Defining the Local Church
I'm not sure exactly where this is going to head, but I want to begin to focus again on some Simple Church ideas in my next few posts. This actually relates to the discussion we've had here on prophecy, spiritual gifts, etc. in some sort of way, because that discussion has brought to the surface some questions about "preaching", Sunday morning worship, and other related issues. There are so many different directions we could go in this area, and I hope to be able to blog frequently enough to touch on many of them without making my readers wait until sometime in November! ;)
One of my Christmas presents from my wife this past Christmas was the book Revolution by George Barna. My wife and I read that book together over the weeks following Christmas. I had intended to write a review of it on this blog, but that just hasn't happened. Rather than just review the book, however, I've decided to talk about some of the issues that are surfacing as a result of the publication of this book.
Before I get into that, I'm going to make a prediction. No, this is not a "prophecy", and I'm not in any way claiming this is from the Lord, so put the stones down and relax! ;) But this is just a personal thought and prediction as to what I think we're about to see here in America. Ready? OK, here it is:
I predict that we will begin to see increasing tension between the institutional church and alternative expressions of church, specifically the Simple Church (or House Church) movement. This tension will develop into many bitter debates, including statements by high-profile leaders.
Now, having made that prediction, I want to take yet one more step aside before getting into today's topic, and make a very serious and passionate plea to those who are on the Simple/House Church side of the issue. I'm making this plea to one side of the debate because many on the institutional side have already come out with their "fighting words". So, before any more discussion takes place, I'm making this simple plea to my brothers and sisters who have already begun to explore church outside of the institution: Please, please, please speak lovingly and with a heart toward partnership and reconciliation. Resist the urge to bash all things institutional. Resist the urge to argue based on emotion or poorly-reasoned arguments. Resist the urge to become defensive. Don't match fire with fire. Don't match accusations with accusations.
Now, those of you who know me know my passion and heart for Simple Church. But I hope that what you see in my writing here is more of a passion for the Body of Christ, regardless of how it is manifested, and for biblical guidelines. That's why I want to start with the area of defining what "local church" means. Some are standing up and proclaiming loud and clear the words of Martin Luther, "Apart from the church, salvation is impossible." And in doing so, they are teaching that anyone who is not a member of a local church (save in the case of being "between churches", whatever that means in their way of thinking) is at best in rebellion against God and at worst, unsaved completely. (The link I gave is just one representation of this discussion. My goal is not to target specific people with my comments, but to give an idea of what I'm talking about. One can read more specific reactions to Barna's book at this discussion.)
There are obviously a lot of presuppositions behind these kinds of statements. And one major presupposition is that the church is defined as a particular type of organization. For example, in this post here, James Spurgeon defines church in this way:
I am referring to an organized local body of believers in Christ who assemble together to worship, administer the ordinances, and carry out the great commission.
Now, this is the definition that is used when he goes on to state:
The individual who can claim to be a Christian and yet think it unimportant to join a congregation must never have read the New Testament. The Bible does not just command us to be a part of a church, it assumes that we will be--and just about every other command for us in the Christian life assumes church membership, also, in order to be carried out.
Recently, I read an article on House2House which offers a similar definition to James Spurgeon's. However, this definition seems to go even more in depth by defining the structure of leadership more distinctly (ironic, considering this is an advocate of house church concepts writing this definition):
church (ekklesia) is any gathering of believers irrespective of day, time or location, for the purpose of worship, fellowship, mutual ministry and the equipping of one another for the work of service, overseen by elders, served by deacons and ministered to by an identifiable five-fold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
Personally, I didn't have any problem with the first part of this definition. That is, I am comfortable from a biblical perspective saying that church "is any gathering of believers ... for the purpose of worship, fellowship, mutual ministry and the equipping of one another for the work of service." But I think that as soon as we go beyond that, we begin to force a definition back into Scripture that goes too far. Let me explain what I don't mean first, and then I will more constructively explain what I do mean! :)
I do not, in any way, mean to undermine the biblical role of elders. In fact, I hope to demonstrate at some point in my thoughts on these topics that I believe elders are a very essential part of a mature fellowship.
Here, then, are my concerns, in no particular order, with the definitions that have been proposed above.
- If elders are absolutely necessary for defining a church, then a couple passages of Scripture present some issues for us. For example, Acts 14 shows Paul and Barnabas travelling to different cities. In verse 23, we read that they "appointed elders ... in every church...." Yet, it seems clear from the context that these were churches already existing in cities to which the apostles had previously ministered.
If elders are necessary for a definition of "church", then how could there have been churches in those cities prior to the appointment of elders? Similarly, we read in Titus 1:5 that Paul left Titus in Crete so that Titus could go to the different cities in that region and appoint elders. While this passage is not as explicit as Acts 14 (i.e., referring to appointing elders in the "church", but rather the "city"), it still would appear from the qualifications for elder presented in Titus 1 that the church was already established in such a way that men could be seen as being faithful, knowledgable, etc.
