A Faithful New Testament Church
I'd like to begin this study by reviewing some of the requirements necessary to remain and flourish as a faithful New Testament church. The discussion about growth and unlimited potential can be stimulating, but we must first consider if we are willing to pay the price that these require.
Who are we?
We cannot preserve or grow something unless we know well what that thing is. Let us begin, therefore, by describing what a faithful New Testament church actually is.
We come from a Restorationist Movement begun in Europe and spread to the frontier of America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Restoration Movement began and continues to be an effort to shed Old-World denominational traditions and religious hierarchies in favor of the simple instructions given in the Bible for church organization and Christian living. The Churches of Christ seek after the Christian life taught by Jesus and His Apostles in the New Testament. It was this idea that appealed to me as a Catholic when I began to study the Bible in a serious way (which meant that I was willing to obey and put into practice the things that I understood as I studied God's word).
Eventually, the churches that espoused this approach (i.e. restoring and practicing only those things which the New Testament taught and commanded, and leaving behind those commands and traditions that had been initiated by human church leaders without a biblical base) were referred to as "Churches of Christ." These New Testament Christians (as they often called themselves) spread this restoration ideal throughout the world and now have thousands of congregations related primarily by the shared concept that only God's word is used to establish congregations of the church, and guide individual believers in spiritual matters, moral conduct, church organization and Christian living. This is why in the Churches of Christ there is no higher authority than the leadership of a local congregation (because in the New Testament each congregation had its own leadership structure and no person or committee had authority over a group of churches).
This and all other features that distinguish the Churches of Christ from denominations or sects are based on the foundational idea that all matters of church organization, conduct and teaching must be based on the instructions found in the New Testament in order to have authority for implementation. This is the reason why churches of Christ are different from Catholic, Baptist, Mormon or other church groups that identify themselves with Christ. This particular notion is based in part on Jesus' teaching in Matthew 28:19-20:
19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Jesus' instructions as to the main mission of the church, making disciples, and the internal task of the church, teaching the church to know and obey what Christ taught (no room here for additional teaching by mere human thought) are clear and easy to understand even if they are not always easy to obey.
A New Testament church is one that uses only the Bible and considers only the New Testament as the plan and guide for Christian moral teaching and conduct. Church of Christ theology is very simple. We are committed to doing the things that the Bible gives us to do, whether it be the preaching of the Gospel, worshipping God, or establishing and organizing the church, we are committed to doing these things in the way that the Bible instructs us to do them. Some refer to this approach as Pattern Theology. For example: Let us say that you have a pattern for a dress. If you use this pattern you can produce that dress a million times and always end up with the same garment. In Pattern Theology the Bible (specifically the New Testament) contains the pattern for the church. If we follow the pattern contained in the New Testament for the Christian church, we will be able to reproduce it generation after generation until Jesus returns. This pattern is such that it makes allowances for technical advances and different social and cultural settings. No matter the age or place, however, the New Testament provides the clear pattern for the establishment and function of the body of Christ, the church, in every generation.
To see how this approach works, let us take baptism as an example. The New Testament teaches (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:37-47) that those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God are to express that faith by repenting of their sins and being immersed in water (in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was first written, the word "baptize" meant to immerse) for forgiveness and the reception of the Holy Spirit. The grammar, context, history and imagery all say and describe these actions. The candidates for baptism, therefore, are repentant believers and the sequence of their response to Christ according to His word is: belief, repentance and baptism. The results are forgiveness of sin, reception of the Holy Spirit and entry into the body of Christ, the church. Any deviation from this teaching and practice is a change from what the New Testament has instructed and is, therefore, not permitted. Pattern Theology respects the fact that both the Old and New Testament prohibit any changes, additions or omissions of its teachings (Deuteronomy 4:1-2; Proverbs 30:5-6; Galatians 1:6-9; Revelation 22:18-19).
