What Is a Church?

The first church ever, the one the apostles started in Jerusalem, did not have their own building, yet they continued daily in the apostles' teaching, broke bread from house to house, ate their meals in gladness and single-heartedness, and shared all their possessions.

The churches that came along after Jerusalem appear not much different, though it appears that the Corinthian church may have had a building, or at least a large house, where they ate their meals together (1 Cor. 11:20-22). They still gave to take care of the poor among them, those with extra providing for those with not enough, rather than collecting dues ("tithes") the way modern churches do (2 Cor. 8:1-15).

All the instructions to New Testament churches give us a picture of Christians coming together to share their gifts, not to listen to a pastor preach (1 Cor. 14:26). Paul tells the Corinthians that they can all prophesy one by one as long as there is judgment by the church (1 Cor. 14:31). He also tells them to long ("covet") to be among those that prophesy in the congregation (1 Cor. 12:31; 14:1).

Paul tells the Ephesians something very similar. Though he attributes the training of the saints to gifted leaders, it is the saints who build the body (Eph. 4:11-12). He tells them growth will come from their speaking the truth in love to one another and "each part doing its share" (vv. 13-16).

Nowhere do we find the remotest hint that the meeting of a church involved one pastor teaching—"preaching" is the wrong word because preaching means evangelism—a congregation gifted to just sit, listen, and learn.

We find one place where the whole church came together to hear a speaker. That place is Acts 20, where an apostle (Paul) was traveling through and stopped to encourage the saints. It was what we moderns would call "guest speaking."

A typical Christian meeting, however, involved every member coming to be a part, to share their gifts, and to build the body as he or she had been trained to do by the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 4:11-16).

The Church as God's Family

We have wandered from the description of a church to a description of a Christian meeting, a church gathering. I didn't notice, and probably you didn't notice, either.

We evangelicals all claim to know that the church is not a building, though our speech betrays the fact that deep down, we don't. We continue to tell people that we are "going to church," and we even ask people to "meet us at the church."

... that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.—1 Timothy 3:15

The church is people. It is the family of God, and if we understood it better, we might live it better.

The church does not merely gather at a corporately-owned building. It "breaks bread from house to house" (Acts 2:46).

Of course it does. All families do that, and the church of God is the closest family of all.

Or it's supposed to be.

I have to suppose, from growing up in the Roman Catholic Church followed by over three decades of interaction with evangelicals, that few have experienced the church as the family of God, closer than any worldly family could be.

Becoming Family

The only experiences I have had of becoming a real church family involved strong leaders. God provided a man, and that man, through preaching, teaching, and exhortation, brought others together as the family of God, sharing their lives and serving God together.

As we have opportunity, therefore, let us do good to everyone, especially to the household of faith.—Galatians 6:10

Today, more than ever, leaders in evangelical churches are trying to do the same. I have seen many methods employed to change a standard denominational church into a family. One pastor I know even dissolved his congregation, sold their building, and had them gather as separate house churches. It cost him his livelihood. Those house churches still exist in the Sacramento, California area.

The most common method, though, has been cell groups, which meet during the week to facilitate a more family atmosphere among the church members. Today a "cell group" may go by many other names, but the idea remains the same.

The problem is ...

The Structure and Mindset Have Not Changed

In almost every case, the attempts to form cell groups, or something like them, is an attempt to "add to," not to change. The original structure, a church building with songs and a sermon is still the definition of a church in almost every evangelical heart, even if we have managed to train it out of a few minds.

Again, our speech exposes what we really believe, just as Jesus said it would (Matt. 12:34). I have never met a person who attends a Sunday morning meeting at a corporate building who does not regularly refer to the building as "the church," whether that person means to do so or not.

I was told recently that I apparently offended a friend of a friend by referring to denominational buildings and the meetings that occur in them as "Christian clubs."

I am not sure what else to do. As long as we continue to refer to those buildings and those meetings as churches, we will never be able to believe the truth: it is people that are the church, and thus it is people who deserve our attention, our money, and our efforts.

We may be able to convince our minds that we are doing this, but we have not convinced our hearts. We still feel obligated to give our money to "the church," and by this we mean the offering plate that is passed around on Sunday.

That money is used to pay the mortgage or rent and to pay the staff, whether that staff is one person or many.

I'm sorry, but your money is not going to the church. It is going to a Christian club, and while that may be permissible for Christians, there is nothing biblical about it.

Biblically, Christians gave their money to the real church. They gave their money to people. Almost always, those were poor people, and the purpose was to feed them.

Paul spent an entire chapter, and more, discussing a collection he was taking up from the Corinthians (2 Cor. 8-9). What was he collecting for?

Paul did not collect for any of the things we collect money for. He collected money to feed the poor in Jerusalem.

