Monday, March 9, 2015

What is Church? Part One

Several years ago I hosted a retreat for pastors. The retreat was to address a single question: what is a church? You would think this to be an easy question for pastors to answer, like a convention of bakers gathering to define bread. Nevertheless, we all left the retreat without an adequate answer we could agree on…and that should make us all a little nervous.

It turns out that defining church is not as easy as you would think.

While in seminary, I was given a list of ingredients from the New Testament to define a church. Some lists have 5 ingredients, others go as high as “9 marks,” but they are all very similar. Here is a typical list:

1.     A group of believers who gather together regularly to worship.
2.     …that hear the biblical preaching of God’s word.
3.     …that consider themselves a church.
4.     …that have qualified elders.
5.     …that practice baptism, communion and church discipline.
6.     …that have an agreed upon doctrinal foundation.
7.     …and have an evangelistic purpose.

Such a list interests me for two reasons: 1.) What it chooses to include, and especially, 2.) What it does not include. Our church traditions have biases that come out in our theological definitions of church. In many cases, we choose to accept our tradition as biblical and then go back to the New Testament to prove it, rather than letting the Bible do the defining. In this post I will address the things mentioned on this list of ingredients. In the next post I will delve into the things not mentioned on the list. Finally, in a third post, I will explain my own view of what church is.

It is all too common for preachers to include the preaching of a sermon on the list of what makes up a NT church. It is extremely difficult to find a Biblical justification for this inclusion, but they find some verses taken out of context to put in parenthesis at the end of each line, knowing few will ever question it. In fact, the sermon has been made into a sacrament at the core of what church is, and functionally is treated more as a sacrament than baptism or communion. Even in baptistic circles where the elements in communion and baptism are taken to be merely symbolic acts to picture a sacred truth, the sermon alone is considered a means of actually receiving life changing grace of God (which is truly what it means to be sacramental). 

The usage of the Greek word kerygma, translated “to preach” is overwhelmingly used in regard to sharing the good news with an as-yet-unconvinced audience, not delivering a sermon to the saved. There are very few examples of sermons delivered to Christians in the NT. Those we find hardly constitute a model for weekly sermonizing; and the longest sermon we can find is about 15 minutes in length. There is nothing at all wrong with the practice, I’m in favor of it in many cases, but to make it a core ingredient to define church has more basis in church tradition than the New Testament.

There isn't any biblical support that believers have to consider themselves a church to be a church. Are we simply trying to separate parachurch from local church? There isn't any biblical support for the idea of parachurch either. A reactionary theological statement that has no grounds in Scripture will come to haunt us later if that is how we define a church. If you ask me, when Jesus thinks you are in His church, it really doesn’t matter what others think, including yourself.

There are examples of churches without elders in the NT. On Paul’s first missionary journey he started churches with Barnabas and then left them without elders. Later, he returned to those churches in order to appoint some as elders. You would be very hard pressed to say biblically that they are not churches prior to the second visit. While these are not a great example of churches (Galatians), they were churches nonetheless.

Why is it that we so often insist that elders are present in order to be a NT church but so rarely include deacons? The NT is equally as strong on both roles. I think it is because those determining such things are elders, and those considered to be deacons are usually not in the meetings that define theological limits. I'm in favor of having elders and deacons in church, but lets not make their presence or absence the defining ingredient of a church.

While I am a staunch proponent of baptism and communion and becoming more so with each passing year, I am not willing to make the statement that those who do not practice them are not a church. My Quaker brothers and sisters as well as my Salvation Army friends would take issue. This sort of thinking actually promotes the idea of parachurch as well. If a group of Christians that fellowship, worship, do evangelism and discipleship together simply avoid getting wet and eating crackers and grape juice they avoid being a church and are therefore not a threat of competition to the local church and can raise their funds. Sorry, but I don’t buy it.

I believe that it is this incomplete and inadequate definition of church that has given rise to the idea of parachurch, or at least has given it a theological justification.

Next post I will look at what failed to make the list to define a NT church.


Unknown said...

This is a powerful article and one I hope to link to in future when these kinds of questions come up. Love it!

Jeffrey Stewart said...

The Lord has been talking to me about this, and with your permission, I'd like to share a word He gave on this subject last week:

The Lord wants the culture of the Church to become like the culture of Heaven, and the culture of Heaven is centered on worship. The Lord values teaching, preaching, encouraging, and many other things, but these things only operate properly when fostered from within His Presence, which manifests in an atmosphere of worship.

When Jesus prayed "THY will be done on earth as it is in Heaven", He was ESPECIALLY meaning it for His Church on earth. So that means we should look to Heaven for our model of how things are done in church. What Heaven emphasizes, the church should emphasize. So we see worship has the central place in Heaven, and therefore it should have the central place in our church services. What does this mean? It means that the goal of our services should be to host the Presence of God through worship. Our current model makes the sermon the central part of the church service. There IS a place for the sermon. There is a place for teaching. There is a place for prophecy. But these should all be seen as SPOKES from the central hub of Worship. You see, the Presence of God will do the same things that Jesus did. Jesus healed the sick. Jesus restored lives. Jesus called the lost sheep home. Jesus showed the way to walk with the Lord. And we know Jesus is named "Immanuel" which means "God with us," so Jesus and the Presence of God are one and the same. And Jesus had NO problems drawing a very large crowd, because people are hungry for the Presence of God, whether they know it or not.

