Two years ago, I wrote a post called “Minimalist Definition of the Church“. Have you thought much about the essence of the church? What makes a group of people a church? This was the question that I was starting to think about with this post.
As I have studied (and continue to study) ecclesiology (the study of the church), I’ve noticed that there are two ways to define the church. The first method of defining the church is one that I’ll call an “extensive” definition. This method develops a definition that describes what the church should be, how the church should act, and what differentiates one “church” from another “church”. Thus, in this type of definition, you will find items such as the proper understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, various teachings concerning leadership within the church, and activities carried out by the church such as teaching and mission.
My primary concern with an “extensive” definition is that it goes beyond what a “definition” is. For example, let’s say that a definition of the church says something like this: The church is … operating through democratic process… Since “operating through democratic process” is part of the definition, then this definition suggests that any group that does not operate as a democracy is not a church. If, on the other hand, people agree that a church can operate as other than a democracy, the definition given does little to help us understand what actually defines a church.
As John Hammett suggests in Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, this type of definition blurs “health” with “essence”. A “healthy” church may operate in a certain way, but this does not help us determine the “essence” of the church. I am putting “health” and “essence” in quotations, because, as far as I can tell, very few have tried to define what falls into “health” and what falls into “essence”. But, this is exactly my desire. I want to know what defines the “essence” of the church, such that if the “essence” is present, then a church is present. If the “essence” is not present, then the church is not present. Anything beyond this does not belong to a definition of the church, although other criteria could be used to define a “healthy” church, with at least as many definitions of “healthy” as there are denominations, etc.
The other type of definition, and the one that I prefer, is often called a “minimalist” definition. A “minimalist” definition only includes those attributes that are necessary for the existence of the church. Several “minimalist” definitions have been suggested throughout history. Here are a few “minimalist” definitions that I have been able to find:
- The church is any group indwelled by the Spirit of God.
- The church is any group that has been changed by the gospel.
- The church is any group that rightly proclaims the gospel and rightly administers the sacraments.
- The church is any group that has been gathered by the Spirit in the name of Jesus.
I like some of these definitions, especially the ones that remove the existence of the church from the activities of men.
What are the dangers of using an “extensive” definition of the church? What are the advantages?
What are the dangers of using a “minimalist” definition of the church? What are the advantages?