When he did so, he explained to the Corinthians that their money was being given to those without money, but in the future it was entirely possible that those now being helped might be providing for the Corinthians. Just as with the manna in the wilderness, there was to be an equality among the people of God (2 Cor. 8:13-15).

Family takes care of each other. Family may even rent a building for a family reunion or gathering. They do not generally own a building to meet in. That is just not how families work.

God's Family: Every Day and Everything

You shall seek out the faces of the saints every day so that you may rest upon their words. You shall not long for division, but shall bring those who contend to peace. (Anonymous. The Didache 4. AD 80-130)

Unless you are in a Korean church, you are not used to seeking out the faces of the saints every day. I want to give you an idea of how much the thought of daily fellowship pervaded the thinking of the apostles' churches.

The Didache is also called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, though I agree with scholars that apostles did not write it. Nonetheless, it is a very old writing.

Interestingly, The Didache contains a tract that apparently circulated among Christians called "The Two Ways." The Epistle of Barnabas, from the same period, contains the same tract with some textual differences.

The Epistle of Barnabas was regarded as Scripture by at least one well-known early Christian, Tertullian. He was from Carthage, and he would have never decided on the inspiration of Barnabas' letter on his own. That sort of decision rested with each church, not each individual Christian.

If "The Two Ways" could make it into two such early and reverenced books, the apostles' churches had to have been familiar with and in agreement with the tract. It emphasizes not just seeking out the faces of the saints every day, but also sharing everything with your brother.

The idea that the church was not only family—the household of God—but that it was the closest family on earth was deeply ingrained in the apostles' churches.

But perhaps the very reason we are regarded as having less right to be considered true brothers is that no tragedy causes dissension in our brotherhood. Or maybe it is that the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives. (Apology 39. c. AD 210)

Obviously the Christians of the first 200 years of the church regarded their relationship with one another as of the utmost importance.

Another very early and anonymous writing, the Letter to Diognetus describes the same sharing of possessions and references the same exception to their sharing:

[Christians] marry, as do all others. ... They have a common table, but not a common bed. (ch. 5)

Again, I need to point out that the reason this is so important and such strong evidence for a somewhat communal Christian life is not because one early Christian said so. The anonymous writer was describing Christians to Diognetus, not trying to spread an idea or doctrine. He had no reason to describe something that was not true in general of God's household, the church.

Every day and everything. The testimony that Christians sought out the faces of the saints every day and shared everything is replete in the writings we have from the churches of the apostles, even after the apostles had died.

But we don't have to wait until after the apostles' deaths for testimony to the daily nature of the church. Not only do we have Acts 2:42-27, which we looked at above and which you probably knew about anyway, but we have the command of Hebrews 3:13:

Exhort one another daily, while it is called today, lest any of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Christian Clubs

Clubs own buildings to meet in, and they need buildings to meet in. Unlike families, clubs grow large quickly.

Why is that?

I think the simplest explanation is that they're easy. Nothing difficult is required of club members. Club members merely gather together to share their mutual interest in some subject or hobby.

When you gather a large number of people with a mutual interest, you will probably have a lot of fun. You may even provoke a deeper interest or a stronger commitment to the subject or hobby that has brought you together.

You will not, however, have formed a family, which means you will not have formed a church.

You may not know you agree with me, but if you lead or attend a "church" that is trying out cell groups or any similar form of home gathering outside the Sunday meeting, then you agree with me. You already know, though you would never use the terminology, that you are running or attending a mere club that is in need of something that will create a family atmosphere. If you didn't know, you wouldn't be trying to fix it.

Getting Rid of the Club

As I said, there is a pastor in the Sacramento area who dropped his whole club and formed them into churches (gathered Christians functioning as one family). Another pastor near him saw it happen and tried to do the same, but his older congregation would have none of it.

I agree it is impossible to do away with all the Christian clubs. I even agree it might be bad if all the clubs disappeared. They can make excellent outreach centers if the right message is preached, but let's talk about what we can do.

We can correct our speech! This may be enough to correct our hearts, I don't know. I do know that every time we talk about going to church or meeting down at the church, we are reinforcing a definition of church that is not scriptural.

Let me tell you something about replacing something useful—or, in this case, scriptural—with something neutral. I had leukemia. Leukemia is nothing more than replacing useful blood cells with neutral blood cells. By neutral blood cells, I mean cells that are not harmful, but they have no function. They can't do their job.

Leukemia cells don't do anything bad except multiply. Neither do they do anything good, like fight disease or transport oxygen. As they multiply, they crowd out useful blood cells, and eventually the victim dies of suffocation or disease. ("Eventually" for me would have been about six weeks without medical intervention.)

What's wrong with calling a building a church? If it happens here or there, maybe nothing. If it affects us all, however, and we all begin to believe that we can drive down the road, point to a building, and say, "Look at that church," then we will have crowded out God's idea of a church ... and it will die and disappear.

