Monday, April 5

Definitions of church

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

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?


Alan Knox said...


I really like your description of a church. Thanks.


GuyMuse said...


'Description' is right. Do you have a definition you might add to the list?

David Oliver Kueker said...

In order to define to my congregation what we ought to be, I've been using the following statement since 1993:

We are a functional family of God where Jesus is Lord and people grow.

I could add a lot of detail - and wannt to do that - but it's all implied within the statement.

Aussie John said...


"rough draft"? I like it!

I would find a group of followers of Christ, who described themselves as you have written, to be a very happy situation to be in!

David Oliver Kueker said...

Reflecting on the church of Acts as a model for a New Testament church -

- did not provide worship but regularly attended worship at heavily liturgical cathedral known as the Temple. Did not seek to influence worship or play a visible role in it. Invested zero time in providing temple worship or developing new forms of worship.

- ran everything with one governing committee with 12 members until church grew to over 15,000 members. Then added second committee of 7 and growth "multiplied greatly." Principle: form no more than one committee until growth exceeds15,000.

- met in homes as small groups in the evening for prayer and fellowship, usually with a meal. The 120 in the upper room would each need to lead 2.5 evening groups to disciple the three thousand converts made on the day of Pentecost. Or two partners led five groups, one each evening. Fortunately, there was no cable television to interfere.

- the leaders hung out during the day in a public space called Solomon's portico, sort of a cross between the world's largest fellowship hall and the food court at the mall. Everyone in town would pass by that location at some time in an average day, so the apostles were very accessible and available to interact with all persons in the movement as needed. This allowed "just in time" unstructured skill training, supervision, bible teaching and prayer. The potential: 12 apostles x 12 participants in 12 small groups would allow them to train up to 144 people an hour, up to 1152 people in an 8 hour day and up to 6912 people in 6 days. This is likely how they monitored and supervised the cell group leaders in their networks. (This is where the "ministry of the word" took place - Acts 6:4 - not in the cells.)

- owned no property or buildings; used public areas and the temple grounds as needed.

- no health insurance or retirement costs for staff. Not certain if there were any salaries.

This was a pretty successful model for its time until the new "emergent" movement after Constantine offered new innovations for church life.

GuyMuse said...

DAVID: I like your definition. Might just add it to the growing list!

AUSSIE JOHN: Come on down (or up in your case!) and join us. We'd love to have you!

GuyMuse said...

DAVID: What you write about the Jerusalem church would make a good blog post. One detail, though, how did you come up with the figure of 15,000 before they added the 7? I never considered that each of the 120 would be so involved with that many people, but really shouldn't surprise me, we have people today with whom we work that are engaged with house churches and discipleship 6 nights a week, including a three hour drive on weekends to get out to the new believers. We've grown mighty soft over the centuries, haven't we? :)

David Oliver Kueker said...

How large was the Jerusalem church?

It's a good question.
3000 were baptized on the day of Pentecost - Acts 2.

In Acts 4:4: But many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

So, if we assume each man has a family with a wife and one child, that 5000x3.

Historically, however, this is an unusual situation as there are a large number of pilgrims in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Weeks or Shavuot, which we call Pentecost. One online source says this festival "the entire male population to make a pilgrimage" to Jerusalem. What percentage of the Acts 2 church was made up of these pilgrims? And did they bring their families with them, as we would today? (The presence of Greek speaking widows would argue for entire families to make the journey.)

Obviously, after the day of Pentecost it's likely that the pilgrims that became Christian remained in the city awaiting the second coming. That would explain the large number of Greek speaking widows mentioned in Acts 6 - they are out of towners. If the pilgrims began to run out of money, the need for the generosity of Acts 4:34 becomes obvious; there was no way for the pilgrims to earn their own living.

In Acts 6:1 the disciples increase in number - so 15,000 is not a bad number, although one cannot be certain.

When you look at what the seven deacons did, however, you see that they acted more like apostles than social workers - preaching and doing signs and wonders. Is it possible that this is actually a cross cultural church plant - the annointing of a seven man culturally homogenous leadership team to minister to the greek speaking converts?

With this new leadership team, growth explodes again: "Acts 6:7 And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith."

You can imagine the priests attempting to change the temple liturgy to recognize and give praise to Jesus - and they are immediately ejected via persecution in Acts 8:1-4. (Principle: in a renewal movement, don't attempt to change worship forms; instead, make disciples.)

As they are scattered, the network breaks into smaller component parts - little networks - and everyone goes home to their own towns, where they carry on disciple making there just as they did in Jerusalem. (It's natural that they would gather into cells reflecting common language and customs.) And so God puts a functioning network of disciple making believers to function as leaven in every town across the Roman empire where pilgrims had traveled to Jerusalem.

So 15,000 is a guess ... but I think a fair guess. I'm not a trained NT scholar, but I believe the pilgrims brought their families to the feast.

David Oliver Kueker said...

