerable to unqualified men serving in leadership. Trust the Holy Spirit to raise up pastors/elders within your church! The Spirit has done that very effectively for centuries and continues to do so today in churches all over the world! There is no biblical reason to bring in outside professional pastors to lead churches. That is simply a man-made system.
Just like the problem with church services in the institutional church we have today, this professional hiring system is the direct result of the unfortunate separation between church leaders and the rest of the saints that started in the Roman Catholic Church hundreds of years ago. It's clear from the Apostle Paul's letters that he would not approve of how the professional church system dominates the church today and the resulting problems that flow out of it -- including hiring pastors/elders outside a local fellowship. There could be exceptions based on some unusual circumstances, but they should be rare.
3. USE OF TITLES
Sadly, most church leaders today are NOT following God’s word on avoiding titles. Because the word of God is very clear about avoiding titles, the only explanation why leaders put titles IN FRONT of their names is the usual one: the pride of men who ignore the word in that area.
All church leaders, myself included, need to know and live out the truth that our ministries need to always be about Jesus Christ -- not our roles. Putting titles IN FRONT of our names as leaders is exactly what our Lord said to avoid in Matt. 23:1-12 as he talked about the prideful practices of Israel's religious leaders:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. 5"Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.' 8"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt. 23:1-12)
We tend to use this passage to point out the unbiblical practice in Roman Catholicism of calling priests "Father." However, this passage also shows that in Protestantism calling church leaders by special titles is also wrong. Titles used with names give the false impression that church leaders are more spiritual or special. Church leaders who put titles IN FRONT of their names and gladly expect to be addressed with those titles when speaking to others create a perceived UNBIBLICAL gulf between themselves and the other saints. It does not show godly humility.
Unfortunately, centuries of tradition that pleases the flesh of men is very hard to change. But if church leaders truly honor God's word as much as they say, the practice of using titles would go away. However, the sad reality is that most church leaders are selective in what parts of the Bible they will follow and teach others to follow. What our Lord said in Matthew 23 is very clear. Leaders should be serving, not acting as rulers.
Of course, roles in a church should be clearly defined and described (elder, deacon, pastor, song leader, youth leader, maintenance manager, administrator, office manager, etc.). However, this can easily be done without using official titles in front of names as if the titles are part of people's names! Church leaders, God's word directs you to tell people to stop addressing you or other leaders in the church with titles. It's an unbiblical practice that stirs up pride in men and needs to end! If anyone in our small church were to address me as "Pastor Steve" I would gently tell them not to call me that and explain why. It makes for a good teaching opportunity.
Fellow saints, please stop addressing church leaders with titles such as Pastor, Bishop, Reverend, Elder, Deacon, etc. Almost everyone who has a job in the secular world is not addressed with a title in front of their names, such as "Accountant Mike" or "Mechanic Bob''. They also don't refer to themselves that way.
In the Bible, we NEVER see the apostles or other leaders in the early church address themselves or each other with a title in front of their names. They never put titles in front of their names in the New Testament letters they wrote. They simply described themselves as fellow saints, servants, brothers, children of God, and other humble descriptions. Paul did write that he was called to be an apostle, but never called himself or was addressed by others as the "Apostle Paul." Church leaders need to follow their humble example clearly seen in God's word. We need to be obedient to what Jesus Christ said on this topic.
In conclusion, I strongly encourage church leaders to radically change course and follow God’s word on how church services/meetings should be led and conducted. The Apostle Paul says that meeting according to his instructions "must be done" for the strengthening of the church! It would be a wonderful thing to see the churches gather according to His word -- with real involvement and interaction among all the gathered saints! Then watch as the Holy Spirit is free to really work through the saints to strengthen and encourage them!
We should also rely on the Holy Spirit to raise up godly leaders WITHIN a church, not hire professional pastors away from other churches who often come and go every few years. There are so many qualified men who desire to serve as pastors/elders and deacons in the churches, but are often blocked from doing so because of the unbiblical church system. Many churches prevent elder-qualified men from serving because the other elders believe "we have enough pastors/elders." This thinking completely contradicts God's word on appointing pastors/elders. If men are qualified, they should be warmly welcomed to the leadership team! This is one important way the Body of Christ is strengthened and encouraged!
It's well past the time for the church to move away from the professional church system and use the BILLIONS of dollars in that system for more biblical purposes like providing for the poor and widows. That would be wonderful! We have the word of God! We have Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit living in all true believers! We are in union with Christ! There is no need to have professional ministers leading the churches.
Church leaders also need to stop using titles as part of their names and believers need to stop addressing them using titles. Jesus made it clear that using fine-sounding titles with your name is showing worldly and sinful pride. This should be clear to anyone who reads the Bible without any personal agenda involved. As church leaders, I pray that the Holy Spirit will produce real humility in us as we recognize that Jesus Christ is the head of the church.
As always, when it comes to living our Christian lives, we need to do things God’s way which we find in His word! His way is always the best way! God's word on church practices in this article is clear and, if followed, opens the door wide open for the saints to be truly encouraged, instructed, strengthened, and greatly experience the joy of real fellowship with the Holy Spirit really leading the way.
May God’s grace be with you.
Stephen J. Moll