WHAT IS A CHURCH?

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By Dr. Stephen Kim

“We believe in one, holy, catholic [universal], and apostolic church.” -Nicene Creed

The primary means by which God disciples the world is through the planting of churches. Jesus Himself instituted the church (Matt 16:18), and the apostle Paul in all three of his missionary journeys labored endlessly to plant churches (2 Cor 11:28). If God does not save you on your death bed (i.e., the thief on the cross), then God expects you to join a church. Generally speaking, both Jesus and Paul saw Christians as those individuals “within the church” and unbelievers as those “without the church” (1 Cor 5:12). Cyprian went as far as saying:

Whoever is separated from the church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the church; nor can he who forsakes the church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother. If anyone could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the church.

Although I would not go as far as Cyprian, I would say that church membership is utterly indispensable and vital. Much of Christian life is impossible to practice outside of the church’s context. Your spiritual gifts were given to you first and foremost for the benefit of your local church. Lastly, Jesus’s own words for those cast outside of the church should cause any cavalier attitude towards the church to cease immediately:

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17)

And yes, while we’re at it, I’ll address the, “Is it a sin to miss church on Sunday” question. If you and I were made for worship (i.e., the First Commandment) and the apex of earthly worship is the corporate worship that occurs each Lord’s Day within the church, then, “Yes, it is a sin to miss church on Sunday.” Early Christians knew this and secretly met at the risk of their lives in catacombs each Sunday. Whatever you’re “enjoying” while missing church on Sundays is your idol. It could be Little League baseball or extra hours at work–that to you, is your functional god. Christians must always have their priorities straight. God is first.

WHAT IS A CHURCH?

If church membership is expected and compulsory, “What then, is a church?” That’s an important question. I once met a lady who greeted me with Bible verses and about “how great” her church was. Sadly however, I later discovered that her “church” was nothing more than a home Bible study.

What distinguishes a church from a small group or a Bible study?

The Augsburg Confession has this definition:

The church is the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered. And unto the true unity of the church, it is sufficient to agree concerning the doctrine of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.

Martin Luther had seven marks for a true church, and the Lutherans focused on the first three marks to hammer out that part of the Augsburg Confession.

Here’s my definition for a church:

A church is a gathering of four or more non-related Christians, who mutually self-identify as a church; believe and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ; rightly practice the two ordinances of the Lord Jesus Christ (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper); has biblical male leadership in place; practices church discipline; and gathers at least each Sunday for worship, fellowship, and preaching from the Bible.

Notice I did not say anything about “where” a church should meet. They could meet in a house, parking lot, or in a school (though they should not meet in a mosque or an idol’s temple). The gathering is what makes a church–not the building.

WHAT IS A “TRUE” CHURCH?

Someone might wonder at this point, “Do Protestants have true churches?”

Of course, we all know that prior to the Reformation and the Schism of 1054, there was only “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” Church. However, due to the rampant immorality and false gospel teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, a break was imminent and necessary in order for the saints to recover the true gospel and of course, to recover a true Church. Yes, there are different denominations within Protestantism, but all true churches have one thing in common irrespective of denomination: They all adhere to the same, vital, apostolic doctrines. Our belief in truths derived from Scripture save us (1 Tim 4:16) and therefore, as a corollary, those same truths identify for us true churches. We hold a connection to apostolic churches [those churches planted by the apostles] through our faith in the teachings of the Bible. Tertullian perhaps said it best when he said, “We hold communion with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different than theirs.”

Those of us in true churches should count our blessings and also take heed: A true church could become a false one by the abandoning of those central doctrines (e.g., Roman Catholic Church, and the churches of the P.C.U.S.A. denomination). We must stand firm on the Bible for the sake of our souls and the sake of our churches.

