Thursday, February 09, 2006

What Is a True Christian Church?

In recent discussions on various blogs, one issue that has kept coming up is the nature of the church. There have been a couple of good discussions about this on Rick Thompson's blog. And of course, this issue has come up in discussions of the IMB policies, especially the policy on baptism. In his defense of the IMB policy on baptism, Hershael York, professor of Christian preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and immediate past president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, wrote the following:

Of course this begs the question, "What is a New Testament church?" Can we call a congregation a true New Testament church if they deny that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Can a crowd of well-intentioned worshippers really be a church if they add works to the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus by teaching that baptism is essential for salvation? Can a cadre of Christians really be a church if they do not observe the ordinances properly or deny that we are kept by the power of God unto the day of redemption? Baptists have so carefully defined the church, the ordinances, and soteriology that we have historically denied that such are true New Testament churches. We do not insist on the name "Baptist" on the sign in the front yard, but we insist that the church be marked by New Testament doctrine, specifically as it relates to the ordinances and to salvation, including the eternal security of the blood-bought believer. We cannot have a settled peace that such churches have the authority to baptize since they do not hold to the teaching of the New Testament.
Most of us would agree that the Bible makes it clear that sound doctrine is essential for any church to be considered a true Christian church, but are any of us so bold as to affirm that we are absolutely correct in all of our doctrinal views? If not, where do we draw the lines on which doctrines are essential if a church is to be a true Christian church? And is sound doctrine all that is necessary for a church to be a true Christian church? Or are there other essentials that must be present? Basically, what I'm asking is how you would describe a true Christian church. What are the essential characteristics of a true Christian church?

For the sake of this discussion, a "true Christian church" is defined as one that belongs to Christ, where we would expect that the members are saved. (Yes, I am aware that many church members are unsaved, but I'm talking about general assumptions. For example, we expect that members of Southern Baptist churches are saved, but not Mormon churches.) Also, for the sake of brevity, in your initial comment don't try to provide evidence to support your views. If someone challenges your views, then feel free to provide evidence.


CJ said...

Is there a true dichotomy of true and false church?

Tim Sweatman said...


I suppose the answer would depend on if one believes that there are certain characteristics that must be present if a group is to be a true Christian church. I believe that there are such essential characteristics, and that not every group that calls itself a Christian church is truly one.

Before anyone asks me, I want to allow others to share their views before I give my description of what make up a true Christian church.

CJ said...


I'm just trying to understand the question before responding so please pardon another question. Are you interested in a definition of a true local church or in the signs of a true church? I actually think the distinction is important.

Wes Kenney said...

I struggle with this because, on the one hand, we don't want to come across as being arrogant possessors of the only truth. On the other hand, where does a line get drawn? Where does a stand for orthodoxy, any orthodoxy, end and the affirmation of "believe anything as long as you're sincere" begin?

I hope I'm communicating the struggle I have. I don't want to seem condescending, but if I don't believe my church teaches the absolute truth, why should anybody else? See what I mean? If I invite a non-churchgoer, and they say they were thinking of visiting the Oneness Pentecostal Church this week, should I say, "Oh, that's nice, God bless you"? Or should I share my conviction that theirs is not a true gospel because they deny the Trinity?

It's your blog, and I'm asking the questions. Sorry...

CJ said...

Here's an attempt at a definition:

A church is a community of Christians who assemble together regularly to the glory of God.

The characteristics of the church would then be based on what 'Christian' and 'glory of God' mean. You would expect to see worship, a constant effort to reform according to God's word, a witness of Jesus to the world, unity, etc. This does not lead to a usable set of criteria to evaluate churches or denominations because you would have to look at the hearts and intent of the people. I think that is why we always end up using the doctrine and practice of a church. It's a lot easier to evaluate the organization of the church than the actual people.

Kevin Bussey said...

To me the true church is the group of people who have a personal relationship with Christ.

I think the essentials are the fruit of the spirit in Gal 5:22-23. If we don't display these then it is fair to question our relationship with Christ. Good discussion Tim!

Tim Sweatman said...

