Grass Roots Movement or Super Church?

Olan Hicks

The New Testament "ekklesia" or called out people of God began as a movement among the common people. Jesus was not received generally by the elite and powerful of his time. He did not select established leaders and form them into an organizational power. Instead he brought a message and simply started teaching it. That message called people together in what we now call "Christianity." Most religious leaders of the time rejected it, as did most government officials and civil leaders. But Mark observed that "The common people heard him gladly'' (Mark 12:37). In Acts 2 we find 3,000 people obeying the gospel in one day but no super church is set up. After the number had risen to over 5,000 (Acts 4:4) they remained a movement at the grass roots level, still having no ecclesiastical or clerical type structure. In Acts 6 they had to be told by the apostles to choose out seven men from among themselves who could be appointed over the business of the daily distribution of food. Christianity was planted on earth, not as an institutional structure but as a movement on behalf of the Gospel among ordinary human beings. Throughout succeeding history the pattern of its fortunes has been that each time it grew politically strong and developed into a super church, its nature has been corrupted and its purposes changed. At the times when it functioned as a movement among the common people it has flourished exceedingly well.

The Roman concept of the church developed a powerful hierarchy and produced a world wide super church, in contra-distinction to the basic design of the early church. We look back on that as an apostasy, both in organization and doctrine. Later a reformation movement began whose primary emphasis was the recovery of the "Priesthood of the believer" concept and a return to the "grass roots" nature of Christianity. But in time this also grew large and powerful and adopted a pattern of setting up superstructures. Still later in time another major revolt occurred, this one called "The American restoration movement." Once again it aimed at delivering the gospel from the bondage of the clergy system and recovering the "grass roots" nature of the church. This effort was very successful for a hundred years. As long as it retained individual freedoms and avoided ecclesiastical type structures its growth and influence for good were phenomenal. But in time it also grew large and powerful and the inevitable happened, institutional features developed and became bands which took captive this great movement.

What all this tells us is that Christianity as a movement is an incredible power for the promotion of the way of God, but as a super church it is a washout. There are indications in the scriptures that the planting of God's "ecclesia" as a movement among the common people instead of as a super church was by design. Jesus repeatedly ordered his disciples to reject the features of ecclesiasticism. He told them not to compete with each other for places of prominence in the kingdom. In Matthew 23 he very pointedly told them to avoid honorific titles such as "Rabbi, father, master" etc. In Matthew 20:25 he stated expressly that there would be no authoritative offices or positions of rank among his disciples, like the Gentiles are always doing. The writings of the apostles often urge Christians to be subject to each other, in honor to prefer one another, and never to lord it over anyone, but rather to "be clothed with humility" (I Pet. 5:1-6; Rom. 15:1-3).

But somehow it just seems to be man's way to think of Christianity in terms of an institutional system, authoritative offices, and as an ecclesiasticism rather than a simple calling for ordinary people, as was the "ekklesia of Christ" the way he designed it. In spite of the New Testament record telling us about the "grass roots" nature of the Lord's church, and in spite of the record of history showing the success of Christianity in this form and the failure of it in the form of the Roman concept, man somehow continues to repeat this same mistake again and again.

Remarkably, even many who regard the super church idea as apostasy and oppose what they call "institutionalism" set up another institution with which to do it. So it becomes a matter of our church against your church. The truth is one is as wrong as the other because the blue print for both originates in Rome instead of in the scriptures. The answer is not found in getting the right men in office and fixing on the correct interpretations of disputed issues. The answer is not found in setting up statutes to prohibit free thinking and to guard against every possible doctrinal error. The answer is to junk that whole idea and recover the Bible idea that the "church" consists of the people. Jesus Christ is the only head of this church and it is his will that we have no master other than him. The unit of power that can take the world for Christ and bring salvation to the multitudes is not organized religion as commonly known today. The kingdom of which Christ is the king is like leavening that works slowly and steadily until "the whole lump" is permeated. It is like a tree that grows and, over a period of time, finally bears fruit. It is like good seed that is sown in a field and in its proper season produces a harvest.

Yes, the Lord does have an "ekklesia," which we translate "church." It does have ministers, bishops, deacons, teachers, etc. (Phil. 1:1; Eph. 4:11; Titus 1:5). Yes, the Lord did ordain that preachers of the Gospel be supported by his people (1 Cor. 9:14). But he did not ordain that these ingredients be reshaped and molded into an ecclesiasticism. Yes, we are obligated to study the word in search of doctrinal purity. But the church, which is the people, will never attain absolute doctrinal purity for the very reason that we are people, mistake-prone humans. No single one of us will ever be perfect, let alone all of us. But we can maintain structural purity simply by refusing to join the organizations that men create and by constantly looking to Jesus as the only head of his church and as having all authority in heaven and on earth. When we do this we will constitute a movement to communicate the Gospel among ordinary people, not a human organizational structure to hinder the spread of the Gospel. The Lord's church and man's church are two entirely different things.