You may not have noticed, but it almost has.

"My church," you might say, by which you probably mean a building and its meetings, "isn't like that. We have a great family atmosphere, and we take care of one another."

Awesome. Good for you. Why don't you just forget about everything I said here and go on about your business? Don't you worry yourself about the 60% of people in Christian clubs, probably including yours, who say that they are either not growing or backsliding. Don't you worry about the 75% of pastors who say they don't have a single good friend. You just talk in any manner you want to talk, scriptural or not, and as long as you're okay, you don't have to worry about what's happening to God's church or to his ideas about the church.

I'm being sarcastic, of course, and I do hope most of my readers would never think that way.

The truth is, though, that Christians in general do think that way ... well, almost that way.

Disregarding the Word of God

Change is not something people like, and I can testify from experience that most Christians hate it.

It's just easier to stick with the status quo. As I pointed out, Christian clubs don't require anything of us. We may require obedience to Jesus of ourselves, and your club may teach people that this is what all members should do. Unless you have an extremely rare and unusual club, though, no one is going to hold you accountable if you don't obey Jesus.

That person in the pew next to you may be a thief, a liar, or a wife-beater. You don't know. You just hug him and say, "God bless you, brother" because the "preacher" told you to. There's a special spot in most club meetings for that.

You might think, "Well, we're just being loving." According to Scripture, being loving has to include obeying Jesus' commands (Jn. 14:15,21). One of Jesus' commands, given through the apostle Paul, is not to keep company with someone called a Christian who is greedy, a drunk, or sexually immoral (1 Cor. 5:9-12).

In a church (the family of God), you would know whether that person was a thief or has beat up his wife. Hopefully, one reason he might be sitting next to you would be because you are the one giving yourself to watching over him, discipling him in the power of the Holy Spirit, and helping him be accountable.

These kind of things come up in a church. They aren't easy, and most people don't want that kind of responsibility. They want to show up for a club meeting, perhaps even pay for it by tossing money in the offering plate, then go home and take care of the children they brought into the world and are responsible for.

Most Christians are busy enough with their own family that they can't be bothered with taking care of God's.

This is not always the case. I understand the Church at Brook Hills in Alabama, a multi-thousand member Christian club, emptied the foster care system in their county by volunteering as foster parents. Awesome! A great Christian thing to do! I am sure God is even more excited than I am about disciples like that.

That doesn't change the biblical description of a church, and it doesn't make the Church at Brook Hills a church. It does prove that there are a lot of disciples in their Christian club.

Historical Verification

Most Christians—evangelical, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox—are under the impression that the sharing of possessions and daily meals together was unique to the first church ever formed, the one in Jerusalem. That is not true.

Doesn't it seem apparent that when the Christians from Jerusalem were scattered and preached the Word, forming new churches, that they would follow the practices and traditions that they had learned in Jerusalem?

Of course it does, and that is exactly what we find in history. Justin Martyr, writing from Rome over a century after the church in Jerusalem was formed, described Christianity in this way:

We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock and share with every one in need. We who hated and destroyed one another and would not live with men of a different tribe because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, share the same fire with them. (First Apology 14. c. AD 150)

Even previous to AD 150, we find an almost odd description of Christian fellowship from Ignatius, one of the earliest overseers (bishop/head elder) of Antioch, the apostle Paul's home church.

Labor together with one another. Strive in company together. Run together; suffer together; sleep together; awake together, as the stewards, assessors, and servants of God. (Letter to Polycarp 6. AD 107-116)

Ignatius mentions sleeping and waking together here. That is the most extreme description of Christian's daily fellowship I have ever found, in Scripture or in the early church fathers. Before we go postulating crazy ideas about what he means, let's just acknowledge that Christians had families living together early in the second century. This should be no surprise. Justin had already told us about "sharing the same fire," which I have seen translated as "living familiarly with them."

As late as the beginning of the third century, the churches still practiced the same shared family life that they had throughout the first and second centuries. Tertullian, a converted lawyer from Carthage in north Africa, wrote:

But perhaps the very reason we are regarded as having less right to be considered true brothers is that no tragedy causes dissension in our brotherhood. Or maybe it is that the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you [Romans], create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives. (Apology 39. c. AD 210)

This is the idea of a church as held by the apostles and those who heard their message and joined their churches.

What is a church? It is a family that shares lives and possessions, sees each other on a daily basis, and brings all their spiritual gifts together for the benefit of the body when they meet as "the church."

Where To Go Next

I really want to address the purpose of a church, but that page is not written yet. You might want to try "Articles by Category", especially if you are curious where I stand on a specific subject.

I have an About Me page that will give you more of an idea about who I am.

The two articles I wrote together with this one were Preaching, Teaching, and Pastors and Evangelism and Missions.