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.