The coral model of church structure


When you have a new world, you need a new church. Not a new gospel, but a new embodiment of the gospel.
David Dunbar

THE QUESTION, “What model of church structure is the most effective in today's world?” remains a hot topic. We live in a world where strong governments and weak leaders are the political norm; churches tend to follow suit. In one sense, the church needs “weak” government and strong leaders. Controlling hierarchies that squash freedom, initiative and an active searching for truth may seem tempting to lazy sheep and ambitious shepherd alike, but the price paid — ineffectiveness and stagnation — is just too high. By the same token, church institutions lacking a robust constitution centered on preoccupation with God and His glory, lacking a clear grasp of their fundamental beliefs, having a loosey-goosey approach to the administration of their evangelistic responsibilities and an ad hoc method of resolving conflicts and handling immoral behavior have perhaps even less chance of success. The living church of God, the holy remnant of Israel together with ingrafted Gentiles, cannot afford to commit its “power” into the hands of a few, nor can it hope to have an impact if it has no blueprint to follow.

This article proposes the “coral model” as a blueprint for success. It is posted in the market place of ideas in the hope that it will stimulate some more serious thinking on the subject of church organization.

The coral model helps show that both a high degree of independence for all and a low degree of coordination and regulation can operate simultaneously within a sharing community such as the church. The coral model is proposed as a response to the folly of arguing the “either-or” of strong central authority vs. autonomy. Instead, we should look upon church structure as a “both-and” situation. Coral polyps are both largely independent and centrally coordinated and regulated. Can we do the same in the church and thus protect ourselves from falling in either of the ditches on the sides of the road — confusion on the one side and asphyxiating control on the other?

We need to clarify what exactly we are talking about in this article. This article has virtually nothing to say about the structure or organization of individual gatherings of believers known as congregations. This silence is based on the conviction that any gathering of believers should be free to structure itself in whatever way it chooses, and that any groups of congregations that wish to affiliate with each other should be free to run their internal affairs any way they please. In what may at first blush appear to contradict the opening statements about control and power, the coral model envisages that at this lower level congregations and “chapters” (to be explained) would be free to run their affairs any way they wish, even in a centrally-controlled, heavily hierarchical manner if that is what the people want. If that form of governance works well, then others will be attracted to it. If its performance proves mediocre, individuals can quietly depart and join a different congregation in a different chapter of the same church.

The coral model deals with the large-scale structure of the international community that is meant to be “the church”. In the coral model, that large-scale structure is envisaged as consisting of chapters of congregations that are free to run their own affairs however they like, with the proviso that they consent to be affiliated with other such chapters in accord with a strict constitution that governs not how the chapters are run or structured but how they interact with each other and resolve conflicts, and they agree to contribute to and support a central, international “service centre”. Congregations are financially and organizationally independent, excepting that they consent to contribute to and support the chapter to which they agree to belong. Thus, the very term “church”, as used in this article always refers to the large-scale, internationally-scoped institution.

Most people are familiar with hydras from their high-school, biology-class days. Corals are like colonial hydras, in which hundreds or thousands of individual hydra-like animals, called polyps, are all interconnected by a horizontal sheet of tissue. Amazingly, each individual polyp appears capable of acting entirely independently, yet at the same time it is affected by all the other polyps. Nutrients can be shared throughout the colony. And in some corals a number of neighboring polyps will work together in harmony to their mutual benefit. Yet, in spite of such independence, they are all subservient to some kind of central coordination of reaction to outside stimuli — analogous to a central, international service center.

Until Vatican II, the Catholic Church has used one primary model to inform its structure — the body (of Christ). Basing its ideas on the biblical metaphor about one body, many parts, the Catholic Church has developed a highly hierarchical structure. Historically, a supreme Pontiff at the top has exercised firm control over even the more distant parts, just as in the human body the foot is controlled as firmly as the hand. Many churches have followed a similar pattern of organization. However, when Paul spoke of the body of Christ being one body with many parts, he was not addressing church organization at all. He was showing that all members of the church are important — whether apostles or “mere” foot-slogging members. (Read I Corinthians 12 carefully.)

An international institutional church

The Bible does consistently depict the Church as having an institutional aspect, even though the spiritual flock and the institution are not identical. The “true Church” — the spiritual flock — embraces all true believers. There are no tares in “the Church”. But the work of the Kingdom of God on earth, operating through the agency of the church, catches all kinds of fish, both good and bad (Matthew 13:47-48). Thus, the institutional church contains a mix of wheat and tares. The question remains: “What structure will best serve the interests of both the spiritual and the institutional aspects of the Church?” In answering this question, we have to factor in the simple reality that, containing both wheat and tares, the institutional church must seek a structure that not only enhances the Church's ability to fulfill its commission, but also minimizes the effects of the Diotrepheses, or of other false brethren “crept in unawares”.

