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What is a Simple Church?
by Joel Comiskey
Taken from chapter 2 of Planting Churches that Reproduce (CCS Publishing, 2009).
A few years ago, I preached in Zurich, Switzerland and praised Ulrich Zwingli in my sermon. Zwingli (1484-1531) was one of the great Swiss reformers who spread the doctrines of justification by faith and stood against the religious traditions of his time. Yet after the sermon, the pastor approached me saying, “In the next service, you probably shouldn’t say too much about Zwingli. Just a few miles from our church is a river where Zwingli and followers drowned the Anabaptists.”
Why were the Anabaptists persecuted? Because they wanted to take Zwingli’s reformation to the next level. Anabaptists believed that justified, regenerated believers who were baptized as adults should meet together apart from the state church The Anabaptists longed for a reformed church—not just reformed doctrines.
When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door, he didn’t plan to break from the Roman Catholic Church. His goal was to correct abuses in the church and make God’s Word the foundation for faith and practice, not the pope’s authority.
Luther’s reformation didn’t settle the question of the true nature of the church. Break-away groups, like the Anabaptists, wanted to practice Luther’s doctrine in a church with like-minded people. They felt the state church was culturally bound and didn’t conform to Scripture. Yet Luther vehemently opposed the radical reformers, and the debate about the nature of the church continued unabated.
Similar debates continue to this day.
Some denominations, for example, don’t believe a church exists until an ordained pastor is in charge. Others won’t officially recognize a church until there are enough charter members; still others believe a church must first launch a public gathering, say on Sunday morning, before the real church is present. Some go farther, demanding robes and rituals. Wolfgang Simson sums up this view:
The image of much contemporary Christianity could be summarized as holy people coming regularly to a holy place on a holy day at a holy hour to participate in a holy ritual by a holy man dressed in holy clothes for a holy fee (note 1).
I am convinced that many of our church definitions are far too complicated.
What is the church?
The Westminster Confession describes the church with great eloquence:
Unto this catholic visible Church, Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto (note 2)
Meanwhile the Southern Baptist’s definition of the church is more down-to-earth:
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is . . . an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth (note 3).
I mentored one doctoral student who wrote his dissertation about planting a simple church among the Christian Reformed denomination. He was looking for support and approval. He planned to begin with a one small group (cell) and multiply into more groups. His title, A Strategy for Beginning a Church Multiplication Movement in Muskegon, Michigan, declared his bold intentions.
But he first had to get his initial cell accepted as a real church. He searched the Christian Reformed documents to show that what he was planting—even from the first cell—was truly the church of Jesus Christ. He found a passage in the Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government that said, “Groups of believers, although too small to be organized, do constitute the church and are entitled to the love and care of the church through the ministrations of a neighboring council” (note 4).
His denomination defined church as a gathering of people in one place at a particular time, under a pre-determined pastoral role. His denomination—like most others—defined church according to the definition given by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other reformers. Their view of the church was a place where the gospel was rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline correctly exercised.
The challenge for the doctoral student was to find a way in which a small group or a house church could incorporate the marks of the church on the small group level (preaching the word, celebrating the sacraments, and practicing church discipline). He had to overcome the denominational rules that stated, “A minister of the word serving as pastor of a congregation shall preach the word, administer the sacraments, conduct public worship services, catechize the youth, and train members for Christian service” (note 5).
Notice the words “conduct public worship services.” Could he have a church without a public service? He planned to start the church with one small group. Was that not the church from the beginning? His struggle was not merely a theoretical exercise. He was looking for denominational funding and support.
He did an admirable job of describing point- by-point how the first small group would participate in the word of God, baptize new believers, partake in the Lord’s supper, and even exercise Christian discipline. In effect, this doctoral student simplified the definition of the church.
Back to the basics
Charles Brock, well known church planter and trainer, once said:
I believe a perverted and tarnished view of what a church is, constitutes one of the greatest hurdles faced by church planters. In the New Testament, the word ‘church’ was applied to a group of believers at any level, ranging from a very small group meeting in a private home all the way to the group of all true believers in the universal church (note 6).