A New Testament church, therefore, will follow this pattern of instruction exactly when teaching someone the gospel and how they are to respond. This reasoning and approach is followed for all aspects of teaching concerning Christian life, service and practice. We ask ourselves: "How does the New Testament instruct us in this matter?" It is this history and theology that not only makes us unique in the religious world but also links us to millions of other New Testament Christians around the world.
Pattern theology and its practice are what make the Churches of Christ unique in the religious world. Unfortunately, in recent years, many have moved away from this approach developed by early restorationist preachers and teachers (Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, etc.) in the desire to become similar and acceptable to the religious world in general. In doing this, many New Testament congregations have dealt away their historical and theological identity to the point where they have become no different than the denominational churches that the original Restoration Movement tried to separate from in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when these ideas began to take hold.
Some of the things I've said so far are probably familiar to you. The character of the church, however, might be a less familiar idea. We, in the Restoration Movement, may all be Churches of Christ, but we do not all have the same character. Just as children raised in one home by one set of parents mature with different characters, churches adhering to Restorationist principles also develop and mature differently. Here are seven of the main "types" of New Testament churches that can be found anywhere in the world:
1. Struggling Mission Church
This type is usually about 50 members or so with a missionary who preaches and serves as the minister. There are usually no elders or deacons in mission churches and this type of congregation stays this way for a few generations until indigenous leadership can be cultivated.
I worked with this type of congregation in Montréal, Québec (1984-1990). It was a New Testament church, but this was its type. I was the only minister and on Sundays I can remember opening the doors to the meeting place, turning on the heat, preparing the communion and then greeting the members as they would arrive. I'd lead singing, preach the sermon and shake everyone's hand as they left. Once finished, I'd shut everything down, take the trash to the corner and go home. This would be the norm until members were trained to take over various responsibilities for leading in worship, maintenance of the building, teaching and involvement in personal work. It was slow and sometimes discouraging, but necessary when establishing a new work where there were no other congregations planted (this congregation is still active and faithful with its own native preacher, building and mix of young and older members to this day).
2. Urban Team Mission Church
This is a mission point church where the mission team approach has been used. In other words, several missionaries converge on a spot in order to establish a church. This approach yields a much faster result in producing an indigenous local church with its own leadership.
3. Covenant Church
Covenant churches come in all sizes. They are congregations that have reached a plateau in their growth and for whatever reason remain at a certain size and effectiveness without much change from one year to the next. Their objective is to maintain a faithful presence in their community and provide ministry to their members, and in most cases support mission works in other places. Most Churches of Christ fall into this category.
4. Growing Church
Growing churches also come in all sizes and shapes, but what is unique about them is that they consistently exceed the national average of between two and four percent in their growth rates. A growing church is one experiencing anywhere from five to fifteen percent net growth of new members each year (Gary McIntosh - TheGoodBookBlog.com). Growing churches usually struggle with growth management issues. For example:
- How do we minister effectively to more and more people?
- We're running out of parking space.
- We need more Cradle Roll classes.
- We need to hire more ministry or support staff, etc.
5. A Dying Church
The death of a church has many causes:
- Population shift
- Failure to adapt
- Aging without renewal
- False or poorly focused teaching
- Poor leadership
- General sinfulness and laziness
The result is a church that is usually "going through the motions." Many of these congregations are rich in property value but poor in spirit and numbers. The death of a congregation is very sad but sometimes necessary to promote renewal and the redistribution of resources.
6. Extreme Church
Extreme churches are not known for their size or their effectiveness but rather for their positions on doctrinal or procedural matters (how to do things like communion, mission work, etc.). They are found at both ends of the "conservative - liberal" continuum. Extreme churches are primarily focused on guarding and promoting their positions and use these as a test of faith and fellowship. For this reason these congregations remain fairly small and isolated.
7. Leadership Church
Leadership churches have managed to harness their growth and resources to set the pace for ministry followed not only by their own members but by other churches as well. In other words, they are the churches that are used as models for church growth and development by other congregations in our brotherhood. It is to these churches that others come to learn how to better evangelize or how to be more effective in teaching certain groups (e.g. new Christians, immigrants, college students). Leadership churches have learned how to integrate large numbers of people into the body without losing spiritual intimacy. It is where people come to experience meaningful worship and observe more effective and dynamic ways to do church work.
