What is Church? (Thoughts on Ecclesiology)

The following is an edited version of email I received recently from my father. My team spends a good bit of time with church leaders and this came from a discussion with my Dad about ecclesiology. My father worked for 25 years and was involved in the church as a layman. Two years shy of full retirement he felt called to full time ministry and left his job to go work at a big church. There were some wonderful things that happened there and some terrible things. After finishing his time at that church he started a number of house churches as he was sorting through what he believed church should look like. Later he raised support and moved to a closed country to serve as a missionary. I respect my father greatly and thus reproduce this here. That said, we don't agree on everything stated here, but I'll leave that to you to sort through. The email has been edited so as to hide some of the background and his and my location in this world.

Discussions like these can be really problematic because we sometimes start from such fundamentally different places. The Bible is rather silent about how church operated in the first century. So there is a lot of room for different ideas from an academic starting point. We have a few verses at the end of Acts 2 which could be argued only apply to that special time and then we have 1 Cor 14:26 and maybe a few hints in other places. We have some information from early church history which can be useful. But, it is very disappointing to see how quickly the church structure degenerated as early as the end of the second century.

From my experiences, I have found that my biblical foundation has changed. I want to give you my perspective biblically first. As part of that I will add many ideas from my experiences. That will put my comments in perspective. If you read all of this I suspect you will see that I have a fundamentally different idea of church as compared to the normal big church in America. So, I will build the foundation, then I will speak very directly to the issues you raise.

1. Paul's list of gifts needed for the building up of the church. We started in very traditional church systems. Later we became involved in churches based on a Kingdom of God theological system. The best thing about this last church system was that we began to experience the traditional gifts that are listed by Paul in four locations: Rom 12, 1 Cor 12 (two lists) and Eph 4. We became elders with some freedom to "eld." We experienced all of the gifts listed. We learned that these gifts really are needed for the building up of the church. Paul actually knew what he was talking about. I provided the 4 lists of gifts below.
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. - Rom 12:6-8

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. - 1 Co 12:7-11

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts... - 1 Co 12:28-31

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,
to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. -Eph 4:11-14
2. And he said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God...” - Luk 16:15

This verse was about money and the Pharisees. But, I think it applies to much in life. From my experience working in the church and in the world, whenever we make the things "exalted among men" important in our lives, we have a problem. We often are focusing on something that is "an abomination in the sight of God." So, when I see the church highly valuing money, a well known personality, popularized music and the musician, I get uncomfortable for those who follow the personality and especially for for the person who has made himself a personality.

3. Those who become important and popular and have many followers live in a questionable place. The apostle Paul called the Corinthian elders to account in 1 Cor 4 for becoming important--almost like kings. Whereas he was an unimportant apostle. These verses make it very clear that those who are like kings--and are considered "wise," "strong" and "in honor"--live in a place that Paul considers very questionable. Many people hold one popular pastor or another in a high place of honor. Usually, he is well known, often rich from his books and the leader of a large organization. All of these things make me nervous and should make him nervous if he is willing to listen to Paul. Finally, Paul says to imitate him. Paul had a big vision for the unreached and he gave his life away for it. He did not get rich or important in a worldly way. He went from place to place establishing churches and setting up elders to minister there. We have people like that in the world today. People like Paul. People we should be imitating. But they are like Paul at the end of the line. We do not know them. They are not famous like our pastors.
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. - 1Co 4:8-16
4. In that same chapter Paul says:
That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? - 1Co 4:17-21
Paul sent Timothy to "remind you of my ways." That which we are to imitate. Then he confronts the arrogant among them and their talk. He goes on to say "kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power." Most of our big name pastors are all about talk. They would not even know what to do with the verse about power. It is not what made them famous. On the other hand, the unknown church planter in the back country of Asia has experienced lots of power. But, we ignore him and listen to our teachers. Americans give immense amounts of money to these teachers and their projects/buildings. These teachers need to be very fearful before God for how they taught their thousands and how they used their money. They have not imitated Paul. They have imitated the Corinthian elders.

5. "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. " - Jas 3:1

This verse is serious. And the rest of the chapter says some very strong things about our tongues. If you are the leader of a big church you need to be very concerned about what you teach. The problem is, every church in which I have worked or studied, got to be that way through a big vision. A big vision that they talked about almost every week. This vision is always talked about as something given by God. But, there is a problem with vision like that. Paul had a big vision for the non-Jewish world. But, his vision did not gather people to him or his organization. He went from place to place giving his life away and setting up elders in new churches. I cannot find any vision in the New Testament that gathers people to one personality or organization. I am now convinced that every one of these visions is NOT from God. Instead, it is self serving to build an organization. Big vision is something highly valued by business and the world. In the church it might very well be an "abomination." Read the article about institutionalizing missional narcissism.

