Editor's Note: This is the third of three blogs on the demise of a robust understanding of "church" in modern evangelical life. To read the first installment, click here. To read the second installment, click here.
The earliest church, in the first forty or so years following the resurrection of Jesus, was essentially a movement within Judaism that believed that the Messiah had come. But then, around 70 A.D., Jerusalem fell to the Romans, and the Christian church was dispersed. The most important church that emerged, as you would imagine, was the one in Rome, which was the capital of the Roman Empire.
During the next few centuries, the church defined itself by four very important words: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Each word carries great significance.
First, the church was to be one, or unified. Jesus, in His great and grand final prayer recorded in John's gospel, prayed fervently for unity among those of us who would embrace His name in years and centuries to come.
Second, it was to be a holy church, meaning set apart for God and separate from the world, for God Himself is holy. The church is to reflect this holiness to the degree that it can be identified with God as holy.
Third, the church was to be catholic, which simply meant "universal." The church was meant to be a worldwide church, one that included all believers under its umbrella. So the word "catholic" was being used of the church long before any kind of institution within Christianity used it for its own.
Finally, the church was to be apostolic, which means committed to the teaching handed down by Jesus through the apostles.
Beyond being one, holy, catholic and apostolic, local churches were entities that had definition and form, structure and purpose. They were not simply doing "community" in the broadest of senses, much less simply pursuing ministry.
In the Bible, the church was a defined, purposeful gathering of believers who knew they were coming together to be a church. There were defined entry and exit points to the church; clear theological guidelines navigating corporate and community waters; the responsibility of stewarding the sacraments; specifically named leadership positions; and, of course, a singular mission.
Yes, one often hears that the church is where "the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered." This is taken from the Augsburg Confession (1530), the primary confessional statement of the Lutheran Church, courtesy of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. Calvin said much the same thing in his Institutes. But sensing the inadequacy of such a definition, in 1539 Luther wrote On the Councils and the Churches, and added five more distinguishing characteristics, including church discipline, ordination, and worship through prayer and singing.
All to say, there are those who intimate that the idea of the church in the New Testament is either so embryonic, or so ethereal, that there is a license to define the church in any way desired. This simply is not the case. In trying to convey the specificity inherent within the nature and definition of the church to my seminary students, including a clear sense of when you know you actually have the church in operation and not just a pale imitation or even impostor, I came up with five "C's," beginning with community.
To be a church, you must be a community of faith. There is no sense that this community is to be segmented in any way, whether by race, ethnicity, gender or age. In fact, the radical declaration of Paul in Galatians is that in Christ such divides are no longer to exist (Galatians 3:28). There is clear instruction that within the church, such worldly divides are to be turned on their head. For example with age, the young are not to be despised if called to lead the old, and with wealth, the ones with means should care for those without.
But the community is to be defined in one way: it is to be made up of God's people. Those outside of the faith are to be welcomed and spiritually served – even to the point of ensuring their understanding of the proceedings of public worship and being sensitive to their sensibilities (I Corinthians 14), but they are never to constitute the church itself, nor partake in its sacraments.
As a defined community of faith, we read how the New Testament church had clear entry and exit points. We see this throughout the New Testament not only in the address of the apostle's letters to defined groups of people in various geographic locations, but also in the prescribed exercise of church discipline. Paul talks of those "inside" the church and those "outside" the church, and speaks of the importance of expelling those who are wicked and unrepentant (I Cor. 5:12-13).
The second dynamic which constitutes the church involves confession. The idea of "confession", in the sense being suggested here, is related to the Greek homologeo, which means "to say the same thing" or "to agree." For the church to be the church, it must be a place where the Word of God as put forward in Scripture is proclaimed in its fullness. If a Christian church is anything, it is foundationally confessional, for the earliest mark of the Christian movement was the clear confession that Jesus is the Christ (Mk. 8:29), or the Lord (Rom. 10:9; cf. Acts 16:31; I Cor. 12:3; Php. 2:11).
Formal confessions of faith, which are doctrinal summaries of essential Christian beliefs, have been developed throughout the history of the Christian church in order to verbalize basic doctrinal commitments. Among the earliest of examples is what is now known as the Nicene Creed, so called because it was at the Council of Nicea  that it was adopted:
We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.
And in the Holy Spirit.
And those that say 'there was when he was not,'
and, 'Before he was begotten he was not,
and that, 'He came into being from what-is-not,'
or those that allege, that the son of God is
'Of another substance or essence'
these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.
The third mark of the church is corporate. The Bible speaks of defined organizational roles, such as pastors/elders/bishops and deacons, as well as corporate roles related to spiritual gifts such as teachers, administers, and, of course, leaders (Rom. 12; I Cor. 12; Eph. 4; I Pet. 4). These corporate dynamics allow money to flow from one group to another (II Corinthians 8); decisions to be made by leaders as to doctrine and practice (Acts 15); and the setting apart of some individuals for appointed tasks, mission and church plants (Acts 13). There are often disparaging quips made about "organized religion," but there is nothing "disorganized" about the biblical model.
The fourth dynamic of the local church is celebration. The church is to gather for public worship as a unified community of faith, including the stewarding of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, for these are far from being "public domain." In the New Testament, believers were to "come together" for the Supper, and its proper administration fell under apostolic teaching and direction which was then delegated to pastors to oversee. Indeed, the refusal of the Lord's Supper by church leaders to church members has been one of the more common approaches to church discipline throughout history.
The final mark of the local church relates to cause. The church is on a very specific mission, given to it by Jesus Himself, to reach out to a deeply fallen world and call it back to God. According to the Bible, this involves active evangelism with subsequent discipleship, coupled with strategic service to those in need, such as the poor. We are to be the body of Christ to this world, and the twin dynamics of evangelism and social concern reflect Christ's ongoing mission. And it is this "cause" that may be the most defining mark of all. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann reminds us that the church does not "have" a mission; rather, the mission "has" us. And it is the mission of Christ which creates the church. God has sent Himself, and now sends us. This is the "missio dei," the "sending of God." Or as Christopher J.H. Wright contends, our mission "means our committed participation as God's people, at God's invitation and command, in God's own mission within the history of God's world for the redemption of God's creation." So to engage the mission of God is to engage His church; they are inextricably intertwined.
There is a phrase that runs in some circles. When a glimpse of Christ's dream erupts, there is an exclamation, "This is church." Much of it flows from the "asides" within Luke's narrative of Acts where he seems to pause in his history, full of the drama of the unfolding of Christ's dream, and writes a description of its power and majesty. Perhaps his most well-known summation is in the second chapter:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, NIV)
That is church. And it was a beautiful thing to behold. The challenge is to so pursue it that we can behold it again.
James Emery White
The marks of the church were affirmed in both the Nicene (A.D. 325) and Niceno-Constantinopolitan (A.D. 381) creeds.
John Calvin, Institutes 4.1.9.
Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms.
Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church.
Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit.
Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.
Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.