Over the past four decades there has been a continually expanding definition of the word “church” in America. A cursory scroll through Google lists hipster “churches”, club “churches”, and even atheist “churches.” If the concept of church is left to subjective cultural identification than these varied uses of the term are fine. However, if we hold to the Bible as our authority, and trust that Christ Himself designed the church, and is the acting head of the church (Col 1:17-18), than we must be much more considerate in our branding, beliefs, and practices. Sadly, as we’ll see, many who call themselves “church” are nothing more than a club, pretending to be spiritual, and using the word “God” to pad their own pockets.
The Etymology of Church
Does it really matter what we name a church? The primary New Testament word for what we commonly understand as church is “ekklesia”, referencing an assembly or formal meeting. The basic etymology of this word is sometimes translated, “Called out of” but is better stated, “Called together.” There are times in Scripture that this word can stand for the universal church of all believers on earth and in heaven (1 Cor 12:13, Heb 12:23) but more often the word stands for a localized church operating under God ordained principle (1 John 2:19, Rev 3:20). So, no it doesn’t really matter what we name the church, as long as we act like the church.
The Beginning of Church
Is it okay for a church to be creative and try new things? The church did not exist in the Old Testament but began on the Day of Pentecost. Jesus Himself stated that He would build something new (Matt 16:18), not build atop former things.
The church is called a Body and operates with a functioning Head (Eph 1:20) and this could not happen until after Jesus rose from the dead and conquered death. Also, the concept of Jews and Gentiles, operating as fellow heirs and as one body was a mystery (“musterion”) throughout the Old Testament era (Eph 3:5-6), explaining why the term “body”, either of Christ or any redeemed people, doesn’t appear in the Old Testament, and is first used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-25 and Romans 12:5.
Jesus acts as the Founder of the church. He is also the Cornerstone of the church (Eph 2:20), placing the apostles as the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20), sending the Holy Spirit to activate the church into a moving entity (Acts 2:33). The visible church began on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:42-47).
It is important for a church to work at conforming to New Testament principles and practices, especially in the area of doctrine. Paul told Timothy that Scripture would work as a guide to every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17). Paul also specified the qualifications and details for church leadership and church life (1 Timothy 3) and specifically ruled out using culture as a means for selecting faith and practice (1 Tim 2:11-14).
So, is it okay to try new things? Yes, it’s fine to be creative and try new forms of ministry, as long as the fundamental doctrines of truth aren’t abbreviated or aborted. Sadly, many fall victim to a love for human ingenuity which quickly subverts divine design.
The Definition of Church
Are there things a church absolutely must do? Well, based on the previous texts, here is a common definition of a biblical church:
“A New Testament church is an assembly of professing believers in Christ of all ages and ethnicity who have been baptized and operate in an orderly manner to carry out God’s will via teaching, worship, giving, fellowship, and evangelism.” (1 Cor 14:25, Matt 28:18-20, 1 Tim 3:1, Gal 3:27-29)
Notice some very important features of this definition:
1) Those who don’t profess Christ may attend a church but are not considered part of the church until conversion and baptism. We must be wary of stacking our membership rolls with people who no longer attend or showcase no commitment to the church. Remember that each leader must give account for who and how he shepherded the flock of God (James 3:1)
2) A church is led by qualified and structured leadership, meaning that a man is not a Pastor simply because he calls himself one. In the epistles there are 42 assignments for a Pastor, 17 qualifications of a Pastor, and they all boil down to two items. Can he properly teach and defend God’s Word? Is his life personally holy? If a man cannot do this, he is not biblically qualified.
3) God’s will and glory are the goal, making the primary purpose of church services about the glory of God via worship and learning of God through His word. Many churches today have a hard time raising up leaders because they continually focus on the lost, filling seats with unregenerate people, but never discipling them to the “full knowledge” of faith. Good crusade, bad church.
4) The church is not specific to any singular demographic – A specialized ministry to one age group or subset of society can be similar to a church, but is not a church, because it does not open its doors to all professing believers. Social work, social initiatives, boys clubs, girls clubs, missionary alliances, are all wonderful things, but they are not church.