ONLY TRUE BELIEVERS SHOULD CONSTITUTE THE CHURCH

John Calvin once used Ephesians 1:13 and 2 Timothy 2:19 to note that only God Himself is aware of who the true Christians are within a church. It is true that the visible church on earth is comprised of both believers and unbelievers pretending to be believers. The two groups are often very difficult to distinguish (sometimes even the goats don’t know that they’re goats–read Matthew 7!)–both have professed Christ as Lord, both have been baptized, both attain membership, etc.–therefore, Calvin urges us to use “charitable judgment.” We have a church covenant and a membership interview, but at the end of the day, only God knows the heart.

We should however, strive to limit church membership to those who we believe are truly saved. In the Bible, many allegories are used to describe the Church of Jesus Christ. Among the more memorable ones is, “The Bride of Christ.” The Church is often referred to as Christ’s Wife. In the second to last chapter of the last book of the Bible, there is a vivid account of the Church by the apostle John:

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, (Revelation 21:9-10)

In case you’re wondering just who exactly will inhabit the city of God, John leaves no room for doubt. He closes the chapter with these words:

But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:27)

“Only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Church membership ought to reflect heavenly citizenship. It’s never going to be a perfect match, be we ought to strive for a regenerate church membership. Hence, baptism is always a pre-requisite for church membership.

CHURCH DISCIPLINE

A true church carries with her the power to discipline. A Bible study could never carry out the discipline needed against a member in grave sin. A pizza fellowship could never excommunicate with any real significance. The powers of discipline and excommunication have been reserved by Christ solely for His churches. Hence, when a biblical church properly excommunicates you, you are literally declared “outside of God’s Kingdom.” Hear the words of John Calvin:

Thus the church binds the person whom it excommunicates, not in the sense that it consigns him to permanent doom and despair, but in order to condemn his life and conduct, giving him early warning of his perdition if he does not return to the right path. The church looses the person it welcomes back into fellowship, in that it allows him to share in the unity it has in Jesus Christ. So that none may despise the church’s judgment and regard the verdict of believers as a minor matter, our Lord testifies that such judgment is nothing other than the declaration of his own sentence, and that whatever they have done on earth will be ratified in heaven.

What a tremendous power!  Excommunication is no “minor matter” because church is not a minor matter. Jesus said:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)

NUMBER OF PEOPLE AND RELATIONS

Suffice it to say, one could write a book on all this. Yet, for the casual reader, let me just quickly say that I believe an assembly needs at least four people to be considered a church. The Jews have a house of prayer (beit tefilah) called the “synagogue.” In Judaism, although prayer takes place outside of the synagogue, group prayer within the synagogue is very important. Certain group prayers can only be said if the synagogue has a “minyan,” or a group of at least ten men. Hence, in order to start a synagogue, Jews needed at least ten men. Obviously, what the Jews practice is not binding to Christians, but it is worth some pause and consideration.

Baptist forerunner, John Smyth, defined the church as: “A visible communion of saints is of two, three, or more joined together by covenant with God and themselves, freely to use all the holy things of God, according to the Word, for their mutual edification and God’s glory.” Unlike Smyth however, I believe that one needs at least four people in order to be able to be considered a church. I believe Smyth derived his number of “two, three, or more” from Matthew 18:19. The text, within proper context, is a church discipline text. Upon closer examination of that chapter, one realizes that one would need at least four (counting the offender) in order to fulfill verses 15-17. Remember that a true church always has the power to excommunicate.

A church planter can not count his own family as a church. They may worship together, but for truth purposes, he did not “plant a church.” This is evidenced by the fact that if his family were to go back home, the “church” would also disappear. Nothing was ever planted! Furthermore, Scripture makes a distinction between a pastor’s family and the church:

He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Timothy 3:4-5)

Notice how if, the terms “pastor’s family/household” and “God’s church” were interchangeable, then the verses would not even make sense. It would be akin to saying “For if someone does not know how to manage his own family, then how will he care for his own family?” Paul’s point was to show trustworthiness. In other words, if a man could manage the smaller unit (i.e., his own family), then he could be trusted with the larger unit (i.e., God’s church). The church may include the pastor’s family, but it must be larger than the pastor’s family.

