One of my favorite lessons in training new house church workers is when we get into trying to define what a New Testament church actually looks like. I'll get to our own Biblical definition in a minute, but first...
People come with all kinds of understandings and baggage about what a church is and what it is to look like. Back in the early years of our church planting, our team debated for months as to what we thought a NT church was supposed to be.
There are many helpful definitions and guidelines floating around out there. Here are a few that have played a role in shaping our current understanding of a NT church...
BAPTIST FAITH & MESSAGE 2000: A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
IMB GUIDELINES: We believe that every local church is autonomous under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of His inerrant word. This is as true overseas as it is in the United States, and some churches to which we relate overseas may make decisions in doctrine and practice which we would not have chosen. Nevertheless, we are accountable to God and to Southern Baptists for the foundation that we lay when we plant churches, for the teaching that we give when we train church leaders, and for the criteria that we use when we count churches. In our church planting and teaching ministries, we will seek to lay a foundation of beliefs and practices that are consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, although local churches overseas may express those beliefs and practices in different ways according to the needs of their cultural settings. Flowing from the definition of a church given above and from the Scriptures from which this definition is derived, we will observe the following guidelines in church planting, leadership training and statistical reporting.
--A church is intentional about being a church. The members think of themselves as a church and they are committed to one another and to God (“associated by covenant”) in pursuing all that Scripture requires of a church.
--A church has an identifiable membership of baptized believers in Jesus Christ.
--A church practices the baptism of believers only by immersing them in water.
--A church observes the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis.
--Under the authority of the local church and its leadership, members may be assigned to carry out the ordinances.
--A church submits to the inerrant word of God as the ultimate authority for all that they believe and do.
--A church meets regularly for worship, prayer, the study of God’s word, and fellowship. Members of the church minister to one another’s needs, hold each other accountable, and exercise church discipline as needed. They encourage one another and build each other up in holiness, maturity in Christ, and love.
--A church embraces their responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission, both locally and globally, from the beginning of their existence as a church.
--A church is autonomous and self-governing under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of His word.
--A church has identifiable leaders, who are scrutinized and set apart according to the qualifications set forth in Scripture. They recognize two Biblical offices of church leadership: pastors/elders/overseers and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
Kind of long-winded, but since the IMB works in church planting around the world, the Board of Trustees wants to be clear about the criteria used for what they would consider (and count) as a legitimate NT church planted by their missionaries.
STRIDER'S DEFINITION: "The Church is a group of baptized believers who meet together regularly, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and worship together, and are obedient to fulfilling the Great Commandment and the Great Commission together." --Strider http://www.sbcimpact.net/2010/03/08/the-essence-of-church/
JESUS: "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst." I know a lot of people argue this verse is being taken out of context and is not Jesus defining for the ages of what a church is. But nevertheless, it is a helpful verse (and passage) in understanding Christ's idea of how a church not only operates, but is.
YWAM: "A group of believers of any size, committed to one another to obey Jesus' commands." (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 2:42-47) See here for details.
NEIL COLE: "The presence of Jesus among his people called out as a spiritual family to pursue His mission on this planet." (from Church 3.0)
There are certainly many other definitions out there, but will now share our own. It is probably the most awkward and rough around the edges, but it works for us.
GUAYAQUIL CP TEAM: We base our definition upon the following Scriptures: Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 2, Matthew 18:15-20, Ephesians 2:19, Acts 2:42-47, I Corinthians 14:26 and following verses, Hebrews 10:24-25, Matthew 28:18-20. String all these passages together and you get something like:
A New Testament church is a small local gathering of believers usually meeting in homes. They are knitted together as a spiritual family with Christ as Head. Everyone contributes towards mutual edification out of what has been given to them by the Lord. Churches are characterized by their devotion to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. The environment is one where everyone is stimulated to love one another and do good deeds as they encourage one another to obey all the commands of Christ.
I realize the above definition sounds more like a rough draft, and could certainly use some polishing up. But what we actually do in the eighth week of training is dig into each of these passages and talk about each in depth along with the meaning and application. Rather than have a catchy, quotable definition, we are more interested in putting into practice these passages, and less in the definition itself.
I could say a lot more about this subject but will stop here. What is your understanding of a New Testament church? Does it really matter how we define church? When is a church a church and not just a group meeting in a home or auditorium?