The Greek word ekklesia (assembly, gathering) infers that we cannot experience church until we come together. To make sure we benefit from the testimony of other believers, God has ordained the local church, which consists of believers connected in a particular city, town, or village. But what exactly is the local church? Alfred Kuen studied the topic in-depth and wrote I Will Build My Church:
There does not seem to be a clear-cut way to define a local church. For example, is it when you have a constitution and regular meetings? Is it when you have baptized believers who partake regularly of the Lord’s supper? Is it when you have church officers, such as elders and deacons? Should numerous norms be present in order to have a local church? It certainly does not include a certain level of maturity: for the Corinthians were yet carnal but Paul called them a church. . . When, then, can a body of believers be called a church? I personally tend toward a simple definition: a body of believers can be called a church whenever that groups meets together regularly for mutual edification (note 7).
Christ’s Church does not require layers of hierarchy, added later by religious institutions. But just what does it include? John Dawson in his best-selling book, Taking Our Cities for God, writes:
There is no absolute model for what a local church should be. I once spent an afternoon with over one hundred spiritual leaders from several denominations. We tried to come up with a universal definition of a biblical local church. You may think that it was an easy task, but if you consider all the culture and circumstances of people on the earth and you examine the diversity of models in the Bible, you will begin to understand our frustration. After many hours of discussion, we had produced many good models, but no absolute definition other than ‘people move together under the lordship of Jesus (note 8).
Paul called groups of believers the church before they had appointed leadership. Paul and Barnabas had already established churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch on their first journey. So on the second journey, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders. Acts 4:21-23 describes the situation:
They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.
Paul and Barnabas focused on those minimal qualities that made up the church. They were intensely interested in gathering followers of Jesus together under leadership. The churches that they planted were simple and reproducible.
Jesus says in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Looking at the broader context of Matthew 18 (specifically verses 15-35), we see that Jesus is teaching the disciples a lesson in how to deal with sin and forgiveness. He tells them that they should first talk to the person who has sinned, but if no reconciliation is found, then they should take one or two others and try again. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector”(Matthew 18:17).
The word for church in Matthew 18 is the Greek word ekklesia. The context is clear that Jesus is referring to a larger assembly than the two or three that dealt with the first sin.
A church, therefore, should have more than two or three people, according to Matthew 18. But Jesus doesn’t say how large the church should be. Ralph Neighbour, influential author and church planter, adds his own insight to Matthew 18:
How large could that assembly be? I propose it consisted of a body of people small enough that all parties were in accountability to one another. I once had a woman in a traditional Baptist church I was pastoring who decided to move in with a man who offered to feed and keep her and her two teenage daughters in exchange for her sleeping with him. When I took it to the Deacons, they said, “Pastor, we don’t know this woman except to greet her on Sunday morning. We have no power to deal with her.” It was then I began to realize that Jesus could not have been referring to a blob of protoplasm called “church,” but rather to the expression of ecclesia as body members. Was not Jesus defining the size of a body when He chose twelve to be His first community to dwell with while on earth? I feel we need to see the body of Christ in its most basic form as small enough for true community to be experienced (note 9).
Jesus isn’t talking about an impersonal, anonymous assembly in Matthew 18. He has accountability and church discipline in mind. The assembly knew each other and could act responsibly to confront a brother or sister who had done something wrong.
In one church planting situation, I dealt with a member who was sexually abusing his child. Under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, he felt filthy for doing so, although he tried to keep his sin from his wife. This man was part of a small group and well known by those in the church. We told him to tell his wife, or we were going to do so. In this case we also had to get outside help because the child’s welfare took precedence over everything else. We were able to deal with this man’s sin because he was committed to believers who knew him and his situation.
I’ve also dealt with people who were not members of our church. One of my church members asked me to talk to Bobby, who attended a nearby megachurch. Bobby had committed adultery, encouraged abortion in the women he impregnated, and never admitted his sin. I told him to openly confess his sin to those involved and to talk with one of his church pastors. I later heard that he decided to remain anonymous in his church and not deal with the sin. As the years passed, Bobby has continued his sexual promiscuity but continues to attend his “church.”
My understanding of church
My own convictions about the church have led me to a few basic principles that I believe the New Testament shows should be present in any given church.