At this point there are two good questions to ask and answer as far as your own congregation is concerned:
- What is your congregation's type?
- What type of congregation do you want to become?
If you want to be a growing or a leadership type church, there is a second thing that you must know aside from who you are.
How to be a Faithful New Testament Church — Ephesians 4
If we strive to be faithful New Testament churches, the Lord will add more people to our body (Acts 2:42), but how do we do that? We want to restore New Testament Christianity - Yes. We want to be faithful to Restoration principles and ideals - Yes. This is all well and good but how do we actually do these things? We begin by putting aside the religious traditions that we ourselves have created and begin to follow the New Testament pattern for church organization and function in a serious manner. A good place to begin scraping off the barnacles of unbiblical religious habit and tradition is with a careful and reflective reading of Ephesians 4:1-24.
1Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling;
Many times teachers only focus on the Book of Acts in their teaching concerning the New Testament church. This is a good beginning since the Book of Acts contains a historical narrative that clearly explains the founding and early function of the church. However, to understand the spirit of the New Testament church we need to examine what Paul teaches about this in the epistle to the Ephesian church because it is here where Paul describes the way that New Testament Christians conduct themselves spiritually. Ephesians asks us if we are conducting ourselves with humility, gentleness and forbearance (forbearance means to patiently put up with other people's weaknesses) because this is what happens in a New Testament church. Ephesians instructs us to love one another despite differences of character and opinion because if this is not happening, we cannot truly refer to ourselves as New Testament churches.
- Do we shrink our pride?
- Do we shrink our will?
- Do we shrink our own ambition down to size in order to build unity?
- Do we hold our tongues?
- Do we act kindly towards one another simply because it is the loving thing to do and not because people deserve it?
The faithful New Testament church lives and breathes by these guidelines. We cannot claim to be a faithful New Testament church simply because we serve communion every Sunday or that we baptize by immersion. There are proper ways of doing these things but doing so is not the only defining characteristic of a New Testament church. We don't use instruments of music in our public worship; this is correct biblically, and can be demonstrated through Scripture, but do we really think that this is the most important feature that defines what a true New Testament church is?
I believe that in making the case for New Testament Christianity we have emphasized the minor things of our faith to identify us (we only sing, we immerse, we commune every Lord's day). We have described and insisted on the externals and in many cases failed to demonstrate the higher principles of our faith and the heart of our religion. This is why I believe it is important that we, as New Testament Christians, need to know what exactly it is that we want to restore and preserve.
7But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8Therefore it says,
"When He ascended on high,
He led captive a host of captives,
And He gave gifts to men."
9(Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)
A New Testament Church understands, as Paul explains here, that it was Jesus and only He who came from heaven down to earth and then went back again. He states this in an opaque way, but he's simply saying that only Jesus came from heaven, went into the ground, resurrected and returned to heaven. Jesus is the only one to have done this. Paul adds that in doing so Jesus demonstrated His lordship over all things on earth and in heaven. The point as far as we are concerned, is that the New Testament church holds only Jesus as head and Lord of the church. This position and authority are claimed only by Him, not tradition, human intelligence, opinion or what is popular.
A faithful New Testament church is not ashamed of naming Christ as its Lord. He is the reason behind everything that is done in our personal lives and in the church.
11And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
A New Testament church is organized and functions in the way the Bible says it should function and be organized. If you want to grow, you must first be organized in the way the New Testament organizes the New Testament church. This means that apostles, prophets, evangelists, elders and teachers are valued for what they truly are. They are gifts or favors that the church has received as blessings from God. You rarely have a growing church or a leadership church without the blessing of elders, evangelists and teachers. There are many small churches who would give anything to have just one of these gifts, and having ministered for congregations that didn't have elders or good teachers I can assure you that significant growth is not possible without this type of spiritual skill and leadership.
