What Is a Church?

Here’s a recent e-mail:

I came across an old web blog of yours that talks about parachurches (or as you call them paracongregationals).  I was wondering if you could help me with a predicament. I am personally involved in an amazing college Bible study that doesn’t come under any church and was started by some of my old high school friends and me.  I can agree with my friends that as a Bible study we are the body of Christ, which is the Church, but I am uncomfortable with the conclusions they are coming to as far as what that means for baptism and the sacraments. They feel that we should be able to baptize people in our group and administer the sacraments because, just like the early church we are learning about God’s word, praying together and worshipping.  The only reasons I can come up with to defend my hesitancy to do these things is that we have not been appointed as elders and we don’t have a clear statement of faith.  Please can you explain for me how parachurch groups like us work and why the church is still needed and different from our little Bible study?  Or if not, please explain that, too.

First, let’s clear up a couple of terminological matters. Most Christians believe in sacraments, which Augustine defined as “visible signs of  invisible graces,” or particular (= “sacred”) means by which God promises to sanctify (= “make holy/sacred”) his people. Baptism thus is a sacrament, along with the Lord’s Table/communion/eucharist. (In fact, Augustine identified over thirty sacraments; Thomas Aquinas and others in the high middle ages reduced the number to the standard Roman Catholic seven; Luther reduced them to three: baptism, communion, and confession, and then dropped the latter to leave two–the standard Protestant number).

My correspondent is quite right also to recognize some of the various legitimate definitions of “church.” At the largest level, it means the Body of Christ: everyone ingrafted into Christ by the Holy Spirit. It also can mean the collective sum of all the organized groups of worshipping Christians: the Christian Church. It can mean a particular denomination (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church or the United Methodist Church). It can mean all the believers in a locale (e.g., “the church at Corinth”). And it can mean a particular social organization of Christians (what we normally call a “congregation”).

Second, What are the marks of the church? Traditionally, the church is defined as one, universal/catholic, holy, and apostolic. (For an interesting attempt to pair these marks with complements, see Howard Snyder’s essay in a book I edited, Evangelical Ecclesiology [Baker Academic].) Luther said that the marks of a church are where the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. His younger counterpart John Calvin, who directed the first thorough reformation of a city (Geneva) and thus proved himself of a more practical bent than Father Luther, later added discipline to the marks.

We can note immediately, however, that these terse definitions don’t say much about church structure. Only the one derived from the Apostles’ Creed says anything about leadership, as in “apostolic,” and that word itself has been variously understood, from “with leadership derived directly from the apostles” at one end of the spectrum over to “following apostolic doctrines and practices” at the other. And Calvin’s third mark, discipline, does imply some sort of organization, but could be anything from a recognized local authority (= “overseer” = “bishop”) to peer pressure (= congregationalism of a very simple sort).

Third, these various understandings have emerged in church history because, among other reasons, there has been church history. What I mean by that odd phrase is that almost two thousand years have transpired since the time of the apostles, and the church of Jesus Christ has traversed a lot of cultural differences and coped with a wide range of administrative challenges. In all that time, God’s Holy Spirit has been at work advising the church (= “Paraclete”)–not that the church has always understood or obeyed the Spirit, but we might assume that the Holy Spirit has been neither utterly silent nor utterly silenced by the church.

The implication of that observation is that what we see in the nascent organization of the church in the NT is not necessarily the form the church should take forever after, everywhere and always, world without end. I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren, and we thought that’s exactly what it should be, but I don’t agree with that viewpoint anymore. But what I take from my Brethren heritage in this case (and I take quite a lot, actually), is that what the church has evolved to be in this or that situation later in church history is also not necessarily the form the church should take forever after, etc.

House churches in China today, for example, typically look a lot more like the small Bible study group in the correspondent’s query than they do First Baptist or Holy Cross Lutheran or the Greek Orthodox church downtown. Are they wrong to baptize and take communion? I don’t see why. Should they have administrative structures to help be the church and do the church’s work better? Of course–per the evolution of the early congregations we see already in the NT, and thus my correspondent’s concern about elders, although I think one could be even more minimalist, as I’ve suggested, and say that the group should ask God to help them develop whatever administrative structure is best for this group at this time.

