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