A Strict But Clear Definition of the Church Brings Freedom

by Caleb Greggsen April 13, 2021

When you set out to plant churches, what exactly is it that you’re trying to plant? What must be in place in order for you to say that you’ve planted “a church” and not something else? 

I suspect that most churches operate under the same philosophy of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who, when pressed to define a category, said “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.” Most Christians might not be able to define what a church is, but they know it when they see it. 

That sort of loose understanding actually undermines a church’s ability to effectively plant and build up other churches.

My church’s statement of faith defines a local church in this way: 

[Local churches are] congregations of baptized believers covenanted together in faith and fellowship, marked by the right preaching of God’s word and right administration of the ordinances.

In essence, that summarizes the basic Reformation definition of a true church, with some Congregationalist and Baptist qualifications dabbed on. It briefly covers a lot of ground—short enough to be useful, and substantive enough to be meaningful.

But I want to make another point: what’s most useful about a strict definition of a church is having clarity about all the things that aren’t in the definition. It may feel counter-intuitive. But a clear, strict definition of what a church is actually provides greater freedom in church planting. A strict definition clarifies what’s necessary. This helps in at least two obvious ways: it ensures that you’re actually aiming at planting churches; and it keeps you from assuming a church needs certain things that it absolutely doesn’t need. In other words, it keeps you from requiring more than what Scripture requires.

Put simply, a strict and clear definition guards against mission creep, cultural and non-biblical norms, and unnecessary discouragement.

1. A strict definition guards against “mission creep.”

One threat to any mission or project without clearly defined parameters is “mission creep.” When this happens, additional objectives or goals start to sneak into your definition of success. 

One helpful tool to guard against this is clear definitions. What needs to be in place in order to have a church? What must a church do or offer in order to be considered a full-fledged church? 

In my part of the world—perceived as “frontier” in some circles—it seems every Western minister in the city has multiple side-gigs. The church can’t just be a congregation of covenanted, baptized believers. It also needs to have a seminary, or a publishing house, or a refugee vocational training program. Those are there in part to justify their fundraising back home; they’re also there because many church planters seem to think a congregation is merely a pre-requisite for real ministry, not the substance of it. That confusion comes from (among other things) a lack of any guard against mission creep.

Many church programs often become barriers to church planting and maturity when they become a standard for what makes a church. And such standards can only be exposed if you’re able to articulate a clear definition of a church.

2. A strict definition guards against absolutizing non-biblical norms.

I suspect our tendency to absolutize cultural norms or tools plays a big part in the suspicion missionaries and missiologists tend to have toward absolutized statements about ecclesiology. While biblical ecclesiology is practicable for all churches in all places, biblical ecclesiology plus particular cultural practices or norms may not be. Insofar as American churches have required their missionaries to plant churches that look exactly like their home church in Shreveport or Long Grove, they have taught missionaries and church planters that church structure is entirely a cultural artifact.

In part because of Islam’s influence in my cultural setting, most of the pastors in my city look skeptically at any sort of Christian gathering in a home (rather than a designated worship building). The Muslim understanding of the mosque as a building devoted to worship has shaded the way they perceive other churches in the city. While that means most pastors I know are leery of church-dismissing rapid-multiplication discipleship movements, they’ve not engaged with the real biblical issues at stake: they’re just put off because that “movement” doesn’t have a building.

But there are more subtle, less culturally explicit norms you may have yourself. Do you find yourself anxious about that sound equipment you need for the church to work? How about your website? What about small groups, or Sunday school classes? A youth group? Awana? What about a pastoral internship? These are all helpful tools, but what level of priority should they be in the early life of a church? Or, to put an edge on it, what other things are you willing to sacrifice in order to have those things as soon as possible? 

The lack of an articulated, strict, and clear definition of church has led us to plant churches deprived of clear instruction on what they are or should become. In the process, we’ve left planters with the impression that there’s nowhere to look for such instruction.

3. A strict definition guards against needless discouragement.

In the last three years, I’ve pastored two churches in a Muslim context. A combination of government interference, financial restrictions, and a bad building has meant that those two congregations have had to move locations five times. It’s been tiring and discouraging. Obviously, in order to keep meeting together as a church, we needed somewhere to meet. But understanding the old adage that the church is a people, not a steeple, has helped us. Though we were comfortable where we were meeting, and though there were advantages to meeting there, that particular place is not necessary for our existence. Our strict definition of church guarded us from unnecessary despair.

We’re tempted to believe that a place is part of what makes us a church, that moving our meeting space in some way compromises our identity. But that temptation exposes a hidden belief in our hearts that that place is necessary in order for us to be a “real” church. 

How have I fought this temptation? By reminding myself of what really makes a church a church. 

The church planting world often encourages and even incentivizes sparse definitions of the church. That’s a danger. Your definition really does need to have certain biblical elements—like preaching and membership and gathering regularly and carefully practiced ordinances and so on. But perhaps more often, the danger we fall into—even as we requiring too little—is that we also require too much without even realizing it. A strict definition of the church protects us. It keeps us from neglecting what Christ has taught us as necessary. It also guards us by freeing us from requiring too much of ourselves. It frees us by preventing us from putting too many burdens on our back, or treating everything as essential. 

So, how would you, according to Scripture, define the church? Does this definition free you up or weigh you down?

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at 9Marks.org and is used with permission.

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