So I recommend that such a small group as my correspondent describes enjoy studying seriously the New Testament teachings about, and practices of, the church, good books on the church (Howard Snyder’s oeuvre is both radical and well-informed, and much better than most of the stuff being sold today about organizing the church: start with The Problem of Wineskins), and at least a few good articles about the evolution of church government over the centuries (standard theological and church history encyclopedias and dictionaries are the first places to look). And see how God leads you.

To be sure, arrogance lurks in the bushes: “We’re going to create a good church, instead of those stupid, lazy, conformist churches we see around us full of–” and so on. But a sincere desire to worship well, to care for each other well, and to serve one’s community well seem to me to be basic to the formation of a church. If you genuinely can’t join up with an existing body (and thus, practically, avoid all the work to reinvent certain wheels and also strengthen an existing group while being enriched by them in return), then I don’t see why you can’t at least try to live as a little church and enjoy the sacraments together.

Beware, however. Taking responsibility to form a church that will be the primary locus of Christian discipleship of those who join–for it seems to me that that could serve well as a fundamental definition of a church–is an awesome responsibility. You might decide instead to enjoy your Bible study as an ecclesiola in ecclesia, a “little church within a big church,” and also enjoy the benefits of an existing group/congregation/denomination. Many of the early Methodists organized themselves that way (especially with the encouragement of Charles Wesley and George Whitefield), as did the Pietists before them. (On these movements, and on the Moravians, see Howard Snyder’s unjustly overlooked book, Signs of the Spirit).

Maybe that’s enough for now. I look forward to your responses!

0 Responses to “What Is a Church?”

  1. Peggy

    A helpful and timely post, brother, in light of the hubbub over Anne Rice…and as I am currently reading Michael (iMonk) Spencer’s book: Mere Churchianity.

  2. Danielle

    Thanks for the quick and wise response and the great resources to look into. I really don’t think we’re at a time where we can reinvent the wheel because it started out as a summer Bible study and most of our “congregation” is leaving in the fall, but it is a question that I may find myself facing head-on in the near future.
    God Bless!

  3. Frederick Harrison

    The problem that arises at some point or another is “authority”, which usually results from an individual or group standing up and claiming this power for themselves. The church is split into those with authority, those subject to it, and those rebelling against it. Each of these divisions claims to have the authority over the other two, and so infighting erupts and breaks “the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love”.

    Quarrels begin over some (petty) decision, action/inaction, or interpretation of scripture, but can last for several generations, sucking the life out of a church until it becomes a spiritual black hole.

    What if all authority resided in the Son and his helper, the Holy Spirit, was the messenger and aid (paraclete) to the assembled members of His body in being subject to that authority? What if that authority was gited in different measures as the Spirit saw fit to equip the church? What if the authority given to us by Jesus was not to be grasped as a sword to divide the Body of Christ as mentioned above, but as the most formidable weapon we have against powers, principalities, rulers, dominions, etc. of this world. What if discipline in the Body of Christ proceeded from the love of an erring or weak brother or sister? What if decisions affecting the spiritual life of the church were preceded by seeking God’s will through prayer over several weeks prior to the vote?

    What do I mean by “What if?”. That is the reality of our situation. But do we really believe it?

    You wouldn’t think so, looking at the average congregation. But this has been the situation of every church since the Acts 2 church developed its own problems and the fear of the Lord arose within them. Yet God can and has used that unlikely bunch of quarrelsome members of His Body to provide witness and testimony to the world for 2000 years – and the gates of hell have not prevailed against it.

    Gilbert Bilizekian speaks of a radical idea in his book “Comminity 101″. What if those at the top of the church hierarchy made it their task to humble themselves and wash the feet of the lowest person on the church hierarchy lifting them up and taking their place at the bottom, followed by the person now at the top humbling themselves and washing the feet of those now on the bottom until the cycling of top to bottom gathered enough angular (spiritual) momentum to turn that vertical cycle into a horizontal circle of fellowship and mutual submission to one another in love?

    Having discerned the Body in that manner, the administering (“ministering to” in the real sense of the word as opposed to bureaucratic procedure) the sacraments could then be rightly regarded as “visible signs of invisible graces” rather than the “right” or “authority” of any individual or group in the church.

    (Eugene Peterson’s “Practice Resurrection” is a wonderful discourse on what a church as and is not and I’ve used some of his insights in writing this.)

