In the much talk about revitalizing churches today in order to remain relevant to the culture, there seems to be little in the likes of a comprehensive analysis of what the Bible says church should look like. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that it would require a lifetime’s worth of study of the Bible to even begin to comprehend what the Bible has to say about church.
This essay will thus only scratch the surface of this important topic, but what I aim to do is give a biblical foundation for church found by looking comprehensively at Paul’s admonitions to the young pastors Timothy and Titus, as well as examining the example set out by the apostles in the book of Acts. In so doing, I discovered what I call the three S’s of church management – sound doctrine, structure, and service.
As I read through the pastoral epistles, I was immediately taken aback by the amount of times that Paul mentions and expounds upon sound doctrine. To him, it seems one of the primary roles of the church is to expound upon and share sound doctrine to the members of the congregation.
From the beginning to end of Paul’s three epistles to these gentlemen he documents the importance of teaching sound doctrine because if they don’t, many will fall to fables. For instance, in I Timothy 4:6-16, Paul instructs Timothy,
“If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained. But refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation. For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe. These things command and teach. Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.”
In the book of Titus, Paul expresses more of the same, as he writes,
“Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake. One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, the Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies. This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.”
It is then important for the church to be a place where sound doctrine is taught. But what exactly does that look like? Well, one obvious starting point is that sound doctrine begins and ends with the Gospel and the rest of Scriptures. But even then, that doesn’t specifically guarantee that sound doctrine is being taught in the church and received by the congregation.
Luckily, the Bible gives clearer guidelines for the pastor in this area. As the Bible says in II Timothy 2:14-16,
“Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers. Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.”
Here Timothy as a pastor is asked to study the Word of God day in and day out so that he can rightly divide it. But more than that, he is supposed to study the Word, so as to avoid the profane and vain babblings that are fruitless and even harmful.
Careful and Spirit-led study of the Bible should prevent the pastor from teaching false doctrine. If you need further evidence on this, just look at the apostles, and their ability to preach the entire redemption story through referencing and quoting many Old Testament passages by heart.
As we move through into next big area of the biblical church, we begin to take a look at structure.
Structure in general is not given out in quite as much detail as one might expect given the very uniform structure of churches across the United States and even around the world. Yet there is still somewhat to be gained from an analysis of the structure mentioned within the Bible itself.
The structure of the leadership is described probably most detailed of all. The first thing to notice is that local leadership is key. Paul started a lot of churches in his missionary journeys, but he held no authority over those churches after he moved on.
Instead, as Acts 14:21-23 states,
“And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”
Indeed, the very existence of the pastoral epistles goes to show that Paul was entrusting the care of the churches he planted to other men and not trying to run them via proxy. The significance of this is that the service which the church is supposed to do together (which we will discuss later) is hard to manage from a distant location.
But the leaders themselves have a little bit of a job to do. They are of course requested to teach sound doctrine, but they are also expected to live up to a considerable amount of character qualities.
These pastoral requirements are documented in I Timothy 2:11-3:7 and Titus 1:7-13, and include: man, blameless, husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, apt to teach, not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre, patient, not a brawler, not covetous, one that rules well his own house, one with experience, not self-willed, not soon angry, a lover of good men, just, holy, temperate, one who holds fast to sound doctrine, and a good report of the unbeliever.
That is quite a hefty obligation! But according to I Timothy, this is because it is “a good work.” The pastor’s actual work involves of course, expounding sound doctrine, but it also extends to nurturing and shepherding the flock of God as they need it.
Before we leave the structure of the leadership within the local church, it is important to discuss the deacons. ITimothy 3:8-13 documents a list about as exhaustive as the list of character traits for pastors for deacons, but little is given in that passage as to what the deacons actually do.
What seems to be clearer about different functions of different leaders within the church is Acts 6:1-2. Here we read that the twelve apostles (that were serving as pastors) were supposed to be primarily focused with studying the Bible and declaring the sound doctrine of the Gospel. But the church still had other functions with which to participate in. Thus, we read,
“And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.”
