The organization vs. the organism

I have learned over the years that there are two sides to the local church: the organization and the organism. Sometimes they compete for attention and fight for ultimate priority. As a leader I must always give the organism priority.


The early church was organized in a structure that mirrored the Jewish rabbinical leadership structure that was prevalent at the time. By 323AD Constantine began to amalgamate the church and the state into one. In due time, the head of state and the head of the church shared power. In Western Europe, that leadership structure stayed until the 1500’s as the heads of state began to back different theological views and wanted independence from the Roman Empire. In 1770-1790’s the French and American Revolution were established on the need to separate church and state. They began to operate independently from the influence one another.

As the industrial revolution began to take shape, the idea of the corporation began to take shape. The corporation was treated as a separate entity and not tied to a particular individual. In the US, in the late 1800’s various states developed the ability for a church to incorporate. For example, in 1872 Illinois developed the Religious Corporations Act and in 1894 Congress created the Tarrif Act providing organizations with charitable purposes tax exemption.

Here was the agreement. Churches would voluntarily be given tax exemption if they:

  • Provided a public benefit according to the definition of the law
  • Provided proof of accountability of finances
  • Provided a structure and policies where the organization wouldn’t provide direct benefit to a single person.

Over the years a variety of benefits emerged including tax exemption, a special tax status for clergy, and the ability to provided donation receipts for personal tax relief. In parts of Canada, hundreds of parcels of land were given to churches to build community parishes. Yet over time, the organizational requirements for the acquisition of these benefits has also grown.

What does this mean for us today?

The church is a group of people who are connected to each other because of their faith in Jesus (universal church) and personally committed to becoming and making disciples of Jesus with others in a local context (local church).

Let’s be clear. There is no Biblical mandate for followers of Jesus to register their organism as an organization (with the government). You can have a church (organism) without an organization and an organization that is not a church (organism). They are two separate things.

Not all churches around the world have the same requirements that churches in North America do. This means that I can’t equate the organization elements of my church to the organism and use Bible verses to support it. I must see the corporation as what it is, a requirement of our society.

We forget that there is a difference. We forget that our call as pastors is to the organism, not the organization. If we are running an organization that serves a church we must do it to the best of our ability. Yet we must remember that the organization must serve the organism and not the other way around. Organizational business models, systems, and acquiring and protecting assets must serve the organism.

Am I suggesting that we should not register with the government? Not at all. What I am suggesting is that we become aware of the tension between the two and focus on what we are called to do.

Now, these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.

Ephesians 4:11-13

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