  4. gkaiser

    I apologize, this is going to get long.

    Humans, though truly saved, both make mistakes and indeed sin.

    Fussing over who gets their way (authority at core) IS common, too common. So are petty issues we allow to dictate our feelings… and choices… and at times relationships are trashed, splits result.

    Church, at base, assemblies of believers (at the local level) are or are not as individuals and groups within them, mature, shallow, serious, casual about Jesus, His Word and biblical commands and promises. People are just people. Arrange the deck chairs however you like… but to state it bluntly- liking the arrangement is not (in my view) automatically synonymous with Spirit-inspired maturity.

    Certainly in western nations it’s pretty well down to “designer churches” in terms of “either I find/get what I want, start my own or quit any regular assembling together” in terms of personal discipleship.

    But I sincerely doubt discipleship happens outside of at least some -feel- of conflict. I’m not saying there aren’t hills worth dying on or times we rightly move from a congregation, not at all. But sometimes we blow off an hour or two per week with THOSE people for stupid, self-seeking reasons and call it the will of God.

    And we prefer a kinder, gentler God than the one allowing Stephen’s stoning, or whew- Annanias and Sapphira. Me too! And that was the church in Acts!

    But He does what He does and of course some are appointed/gifted/called to serve this way or that, with these gifts or those… “for the edification of the church”. Nah… if I’m not happy I walk. Many do. Nothing new in this.

    Well, I don’t find an answer Alone -but my comfort isn’t the most crucial detail as a follower of Jesus.

    I also don’t find it in disorganization though the CEO-ChurchINC congregation seems to be just as myopic and lacking biblical qualities as some house churches (yes, I said that) can be. Form ain’t substance- lack of form isn’t either!

    You’re correct, sum it up and it DOES get down to authority. I think many of us prefer a social club to a “tag, you’re it” sort of gathering. And we want to show up when we feel like it. My guess is that even the twelve felt like that- even for three years walking with Jesus Himself.

    Then I think about Jesus showing up after resurrection… and Peter and co. back in their old biz in the boat. Safe, secure, and completely away from all Jesus had commanded them in terms of calling and serving in love.

    John, I thank you for a great blog. I believe you nailed it in your post here, truly. But there is too much balance (and therefore a cross) involved for some to appreciate it :)

    Wherever you go, there you are.

    Lord, have mercy on us!
    -Glenn

  5. Ben from TIC

    John, your response is right on. The element of shepherding others is an awesome responsibility–the cost has to be counted. If the sender begins a new church with his or her Bible study group, someone may have to shepherd full-time at some point.

  6. Brian Moss

    I would love for Bryan Burton to weigh in on all of this. But since he hasn’t as of yet I will loosely paraphrase him, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This is not the case for the Church, and when we try to make it so we get into all kinds of trouble.”

  7. Dan

    Calvin mentions only two marks of the church in Inst. 4.1.9. In note 18 to this item in the standard edition, editor John McNeill indicates that discipline was added as a mark by later confessions.

  8. james

    This is a great post prof. Stackhouse. I count myself among those disatisfied with mainstream Evangelicalism. I sympathize with those who are fed up with low quality Christianity. I also sympathize with those who are shocked and even outraged to discover great mercy, insight and genuine spirituality on the fringe of church culture rather than in the center. How does this happen?

    Conversations i get into with disatisfied evangelicals, like myself, are sometimes heavy on moral outrage, indignant about poor leadership yet devoid of a sense of personal responsibility. Perhaps this is a necessary stage of development from a childish naivety and unhealthy dependency on the church and towards greater maturity?

    I am emerging from being too critical about mainstream Evangelicalism myself. Though i find myself angered and frustrated at times i am working at tempering my criticism with proper self reflection. What am i doing to make a stagnant church situation better? Am i talking with others, praying for God to humble me as well as wake others up, am i starting a new bible study on the subject and inviting supporters and detractors?

    As far as these young people go, maybe they do not recognize the enormous burden they are taking upon themselves. But why not? Maybe an adventure in missing the point is just what they need. On one hand they might grow deeper through independence or, on the other, they could also be chastened and matured by an ill advised jump into being a full blown church. I did lots of dumb yet heartfelt spiritual adventures in my younger years and i think it helped me learn a thing or two.

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