I'm surprised that no one has listed any doctrinal requirements, because that seems to be one of the issues at the heart of the current controversy within the SBC---the question of whether a group that does not hold to certain doctrinal views is a true Christian church and thus has the authority to baptize. Don't assume that everyone knows which doctrines are essential; go ahead and lay them out there. Part of what I'm trying to do is see if we can reach a consensus on what constitutes essential, non-negotiable doctrines that MUST be present for a group to be a true Christian church. Not so anyone can say, "I'm right and you're/they're not," but so we can find grounds on which we can cooperate as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I do like the focus on community and the fruit of the Spirit. We could use more of that emphasis in the SBC. These issues of practice are also an important part of this discussion.


I understand your struggle. It's one that I hope all of us would struggle with, rather than simply dismiss those who disagree with us. But I think it's evident from Scripture that there are certain lines that must be drawn. So I guess I'm approaching this from a dual perspective. First, what are the essential doctrines that a church must believe to be a true Christian church? Second, what are some of the descriptive practices or characteristics of a true Christian church?


You make some valid points. To go with what you said, the first step would be to define what it means to be a Christian, in terms of both belief and practice. I am looking more for a description of the characteristics of a true Christian church than a definition. But everyone feel free to offer definitions as well.


The fruit of the Spirit is definitely an identifying characteristic of true Christians and, thus, of true churches. But would this be the only essential characteristic?

Wes Kenney said...

Based on an email conversation I had with Wade Burleson, he would say that any group of believers that affirms these four Reformation solas - fide, gratia, scriptura, Christus - would constitute a true church. I would want to add to those in my definition. But it isn't my definition that matters, and I would have a hard time disagreeing with that definition on scriptural grounds.

Kevin Bussey said...


I don't believe the Fruit are all we need. But if we don't see it then I question if it is a real church. I believe we must rely on the essential that Jesus is the only way to God/heaven and we can't work our way to heaven. Jesus died on a cross for our sins and we must accept Him as or savior and allow Him to guide our lives.

The essentials: Love the Lord your God will all your heart soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself! That will work!

martyduren said...

I was thinking of a description and then picked up Rankin's book, To the Ends of the Earth. On page 90, he states, "A local church is a group of baptized believers covenanted together into community by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of worship, fellowship, witness, nuture and ministry."

In my mind there is no doubt that a church is more than a bible study, but certainly not less that what he describes.

Wes Kenney said...

I want to share another idea that comes from conviction I have about a question I asked in a previous comment in this thread. I said, "...if I don't believe my church teaches the absolute truth, why should anybody else?"

I have been preaching a series on Christ's messages to the seven Asian churches in Revelation 2-3. The church at Ephesus did not tolerate evil and they were sound in doctrine. They tested their teachers in light of scripture and did not put up with false teachers. But they were threatened with removal of their lampstand, the sign of being a true church, because they had "abandoned the love [they] had at first."

Even with the truth as a hallmark of our ministry, we cannot call ourselves a true church without a genuine love for God and others. Jesus said nothing about fidelity to doctrine when he gave the true mark of discipleship in John 13:34-35. Doctrine is important, but not in the absence of love (1 Corinthians 13).

Anonymous said...

The essential characteristics of a true Christian Church are:

Two or more baptized (by immersion) believers who meet regularly for the following:

1. Worship: including praise, singing, prayer, reading of the Word.
2. Discipleship: helping each other to discover the truths from the Word and demonstrating faith by obedience to the truth.
3. Fellowship: meeting with those 2 or more believers and building trust and encouragement for the believers.
4. Ministry: mutual discovery of spritual gifts and using them to edify the believers within the church and reaching out to those outside the church.
5. Evangelizing the lost.

....and observing the Lord's Supper regularly as a body of believers and baptizing new believers.

The group must have a shared passion for the Lord and a huge burden for the lost and a clear understanding of Acts 1:8 and a plan to engage "to the ends of the earth".

This group must also be aware of their identity and call themselves a church.

Of course, as the church grows in number and space permits, the body may choose to designate leaders among themselves, following Biblical qualifications or they may choose to multiply and keep the churches smaller.

An IMB church planter in a closed country in East Asia.

Anonymous said...

As another anon M, I would echo what anon M writing on Feb 18 expresses. We spent 2 years as a team trying to understand and define what a N.T. church is from Scripture. Sounds crazy, doesn't it, but it was a difficult process and paradigm change for most of us to realize that what we observed in the N.T. about the church is really quite different in many ways from the church we were raised in and knew from our upbringing at FBC, Anytown, USA.

I am not saying that the USA (Western version) of church is not a real church, only that the definition of church found in the pages of the N.T. is much simpler than the complex organization that most USA churches have become.