–September of 2008
Is Your Church Really a Church?
America is blessed with a lot of churches. Some sit astride prominent street corners proudly displaying their architectural glory while others are tucked away indiscreetly between a used shoe store and a day old bakery in a weary strip mall on the side of town where plight and crime prevail. Some have one word names like “Grace.” Others have names so long and so full of biblical and ecclesiastical jargon that you can’t say the full name with stopping to breathe. Some look like a church while others look like a warehouse. However, it is not the architect they display or the appellation they wear that concerns me. I often wonder how many of these places of worship are legitimate New Testament churches?
Is there a way to know if a church is really a New Testament church? Can one gauge when a church has gone too far on one hand or not far enough on the other to be considered an authentic Christian church? Can a church cease to be a church even though it opens every Sunday and is filled to capacity?
The New Testament doesn’t provide a definition of the local Church. The Greek word for church simply means the “called out ones.” So how can one determine what actually qualifies an organization or an assembly of believers as a New Testament church? The simple answer is that one has to go to the New Testament and look for the biblical characteristics of a local church and arrive at a definition based on them. This process, of course, has been done many times. The protestant reformers did so in the early 1500’s and said that a local church has two essential characteristics. First, it is where the Word of God is proclaimed, and second, it is where the sacraments are correctly taught and administered. This definition is a start but it is seriously incomplete. Its focus is totally inward and ignores the most central mission of the church – making disciples. Any definition of the church must include not only what the church is but also what the church does. The New Testament gives seven critical elements that should make up any definition of a local church.
The local church is essential (Matthew 16:18). The local church is God’s only divinely sanctioned institution to reach the world for Christ. Thus it is an indispensible, vital institution that cannot be replaced by anything else. To ignore or drop out of church, for whatever reason, is to oppose God’s ordained means of making disciples and maturing the saints so that His Church might be built.
The Church is an assembly or gathering of disciples (I Thess. 1:1, Acts 14:27, Heb. 10:25). The church is people. One person does not qualify as a church. It is a gathering of people who are professing believers in Jesus Christ.
The Church is under leadership. Spiritual leadership is vital to spiritual health. The references are simply too numerous to list that insist upon properly structured and ordained leadership within the church. Large portions of what the Apostle Paul wrote are instructions as to how to establish the leadership roles of Elder and Deacon in the local churches. No local church was to ever be a democracy or a consensus meeting. It was to be led by a group of men who met the spiritual, moral and social qualifications outlined in the New Testament. The problem in most struggling churches today can be traced to a lack of leadership.
The Church is an organization (I Cor. 14:40). The church is an organism but it is also an organization. Organization is necessary for the church to function effectively. Too much organization can stifle, but too little can breed confusion and result in a failure to have unanimity of direction and purpose.
The Church has a mission (Matt. 28:19-20). Christ’s Great Commission is the mission of the church. The success of any church must be measured by their obedience to this Great Commission. John Wesley understood this and told his preachers, “We have nothing to do but save souls.” I believe it is both fair and necessary to ask the question, “Can a church be a church if it fails to obey the central command to make and mature disciples?”
The Church has clearly defined functions (Acts 2:42-47). There are five general functions of the church. They are listed in Acts chapter two as: teaching, fellowship, worship, evangelism, and service. Much can be said by way of defining these functions but what is most important for the moment is that these functions are understood to be the timeless, unchanging, nonnegotiable work of the church. Just as the first century church couldn’t pick and choose the functions they would observe or ignore; neither can the church in the twenty-first century if it wants to be a New Testament church. Yet far too many churches become what are called “niche churches.” They claim to be all about “worship”, or they boast of being a “preaching church.” Some are known for their children’s ministries or for a strong counseling program. Some tout the fact that they are a “family oriented church” while others loudly affirm that they are there to “defend and preserve their heritage.” Even though churches will by the nature of their staffing have certain strengths, they are called to all the functions of the church and are commanded to “make disciples” not to “make niches.”
A church that narrows its ministry to one area is a church that invites the question, “Are you a true church?” No matter what the reason might be, no church can afford to compromise the God given absolutes that are to be a part of every church’s ministry. No church can afford to negotiate away the fulfilling of the Great Commission through its biblical functions no matter how noble or needed their other work may be.
The Church exists to glorify God (Rom. 15:6, I Cor. 6:20; 10:31). We glorify God as a church in the same way that Jesus glorified Him while on earth. He glorified the Father by living his life in submissive, loving obedience to the Fathers will (John 17:1-8). The church glorifies God as it fulfills its God given mission through its God ordained functions. To do less is to be less than a New Testament church!
Many will read this article and wave it off with a simple, “Ho Hum!” They believe they have the right to “do church” any way they want to! They have breathed the air of radical individualism that permeates Western culture for so long until they are convinced that their view is as good or even trumps all other views – even the Bible’s. They are right on at least one thing. They can do church anyway they choose. But they are wrong in thinking that they can be a church in anyway they choose.
The New Testament tells us what a Christian church is and does. Admittedly, it is a rather broad definition that allows for considerable variation in form and method, but it also a very plain definition that uncompromisingly embraces certain functions. If those functions are absent, then your church is not a church in the New Testament sense even if it has the tallest steeple in town!