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Minimalist Definition of the Church

Posted by on Feb 27, 2009 in definition | 11 comments

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.

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Minimalist Definition of the Church

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:

  1. The church is any group indwelled by the Spirit of God.
  2. The church is any group that has been changed by the gospel.
  3. The church is any group that rightly proclaims the gospel and rightly administers the sacraments.
  4. 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?


11 Comments

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  1. 2-27-2009

    Good post. If you look at how the term ‘church’ is used in scripture I’m not even sure we should use be using the word group.

    “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matt 16:18 NIV)

    “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” (Acts 8:1 NIV)

    “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3 NIV)

    “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace.” (Acts 9:31 NIV)

    “News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.” (Acts 11:22 NIV)

    I think Church should only refer to Christ’s whole Church. I’m not sure what to call the smaller groupings we make? “Some from the Church of City X that meets at 123 Main street”?.

  2. 2-27-2009

    I think the big danger of using the extensive definition of the church is that we start to make assumptions. Who can baptize people? Who and how do we administer the Lords supper? Where do we meet and what do we do? People inherently tend to fill in the blanks, and there are a lot of blanks on how “church” looks. Those blanks have been filled in with traditions and now a lot of people have a hard time distinguishing between what is tradition and what is Scriptural. I am having a hard time myself untangling church traditions from Scripture and I have been a Christian only since my late twenties. I can’t imagine how hard it is for people who grew up “in church”.

  3. 2-27-2009

    Oops, I posted that last comment too quickly. I should have said “Some from the Church AT City X that meets at 123 Main street”?.

    Any use of the word church that gives people the impression that a local group is ‘church’ is misleading. It would be great if we could find a way to describe the smaller groups in a way that confirms that the group is a part of Christ’s Church.

  4. 2-27-2009

    I like the minimalist idea. Though I would go even more minimal. If you look at your four criteria they are all subjective. They all point to the process of sanctification in which we find ourselves at various degrees of success. I don’t think Paul is concerned with this as much. He simply writes to the “saints.” They don’t cease to be saints if they don’t rightly administer the sacraments. They don’t cease to be saints if they aren’t momentarily following the Spirit. He even addresses the Corinthian church as saints. So, while I like your minimalist trend I still see the “health” criteria in your minimalist criteria.

  5. 2-27-2009

    Alan, I was also thinking today about the differences between Sunday School and church. This is also at the core of what you are talking about. I’ve been exploring 1 Cor 14 at our website and I think it is ironic that we do many of the things in 1 Cor 14 in Sunday School, i.e. many people talking, interpreting, others judging; but we don’t do them in the “sanctuary.” I think this betrays what you are talking about. People really think there is a substantive difference between me teaching from the pulpit and another man teaching in a SS room. However, they are both assemblies of the church. They should both be guided by the same critera..no?

  6. 2-27-2009

    Even though I understand what you’re asking, I contend that the term “church” is unredeemable. Church is that institution favored by Constantine, who provided it with money, temples and priests.

    Church is entangled in history with empire. At times, the church has even controlled the empire. That mindset has continued through the centuries, and remnants of it remain even today among those who believe the church should continue to attempt control the empire through the political process.

    To retroactively apply the term church, with all of its connotations of empire, to that group of people that we find in the pages of the New Testament, is a real stretch at the least, and more probably untenable.

    To the point of your question, however, I suggest that we use a “minimalist definition” (a few sentences at most), in line with the pages of Scripture, and use different terminology than “church”. To go further invites division. History provides ample evidence of that.

  7. 2-27-2009

    Jonathan,

    I agree that “church” (or ekklesia) is used for the church in an area (city). The word is also used for a group of believers meeting in a house which is probably a subset of a church in an area.

    Arthur,

    As long as I have been thinking about the church, this is still a difficult concept for me. The traditional understanding of the ekklesia as an organized group that believes certain things and meets in certain ways continues to invade my thoughts.

    Matthew,

    I think some of the minimal definitions are subjective, but only from our perspective. I agree that it is problematic to see a group meeting in a “sanctuary” as a churc, but not a group meeting in a class room.

    Sam,

    Perhaps I should have used the term “ekklesia” instead of “church”. What defines the “ekklesia” of God?

    -Alan

  8. 2-27-2009

    Hi again Alan, I’m still not sure how to best describe what I do, or where I go on Sunday mornings. To complicate things I understand ekklesia is better translated as assembly. And that Tyndale had translated it as congregation, but later the KJV (under some political influences) used the word ‘church’.

    I wonder what we would call our buildings, Sunday morning events, and group memberships, if ekklesia was translated as assembly in our Scriptures?

    As we try to create a definition for the word church we must also recognize that everyone uses that term. There is even a Church of Satan. With that in mind none of even the minimal definitions make sense.

    Anyways… I guess it’s all linguistics. It may not matter what we call ourselves. What matters is who we are, who we love, and how we live.

    God bless, I’m enjoying your posts.

  9. 2-27-2009

    Jonathan,

    Yes, my concern with the word “church” is not to understand how the word is used today, but how “ekklesia” is used in Scripture. In that sense, what we call our buildings, Sunday morning events, and church memberships are not even in the picture. The problem, of course, is that many, many people don’t know how to recognize the “ekklesia” apart from their buildings, Sunday morning events, church memberships, confessions, creeds, leadership, etc.

    I do think it goes beyond being simply a linguistic question. It is a manner of semantics, that is, meaning. What did the authors of Scripture mean when they wrote “ekklesia”? And, how can we begin to use the word “church” (or another word Sam suggests) in the same way?

    -Alan

  10. 2-28-2009

    Alan,

    I agree with the statement you made concerning people today associating the term church too closely with buildings, sunday morning events and church membership.

    I know that this is a simplistic answer and probably does not encapsulate the larger picture, but a simple definition of ekklesia is “the called out ones”. I would even suggest that in a lot of cases, the ekklesia is being called out of the buildings, the sunday morning events in those buildings and church membership. And, the scriptures say that they will know that we are His, by our love toward one another.

    I may have went off track here. If I did please excuse me. I definitely haven’t figured it all out yet.

    Blessings,
    Gary

  11. 2-28-2009

    Alan,

    I lean toward a minimalist rather than an extensive definition. Problems with both have been pointed out in the comments. “Assembly” seems to be the key word for me. But, I think the idea of “church” definition should come about by starting with the assembly of the people as they are attempting to carry out the things they are supposed to do in the assembly as taught in Scripture. The “one anothers.” Yes, believers can assemble at Denny’s, but is that “church”? It can be.

    I believe that the NT is intentionally vague to a point. Maybe we can define “church” by saying “THIS assembling of the people is the assembly that we put the label ‘church’ upon.” We all agree to that. So we can label a Sunday meeting as “church”, but lunch at a restaurant afterward (non-Sabbatarians!) between a few people isn’t labeled that way; nobody in the group of people view it as the assembly called for in the NT. Make sense?