a ‘biblical’ church

In my Bible in Ministry class the other day, we began discussing the following question:

To what extent do we use the Bible to define and articulate our understanding of the church?

If you look back to the old declarations by the post-Reformation churches, the true and visible church is made known through a) the preaching of the pure Word of God, b) the sacraments of baptism and communion and c) the enforcing of Christian norms of behavior. All three require a great deal of interpretation and presuppose an architectural context. If you look at the ecclesial statement from the Baptist Union of Great Britain, it becomes more of an open definition – the church is “a community of believers gathered in the name of Jesus Christ for worship, witness and service.”

You hear it said all the time that Christians are looking for a nice church with solid, Bible-based teaching. But what does that even mean? We were given this very interesting question to think about, which I am going to post to see what others think about it.

What do you consider to be the minimum essential criteria of a ‘biblical’ church?

I’m not even sure if that’s the right question to be asking, as it might presuppose that the Bible contains an outline of what church is meant to look like. Maybe it’s as simple as “where two or more are gathered.”

We were also given the task of either a) coming up with a definition of church, b) identifying the marks of the church or c) designing a church constitution. Feel free to share any thoughts on that as well.

    • James
    • March 13th, 2009

    Hey Ian

    Great question…even though ecclesiology is my thing, I’m not sure I’ve got an answer!

    The thing I wrestle with is the extent to which the primitive church is normative for the church in history. Most people assume that the earliest church is the pristine form, so we should try to imitate it. But I don’t think it is that simple. I’m thinking particularly of people who look for “models” of the Church in the Bible.

    First, there are multiple models of the church in the NT. Are we talking about the church in Acts 2, or Corinth, or Galatia, or the catholic epistles, or what? And some of those communities had their share of issues! I’m not up for imitating the crap that was going on in Corinth, and Paul was pretty ticked in Galatians, so obviously we’re not going to want to imitate them.

    Secondly, we don’t really know what these primitive communities were like. We don’t have explicit descriptions of them. For the most part, we have one side of a conversation in the form of a letter. Not that I’m downplaying the importance of the Bible, but I’m just saying that scripture isn’t clear on exactly what the early Christian communities looked like, so we should try to extract “models.”

    Plus, if you look at historical theology, everybody and their brother uses the primitive church as a construct to support whatever they are doing. Most reform groups will describe their own movement and the primitive church as if they were parallel. Wesley did this a bit, the Booths did it at times, early Pentecostals, and the list goes on. This obviously creates a problem. Whose version of the ‘biblical’ church is the correct one? And why does the ‘biblical’ church look so much like Methodism / The Salvation Army / Pentecostalism?

    So I’m weary of any claim to be the ‘biblical’ church, because it is too easy to set up the biblical church in our own image.

    Of course, the Bible is normative for the Church, but what I’m saying is, we need to sort out those parts of scripture that are really normative – in the sense of being explicit instruction to Christians about how they should live together – from those parts which are simply historical descriptions of things that early Christians did. The examples I gave above about Corinthians and Galatians are obvious, so maybe they don’t make my point very well. But, let’s take, for example, the house church movement. I have nothing against house churches, I think they make a lot of sense, but some people would try to justify that as THE model for the church because that’s what the early Christians did. I would say the fact that the early Christians met in houses is incidental and simply an historical fact, and not something which we are bound to imitate. House churches might be a good idea, but not simply because that’s what they did in the first century.

    From this perspective, the classic criteria of word, sacrament, and discipline makes a lot of sense, because you have explicit commands and instructions from Christ to his disciples (although on discipline it is tough to know where to draw the line). It is a little bit open-ended, but maybe that’s a good thing…otherwise we might end up de-churching a lot of people.

    This is getting too long, so I’ve got to stop. Not sure if that is helpful; mostly a negative comment, and not a lot of postive input for you.

    The only other thing I’d say is that the creedal marks – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – are CREEDAL, meaning that they are based upon our faith in God and not in what we see in the historical reality of the church. Not that they are fictional, but they aren’t always apparent. Sometimes it is a matter of faith that we confess, for example, the holiness of the church, in spite of the garbage that goes on around us! Here’s one of my favourite quotes from Calvin:

    “For although the sad devastation which everywhere meets our view may proclaim that no Church remains, let us know that the death of Christ produces fruit, and that God wondrously preserves his Church, while placing it as it were in concealment.”
    Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV.1.2.

  1. James,

    Great points about the tension between the Bible as descriptive and prescriptive. I have been wrestling with that a lot this year in regards to the church, but more specifically in Christian ethics. Maybe this question is the wrong starting point.

    My issue with the classic criteria is that there seems to be a lack of mission and service involved. What, according to these criteria, is the role of the church outside of the four walls?

    Thanks for the comment. I do value your insight.

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