The Ordinances of Church
Does it really matter how we baptize or take communion? See below, it mattered deeply to Christ…
Biblical baptism is supported by the fact that Christ commanded people be baptized throughout the current age (Matt 28:19), the early church placed large importance on baptism (Acts 2:38, 8:12-12, 10:47-48, 16:15, 19:5), and the NT discourse material explains baptism as a foundational truth (Romans 6:1-10, Hebrews 6:1-2). For a person to be baptized they must have first professed Christ as Savior and Lord, being able to clearly explain the gospel message.
The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion is taught as a memorial of Christ (1 Cor 11:24), a proclamation of Christ’s death (1 Cor 11:26), an assurance of Christ’s return (Matt 26:29, 1 Cor 11:26), and a time of fellowship between Christ’s children (1 Cor 10:21). For a person to take of the Lord’s Supper they must be a professing believer and should attempt to partake within the church of their membership.
The Ministries of a Church
Are there certain ministries we should do? Some we should avoid?
The New Testament provides mandatory pillars for ministry. These pillars focus on the heart and evidence themselves through transformed actions. This is important. The foremost focus of church is always spiritual. A church must protect itself from allowing an extenuating ministry of “meeting needs” to overtake its primary purpose of “preaching truth.” A biblical church will:
1) Teach and defend the Bible. The church has always held doctrine as paramount because the written Scriptures are the objective words of God to man and enough in themselves to complete a man unto maturity. A biblical church will ask a male who has passed the test of truth (1 Cor 14:26-33) to teach the Bible (Acts 2:42, 11:26, 1 Cor 14:26, 2 Thess 2:5), younger men to respect older men, and older women to teach younger women (1 Tim 2:12, Titus 2:3-5).
2) Worship by prayer and song. Prayer was practiced individually and corporately throughout the New Testament (Acts 4:24, 10:9, 12:5, 1 Tim 2:1-8) and there appears to be both private and public singing as a part of worship (Acts 16:25, 1 Cor 14:26, James 5:13). Some of the New Testament even contains parts of hymns used by the early church (Eph 5:14, 1 Tim 3:16).
3) Give generously. There is more said about Christian giving than any other item in the New Testament. Giving serves as proof of one’s love for God (James 2:15-17, 1 John 3:17-18), should be done voluntarily and liberally (2 Cor 9:7-12), and in cooperation with ministerial goals (Acts 11:27-30, 2 Cor 9).
4) Encourage and edify one another. The early church was known for its tremendous fellowship (Acts 2:42), an intimacy based on doctrinal agreement, humility, sharing of goods, and prayer – the aspects of Word and Worship literally went home with the people. A church strengthens the family (Eph 4:12-17). There are subsets to this particular ministry:
a. They will discipline. The goal of a church is holiness, thus every member submits himself or herself to its leaders for training and protection. Leaders are to discipline with meekness (Gal 6:1), without partiality (1 Tim 5:21), with deliberate steps (Matt 18:15-20), with a goal of restoration (2 Cor 2:6-8).
b. They will care for widows. If there are no relatives to support a widow the church assumes this role to help a woman who is over sixty years of age, unable to support herself, and shown herself to be a gossip-free and involved member of the local church
c. They will send people out. The early church worked hard to help those outside of its initial circle via missionaries and financial support (Acts 11:27-30, 2 Cor 8:18-22, James 2:2-3, 1 John 3:17).
5) Evangelize the lost. The early church was known for it’s great missionaries like Paul who lived to share the gospel (1 Cor 9:19-23, 2 Cor 5:20) while all Christians are told to “in their going” make disciples (Matt 28:18-20).
So, can there be a Hipster church? Possibly. If they’re committed to NT truth and leadership. Can there be an Atheist church? Certainly not. For that matter, nothing is a church which doesn’t uphold the truths of Scripture. Today many so-called churches aren’t churches at all, even monolithic structures of storied brick and mortar denominations, who willingly house women in the pulpit or marry the same-sex, have long ago given up their biblical designation and heavenly blessing.
The New Testament provides clear and detailed principles for a local church and states that Christ Himself is the founding Architect. Leaders, be careful of using biblical terms for which you’re unready to give account in heaven. Parishioners, find a biblical church and give wholeheartedly, gladly submitting to the leaders God has provided for your protection.
Beginning September 13th, Mission Bible Church will conduct a five week series titled, “What is Church?”