6. Organizations are a very questionable entity biblically. There is a famous secular quote from Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it."
I have watched pastors whom I know well. They know something is fundamentally wrong with what they are doing. But, they cannot imagine changing it. They are secure in their important position. It is not their calling. But it feels good most of the time. It is really hard to think outside of their position because their salary and prestige is based on the organization that they have built. The big church is built on big organization and there are concepts even in the secular world recognizing that organizations do things that are not good. One is that "organizations persist." They are self perpetuating. Big church like other big organizations is inherently self perpetuating. That is not good if it is time for God to do something else. We are proud of our big organizations. Instead, we should be scared because we often confuse our sense of direction from God with what is good for the organization and the two are rarely related in my experience.

I cannot find support for an organization in the New Testament. Secular entities are concerned with how organizations operate. We should especially be concerned about the church organizations. I shudder when I read the line in the article on missional narcissism: "...many folks in the church become collateral damage." From our experience, we had to go around and apologize to people because they were collateral damage of our big system. I am still concerned about all the people that I forgot and therefore was not able to apologize and for all those that I did not realize I had damaged. I am also floored by the authors insight that churches like that are: "highly valuing an entrepreneurial style of leadership that shoots down contrary opinions and gathers “yes people” who are “celebrated as team players.” In our experience, we got rid of every person who was not a yes person. That is some of our collateral damage. This is the way that businesses operate. Not the way a church is supposed to operate (see Matt 18 comments below). Churches like this never have any prophets operating there. See below on leadership.

7. Right now in America, big church is all about leadership. There are teachers out there that are teaching everyone that it is the most important gift in the church. It is listed in the New Testament, but only once and it is not an important one. Leadership is a secular thing, very important in business, the ways of the world. We have teachers in America teaching that the church should have better leaders than business. But, Paul said we need Apostles, prophets, evangelists and elders, etc. And he said that we should all seek to have the most important gifts such as prophesy. Not leadership!

Great leadership can build large organizations, but cannot build effective Christians. For that you need apostles, prophets, elders etc. I think Paul said something like: all these are needed "for building up the body of Christ" (Eph 4:11). No wonder the modern church is a disaster. We only have leaders. We are missing the ones actually needed. We have churches full of people "tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph 4:14). This is especially true if you suspect—as I do—that the vision of most churches is actually not from God, but from human cunning. In fact, the idea of a vision is an idea of big business. As long as "Leaders" are our prophets, the church is in big trouble and the Leaders are in big trouble with God. The things highly valued by the world are indeed an abomination to God (Luke 16:15).

8. There are some interesting verses in Matt 18 that I listed below. One problem in a big church organization is that the senior pastor/personality is very powerful. He usually decides who gets which task, determines salaries, hires new pastors and fires pastors and other staff people. The Matthew verses say that if your brother sins against you that there is a process for correcting that issue. In my experience, these verses can never be followed in a system with a strong senior pastor. Anyone that confronts him will be set aside and ultimately fired. Therefore, there is very little confrontation of the senior pastor and no prophet would ever by able to operate in the church.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. - Mat 18:15-17
9. In the early church there were very few large gatherings. People almost always met in homes. There are only a few larger meetings mentioned and they were not typical church meetings. They were special teachings by Paul or evangelistic meetings. Elders taught people in the church in small groups. They probably used teaching along with lots of interaction to learn scripture, deal with sin and explore the gifting of the group. We miss-understand the gift of teaching when we think a famous teacher has that gift. In the early church the teaching was in small groups. The teacher needed to teach, listen, minister in power, and raise up elders. He was unpaid and needed as much help as he could get especially if he was going to plant more churches. The biblical gift is about growing people up in their faith and involves a lot more interaction than just preaching. It is about a small group and a lot of interaction. It is well known that preaching does not grow up people. Those of us who grew up in a church system based on preaching matured because of our dogged efforts to get in relationship with others and learn side-by-side. We might learn some head things in church, but we changed and grew up in relationships. Sunday was just the hoop to get through to get to the important stuff. Preaching takes up 70-80% of the church resources on something that is not growing up the church. However, it often grows a big crowd.

