This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: What are the necessary elements of a church?
A: To qualify as a church, three “marks” must be present: the preaching of the word of God, the administration of the ordinances, and the ministerial care and oversight of the church, or church discipline. These three marks—Scripture, ordinances, and authority—are universally accepted and practiced in God-centered, gospel-centered churches. They must exist for a gathering of Christians to function biblically as a church, serving as the foundation of the institutional nature of the church.
Yet the church has an organic nature as well, which flows from the institutional marks and into every nook and cranny of the church’s life. In a sense, if the three institutional marks of the church are the skeletal system, the organic parts of the church are the rest of the body—joints, muscle, tissue, etc.—that fill in and flesh out the frame. While some of these elements might be debated or combined, and even implemented in a variety of ways, a biblically based local church should include the following seven elements: (1) corporate worship—the weekly gathering of God’s people; (2) prayer—personal and corporate communication with God in response to his word; (3) discipleship—intentional training and relationships to help one another follow Jesus; (4) leadership—deacon and pastor-elder office holders who are faithful and fruitful; (5) “in-reach”—the inward ministry of nurture motivated by a love for one another; (6) outreach—the outward ministry of witness motivated by a love of neighbor; and (7) fellowship—the mutual and familial commitment to one another with love and grace.
Q: How does a church help a person grow as a Christian?
A: One of the best ways to think about how a local church raises disciples to know and love Jesus is with the metaphor of “mother,” a category the church itself has long used to explain its familial nature. The local church—the whole congregation—nurtures God’s children through preaching and teaching, counseling, pastoral care, ministries of mercy and service, and real and authentic relationships. Calvin’s description rightly depicts the church’s ministry as the mothering care that happens within a family: “The Church is the common mother of all the godly, which bears, nourishes, and brings up children to God, kings and peasants alike; and this is done by the ministry.”1 Calvin nearly covers all the stages of life, from the womb to early childhood all the way through adolescence to adulthood. Just as the Father establishes and oversees the family, so he assigns the church to be its mother.
A local church raises up God’s children through both its institutional and its organic natures. Through its institutional nature, God’s children are fed with Scripture, established and nourished with the ordinances, and directed under its authoritative care. Through its organic nature, a church will envelop God’s children with the practices and programs that help them grow in Christ and serve him in full maturity. A church’s postures and personality are as important as its programs, for discipleship is caught as much as it is taught, the outworking of real relationships and intentional mentorship.2
Q: What is the relationship between a church, the church, and the kingdom of God?
A: Answering this question requires the entire story of Scripture. A proper definition of the kingdom of God requires five elements: a royal, a reign, a relationship, a rule, and a realm.3 The Bible explains those elements this way: (1) the Lord Jesus Christ is the King, (2) who as Creator is sovereign and reigns over all creation, (3) out of which he calls forth a people—beginning with Israel and ultimately the church—whom he redeems and governs (4) by means of God’s law, through which he reveals his will and establishes his rule, (5) which is actualized and embodied in the church’s life and witness until it extends over all creation.
The Lord Jesus established the citizens of his kingdom as an official community called the church (“the gathering”). The church is not to be equated with the kingdom but is an outpost and embassy born from and bearing its authority (Matt. 16:18–19), serving as a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of God’s kingdom.4 The church is the universal, international, and eschatological community of the new covenant between God and humanity, whom Christ creates and rules, whom the Spirit indwells and directs, through whom the Father is glorified, and to whom all Christians throughout history belong. The universal church is realized, however, in every time and place only by means of a local church, which is a particular group of Christians who weekly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s discipleship to Jesus Christ and his kingdom through the gospel preaching, ordinances, and authority of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the local church makes visible what is invisible, and reflects in words and deeds the kingdom life that is to come.
Q: Why does the church practice membership?
A: Church membership is a discipleship mechanism that administers the formal relationship between a Christian and the local church, involving affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship by the church and submission and participation in the local church by the Christian. While formal membership in a local church is not explicitly articulated in Scripture, it is implicit in numerous places (e.g., Rom. 12:4). Even more, when all the Bible’s commands and expectations are compiled regarding a church’s role toward a Christian and a Christian’s role toward a church, it looks like what healthy local churches do when they implement the practice of membership.
Church membership serves as a form of covenant between disciples in a local church, explaining the nature and function of their mutual rights and responsibilities, primarily in the form of participation, care, and submission. The individual member submits himself or herself to the authority of Christ mediated by the church, agrees to be cared for by the church, and commits to serving, giving, and participating in the life of the church. In the same way, the local church commits itself to shepherding the individual member assigned to it by the providential calling of God, agrees to care for the member, and commits to teaching, training, disciplining, and loving the individual. In essence, church membership is how an individual Christian commits to being a disciple and how a local church commits to raising up disciples.
The local church makes visible what is invisible, and reflects in words and deeds the kingdom life that is to come.
Q: How do I find and join a church?
A: Since a local church involves people in a family and a place for ministry and mission, every Christian should look for a church close to home. We need to develop a “parish” mentality as we think of our local church’s life and mission. A person simply cannot be actively involved in a church while commuting a significant distance. This does not mean a Christian should choose proximity over theology. Each Christian needs to develop biblical convictions not only about first-rank doctrines, which are essential to the gospel, but also about second-rank doctrines, which are urgent to the practices and procedures of a church. Take time to understand a church’s statement of faith, its theological tradition or denomination, and even its culture.
Once a person has found a church that is both biblical and proximal, he or she should seek to fully enter into the local church’s ministry and family. Since church membership is a discipleship mechanism that most closely aligns with the Bible’s prescriptions for the relationship necessary between a Christian and a church, every disciple of Jesus should seek formal membership in a local church. This will take time and may require a membership class and meeting(s) with pastor-elders. Whatever the process of your local church, remember that a healthy Christian learns how to both receive from and give to the local church.
- John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians, trans. William Pringle, in Calvin’s Commentaries, 23 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 282.
- A helpful resource for instructing Christians on the basics of the Christian faith is J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994).
- Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2014).
- Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 110.
This article is adapted from The Local Church: What It Is and Why It Matters for Every Christian by Edward W. Klink III.
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