I am, at heart, a scientist. This statement is certainly not intended to suggest that I am at odds with God or His Scripture. Instead, it explains how I reason – like how I believe that lessons about one part of His Creation can be helpful for understanding other parts.
Take, for example, the concept that the “church” is often referred to as a living thing (e.g., Colossians 1:18, “body”; Ephesians 5:24-25, 27, “bride”) and therefore a kind of an “organism”. Now, when a Biologist is introduced to some new kind of thing and is told that it is an “organism” that very classification communicates something about the object.
For example, in order to qualify as being a “viable” (or living) thing, an organism is expected to display up to seven characteristics. So as a scientist my hypothesis (a nerd-word meaning, “I’m throwing this out there for consideration”) is that if a church is an organism, then these “signs of life” criteria should be applicable to and therefore helpful in an examination of a “church.” Consider the following three characteristics, which would certainly seem to apply:
Metabolism: The organism has processes that absorb available resources, breaking them down in a manner that allows these resources to be used by the cells.
Homeostasis: The organs and structures take steps to maintain the day-to-day functions of the larger organism, including dealing with internal disease and repairing damage.
Adaptation: The organism is capable of modifying responses and even processes when external factors in its environment require it.
So with that encouragement, let’s look at the last four principle characteristics in a little more detail:
Cellular Organization: All of the cells in a creature MUST be part of some structure (or organ) that supports a function of the organism.
This criterion seems to hold up rather well and even has scriptural support: “For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. “(Rom 12:4-5)
But take note that this statement goes quite a bit further than just saying the “church body is made up of different parts.” It actually requires that every “body” in a church (equivalent to a cell in an organism) should be identifiable with some function of the organism. To be clear, a living thing has no organs that serve as an “audience” or “passive participant.” When I was young doctors were rather quick to rip out a person’s appendix or tonsils, since these were considered “vestigial” organs with no purpose. Today we know better. (But this makes me wonder: Do we have members in a church that seem like they’re “vestigial?”)
We could further observe that all the organs work together in support of the functions and purposes of the organism as a whole. Biologically speaking, cells within a living thing that do not advance the purpose of that organism could at best be considered as parasites, and perhaps even as cancers – but that’s a totally different kind of Coffee Talk article!
Growth: A creature exhibits a definite growth, usually visible in the capacity of the organism but also at the cellular level as it relates to resisting disease.
Here’s something I’d forgotten over the (mumbledy-mumble) years since I was in school: biological growth is not stated in terms of an increase in the size of an organism … did you catch that? Look at the definition again—there are two different ways that an organism can demonstrate growth. The first way is by showing an increase in its efficiency, effectiveness, or productivity. Or course an organism that has more muscle mass has the potential to be more productive, but it’s the outcome that is evidence of growth, not the potential.
Let me very clear, the way growth is defined doesn’t require adding new cells (or members of the church). After all, just plain physical growth isn’t hard … that’s how salt crystals do it. Consider this: if you ask someone, “Is your church growing?” and their answer is, “We’re up to 500 in every service!” they still really haven’t answered your question, at least according to biology!
A second measure of growth is visible at the level of the individual member. Each individual is maturing in their ability to resist the disease of self-will. Further, this definition of growth requires the individual cells and organs to learn how to function together. A three-year-old has the same bones and muscles of an adult, so why can’t he catch a ball like his father? He just needs to “grow.”
Response to Stimulus: An organism will take definite steps when exposed to an opportunity or a threat.
Generally a “stimulus” is an event that is expected so when an organism encounters that stimulus, there’s an automatic response. For example, throw a pizza (a food-source stimulus) in front of a teenager (a fairly omnivorous organism) and watch the reaction. Another example: as the sun moves across the sky, some plants keep their leaves oriented towards it to help them absorb the most sunlight. On some other plants, when they’re brushed by a passing animal, their leaves fold up to prevent damage. As another illustration, when the outside temperatures get colder and snow threatens, some organisms hibernate, others retreat indoors and tune into a football game.
I wonder what a “stimulus” would be for a church? Maybe a new family moving into town? Perhaps an opportunity to show God’s love in the community in the aftermath of a tragedy? Possibly a cut in church giving? Here’s the thing though: a “response” is something that happens. It’s not “Are we going to do something about this?” but “Stand back and watch this!”
So then, the important thing about this characteristic is that it’s not about the stimulus! The stimulus may actually be something very small, like a fly touching the web of a garden spider, but the response is “definite” and well-coordinated. (As I think about it, that’s not a very good analogy. Strike that. I’ll come up with something better later.)
Reproduction: The organism MUST demonstrate the capability to create new organisms, either on its own or in cooperation with others.
In the intro I tried to make it clear that organisms don’t have to display all seven characteristics of life, however this one is a “must have!” Isn’t that interesting? If my hypothesis (remember that word?) is correct, then the required expectation is that if a church is “living” it must be involved in starting other churches. (Insert a “Hmmmmm” here.)
In the simplest living things, the entire organism is involved in the process of reproduction, sometimes by simply splitting in half, and then adding back the missing cells . In my lifetime I’ve seen several churches “split,” but I don’t know of any that I’d consider as “healthy reproduction” as I understand this characteristic. (Good place for another “Hmmmm.)
In more complex organisms there may be dedicated organs and processes devoted to this characteristic; however, the entire organism is involved. Further, in many cases this process involves the coming together of like organisms who shares the same vision. A grain of wheat may increase a hundred-fold (Luke 8), but not all alone, it doesn’t!
At this point it occurs to me that for some of you it may have been a few months (or decades—but let’s not dwell on that) since your high school Biology class, so you may have forgotten that after a hypothesis the next step is to make observations to test the validity of the hypothesis.
So what are YOUR observations?
Rock Hill Church
*This is the second article in our series focusing on the nature of the biblical church