the weblog of Alan Knox

What makes a church?

Posted by on Dec 18, 2006 in definition | 13 comments

A group of four thousand people meet in a dedicated building, have a staff of pastors, have a set of programs, commit to one another, and meet regularly. What makes this group a church?

A group of three people are sitting together in a coffee shop. What makes this group a church instead of just three friends?


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  1. 12-20-2006

    This is really the $64,000 question, isn’t it? I’m kind of surprised that no one else has taken a “stab” at this yet. But, then again, maybe not. You kind of have to go out on a limb, and to really be technically correct, it require quite a bit of research and thought. I get the idea that’s just what you are doing with your thesis.

    In any case, I’ll go out on a limb, and throw out some very basic, superficial thoughts, which could certaintly stand to be honed and quantified a lot more.

    First of all, a church is made up of a group (at least 2 or 3) sincere believers in Jesus Christ, who, through repentance and faith, have surrendered their lives to Him and submitted to His Lordship over their lives.

    Next, there are certain doctrinal positions (viewed from the negative perspective) that might disqualify a group from truly being a Christian church. These, in my opinion, would include foundational truths such as the divinity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, substitutionary atonement, etc. I think I would also add in here justification by grace through faith.

    Next, I would add in intentionality to live together in community in order to fulfill God’s purpose for the church. I would basically go along with Warren, and others, in codiying this purpose as: worship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship, and discipleship.

    Some churches evidently do a better job at fulfilling some aspects of these purposes than others. It is very hard to say when a church would cross the line of not fulfilling one or more these purposes to such a degree that it disqualified them from being a church. I prefer, I think for this reason, to talk about intentionality. Others have termed this qualification as “covenant relationship.” I personally like this, but realize that for some it may communicate some formal things beyond what I actually mean. I don’t mean, for instance, necessarily signing a piece of paper.

    Next, it seems to me that a so-called “church” that never practiced the “ordinances” of baptism and the Lord’s Supper was at least “defective” in their practical ecclesiology. Whether or not they cross the line to not being church at all, I still am not sure.

    I would also think that a “normal” church, by New Testament standards, would have a leadership structure and accountability structure. The biblical terms for leaders in the church, as I understand it, are “elders” and “deacons.” And, the biblical qualifications for these roles are those found in 1 Timothy and Titus. I also see the possibility of another biblical leadership role for “women” (not necessarily excluding the possibility of “deaconesses”).

    Have I forgotten anything? I hesitated to answer you here without thinking my answer through more thoroughly first. But, I felt sorry for you, not getting any answers at all, so decided to go ahead and “bite the bullet” now. Go ahead, and shoot this down, if you want. I think I can take it. :^)

  2. 12-20-2006

    Just to clarify, on the doctrinal postion thing, I meant (obviously I hope) that those who DENY the doctrines mentioned would be disqualified from being a truly Christian church.

  3. 12-20-2006


    Thanks for commenting. I’m not trying shoot anyond down, just trying to understand. Maybe others think I’m trying to shoot them down too, so they didn’t comment.

    If I understand you correctly, the following are requirements for a group to be a church: salvation, doctrines, intentionality/function, ordinances, and leaders. Again, I’m trying to understand. Are you suggesting that if one or more of these are missing, then a group is not a church?

    Thanks again for your boldness and showing everyone else to be the cowards that they truly are! ;)


  4. 12-20-2006

    just a brief comment before I go back to being a coward… :-P

    David, in his comment above, mentioned leaders as “elders” and “deacons”. Maybe I’m missing something, but were “deacons” considered to be leaders in the NT record?

  5. 12-20-2006


    If the ordinances are missing, I would see the “church” to be “defective,” but still a “church” to some degree. For instance, I’m not ready to say the Quakers are not a “church.”

    Also, regarding leadership, a “church” would “normally” have defined leadership. That doesn’t mean there may not be exceptional times when leadership is absent for a spell. But a “church” who is content to go on indefinitely with no recognized leadership would seem to be to have some “defective” ideas about what they thought it means it be “church.” Would that mean they are not a “church” at all? I don’t know. And I’m not sure the Bible really deals with this question.

  6. 12-20-2006


    Even though “deacons” are in essence “servants,” I would say that we all, as believers, and “church members” are called to be servants.

    It seems to me that “deacons” are especially recognized and set apart as “leaders” in their particular aspect of “service.”

    What do you think?

  7. 12-20-2006


    I will leave the Deacon issue to you and Steve, but please fill free to continue the conversation.

    If I understand you correctly, then, ordinances and leaders are not necessary for a group to be a church. So, that leaves us to salvation, doctrines, and intentionality/function. Is that correct?


  8. 12-20-2006

    My point about the deacons was simply that I don’t see anything related to “leadership”. They were set aside in Acts 6 to do what needed to be done in the body.

    You are correct that all believers are to be servants, but there appeared to be a particular need that the church felt specific people needed to be set aside to meet that need.

    Part of the reason I was making this nitpick point, too, was because you were saying that biblical “leadership” included elders and deacons. However, I think it’s only possible to make a strong case for the necessary existence of elders. (Paul didn’t say “Appoint elders and deacons in the churches”, he only said to appoint elders.)

    Even then, a young church will likely not have elders. Else why would Paul instruct his helpers to appoint elders in the churches? They were already being called churches, but apparently didn’t have elders yet.

    Just some more stuff to muddy the waters ;)

  9. 12-20-2006

    By the way, David. I just noticed that you are in Spain. My sister and her family work with TEAM at the Evangelical Christian Academy in Camarma. Are you familiar with that school?

  10. 12-20-2006


    I guess for me to answer your last question, we would have to start talking about categories like “full-fledged church,” “defective church,” “bona fide church,” etc. I definitely don’t think it is indifferent whether a church celebrates the ordinances, or if they have leaders or not. But totally not church? I guess I wouldn’t go that far.

    How’s that for “running to the round house where you can’t corner me”? ;^)

  11. 12-20-2006


    It seems to me that the qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy would not necessarily apply for any member who was “serving” to meet any particular need that might arise in a church. That is where I gather they held a “leadership” type of function.

    I would definitely agree that not having deacons would not disqualify a church from “church status.” But, it does seem to be normal that a church would ideally have “elders” who have ultimate responsibility for the spiritual welfare of a congregation, as well as “deacons” who take on a leadership role for specific tasks that need to be done in the context of everyday church life.

  12. 12-20-2006


    I agree. I believe that a church will both baptize and partake of the Lord’s Supper. Similarly, I believe that the church will recognize its leaders. However, these do not make a church.

    A group that has leaders and the ordinances is not necessarily a church. A group that does not have leaders and does not practice the ordinances may be a church.

    So… what makes a church?


  13. 12-20-2006


    Yes, we are very familiar with ECA and Camarma. Perhaps it would be better to e-mail on this. I’m sure we probably know your sister and her family.