The fact is that the Bible, contrary to our desire (and sometimes belief), does not provide a clear model for church governance or structure, especially of large-scale structure. Theologian Paul Minear has counted over eighty different biblical figures describing various aspects of church life and structure (Carson, Biblical Interpretation and the Church, p. 64). The Bible likens the church to a Temple, a great house, a flock of sheep, and so on. No one of these can be used as a definitive description of how the Church must be organized. As “The Illustrated Bible Dictionary” article on church government puts it,“The New Testament provides no detailed code of regulations for the government of the church…”

Thus, believers are left with the challenge of prayerfully seeking a structure that is going to best serve the commissions given to the church to both preach the gospel worldwide and feed the flock — to catch fish around the world, turn them into sheep, and feed them. The body model seems to work for a small group. This author contends, however, that it is incongruous with the smooth functioning of a large spiritual organization. And, even more importantly, that the “strong central control ” approach actually hinders growth! (True, some big churches have historically practiced tight control methods, but that's another matter.)

We need strong centralized authority, but decentralized control. In this article, “authority” has to do with enforcing agreed-upon policies. “Control” has to do with the day-to-day running of administrative, evangelistic and pastoral affairs. To try to run or control an international ecclesiastical body from one central office can't work. How is tight central control deleterious to the body of Christ? In a number of ways. But let's consider only two:

1. It stifles initiative. The church has been given the task of preaching the gospel in all the world. To accomplish this requires that total freedom be given, within set guidelines, to chapters, congregations, even members, to exercise resourcefulness and initiative, in order to reach into every nook and cranny of this earth with the precious truth of God. When innovation at the grass roots level is disallowed, the preaching of the gospel grinds to a snail's pace. There is nothing wrong with a TV program being produced by, say, an American chapter. But such a program would be useless in reaching the Ashanti people of West Africa. If we are to ever reach such people, then localized efforts need to be encouraged. If a group of members in West Africa had to receive permission from some controlling headquarters across the globe before proceeding with some evangelistic thrust, enthusiasm would suffer. Let each group take the initiative. Gatekeeper mentality, in which distant parts of the spiritual body have to seek permission before proceeding, stifles initiative. And if we depend upon some central HQ to take the initiative to reach the Ashanti people, you know what will happen. Nothing! This is not a criticism, but merely stating a fact of life.

Two objections immediately arise. First, some will feel that this freedom might open the floodgates for all kinds of weird and whacky ways of preaching the gospel that detract from the dignity of the glorious gospel message. Perhaps some individuals somewhere would try some strange strategies. But in the give-and-take that freedom allows for, they would quickly be reined in by other local members and congregations. In this way, sensible control is localized, rather than being imposed from across the sea.

Second, there is the fear of legal ramifications. Could not the church be besieged by lawsuits as a result of legally naïve actions on the part of individual chapters? Not if the international governing body seeks legal advice and establishes clear legal guidelines, and explains possible repercussions for thoughtless actions, that are incorporated into the Rules of Association (see section below “Strong Central Government”).

2. It leads to low morale. The simple fact is that whenever a “distant” HQ tries to run the show in another region, it is only a matter of time before problems arise that corrode the morale of the local natives. A distant controller simply cannot, no matter how well-meaning, understand all the local issues and problems. No man or board on the face of the earth can grasp the niceties of all different cultures. No one knows enough about spiritual fishing to be an expert in all waters. Morale suffers whenever control from a distance is exercised.

So perhaps we need a new model. One that is flexible enough, through decentralized control, to allow for different fishing and shepherding methods in different circumstances. Different fish go for different bait.

Yet, there must also be an organizing skeletal structure, even authority, for the entire church worldwide, or it would flounder helplessly. With the coral model the cake will still be there after we have eaten it. We will have strong central authority while maintaining local autonomy.

Like coral polyps, all chapters in the church should have independence; yet like coral polyps, they must be interconnected and submit to an organizing principle. There is no place for maverick, self-willed breakaways in the church who are not willing to comply with agreed-upon regulations that they have put their signature to.

In his book “Small is Beautiful”, E.F. Schumacher says,

Once a large organization comes into being, it normally goes through alternating phases of centralizing and decentralizing, like swings of a pendulum. Whenever one encounters such opposites, each of them with persuasive arguments in its favor, it is worth looking into the depth of the problem for something more than compromise, more than a half-and-half solution. Maybe what we really need is not either-or but the-one-and-the-other-at-the-same-time (p. 202).

