Earlier this week, I shared a post from Stephen Kneale about church-centric missions. Writing that post made me think a little more about the definition of church—something we’ve been studying as Jason (our pastor) is preaching through the book of Acts.
What is the Church?
The Apostle’s Creed affirms belief in the “holy catholic church”—catholic, with a lower case. This refers to the group of all Christians—all believers—from the beginning of time until now and until the final Day of the Lord. This is important to remember—we belong to larger community of faith than just the people we see on Sundays or even then the people in our denomination. In last Sunday’s sermon, Jason said—partially in jest—that if the first believers didn’t like their church, they couldn’t go to another one. There weren’t any other options!
What is a church?
When we look at Acts, particularly Acts 2, a few distinctive elements jump out that define what a church is. And what’s missing from Acts, and the New Testament, shows us what is not essential to the definition of a church.
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41–47, ESV)
From this passage, we can identify a few elements that define church:
- A group of people with a common, specific belief structure. Acts 2:5 indicates that these first believers were devout Jews from all over the world, gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot (aka the Feast of Weeks). Their Judaism represents the foundation of their, and are, doctrinal beliefs. In Acts 2:14–40, we read Peter’s sermon where he explains, from this foundation, how Jesus was the promised Messiah who fulfills the promises and plan of God. The believers “received his word”, repented and were baptized.
- Preaching is distinguished from teaching in other passages, and we can see it in Acts 2:14–40. One could probably argue that preaching is not specific enough. The pattern observed throughout the New Testament is one of exegetical preaching. Jesus and the apostles started with Scripture, and their preaching was unpacking the Scripture (for them, the Torah, Prophets, and Writings contained in our Old Testament) and applying it to the new kingdom Christ inaugurated. Topical preaching is common in many American evangelical churches; it is often (in my experience) not distinctively Christian. Case in point; I saw some great topical preaching in Austin earlier this month. By a non-Christian, humanist “thought influencer” who gave a TED-style keynote speech at an EMS conference I attended. Church needs to have clearly Christian preaching, rooted in the Scriptures and filled with the Spirit.
- Baptism: These believers were baptized after receiving the Word (vs 41).
- Teaching: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching; in large part, this seems to reflect the apostles’ following Christ’s command to “make disciples, teaching them what I taught you.” Teaching is different than preaching. We do have the apostles’ teaching today contained in the New Testament. Studying this teaching is important for two reasons: first, it unpacks the Old Testament scriptures and explains the master plan of God’s redemption through Christ. Second, the apostles’ teaching tells us how we ought to live as members of Christ’s Kingdom.
- Fellowship: The early believers did life together—they shared meals, visited each other in their homes, and helped meet each other’s needs. Community—the fellowship of other believers—is critical for spiritual growth.
- Prayers: These believers devoted themselves to prayers, which would have included the morning, afternoon, and evening Jewish prayer services. These are formal, liturgical prayers rooted in Scripture (especially the Psalms) that remind us of our relationship to God and our dependence on him. The rest of Acts and the Epistles indicated these believers prayed for each others’ needs, prayed for their missionaries and leaders, and prayed for their rulers. My wife has pointed out that serious prayer is something lacking for many Christians today; a quick ten-second shout out to God before eating or while driving is not the kind of prayer these early believers were doing.
- Giving: Meeting each other’s needs generously. Charitable giving is a practice that, as described by Jesus and the epistles, does not make sense to many non-Christians today. Financial “experts” scoff at the idea of giving 10% or more to church. But these believers modeled giving—even to the point of selling their possessions in order to help others out.
- Worship: Lastly, these believers attended temple services and large scale corporate worship routinely.
A couple of other elements are mentioned in this passage, but often misunderstood. First, the “many wonders and signs” the apostles performed; and then at the end of the passage, the number of people being added. Some churches put these things in the wrong order. Charismatic churches, in some cases, put much more emphasis on seeking “signs and wonders” than on the core corporate and individual spiritual disciplines described above. And many evangelical churches put much more emphasis on “adding numbers of people” than they ought to—especially large, commercialized mega churches focused on growth.
The example here in Acts clearly points to the correct order: As these believers, all of them, devoted themselves to the spiritual practices, then God produced signs and wonders and church growth. This came up in our house church (small group gathering of believers) last week: if we, collectively as Christians, devoted ourselves to preaching, teaching, fellowship, prayers, giving, and worship, maybe then we’d see the growth and the miraculous works these first believers did.
What isn’t listed here?
It should be noted that many of the things a lot of Americans would say define what a “church” is are not present in this passage:
- A large professional staff;
- Complex “programs” for different age groups;
- Recreational facilities, sports programs, or entertainment;
- Self-help “your best life now” type books;
- Teaching institutions separated from Scripture or ministry.
These things don’t reflect God’s definition of church. There are often good “reasons” to have things like these in our churches but we really ought to evaluate if those reasons line up with Scripture—Lean not on your own understanding.