The Father says:

"As My People begin to model their church services after how things are done in Heaven, I will cause Heaven to manifest in the earthly realm. I hunger for My People to seek Me as they seek Me in Heaven. And I hunger to bless My People as I bless them in Heaven. So as you begin to model your church order after the order of things in Heaven, Heaven will become more and more visible in the earth realm in your services. And that is how I will show the world that My Son died for them, by showing them His Glory through His people on the earth."

Neil Cole said...


Good thoughts. I would only add that worship is much more than merely singing songs of praise, and unfortunately we reduce it to just that. Worship actually has its root in service to the king, so when we are serving King Jesus, empowered by His presence, then we are offering a sacrifice of worship.

I do not actually agree that "his presence (only) manifests in an atmosphere of worship." I believe his presence manifests anytime and anyplace we are surrendered to the King, and that gathering with Christians to sing praises is not necessary to see his presence manifest. Of course you will likely experience his presence there as well, you may just as much experience it by giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty soul on the street.

I also believe that the phrase "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is not saying that we should do church the way it is done in heaven. In heaven there isn't a lost and dying world, here there is. His will is that we bring hope and healing to the nations and seek and save the lost. That work goes on outside of the gathered worship service. I also do not think merely singing songs or praise on the street corner is the whole thing either, not that it is wrong or unhelpful to do so.

But for the most part, I'm with what you are saying.


Brett said...

I am truly interested in hearing how you feel about the practice of "beaming in" a "pastor" for Sunday teaching as some.churches do. I feel this is not a good thing, as it reminds me of the "priestly class", which God got rid of.
Blessings, Brother!
Brett Tubbs
El Paso, Texas

Jeffrey Stewart said...

Thank you for taking the time to comment, if you don't mind just a couple of brief thoughts

(1) One of the most successful church services ever recorded is in the Book of Acts chapter 2. The people were glorifying God in tongues, that is, by flowing with the Holy Spirit. Those watching started talking about what they saw, then Peter flowed into preaching a sermon. This is an exact picture of what I was talking about in my first reply. They were glorifying the Lord, flowing with His Spirit, then out of that flowed the sermon, and three thousand got saved. They were doing what people were doing in Heaven, worshipping the Lord, and sermon flowed naturally from that worship.

(2) There is a difference between corporate and individual worship. His Presence often manifests differently in each case, but I do get your point. Worship is not just singing.

(3) I'd only add one additional thought - nowhere do we see support for the current pattern of three songs and a sermon in scripture. This pattern is just a slightly modified version of the way it has been done in Catholic churches the past 2000 years or so. I think there should be some flexibility in the order, so that the Lord can direct the service to go any way He wishes. Too often we see the Holy Spirit moving during the worship part of the service, and some leader will walk up to the front and shut things down, quenching the spirit and grieving the heart of God. This needs to change.

Again, thank you for your time and I will think about what you said.

yeoberry said...

The word "church" is a bad translation of "ekklesia" which means gathering. A church is simply a gathering, in our case, a gathering of people who around the Lord, who is the One who gathered them. He did so by calling them out -- with His word. Hence, we show that by preaching the Word so that through that Word the Lord might continue to gather His church.

Neil Cole said...

Thanks Jared!

Brett, here is the first entry of a five part series on the subject you are asking about, which I wrote in Sep/Oct of 2009.

Neil Cole said...


Yes, I agree. I am less impressed with the worship service of Acts 2 than most. Yes it was a good start but the church itslef didn't obey Jesus command (Acts 1:8) so God used Saul of Tarsus/Paul to mobilize it to obey with persecution (Acts 8:1) Everyone went except the "sent ones"! The church did not end well. By the end of the book of Acts the church is inundated with legalistic judazers who would want Paul killed. At least the "sent ones" finally went.

I love a good worship service, but life must go beyond that and worship is how we live out our beliefs not just sing about them.

Agree on the 3 songs and a sermon!

Thanks for chiming in on the blog. I hope my perspective doesn't offend you.

Neil Cole said...

Yeobery(?), agreed. Here is what I added later in the discussion...

I would only add that while ecclesia means assembly or gathering, it takes on greater theological significance as the NT is written.

Thanks for your comments.


Unknown said...

Hello Neil !
ive been reading Organic church :growing faith where life happens and i love it. i am saved since 3years back and it is a ''look a like story'' as some from your books and i love how you go down to the naturality (my english is bad) and organic it is. i am now in a family member of a church doin it naturaly here in Oslo,Norway. we do alot like you describe it in the book on how it started. some questions is do you have any part of that church in europe and if not is it posseble to go under my vaccation in the summer to the Us to stay and learn from someone there? i would love to spend my vaccation on learning and experience from the church over there.

and i wanna say thanks for writing the amazing book. really good one. been blessed by it. best Regards: Rassmus wistedt, an streetreached swedish guy in Norway. :)