Strong central government

The main key to success in the Church is perhaps not so obvious. To actually be the church on which God smiles, it must be preoccupied with knowing Him, seeking Him, glorifying Him. It must be totally God-centered in all that it does. Next comes a more obvious key — the exercise of Christian principles by all affiliates. The community of God holds together because of spiritual agreement and mutual submission by all parts to the rule of Jesus Christ. Rules should never replace the true spiritual glue.

However, we cannot presume that conversion alone will ensure harmony within the Church. We need the safeguard of formal and agreed-upon regulations which provide a system that is predictable. Where rules do not exist, they can be arbitrarily declared, producing uncertainty and anxiety. We need rules, and they need to be clearly spelled out, comprehensive, formally agreed upon by any group that wishes to be a chapter of the association, and strictly administered by the international governing body or service centre of the church. This is where the idea of “strong” government comes in — it has teeth. If the church is to be truly united worldwide, it cannot allow for deviation from the agreed-upon, scripturally-compatible Rules of Association. The central governing body of the church must have the obligation and the willpower to ensure that the Rules of Association are adhered to. They must have the power to dissolve the governing body of any chapter that continually or willfully ignores the Rules of Association. (But not to appoint a new governing body — that would need to be the prerogative of the members of that chapter.) But that power must be exercised only after following an established procedure in which it is proven that the alleged breach of the Rules of Association has occurred. Innocent until proven guilty. No action can be taken against any chapter for any reason other than clear breach of the Rules.

Strong central government whose authority to act is limited to administering existing Rules of Association is good central government. Strong central government that can act arbitrarily over or can run the everyday affairs of individual chapters is bad central government.

Pride of place in the Rules of Association would need to be given to a Statement of Beliefs. No chapter may teach contrary to those beliefs. The Rules should also, for instance, allow for any chapter to use any written or broadcast material produced by any other chapter. The Rules of Association would also need to specify the financial obligations of each chapter to the Church as a whole. It could be stated, for instance, that every chapter must send, say, 10% of its income to the central international governing body or service center. Such a regulation ensures genuine commitment by associated chapters to the international church. The Rules would also need to cover relationships between chapters — such as strictly prohibiting any active sheep rustling, or the vilification of one chapter by another. Much more could be said about the Rules of Association, but space prohibits.

In sum, this kind of government is government by exception (Schumacher, p. 205). The governing body is not running the church, it is regulating it. Ensuring that the Rules of Association are observed by all. (How the Rules of Association are to be composed in the first place, and then to be modified over time, is another subject.)

With its financial security, it is capable of carrying out various initiatives such as launching good works projects. It also acts as the coordinator of various committees, such as the committee for doctrinal development, or amendments to the Rules of Association. But it does not run the committees. It would also be a service provider, communicating with all chapters regularly, gathering information and keeping all chapters regularly informed about what each other is accomplishing, and what is working well for different chapters. Finally, like the chapters themselves, it would always be free to launch an initiative for preaching the gospel in any areas of the world it sees fit.

Autonomous chapters

Clear Rules of Association combined with rigorous application of them provides order and structure within the church, and safety to all. It gives confidence that no renegades are going to spoil the party for the rest of us. Or that anyone is going to suddenly act high-handedly. But for an ecclesiastical coral colony to flourish, individual polyps must also be free to control themselves.

Here is where chapters come in. At first sight this proposal may appear to lead to confusion, fragmentation and disunity. However, that is only a superficial assessment. In the long run, it should produce greater unity than we have dreamed possible. And any confusion in the implementation stage will dissipate rather quickly.

As already noted, a chapter is not the same thing as a congregation, but consists of an unlimited number of congregations, from only a handful to hundreds. Here are a few thoughts about chapters:

1. As in corals, where there are many polyps in the one colony, there should be no imposed limit to the number of chapters that can form. Why should not any group of people that is willing to formally agree to the Rules of Association be permitted to form its own chapter? In theory, a single chapter could comprise congregations from a number of countries. A dozen from Peru, twenty from China, eighty from USA, and so on. Sounds silly, perhaps; but if you have congregations who want to do that, why should they be prevented?

Likewise, in theory you could have more than one chapter in any nation. As I understand it, the SDA Church already has such an organizational pattern. They call the chapters “unions”. Brazil has 4 unions, whereas Germany has only one.

