I think we need to have a conversation about ecclesiology (the theological doctrine relating to the church), because in many evangelical circles there’s not a lot of clarity about what church is and why that matters.
Everyone has their own way of identifying a church. Some recognize a church because it meets together, or because it has the word “church” it in its name. But for a long time, people have wrestled with what actually qualifies as a church.
The Community of the Word – Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology, quotes Mark Husbands on the difficulty of establishing ecclesiology in an evangelical culture:
Both the best and the worst of evangelical ecclesiology are rooted in the passionate evangelical commitment to mission. This engenders flexibility that contributes significantly to the accusation that evangelicals don’t have an ecclesiology. We do. But as evangelicals, our ecclesiology is so flexible that it’s difficult, at times, to identify an effective one.
I’m one who believes that having a proper ecclesiology is essential, but it must include a necessity for flexibility.
Some do well at establishing the structure of what it means to be a church. Others do well at modifying methodology so that the church can breathe in various contexts. And I think we have been very generous in allowing much of both.
But how far can we go in either direction before we have left the basic truth of what the church is? Years ago, if a church identified itself as Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist, one pretty much knew the ecclesiology of that church. But such labels are no longer sufficient, or even that helpful to know the structure today.
Here are some of the new questions we can ask to understand what is a church today. Is it traditional, contemporary, seeker-driven, or post-modern? Is it a megachurch, a house church, or a meta church?
Definition is Important for Conversation
These themes are influencing how we define church and making it harder to pin down functional ecclesiology. Churches are moving forward in innovative ways. They are challenging some ways of thinking.
But I would also say part of the challenge is that they are often not thinking about the intent of what God has for the church. Ephesians 3:10 says, “God has chosen the church to make known His manifold wisdom.”
The church is the instrument for God’s agenda in the world. The Bible has multiple teachings about the church that we sometimes read through, in a sense, assuming what they mean without thinking deeply on them.
We need to take time to think about what God says the church is if we want to be His church. The church is a living body with a dedicated structure and movement.
Many who want to spend their lives actively reaching the unchurched don’t want a suffocating structure, even when that structure provides theological stability. And many who value mission-sustaining structure don’t want to lose their identity via loose strategies, no matter how vital.
Simon Chan writes in his book, Liturgical Theology, The Church as Worshipping Community: "I would like to suggest that what evangelicals need is an adequate ecclesiology if they’re to discover resources to deal with the long-standing problems that critiques have identified and, quite ably, analyzed."
And, an "adequate theology" is a great way to phrase it because a lot of churches have an inadequate ecclesiology, particularly in the contemporary church movement.
Now, why does that matter?
If you don’t actually define what you mean, everyone will assume, but nobody will be able to define what church is. A sketchy definition of church results in a confused congregation and, sometimes, confused pastors.
How one defines church, why the church exists, and even for whom the church exists based on Scripture, is integral to thinking soundly about how we engage the world around us.
Again, when it comes to church, when everyone knows but nobody explains, we end up casually speaking about the same thing but actually referring to different things. I believe that in every age and in every culture, a church should have certain characteristics for it to be a church.
Biblical Marks of a Church
The Breakaway Bible Study meeting at Texas A&M might have 10,000 people attending on a Tuesday night. But the Bible study but does not function biblically as a church, and therefore is not a church.
Yes, Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, HCSB). But He doesn’t say that the gathering of two or three is a church.
Fellowship with other believers is great, but it is not the defining element of a church. On the other hand, the material building with columns and brick does not make a church either.
Gathering together with singing and Bible study doesn’t make you a church. Having a building doesn’t make you a church. But I would say that a small group of people meeting in a village in Kenya around a tree, who are exercising spiritual gifts, studying God’s Word, who are partaking together in the Lord’s Supper, (along with other factors) can be and is a biblical church. Why?
Because, if there are actual marks of a biblical church, these must be present in all times and in all places in order to qualify as a church. This represents the normative expression of the church.
I encourage church bodies (like denominations and networks) to agree on a minimal definition of what the church must be—what it must have to be a church. I am talking about setting a baseline to know what constitutes a church. If we’re planting a church, it would have these things regardless of the time or location.
There are six things that I believe every church must have. A church will:
Live and function under Scriptural authority;
Install biblical leadership;
Include preaching and teaching;
Exercise the ordinances or sacraments;
Be a covenant community that deals with issues of membership, discipline, etc.; and
Be on mission, which is the call of the gospel for all churches.
So I believe that a biblically faithful church would look different in Senegal, Selma, and Seattle. But I believe all of these churches will have certain same marks to truly be a biblical church. This is not a reductionist approach. I’m not suggesting we reduce it down beyond the necessary level for a gathering to be a biblical church.
I should add that I am aware of, and am thankful for, other "lists" of marks. I've just made a list that is longer than some, probably expanding on their categories such as the Reformers' idea of the "right preaching of the Word and proper administration of the sacraments." But also shorter than others, which probably collapses some of their categories into my listed six.
Regardless, if the church matters, how we structure and do church matters as well. That's ecclesiology.
Are there marks you would add to a minimal definition of church? How has your definition of church changed through your experiences? How do we bridge the divide between what God expects a church to be, and what the world expects from us?