Thus, it would seem that the other leaders in the church are supposed to primarily be concerned with ministering unto the needs of the church congregation, while the pastor(s) focus on spreading the good news. However, this does not preclude the pastor from ever ministering to the sick, nor the other leaders from declaring the Gospel – just pay attention to the life of Stephen!
There are two other important points about structure of the church that I would like to make really quick. First, note that membership within the church wasn’t added until after people accepted Christ and then were baptized as an outward sign of the inward regeneration of the Spirit. Acts 2:41 declares,
“Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.”
Thus, while church is certainly a place where all are welcome (Jesus came for the sinners right?), membership is reserved solely for the baptized believer.
Second, there is precious little in the Bible about the structure of a church service. Indeed, Acts 2:46-47 indicates that the early church would come together daily in the temple or just in breaking bread from house to house. The only thing listed as happening when they met together is that they praised God continually.
Thus, the Bible seems to be ok with a more informal church fellowship rather than just the service we consider the assembly of believers today. While the structure of the days we currently live demand that we have an opportunity for a structured church service, maybe we as Christians shouldn’t be so quick to apply the teachings of Hebrews 10:25 to describe as heathens anyone who missed a church service. That doesn’t seem to be its original context. We should only treat as sin that which is forsaking the formal or informal assembly of believers altogether.
The main attention and purpose of the church should be service. Now by service I do not refer to the meeting time every Sunday that I just finished discussing, but rather the idea of meeting the needs of the believers, or the community, or just so much as obeying God. No matter the area in which this service is conducted, it all must be motivated from love and driven by the Gospel.
The early church clearly modelled that we should serve other believers within our community. It all begins with the example of material provision granted in Acts 2:45, where we are told the early church, “sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” But material provision is only the start of it.
What is more important is that the spiritual welfare of those around them. II Timothy 2:1-2 explains the function of discipleship in the church,
“Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.”
Here is the directive which shows that all Christians are called to a discipleship mechanism. This discipleship mechanism is something that can be done through a formula or a curriculum, but is much more likely to occur by simple one-on-one informal training. I
t takes noticing the potential of an individual and training him to grow in the Lord. In Acts18:25-27, Aquila and Priscilla model this form of discipleship quite well,
“This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly. And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace.”
And of course it would be remiss not to speak to how Jesus did not run through a program to train His twelve disciples, but instead served with them, spent time with him, and ultimately gave them the opportunity to serve alone.
But the church also has a function in serving the needs of the community. Little is given in the needs of the church to supply these needs, whether they be spiritual or physical. It is quite possible that these needs are to be met not by the church collectively, but the believer individually, and the church serves as support or maybe even a collaborative effort to fulfill that endeavor.
Thus, the church will run ministries like the food pantry to help their members serve the community, but ultimately it is not the church (structured) but the church (body of believers) that are committed to evangelizing and supplying physical need.
Nevertheless, the act of sending out missionaries with prayer and monetary support seems to be supported by the sending forth of Barnabus first, and then Barnabus and Paul, and then also including Silas and Mark. World evangelism is something that not every Christian can handle on their own. It often takes the pooling together of resources within a church to fulfill that function.
Furthermore, the primary duty of the church had to do with serving God corporately. In II Timothy 2:22, we hear the principle, “follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” We are called to serve God, but we are also called to do so collectively.
In the book of Acts, we see this readily on display. In Acts 2:46-47, we read,
“And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
It is then a primary function of the church to allow opportunities for fellowship and opportunities for support meetings. The church should be a place where people come to be encouraged and challenged in their walk with God. But more than any of that, it should be a place where they come to praise the Lord for the goodness He has wrought in their lives.
So there you have it, the beginnings of what a church looks like, according to the Scriptures. Certainly, it seems that not much time has thus far been spent on such a summary and I hope that in the future more study will be done. If nothing else, I will provide a more complete summary of the subject over time and begin on my life-long quest of what a biblical church actually looks like.