“The early church had no buildings, no paid clergy, no programs (not even for families and children!), and no agreed upon canon of Scripture…” An interesting series of statements, to say the least. I think you’re asking some important questions here, but I’ve always interpreted 1 Timothy 5:17-18 as indicating that the early church had paid elders. And as Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote, “As early as the beginning of the second century a differentiation between clergy and laity began to be seen…” “A History of Christianity,” Volume 1: to A.D. 1500, (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1975), 183. And I’ve always seen 1 Timothy 5:3-16 as a description of a church program for the support of widows. As for the issue of the canon of Scripture in the 1st century church, I recommend consulting “Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity,” by John Barton of Oxford (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) before anachronistically reading later canonical concepts into the frist three centuries of church history and then drawing rash conclusions about how the church of those years treated what we now call the canon. Much work still needs to be done in the area of the early church’s view of the canon. But none of this negates the essential value of the question I hear you asking: is something (an informal network of people, an institution with regular meetings, or whatever) a church simply because it calls itself a church, even though it doesn’t function in any way similar to the way the early church did? But then, to where should we turn for an authoritative description of the early church, and which of their diverse writings should we view as normative for us today? It also seems to me that you’re using the word “institution” more in the sense of “institutionalism,” i.e., “emphasis on organization (as in religion) at the expense of other factors” (“Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary,” [Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1977], 599), the “other factors” being what really matters, whereas calling the church an “institution” simply implies that it was established (instituted), or that it has some sort of organizational structure, both of which I find impossible to avoid in reality. Unless you indicate otherwise I’ll assume you’re writing about what I refer to
as institutionalism, in which case you have my wholehearted agreement that it is as far from the intentions of Christ and his apostles as you can get. When it takes root in any church, its spiritual vitality immediately begins to die.