PASTORAL LEADERSHIP

Church discipline inherently implies the need for church leadership. A church, is therefore, not complete without church leadership. In Greek, the word for “family” is the word “patria” (Gk. πατριά). Yes, it has the same root as “patriarch,” or “father.” In many ways, a family is not really a family without a father. Likewise, a church is severely deficient without a male pastor (females are prohibited from being a pastor or an elder within a church–see 1 Cor 14:35 and 1 Tim 2:12). In fact, this was precisely the reason why the apostle Paul left Titus in Crete: “For this reason I had left you in Crete, that you might set right those things that are lacking, and ordain Elders in each city just as I ordered you” (Titus 1:5). The apostle James also saw pastors and elders as integral to the overall health of a church–literally:

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14-15 )

Of course, the pastor and elders must be qualified [i.e., “ordained” as in Titus 1:5], but it will suffice to say this: A church without a pastor is severely deficient (Paul uses the word “λείποντα” in Titus 1:5) and one must wonder if it is a church at all. Ignatius once said, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic [universal] church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop.”

I might disagree with Ignatius about baptism (I think Philip baptizing the Ethiopian in Acts 8:38 shows us that non-pastors can baptize as well), but his point is well taken. Churches must have good pastors because ultimately, good shepherds are the means by which God demonstrates His steadfast love to His flock: “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer 3:15).

And there we have it again: “Knowledge and understanding.” It all comes back to God’s Word. Churches, true churches, stand upon and believe in God’s Word.

If you’re a Christian, then make sure you join a Bible believing/Bible preaching/Bible teaching church.

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About Dr. Stephen Kim

Dr. Stephen Kim is the senior pastor of Mustard Seed Church in New York City. He has also served as Associate Director of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, NYC Extension Center. Pastor Stephen is the happy husband of one beautiful woman and the joyous father of four beautiful children. As a pastor and writer, he is passionate about accurately feeding Christians the Word of God: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time?" (Matthew 24:45).
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4 Responses to WHAT IS A CHURCH?

  1. Rory says:

    Sunday? huh… what about the biblical Sabbath? I do like your writings, yet Sunday worship is not in scripture – once studied it is clear the Catholic church takes great pride in changing the worship day to sunday…. Acts 13 (Paul) also speaks to a mixed multitude (Jews and gentiles) and the gentiles ask for more teaching. Paul’s answer is to come back the next sabbath for more teaching. If the Sabbath had been abrogated, then Paul could have easily taught on sunday.

    Let’s also not forget Hebrews 4 that speaks of the Sabbath, especially Hebrews 4:9 – and no, this is not speaking in metaphor…

    i am not a member of a sabbatarian denomination – just one who has studied the bible for what it says and definitely getting rid of man made traditional ‘religion’ in my life.

    blessings
    rory

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    • Gerry says:

      In the New Testament it’s called the “first day of the week,” which is the day on which the church has celebrated the resurrection of Jesus since the very first. The first day of the week runs from about sunset Saturday (as we call it) evening until the same on Sunday evening. The early church met after dark Saturday night, as the sabbath day ended then and Sunday morning was the beginning of a work day.
      It was Roman Emperor Constantine, not the Catholic Church as such, who decreed that Sunday, “the venerable day of the sun,” would be the official day of formal worship and would be a day of rest (“sabbath”) for most workers.

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  2. Gerry says:

    What is the distinction between a pastor and an elder?
    It appears that “elder,” “presbyter,” “bishop” are used interchangeably.
    “Presbyter” is simply “elder” in another language.
    “Bishop” is “overseer.”
    The three terms reflect various aspects of the same office.
    But what is a “pastor” as distinguished from the other three terms?

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    • Dr. Stephen Kim says:

      Yes, the terms are interchangeable in the New Testament. I would simply say that within a plurality of elders, the pastor is the “chief among equals.” Nevertheless, he is simply “one of the elders.”

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