This article by Jordan J. Ballor appeared in the March issue of our Ad Fontes magazine. To subscribe to receive full issues in your inbox, click here.
A hallmark of neo-Calvinist thinking about the church in the nineteenth century and beyond is the distinction between the church understood as an institution and as an organism. The Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) elaborated this doctrine in his opening sermon as pastor in Amsterdam in 1870. The sermon’s title, “Rooted & Grounded,” is derived from the hope expressed by the Apostle Paul that the church would be “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17). The church is a living body, rooted in its connection with the living Word, Jesus Christ, the true vine and source of life. The church is also grounded in its institutional expression, its confessions, teachings, and practices.
The distinction is intended to articulate the authentic Reformed position over against two errors: the overemphasis on the institution found in Christendom and the overemphasis on the organic life of the church found in radical sects. Only the Reformed view, and only as it increasingly defined itself against older models of church and state, keeps the proper balance and relationship between these two aspects of the church’s existence.
The magisterial reformers had articulated a distinction between the visible and the invisible church as a way to explain and understand the difference between membership in a particular earthly community and citizenship in heaven. Kuyper develops a new dimension to this received understanding by exploring the difference between the church in its formal, institutional and its disseminated, organic expressions. The institutional church has to do with what the church does in some kind of formal, ecclesiastical sense. Here the traditional marks of the church are in view: the institutional church is defined by pure preaching of the gospel, right administration of the sacraments, and appropriate exercise of church discipline. The institutional church is visible when the church gathers together in corporate worship.
The organic church, however, comes to expression as the church is spread throughout the world in various arenas and vocations. If the institutional church is found in worship, the organic church manifests itself in work. The church as institution is gathered for worship; the church as organism is scattered for work. Older models of the relationship between the church and the world, such as those found in Christendom, tended to conflate civil and ecclesiastical powers, often with ecclesiastical power absolutizing the authority of institutional church. This was, thought Kuyper, the fundamental error of Rome and one that was largely replicated among early magisterial Protestant communities. And in contrast to the ecclesialization of all of life under Christendom, various radical responses tended to emphasize the organic and spontaneous aspects of the Christian religion. Here the formal structures of Christian worship and church life could be seen as dispensable, and even as impediments, to true faith.
The institute/organism distinction is thus intended to address an inconsistency in the Reformed embrace of older Christendom models while at the same time guarding against excessive pietistic spiritualization and understandings of faith as merely expressions of individual experience. It is also designed to provide a framework for understanding how the church ought to function within a pluralized and institutionally secularized society. The institutional church, argues Kuyper, has no right to impose its confession on the world through the use of the civil government’s coercive force. “We advocate a rigorously confessional church,” says Kuyper, “but not a confessional civil society, not a confessional state.” In this way Kuyper’s vision was of a “free church” and a “holy nation.” Thus, he asserts, “We must be free in order to escape Rome’s paralysis, but we must no less be church in order to escape the draining away of our lifeblood as a result of spiritualism.” The true church of Christ, according to Reformed conviction, “envisions through her influence on state and civil society nothing other than a moral triumph, not the establishing of confessional ties, nor the exercise of authoritarian dominance.”
Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Kuyper’s younger antirevolutionary colleague and successor to Kuyper as professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, articulated an analogous distinction in his description of the kingdom of God as both a pearl and a leaven. For Bavinck, the gospel comes to expression as a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46) in the institutional church’s proclamation of the gospel and administration of the means of grace. Salvation is like a pearl that is worth everything we have. But this salvation is not just a matter of a one-time, individual experience. The regenerated and converted person, increasingly dying to self and living to God, continues to live in the world. As the Belgic Confession puts it, “those who are regenerated have in them a twofold life, the one corporal and temporal, which they have from the first birth and is common to all men; the other, spiritual and heavenly, which is given them in their second birth” (Art. 35). This second birth creates human beings who still live in the world and encounter it in their daily work, occupations, and social relationships.
The organic church is thus the primary way that the church exercise a reforming influence on the broader society outside the walls of the institutional church. “Although the worth of Christianity is certainly not only, not exclusively, and not even in the first place determined by its influence on civilization,” writes Bavinck, “it nevertheless is undeniable that Christianity indeed exerts such influence. The kingdom of heaven is not only a pearl; it is a leaven as well.” For both Kuyper and Bavinck, the organic church is the living foundation for the edifice of the institutional church, which serves to support and instruct the body of Christ.
This dual emphasis on the importance of the church both as an institution and as an organism, akin to the biblical images of a pearl and a leaven, is a significant legacy of Dutch Reformed ecclesiology in the nineteenth century, and one that offers much help for navigating the difficult and perennial challenges of the church’s mission in the world.
Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty and a general editor of the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology (abrahamkuyper.com)
 See Abraham Kuyper, “Rooted and Grounded,” in On the Church, ed. John Halsey Wood Jr. and Andrew M. McGinnis (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 46.
 Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace, vol. 2, ed. Jordan J. Ballor and Stephen J. Grabill (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, forthcoming), 36.3.
 See John Bolt, A Free Church, A Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper’s American Public Theology (Grand Rapids, MI; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001); and John Halsey Wood Jr., Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper’s Struggle for a Free Church in the Netherlands (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
 Kuyper, “Rooted and Grounded,” 49.
 Kuyper, Common Grace, 2.36.3.
 See Jessica Driesenga, “A Pearl and a Leaven: The Twofold Call of the Gospel,” in The Church’s Social Responsibility: Reflections on the Evangelical Church and Social Justice, ed. Jordan J. Ballor and Robert Joustra (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 2015), 39-45.
 Herman Bavinck, “Christian Principles and Social Relationships,” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 141.