The idea of an elder is much deeper than a teacher. In a small informal environment when someone unhealthy or deep in sin comes, they often disrupt the meeting. In a big church they just sit and then leave. In the small meeting the people get to watch the elder, "eld" these people. He must call them to account, deal with their issues, pray for them in the meeting and work in conjunction with the other elders and gifted people in the church to resolve the issue in the moment. Everyone learns and many more are developed as elders. Sin/unhealthiness gets dealt with appropriately. The learners see a healthy model of working together in our gifting, praying and confronting. They see discussion based learning from a leader of some depth and accountability. Not just words from a personality at the front.

In addition, in the small, informal environment the gifts in Paul's lists can operate. People can pray, give words of knowledge, prophesy, discern spirits, teach and even give tongues and interpretations. None of this can happen in a large gathering or even a small formal gathering. We did all of these things in our small churches.

10. My understanding of big church systems comes from my experience as a elder in two large churches, my time as a pastor in one large church and my interviews with staff people from other churches such as Hybel's church. It may be possible that some large church is run differently from my experience, but I have not yet found one.

The above was written as a foundation to answer the questions he was specifically asked. The following is the answers to those questions.

First about Paul exhorting Timothy to preach. The real issue here is what does the word "preach" mean. I would be very surprised if it meant what we see on a typical Sunday morning in America. I think it meant one thing in an evangelistic meeting. Probably very much direct speaking without too much interaction. I think it meant something very Jewish in the context of church. It meant, teach and interact, answer hard questions, confront miss-understandings, teach some more, confront a demon, pray, listen to someone prophesy and then help the prophet to understand his gifting and help the people understand/judge the prophesy. These are exactly the kinds of things we did in our house churches.

Second, about “long teaching.” I think there is a place for in-depth teaching. I just do not think it takes the place of a real, biblical church service. I think 1 Cor 14:26 describes a much more useful church meeting: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” So, extended teaching is fine. But it is not a substitute for real church. Why would we look for excuses to continue doing the unbiblical thing while we do not do the biblical thing? Extended teaching might be biblical and useful outside of the normal church meeting.

Third, about church that is small or big. I really think the issue is more about formal verses informal. A big church, say 100-20,000 people is inherently formal. You can make a church of 20 very formal as well. I think the 3000 and 5000 that got saved in the big evangelistic meetings quickly were moved to small churches in homes. I would guess that those new believers that failed to get to those small churches quickly lost their connect to their new faith.

Usually, large churches plant new churches that look just like the first one. So, if the first one is built around one personality, the second leader will need to build his church around his personality or he will be considered a failure. I think the worst thing that can happen to a believer is to be in a church led by a “major league player.” First, I do not see them in the new testament. There are no churches led by big names except the gnostics and the Corinthian church that Paul confronts in 1 Cor 4. It was not considered a good thing to have a big name person or important person. The important people did ministry and traveled from city to city. Second, the church is supposed to be about the gifting of all the people, not the teaching gifting of one “major league player.” I think this idea is another idea highly valued by the world and is possibly an abomination to God.

Fourth, on church planting being disruptive, our experience with small house churches is that everyone is having fun together so they want to stay together. On the other hand it eventually gets too large and some elders need to leave and start another church. We stay in relationship as elders and this makes it easier for them to go out. It is a little disruptive, but more than workable. It is really fun to encourage as many people as possible to go with the new church.

As for certain pastors being able to teach a “challenging message” I think there are many people with challenging messages. I know prophetic people who can speak challenging messages directly to the heart of a mature Christian and encourage him to go even further in his ministry. I have seen people confront sin and demons and false prophets. These people are my heroes. In spite of their gifting no one knows them. They are not famous because they do not have a pulpit in front of thousands of people. Thank God for that. I am sure it would ruin them and we would no longer be able to trust their gifting. I like those at the “end of the procession”—those like Paul.

Sixth, about a really large church that remains biblically faithful, I have never seen one. But, as you can see from the above, I have an entirely different idea of what defines a church. I do not know what to do with the big church. After the reformation, the Catholic church did not go away. It pretty much kept going its own way. Many years later the protestant church finally impacted its ideas. I think the same will happen with the big church. Many people will leave and find alternatives. But, like the Catholic Church, it has a big organization and organizations persist.

I hope you find this helpful. If you disagree with me, that is fine. I got here the hard way. Here in [redacted] we have a saying about people who "[redacted]." Literally, it means someone who has eaten lots of sour and salt. It means, someone who has already had lots of experiences, both good and bad.

In my years in the church I spent way too much time listening to famous teachers and following “leaders” instead of real elders. My wife and I paid a big price for my foolishness.