- If deacons are absolutely necessary for defining a church, then we have an even more difficult problem with some passages. For instance, the same Acts 14 passage mentions that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders, but doesn't say they appointed deacons.
I'm definitely not fond of arguments from silence, but it seems reasonable to me that if both were necessary for a church to be a church, Acts 14:23 would say that they "appointed elders and deacons...." Strange oversight on the part of Luke, if it's a requirement for the church.
- The "five-fold ministry". Where do I start on this one? Well, a nitpick argument would be to say that not everyone is in agreement that Ephesians 4:11 references five specific ministries. Grammatically, it is possible to read "pastors and teachers" as one gift, not two. But apart from that little nitpick, I have a bigger issue with the concept of "five-fold ministry" from the way that Paul references some of these same gifts in a different passage.
1 Corinthians 12:27-28 talks about gifts in the same type of language that Paul used in Ephesians 4. But interestingly, in verse 28, he says: "And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers...."
Wait a minute. What about evangelists? What about pastors? In other words, if Ephesians 4:11 is meant to create a specific set of gifts that are required in the church, then something seems to have changed when Paul wrote to Corinth. (Or maybe this is why Corinth had so many problems. God neglected to give them two very essential gifts! Just kidding!) I find it very unconvincing that Ephesian 4:11 is any particularly defined set of gifts that must be present in every expression of the church.
- "Administering the ordinances" is something that is frequently referred to in defining the church. (Some use the word "sacraments" instead of "ordinances".) This is especially noticeable among Reformed believers -- i.e., Calvinists. It is not deniable that the Reformers talked about the ordinances and valued them highly. But again, I see little Scriptural support for some of the ways in which these things are discussed.
By way of definition, the "ordinances" to which many refer usually include communion (the Lord's Supper, Eucharist, etc.) and baptism. Some also include marriage as an ordinance that is given to the Church, too. However, let me give some thoughts on each of these.
When Jesus instituted communion in the upper room, it is true that he distributed the bread and the wine to his disciples (I assume he probably just handed it to the one next to him and it was passed around the table). However, we find no other specific references to communion being "administered" in the churches. Paul talks about the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, but makes no reference to how it really was handled with regard to "administering" it.
Likewise, with regard to baptism, Scripture is not entirely clear on whether only certain people "administered" baptism. The practice today of churches only having their pastor baptize people seems to be more restrictive than Scripture warrants. Besides, baptism seems more tied in the New Testament to evangelism, not to church gatherings.
Jesus told his disciples to make new disciples and baptize them. Unfortunately, we have relegated evangelism primarily to the institutional church in many situations, and seem to function in a way that implies that people must come to the church in order to be saved and baptized. This unnecessarily muddies the water (no pun intended!) with regard to the function of baptism.
- "Carrying out the Great Commission" is not only vague (in consideration of all that is involved in the Great Commission), but again, we don't see this tied to any particular function of the local body so much so as being tied to our responsibility as part of the Church universal. The Great Commission really outlines a process which is not "carried out" in one type of program. The Great Commission tells us to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them.
Of necessity, the first step in making disciples is sharing the Good News of the Kingdom with the lost. It is my sense that this is best carried out in two ways, as demonstrated in Scripture: 1) Public proclamation of the Gospel (i.e., Acts 2, Acts 3, Acts 5, et al.) and 2) Individual teaching of the Gospel (Acts 8 where Philip shared with the Ethiopian eunuch).
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul references the possibility of unbelievers being in the gathering and being convicted of their sin by the prophesying taking place. However, in the way in which Paul describes this situation, it sounds as if the effect on the unbeliever is rather peripheral to the focus and purpose of the gathering. Once a person has listened to the Good News and chosen to believe it, the Great Commission instructs us to baptize them and teach them all the Christ commanded. This is part of "making disciples".
As Philip's encounter with the eunuch shows us, baptism can take place wherever and whenever. One does not need to be taken to a church in order to let some "official administrator of the sacrament" do the work of baptism. (One may argue that, as a leader in the church, Philip was able to carry this out, but again, Scripture is completely silent on the idea that only certain "qualified" individuals can administer baptism.) There are other accounts of people being baptized in their own homes immediately upon conversion (i.e., Acts 16 with the jailor and his family).
I really must draw this post to a close and allow some comments before continuing on. I hope that I have adequately demonstrated some of my concerns with the definitions used as examples here. Going forward in these posts, then, I would like to use the working definition that follows, derived in part from those above, but really representative of where my thoughts were already before reading other thoughts on it:
A "church" is any group of believers who gather for the purpose of worship, fellowship, mutual ministry and the equipping of one another for the work of service
For those of you who want to engage in this discussion, how would you define "church"?
Until next time,