"I never considered that each of the 120 would be so involved with that many people..."

I believe that the 120 had been trained for this specific purpose for three years by Jesus. And that they were used to thinking in terms of groups of twelve and practiced at working in groups of twelve. And that each apostle in a sense built his own expanding network of disciples during Jesus' lifetime - so 120 people in the upper room equals twelve apostles each with 9-10 followers who are themselves trained disciple makers.

The math surprises us, but the G12 movement shows how quickly generations that are multiples of 12 increase the masses compared to the Korean 5x5 model.

We start with 12 apostles, 120 in the upper room.
120 x 2.5 x 12 = 3600 (Acts 2)or 300 groups.

But that number would be only one highly trained upper room leader who would be responsible for up to 36 growing Christians nurturing each other in three groups of 12. (And each group would have their apprentice doing a lot of the legwork.)

And 36 is a sociologically stable size for a small congregation to plateau - and not much of a challenge for a lay pastor. (They also have no preaching or worship duties - those are provided by the temple.) This requires the expectation, however, that every disciple maker in the upper room is expected to become a leader of 3x12.

But with Solomon's porch as the training tool, you have a very flat structure and the potential for each small group leader to receive personal training each week from one of the apostles. (Long chains of groups that never reach 12 is a weakness of the G12 as the quality of training decreases with each generation as the groups get farther from the central leadership - acc. to Joel Comiskey.)

Real life is not as easy as cell church math - but it's not hard to see how the numbers can jump up rapidly when you have multiplication of disciple makers.

In the diffusion of innovations this is called "S-curve" adoption after a "critical mass" of adopters is reached - adoption goes from around 20% to 50% to 84% of a people group in a very short time.

David Oliver Kueker said...

In Luke 2:42, Jesus, Mary & Joseph travels to Jerusalem for the passover. Luke 2:44 suggests that they make this trip as part of an extended family.

So that's one biblical example of entire families making this pilgrimage. It was a risky, violent and dangerous time to leave women and children back at home alone.

Darrell said...

I really like your definition Guy. For me it is pretty simple. Church is a family.

Tim Patterson said...


I like that you simply and directly from the Scriptures describe church. Gives us a picture of what it should be like to covenant together as Christ' body.

I think we should be careful in defining the Lord's body... kind of like wistfully coveting what kind of physical body we would like to have, or what model of car we should drive. As long as it functions as His body here on earth and is a vehicle for His kingdom coming and His will being done... good enough for me. (Yes, I know that some are more effective and efficient than others). He will build His church.

GuyMuse said...


I have really enjoyed reading your thoughts about the Jerusalem church. Several things there to "chew on" for a while. Since the Jerusalem model still prevails widely today, it is important to study. I personally do not think it is the ideal model, but certainly has become the most popular if one stops to see the kinds of churches today that want to be more like, what they think, the Jerusualem church was. Your thoughts on these matters should be a help to many wanting to work and evaluate the ministry of Jerusalem-type church planting.

GuyMuse said...

Darrell and Tim,

Family is what Ephesians 2:19 compares the church. And yes, Tim, there are all kinds of families out there. What would seem to be of primary importance is answering who the HEAD of that family is. In too many cases it is a man or group of leaders who are the head, and not the Lord Jesus. This is a huge problem that we have here in our work and ministry. Every one giving lip service to the fact that Christ is the Head of the Church, but in reality, they are the ones calling all the shots and keeping everything under control as they deem best.

David Oliver Kueker said...

A couple thoughts on the "Jerusalem model" - I've really not heard that term before.

One of the elements that excites me as someone who feels called to bring CPM and disciple making principles into a huge chaotic denomination is that the early church of Acts came into being as a disciple making movement within the much larger religious body of NT era Judaism.

Paul's mission is a model perhaps more adapted to bringing the gospel to cultures where Christianity is not the dominant cultural worldview.

It's an interesting discussion to compare and contrast the model used by Jesus in a Jewish environment with that used by Paul in a Gentile environment.

I've noticed that in the discussions of disciple making that some people (including me) want to anchor and connect their discussions of discipleship within concepts in a religious tradition (like the Jewish environment of the Gospels) and others whose concepts of discipleship are very free flowing and dependent on the spirit (perhaps more like Paul's environment amid the religous diversity of the gentiles).

So I believe my setting where the Christianity I support still has some cultural influence is helpful to me. Those bringing the gospel to people who have never heard it might have very different needs.

Darrell said...

Amen Guy.

Jesus is the leader of the Family. We follow him. We only follow our "spiritual" mothers and fathers as they follow Christ just as Paul explained.

We need families where the "parents" are giving their lives to their children. Serving the children. Investing their future into their children's future. "Raising" their children to be able to follow Jesus without their help so that they are mature, strong and healthy having their own family and multiplying the Kingdom.

NOT a dysfunctional family where the kids stay home their whole lives dependent on their parents forever.