A New Testament church prays to be blessed with these gifts from God and when they receive them these congregations are wise if they support and follow their leadership. A New Testament church also understands that the work of these men is to use their particular gifts in the task of helping the church to grow spiritually. For example:
Role of Evangelist
Evangelists (preachers) proclaim the gospel. They plant and organize churches according to the New Testament pattern. They develop leadership and continually encourage the church to do what is right before God. This is their job description according to the New Testament (II Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:5).
Role of Elders
Elders guard the church. They are guardians against false teachers and teachings. They minister to those who are weak in the spirit. They provide an example of godly living for others to follow as well as overall leadership. When the majority of the elders' time is taken up with building maintenance or budget issues, they are wasting their time (Acts 20:28-30; I Timothy 3:1-10; Titus 1:6-9).
Role of Teachers
Teachers continually help the congregation in understanding and applying God's word to their lives. Many teachers don't qualify as elders for some reason or other, but all elders need to qualify as teachers (II Timothy 2:24).
Role of Deacons
Although not mentioned here in Ephesians, deacons provide initial service and management of church affairs as well as training for members who wish to serve in the various ministries of the congregation. Deacons are the ones who mobilize the church for work. In the Jerusalem church seven men were selected to serve the food needs of widows in order to free the Apostles for their ministry of teaching and prayer (Acts 6:1-6; I Timothy 3:8-13).
Why this work by all of these people?
13until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ,
God wants His Church to think and act as a group, like Jesus thought and acted as a single person. A New Testament church faithfully represents the person of Jesus in what it says and does before the world. For example, a New Testament church:
- has the compassionate eyes of Jesus
- speaks His words
- has a pure heart
- offers a ready and helpful hand of service
- has feet that are prepared to go anywhere with the good news
If you want to be a faithful New Testament church, this is the church that you aspire to become. Not only the church that has communion on Sunday, does not use instruments for worship or has only male church leaders. These things are biblical and thus correct, but they are the superficial things. If you make these the objective in recreating the New Testament church in this generation, don't ask yourself why spirits are dry, why members are not motivated, why the church does not have the joy of the Spirit.
What joy (other than knowing that we have obeyed a command) is the knowledge that we are not using instruments in worship or that the men provide spiritual leadership in the congregation? These are not the things that promote growth. The pursuit of purity, seeking after the Spirit, offering forgiveness, demonstrating compassion and practicing humility, these are the things that cause growth. The New Testament church of the first century was known for its loving heart (it took in abandoned babies), its moral purity (Christians rejected the sexual immorality of pagan Rome and other Gentile nations), and its faithfulness to Christ (choosing to die as martyrs rather than denying Christ). These things were the earmarks of the New Testament church then and should be what we are trying to replicate in the twenty-first century.
One last thing you must know in order to become a faithful New Testament church:
Everyone has to be Changed
Although the New Testament church is a corporate thing involving a group of people, God works on individuals within the group. In other words, He works within the group in individual hearts to affect the entire group.
A faithful New Testament church, therefore, is a church where change is taking place in the hearts of individuals.
17So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
Note that after Paul has described the spirit and organization of a faithful New Testament church, he goes on to describe what is happening inside each person's heart in order to bring this church to life. What animates the church is the ongoing change within individual Christians. The road to achieving the twin goals of fidelity and growth runs through the heart of each individual member.
Thus far we have learned that becoming a faithful New Testament church should be the primary biblical goal for every congregation. Unlimited growth is not possible unless we pursue this objective. In order to become and remain faithful as a New Testament church we must know our own history and theology. Knowing our past and who we are theologically will guide our movement into the future. My hope is that all congregations become dynamic leadership churches experiencing unlimited growth.
Secondly, we must know how to remain faithful as a New Testament church. This requires that we follow the Scriptures diligently, challenging one another to become patterned after Christ, knowing and obeying His words contained in the New Testament.
Finally, each member needs to be changed. Every time one member is changed in some area to become more Christlike, more obedient or knowledgeable, the entire congregation is changed. The growth of the body takes place as the heart of each member is changed by the Spirit of God. Remember, nothing changes unless a change is made, and the first change always begins with me.