I’ve been to a lot of different churches in my time. Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Church of Christ, CoC, Hillsong, and Baptist (the one true Church). I’ve been to them all, and I’ve loved and hated all of them. Before I get stuck into it, there’s no such thing as a perfect church because it’s full of imperfect people. However, the way I see it is that God, through His Word, gives us guidelines of what a healthy church should look like in a sinful and broken world. So, as I’ve perused the many different churches that I’ve been to over the years, I can’t help but ask myself “why does every church seem to miss the mark when it comes to being a biblically healthy church?” The answer is modernity and “church models”. I’ve come to realise that sound biblical principles for church become increasingly challenging to enforce and live by in a world that has strayed so far from first-century models of church. Take complementarianism, for example. It’s almost impossible to know where to draw the line for where women can and can’t teach scripture. Every complementarian agrees they shouldn’t be elders and teach God’s Word on a Sunday over the congregation, but what about conferences, homegroups, youth groups, leadership retreats, and bible colleges?
We do all of these things because they’re good for us, yet none of them are biblical church practices, at best they’re extra-biblical. It has become increasingly challenging to fit sound biblical principles into modern church paradigms, and I haven’t been to a single church that doesn’t struggle with this. Take church membership as another example. We believe that there are members of local churches, yet we all disagree on how they should be identified, how they should participate and be active in our local churches. Does there need to be formal membership (I’d say so), or is anyone fair game? What benefits are there for our church members? What do we expect of them? Again, the Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens, pray and love one another and to minister to one another. However, what church membership looks like, has become hard to define in an era where the church has become very individualistic and program orientated. Instead of flourishing members of a local church, we slot people into programs to facilitate their needs and gifts rather than allowing them to organically yet intentionally serve one another in Christ. So my question to us then is “how do we return to the ancient ways of doing church in the modern era?”
First, we have to consider what church is. I think I’ve said this elsewhere, but theologically the church is understood in two ways. It is universal and invisible. It is comprised of every Christian throughout space and time in which Christ is the head. It is also local and visible. It is where people visibly and tangibly gather to worship God, where the invisible church is locally represented. This is comprised of both Christians and non-Christians. So then, the local church is a group of people in any building or space gathering together to worship the God of the Bible. However, this definition assumes something, that the Bible is central to the function of the local church. Without it, we wouldn’t know who God is, who the Messiah is, or what the Gospel is.
This is where we start to recover the ancient ways of doing church. God’s Word being delivered to His people through the prophets and the apostle’s teachings were always central to the gathering of the saints. It’s what leads them to worship and be transformed into a flourishing community of God’s people. Without the Bible being taught and shared faithfully, there is no local church because they’d be no way to know who God even is let alone worship. This, of course, presupposes that there are teachers.
The Bible calls these “teachers” elders, overseers, shepherds and pastors. They guide each church as they faithfully proclaim the Word of the Lord, as they commit themselves to prayer and demonstrate His goodness through their character (1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9). Without this crucial role, the sheep would be lost without their God-ordained undershepherds. In His divine wisdom, God has deliberately called wise men to guide His sheep in His Word so that they may be nourished upon the Word and led into the green pastures of His Kingdom. However, it’s not only that the sheep need their shepherds, but rather the shepherds also need their sheep as well. This is called biblical church membership.
Biblical church membership sounds scary. Well, it is. This is because membership is about:
- Service: loving others and self-sacrifice (Matt 22:34-40)
- Transparency: confessing sin and being open about struggles (Jas 5:16)
- Humility: allowing others to correct, rebuke and exhort you (Matt 18:15-17)
- Submission: to the elders, deacons, and other church members (1 Pet 5:5; Heb 13:17)
- Commitment: to the regular weekly gathering of the saints (Heb 10:25)
- Jesus as King (worshipping, loving and proclaiming the Gospel to the world)
Real biblical membership is organic and Spirit-driven. It doesn’t rely on the programs offered by the church before its members can serve, it naturally seeks out the needs of others and loves them even if there isn’t an official ministry in that category yet. Real biblical membership causes us to see the importance of loving one another, submitting to our leaders and other members and to be real about sin and self. Biblical fellowship says, “I am publically, with this local church, identifying as a member of God’s Kingdom in which I am now accountable not only to God but others, and they – me.” With authentic biblical Spirit-led membership, the world should be able to look upon your church and see a legitimate slice of the Kingdom of God and covet it. Finally, I’d add a few other must-haves in a biblical church:
- The sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Rom 6; Col 2:9-15)
- Deacons: those who are set apart to help out the practical needs of the church (Acts 6:1-16; 1 Tim 3:8-13)
- Worship: singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs and prayer (Eph 5:19; 1 Tim 2:1-3)
- Spiritual gifts: the right biblical practice of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12)
- Missional: a church must be joining God in His mission to redeem the world around them, not just the building they gather in (Matt 28:16-20)
So then, this is what makes up a biblical church. However, how do we squeeze these biblical principles into the modern age? I suggest a radical renovation of our church models and methods. Rather than trying to fit what’s biblical into the contemporary church, let’s make it, so the modern church fits the biblical principles.
Church size: It’s nice to have hundreds or thousands of people eating out of the palm of your hand every Sunday, the problem is this becomes a nightmare to manage. It’s so challenging to practice organic loving and intentional church membership and eldership care when you might see one church member once every 3 or 4 years if you were to get around to everyone. Ok, sure, more leaders and a bigger pastoral care team might be helpful. It’s not impossible to run a big church. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that instead of building a church in one spot or area (sounds familiar right? Genesis 11 and Acts), the church is meant to plant and multiply. It’s supposed to spread and take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. So let’s strip back the sizes of our churches, love our members well, and invest in church planting. Imagine hundreds if not thousands of little churches all gathering together to worship the Lord and committed to one another instead of monster mega-churches dominating our areas that let too many Christians fall through the cracks.
Programs: when we strip back the size of our churches, we start to find that programs aren’t as important as loving one another, the ministry of the Word and mission becomes more organic and personal. We don’t need to rely on chat and chew mum’s groups or men’s breakfasts to love one another (don’t get me wrong; these can be helpful). Instead, as we’re encouraged by biblical teaching, and as we’re in close spiritual proximity to one another we’re almost compelled to ask our fellow Christian “are you ok? How can I pray for you? What are you struggling with? Can we help you?” even if I usually don’t socialise with them in other areas of life. All of a sudden church is becoming deep, more than a superficial club or a thing we do on a Sunday to pass the time. We actually begin to care about people, not performing for there is no space for performance in the ancient church.
Imagine you find yourself stranded on a deserted island with nothing but a copy of the Bible. You have no experience with Christianity whatsoever, and all you know about the Church will come from your reading of the Bible. How would you imagine a church to function? Seriously. Close your eyes for two minutes and try to picture “Church” as you would know it. Now think about your current church experience. Is it even close? Can you live with that?