First, the church should have more than three people as mentioned in Matthew 18:15-35.
Second, those in the church should be accountable to God-appointed leadership. This implies that the leaders will know the members and the members will have a relationship with the leaders. Hebrews 13:17 is clear, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (note 10).
Being accountable to leadership requires commitment to the church (1 Corinthians 5; Galatians 6:1-2) (note 11).
Third, Scriptures make it clear that a church needs to operate under the lordship of Christ. As Lord, Jesus Christ is Savior of the church. The church serves Christ. Christ died and rose so that he would be Lord of both the living and the dead. An assembly of people is not a true church unless Jesus is Lord (note 12).
Fourth, churches should participate in the sacraments of both baptism and the Lord’s supper (see Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11).
These are all simple expressions of what the church is. The focus of the church is never the building but always the people. The true church consists of those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ and live under His lordship.
When my home group comes together on Sunday evening, it’s fully the church. We have God-appointed leadership, we meet regularly, we read God’s word, we participate in the sacraments—at times in the home group and at other times when all the home groups meet together for a common celebration. We are under the lordship of Christ and accountable to one another. It’s a very simple gathering—simple and reproducible. Our goal is to reproduce our simple church to the world around us—just like the early church.
When my father-in-law died in July 2008, we were having one of our home meetings. We were about to enter a time of praying for unbelievers (empty chair) when Celyce, my wife, received a phone call from her sister, Belinda, who relayed the news that their dad had died. We gathered around Celyce to pray for her as she wept. We comforted her in a sensitive, Spirit-led way, all the time rejoicing inwardly that Leo is now in heaven and free from pain. Celyce needed us, and the Spirit brought comfort through the members in a profound way. We experienced Christ’s presence in a special way through the church.
- Wolfgang Simson, Houses that Change the World: The Return of House Churches (Cumbria, UK: OM Publishing, 1998), p. xxi.
- Westminster Confession of Faith, at http://www.pcanet.org/general/cof_chapxxi-xxv.htm#chapxxv.
- The official definition of the Southern Baptist convention on June 14, 2000 and found at http://www.sbc.net/bfm. Scriptures included are: Matthew 16:15-19; 18:15-20; Acts 2:41-42,47; 5:11-14; 6:3-6; 13:1-3; 14:23,27; 15:1-30; 16:5; 20:28; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 3:16; 5:4-5; 7:17; 9:13-14; 12; Ephesians 1:22-23; 2:19-22; 3:8-11,21; 5:22-32; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:18; 1 Timothy 2:9-14; 3:1-15; 4:14; Hebrews 11:39-40; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Revelation 2-3; 21:2-3.
- Richard R. DeRidder and Leonard J. Hofman, Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government (Grand Rapids, MI: Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church, 1994), p. 101.
- Charles Brock, Indigenous Church Planting: A Practical Journey (Neosho, MO: Church Growth International, 1994), chapter 2 and chapter 4 as quoted in Ed Stetzer, Planting New Churches in a Post-Modern Age (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2003), p. 171.
- As quoted in Bob Fitts Sr., Saturation Church Planting: Multiplying Congregations through House Churches, self published, 1993, p. 8.
- John Dawson, Taking Your Cities for God (Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 1989).
- Email posted to cellchurchtalk, 2/09/2006.
- Men is not in the Greek text. The Easy to Read version (ERV) of this passage says: Obey your leaders. Be willing to do what they say. They are responsible for your spiritual welfare, so they are always watching to protect you. Obey them so that their work will give them joy, not grief. It won’t help you to make it hard for them.
- I believe that Christ’s church should meet regularly together. I say this in opposition to the idea that a local church might simply be believers meeting “once in a while” at Starbucks or a Chris Tomlin concert. George Barna, in Revolution (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), pp. 144, says that a replacement “micro-model” might be: a worship conference, coaching communities, internet groups, parachurch ministries, . .” (66). He says, “Ultimately, we expect to see believers choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal ‘church’ of the individual” (66). He believes that the new “local church” of the revolutionaries might be in cyberspace, meeting with one’s own family, or going to Chris Tomlin concerts.
- Ephesians 5, Romans 14, and many other places say that any biblical church must be under Christ’s Lordship.