What Makes a Church a Church?
What makes a church a church? Is it the building? Is it the fact of Christians being together? Is it determined by how the time is spent together? Does a Tuesday night home bible study qualify as a church? What about Christian groups on college campuses like Campus Crusade, Navigators, etc? What about chapel services at Christian schools? Is it right to call these things churches? If the answer is yes, why do most Christians who attend these events still attend another local church on Sunday mornings? If the answer is no, why not? What makes the difference between these events and the groups that gather on Sundays?
In order to answer these questions, we need to have a solid biblical definition of what a local church is. I began to write my own definition based on my studies, but as I was working on it I found one that I really liked in a sermon by John Piper, though I have modified it to include a few additional elements.
Here is the definition:
A local church is a group of believers who, under the guidance of duly appointed leaders, meet regularly to worship God through Jesus Christ, to edify one another through the use of their spiritual gifts, to be exhorted for life and equipped for ministry from the Word of God, to celebrate and observe the ordinances, and, when necessary, to exercise church discipline.
I know it’s a mouthful. I’m not fully satisfied with it so it’s still a work in process, though I believe it hits all the major points.
Notice that there are several elements to this definition:
- Elements of purpose: Worship; edification; exhortation/equipping from the Word (Acts 2:42; 2 Tim 4:2; Col 3:16; 1 Thess 5:11; Rom 12:3-8; Eph 4:11-13)
- Elements of Structure/Organization: regular planned meetings; corporate discipline; duly appointed leaders (Pastors, Elders, etc.) (Heb 10:24-25; Titus 1:5-9; Matt 18:15-19; 1 Cor 5:1-5)
- The Ordinances are practiced: Baptism; The Lord’s Supper (Matt 28:18-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26)
While some of these elements might be present in events like a Christian school’s chapel service (worship though song, the preached word, etc.) the fact that the ordinances aren’t practiced and that they lack the biblical leadership structure of a church demonstrates that they are not a church. Those in attendance might be part of the universal church, but the chapel service itself does not constitute a local church. The same would apply to a home bible study, campus crusade meetings, and other Christian gatherings. They lack crucial characteristics to qualify as a local church.
It is important to make these distinctions and to bear them in mind lest we become tempted to think that if we just go to the bible study, we would will okay. We need to be part of a true local church that is operating according to God’s standards. Other gatherings are great to be a part of, but they can never take the place of the local church.