With the passage of time some congregations and chapters would undoubtedly coalesce for the simple reason that human beings want to “get with the strength”, and those chapters that are failing will disband and its members commit themselves to those that are succeeding. When you whisk soapy water in a bathtub, masses of tiny bubbles are formed. But leave it for a while, and the smaller bubbles gradually coalesce into bigger bubbles in response to forces that encourage the formation of a smaller number of bigger bubbles.

2. Each chapter would have its own governing body or council which would be chosen by election from below rather than by appointment from above, and would not have to be restricted to the ordained. Though such a selection process would not totally eradicate politicking for position, it would greatly reduce it — especially the scourge of nepotism. Localized selection of officers would significantly encourage productivity. When officers know that they must achieve or else, the outcome is predictably positive. The precise form that each chapter's council should take would be the business of that chapter.

3. Each chapter should be totally autonomous within the bounds of the Rules of Association. No one chapter, no matter how big, has any kind of authority over any other chapter, no matter how small. Each chapter answers directly to the international governing body (or board, if you prefer) and to no one else. The board does not control any chapter, but only regulates it. The international board can intervene in the affairs of a chapter only if it is proven that the chapter is contravening the Rules of Association.

Each chapter may structure itself any way it chooses. For instance, a chapter may wish to have a Ministerial Services Department, or it may choose not to. It may decide to have congregational committees running the affairs of each congregation, or it may choose a pastoral form of congregational government. Or it may choose to allow either form. That is the business of each chapter to decide for itself.

Each chapter would be free, for example, to preach the gospel wherever and however it sees fit, being completely at liberty to produce whatever booklets, periodicals, podcasts, broadcast materials and the like it chooses.

4. Two or more chapters would be free to amalgamate if the church members of each agreed to it. Amalgamation should be encouraged.

5. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, it might be wise to allow for two separate levels of brotherhood between individual chapters and the church as a whole. The two forms could be called “associated” and “affiliated”. Associated would be more tightly connected than affiliated, being in “boots and all”.

The main reason for this distinction is to give elbow room to those who believe the same way, yet are not yet trusting enough to sign any institutional dotted line — the so-called post-institutional man. They believe the same way as others. But don't wish to feel tied down. How many sheep are “out there” who are mistrustful of institutions? Allowing affiliated status would encourage such people to once again be a part of something bigger than their living room fellowship. In time, such people would reach the point of being able to commit themselves once again to an institutional church. Thus, affiliated chapters would hopefully be a passing phenomenon.

Associated chapters would have more obligations than affiliated; but they would have more privileges as well. Affiliated chapters would not be obligated to pay a rent to the parent governing body. But they would not have any say in doctrinal development, or any voting rights in policy decisions. Yet they would be free to preach the gospel under the imprimatur of the Church. Provisions should be built into the Rules of Association allowing for affiliated chapters to convert to associated.

Benefits of this system

First, a structure in which chapters are free to form anywhere anytime would prevent almost entirely the sad spectacle of endless spin-off groups. A simple fact of life, proven historically, is that various groups of people, who believe the same things as their parent body, simply cannot operate comfortably in a given environment or under a particular administrative style, and so they break away and form a new group. How much more sensible it would be to allow them to create their own structure, yet remain an honored and fully accepted part of the one body. (Or coral colony.) This system, therefore, encourages real unity, while allowing diversity. We should not equate unity with uniformity.

Second, you will have the benefit of learning from experience. It shouldn't take too many years for it to become evident what is working and what isn't. Those chapters that fail to get their act together will slowly wither, yet without the potential trauma for their members of being left high and dry — there is always another chapter they can be attached to. Those that do well will gradually gain numbers. Or, alternatively, those that are not succeeding will learn from those that are, and will be able to implement the methods that are working. In coral colonies, food resources are sometimes shared. When some polyps have a bad night's fishing, they are able to call upon reserves from other polyps that have fared well. But those polyps that fail altogether over time are resorbed, their resources being spread around amongst other polyps. Sounds Christian, doesn't it?

Third, with innovation taking place at a more localized level, creative juices will flow freely as never before. Enthusiasm for preaching the gospel will swell to overflowing.

Fourth, this structure prevents the possibility of anyone hijacking the entire church worldwide, imposing upon it a whole new religion.

Much more could be said about the topic of church organization. Many questions (and objections) will come to mind that we can't deal with here. Such as the relationship between chapters and congregations. Or the vital question of the composition and selection of the international governing board or council. And nothing has been said about the critically important matter of procedures for arbitration and jurisprudence. Or credentialing of ministry. Those are major details that could be worked out.

A system incorporating these concepts should work well.

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