What Makes a Church?

Posted: November 1, 2010 in christianity, church, theology

I was recently asked about what I thought “makesa church. Embedded in this seemingly simple question was, I think, a few deeper questions.  What constitutes a true church? What is the church supposed to be about? What is the structure of the church?  What is the goal or mission of the church?  How does the church express itself on a regular basis?

In other words, “What makes a church?” is a loaded question.

Organic Church

I believe that the person I was talking to asked me this question in response to the current wave of house church movements spreading across the country, a movement accompanied by hoards of new books published on the topic each year.  I am actually currently reading Neil Cole’s Organic Leadership, a companion volume to Organic Church, in which Cole offers a “hands-on guide for demystifying this new [house] model of church and shows the practical aspects of implementing it” (from the back cover).

Many leaders in the house church movement are highly critical of the “old way” of “doing church”.  The critique levied against the “institutional” or “organized” church model can be summarized as follows: “The church in the West has sacrificed so much of what she is supposed to be about that her relevance is lost to the lost” (Organic Church, xxiv).  There is a lot that goes into this serious criticism, but that is a good summary.

Hence the basic question: “What makes a church?”

In order to begin to answer that question (and this is only a beginning), we need to establish something right off the bat.  We need to understand the word “church” as it was used by the New Testament writers.

In the first century, the Greek word for “church” was not a uniquely religious word.  It simply meant “gathering” or “assembly.”  In the Roman world of Paul’s day, it was often used in reference to the regular meeting of citizens in a city to decided matters relating to their welfare.

In Acts 19:39, we actually have an instance where the word “church” (ekklesia) is used in that exact way.  Here’s the context: Paul is in Ephesus with a few of his companions.  He has already started a church, but has angered many of the local craftsmen.  They are ticked off because of the message that Paul and his fellow Christians are preaching throughout the city.  They are teaching that Jesus is the one true God and that Artemis (one of the chief gods of the Ephesians) is not actually a god at all.  The Christians’ message is powerful and many people are converting, which is bad for the craftsmen’s business!  Less people are buying idols and shrines for worship of Artemis, which means smaller profits.  So, a silversmith named Demetrius stirs up a big riot and drags a few of Paul’s buddies into the large amphitheater in the center of the city.  They’re all extremely angry and start yelling, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”  It is at this point that a city official intervenes:

“And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly (ekklesia). For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly (ekklesia).” – Acts 19:35-41

Here we see the word for “church” (ekklesia) used in a non-religous way.  It is used in reference to an official city meeting.  This is the basic, generic meaning of the word ekklesia. The fact that the word “church” does not automatically have religious connotations is important in our study of what makes a true church.  We must first understand the word as simply denoting a “gathering” or “assembly”.

Paul's Idea of Community

However, one of the foundational principles for interpretation of the Bible is that context and the author’s use of a word is the ultimate determiner of that word’s meaning.  It is clear from reading the New Testament that Paul and the other writers quickly invested this generic term (“gathering”) with religious significance (see Col. 1:18, 24; Eph. 1:22-23; 3:10).  In his book Paul’s Idea of Community, Robert J. Banks argues that, for Paul, “the ekklesia is not merely a human association, a gathering of like-minded individuals for a religious purpose, but is a divinely created affair,” (p. 31, see 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Rom. 16:16 ).  The Christian “church” is the community of God’s people, established and maintained by Him.  Banks continues, “Christians belong both to a heavenly church that is permanently in session and to a local church that, though it meets regularly, is intermittent in character,” (p. 41).  For a more detailed treatment of this topic, see Banks’ excellent chapters in this book entitled, “Church As Household Gathering,” and “Church As Heavenly Reality.”

Now that we have a basic understanding of the New Testament’s use of the word “church”, we can turn to the topic of what a church looks like in practice. I believe that John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, can help us here.  Piper lists seven distinct characteristics that a church must have in order to follow the pattern set forth in the New Testament:

First, the people must be believers (Joh. 1:12-13).
Second, the people must be baptized and, by implication, practice baptism (Mat. 28:19).
Third, there must be a regular assembling (Heb. 10:25).
Fourth, there must be gatherings for worship (Act. 2:47; Rom. 15:6-7).
Fifth, meetings must include exhortation from the Word of God (Mat. 4:4; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 4:1-2).
Sixth, there must be a celebrating of the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:24).
Seventh, all of this must take place with the guidance of duly appointed leaders (Act. 14:23; Eph. 4:1, 12).

This, Piper argues, is the minimum of what it takes to make a local church.  The value of this type of definition is that it is helpful in determining what is not a church.  If a group does meet all of these requirements, we can automatically conclude that they are not a church.  A few examples Piper gives are the Navigators, Campus Crusade, and Young Life.

It should be noted that Piper does not really define exactly how all these seven points will manifest themselves in the life of a local church.  The application and practice of these foundational components of a true church will look different depending on the context, demographic, culture, tradition, etc.  I believe that the New Testament gives us a lot of freedom in many of the specifics, but these basic ingredients must be in place for us to claim that we are following the New Testament pattern (not a detailed blueprint).


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