Institutional versus Organic Church

“The Church should stay out of politics,” a statement frequently repeated by those who are strenuously attempting to change the social structures of the country, and a statement which I support. “It is the duty of the Church to influence policy in a biblical direction whenever it can,” is the response of committed Christians, and a statement which I support.

In Reformed theology we have traditionally spoken of the Church in terms of the Church visible and the Church invisible. This distinction has its uses, mostly psychological to reassure Christians that the antics of the Church and some of its members doesn’t invalidate the reality of the faith.

A more helpful way of looking at the Church is to make the distinction highlighted by Abraham Kuyper, one of the great Reformed theologians and political, cultural and social activists. As well as being an activist he was also that rarity, a successful Christian politician. Kuyper distinguished between the institutional Church and the organic Church.

The institutional Church is the denominational structure, the committees and courts, Kirk Sessions, Presbyteries and Assemblies and their equivalents. Then there is the organic Church, these are the Christians, living breathing people of God. It is the task of the institutional Church to support and enable the organic Church to be the Church.

The institutional Church exists for the sake of the organic Church. Today we have reversed that situation and the organic church seems to exist for the sake of the institution. The average Church member see him or herself having the task of keeping the Church going, a kind of pew fodder whose faithfulness keeps the institution going.

Meanwhile the institutional Church makes pronouncements on the environment, the economy and education etc. The General Assembly sees more posturing than a Milan catwalk, the usual suspects line up to give their opinion on every subject under the sun, and meanwhile the Church shrinks in numbers and influence.

Christians should be involved as Christians in politics, charities, pressure groups, every kind of legitimate social activity, that is their job as salt and light. The institution exists to enable the members to do that work, not to tell them what they should be doing or doing it for them.

If the teaching elders of the Church are not doing their work of equipping the people of God to be the people of God then the ministers are failing in their job. If the pronouncements of the courts of the Church have become a substitute for the action of the organic Church then they are failing in their job. It is the task of the institution to help the living Church, not substitute for it.

The sight of the Church of Scotland in one of its fits of activism making solemn resolutions on political matters is laughable. I say that deliberately because that is what the world does, it laughs. In 2005 the G8 met in Gleneagles, as did tens of thousands to protest against globalisation. At the same time the General Assembly was meeting and it was proposed and resolved that churches should ring their bells in their support. Here we had tens of thousands of mostly young people, deeply committed to their cause and willing in some cases to risk arrest for it, and what did the CofS do, we resolved to have a fit of guerrilla campanology. Laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

The Church should stay out of politics to allow the Church to be up to its neck in politics.


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