Church. It is vitally essential for the life of a Christian. A church is a place where people from all tribes, tongues, and nations can come together to worship their King Jesus as one body; one family unified to one another in Christ. Churches look different all over the world from place to place, from context to context. However, there should be fundamental biblical principles that guide every church in how it looks. Why? Because Jesus is the head of the Church, and it’s up to him, not us, in how it is ultimately governed, in how it runs. Where do we turn to then to discover what a biblically healthy church is? Well, of course, the Bible.
As good Christians, we believe that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Notice the implications of this passage. Scripture (the Bible) is:
- “God-breathed.” This means the Bible comes from God Himself and therefore carries a certain weight of authority that no other text does.
- “Useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the person of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.” This means that the authoritative scriptures have everything we need in them to live the Christian life. Or in other words, if you want to know how to build a healthy church, read the Bible (especially the New Testament).
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s always as simple as picking up the Bible and knowing exactly what God wants for the church. The Bible is by no means an exhaustive treatise on building a church, but the New Testament does give the standard for one. Here are some of those principles now:
- The Word. God speaks in different ways (through nature, people, and other sources). However, the most straightforward and most authoritative way God has spoken is through the Scriptures. Therefore, coupled with the idea of 2 Timothy 3, it makes complete sense then to have faithful teaching as the centrepiece of church.
- The Sacraments.
- The Lord’s Supper: the sacraments have had various use throughout church history and have all been interpreted differently. Yet, one thing in common remains; among nearly every major Christian tradition, these two sacraments have been observed regularly in one way or another. Why? Because it’s thoroughly biblical. Every Gospel mentions Jesus having Passover (the Lord’s Supper) with his disciples (Mt. 26:17–30, Mk. 14:12–26, Lk. 22:7–39 and Jn. 13:1–17:26). The early church carried on this tradition (Acts 2: 42, 46; 20:7), where they did it regularly in remembrance of Jesus (1 Cor 11:24-25). The Lord Supper took on three principal dimensions. 1. The remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection (the new covenant) and the churches unity to Christ. 2. the unity believers had with one another. 3. The covenant’s performance or drama. As the local church takes up the elements (the bread and wine), they are acting out the establishment of the new covenant as the Spirit draws them closer into the presence of Christ and one another.
- Baptism: The occurrences of baptism in the Bible are numerous. First, we see Baptism in the New Testament performed by John the Baptist (Matt 3) and subsequently, Jesus being baptised (Matt 3:13-17). As He was being baptised, Jesus said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Whatever this means, it at least proposes that baptism is extremely important, so much so that Jesus expected us to baptise people as part of the great commission (Matt 28:19). The early church took up this sacrament as it was an integral part of their life and ministry (Acts 2:38). It was an important part of the salvation process (Acts 2:38, “repent and be baptized”) and was accomplished via confession and prayer “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). Like the Lord’s Supper, Baptism took on three principles dimensions. 1. The symbolism of a new believers passage from death in the world to life in Christ (Rom 6:1-11). 2. The unity they now had with Christ (Gal 3:27). 3. the unity they had with other believers (1 Cor 12) hence the need for it before one becomes a member of a local church in some traditions (i.e. reformed traditions). As a local church baptises a new believer into the faith, they are publicly declaring their identification and unity to Christ and that new believer as the Spirit works through the drama of passing from death to life. What about Spirit baptism? Both baptisms are taught in the Bible and typically are inseparable (Jhn 3:5). No one denies that Spirit baptism is a thing, but to be baptised by the Spirit without water would have been an unthought of practice in the early church and vice versa.
As I’ve explained, these sacraments are essential to any church for three main reasons. 1. The Bible and, in turn, God expects a church to practice them (this in itself should be reason enough). 2. They’re transformative in that the Spirit works through the practice of them to sanctify the participant in a similar way that He works through the Word. 3. They supplement good preaching and demonstrate the Good News to new believers and people we invite to church.
Finally, all this presupposes the assembly of a local church which consists of members (1 Cor 12:21-26), elders and deacons (1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1), and discipline (Matt 18:13-17).
With all these elements in place, a local church can image God and fulfil the great commission. Without them, a local church will become deficient and simply unbiblical. We should never trade a biblical principle for a pragmatic one, no matter how much it seems to work. If something is working, it might be cause for us to re-evaluate our theology, but never to compromise on it. God’s standards are there for a reason, and it’s our job to simply obey even if droves of people aren’t coming through the doors.