In this age of renovation, the church is in as bad as shape as it has ever been, and in need of change as much as any other institution. The winds of change must blow in our direction, but we must be willing to understand the need for change and what changes need to be made. There can’t be just any old change; there must be a return to the Bible to discover what God expects the church to be.
In the July/August, 2009 issue of The Illuminator, My twin brother Lanny Carpenter wrote an article entitled “What exactly is ‘the church’”. He spoke of how we need to discover anew the nature and mission of the local church according to God’s Word. In the same issue Jim Jones talked about the current state of the church. They pointed out what the church is and what the church should be doing, according to the Bible. But beyond that, there is still another aspect we need to consider as we try to align the local church with God’s ideal. Once we have discovered the nature and mission of the church, and have helped our church understand it, the question arises: what does a stable, mature church look like?
When the front end of a car begins to pull one way or the other, the driver realizes that it is in need of alignment. So he takes the car to a garage that does that type of work. How does the mechanic align the car? First, he knows what the correct alignment for the car is. That correct alignment then becomes his guide to adjust the front end of the car. He then does what needs to be done to straighten out the front end and make the car run straighter.
In order for us to help the church become what God expects it to be, we must first examine the Scriptures, specifically the New Testament, and discover what the characteristics of an established church are. (I here employ the term “established” in the sense of “stability, firmness”.) I have had the privilege of serving in Venezuela over the last 18 years, and am a part of the church renewal process there. God led us to delve deep into Scripture, and over the last 10 years we have discovered 8 characteristics that define an established church. In this article I want to share those with you with the hope that they will become the ideal with which we can align our churches today.
Before I begin, I want to point out that it seems obvious that Paul had an idea what an established church should look like. After all, he wrote thirteen letters (that we have in the Bible), twelve of them to churches or missionaries that he sent to help the churches become established (Timothy and Titus were missionaries, not pastors). When he wrote to Titus, he instructed him, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (NIV). If Paul did not have a plan for taking a church on to maturity, he would not have known what was left unfinished. But in his years of experience planting churches, he knew what was need to facilitate a church’s growth to becoming established. All of his letters have that intention: to point out what they were doing right and what needed to be corrected. Some churches were in bad shape (the Corinth church), while others were highly commended by the apostle (the Philippi church). But Paul was always concerned with helping each one to reach the potential God had for it.
That said, let’s examine the eight characteristics of an established church. Here I present each one to you with a brief explanation and verses that support it, though every one of them deserves a much more in-depth study. Part of this presentation is adapted from a paper presented in Venezuela by Samuel Marcano. The following characteristics will be presented: biblical leadership, brotherly fellowship, the permanent formation of all of the believers, appropriate sustaining of the work, reproductive vision, healthy relationships with other churches, worship as a lifestyle, and established families.
Biblical leadership is one that aligns itself with what the Bible presents. First, the main leadership (pastors/elders/bishops used interchangeably) in the NT churches is always plural (Acts 6:1-6; 13:1-3; 14:21-23; 15:6; 20:17, 28; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5). The only pattern of church government mentioned in the Bible is a plurality of leaders who direct the church. They work in a team and are mutually accountable (Acts 20:28). Secondly, those leaders must meet certain spiritual conditions (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9). Those requirements touch on the areas of character, Bible knowledge, family and ministry skills. Thirdly, the church recognizes their leadership and submits to them (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:7). The church allows itself to be guided by those God has appointed.
Brotherly fellowship addresses the relationship that should exist among the believers. New believers should receive immediate attention and be baptized and incorporated into the church as soon as possible (Acts 2:41-42; 11:23-26). The church meets together regularly for prayer, worship, to celebrate the sacraments, and to strengthen the fraternal bonds between the members (Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Hebrews 10:25). Every member recognizes and uses his gift or gifts for the edification of the church (1 Corinthians 14:12; Ephesians 4:11-16). The church applies spiritual discipline and corrective measures in love to those members who fall into sin (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; Titus 3:10-11).
The permanent formation of all of the believers deals with the teaching and training every believer receives in the local church. The elders (pastors) commit themselves to study the Bible together and help each other grow in ministry and in the development of their pastoral responsibilities (Acts 13:1; 20:28-31). All believers are instructed consistently in God’s Word and a balance is maintained in the areas of knowledge, character and ministry skills (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 11:23-26; 2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 2:1-15). They are encouraged to discover their gifts and use them in the ministry of the local church (1 Corinthians 12; 1 Peter 4:10). The leaders dedicate time to the training of the emerging leaders (2 Timothy 2:2). The Scripture is expressed in a clear and faithful way to the congregation with the result that thee believers are challenged to conduct their lives according to biblical principles (1Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 3:16; 4:1-5).
Healthy interdependence with other churches allows a church to enter into relationships with churches of like mind that can lend support in areas where the church is weak and in need of help. Every church should strive to be a model for other churches (1 Thessalonians 1:7). It supplies resources for other churches who are in need (Acts 11:22; 27-30; Romans 15:26; 1 Corinthians 16:1; Philippians 2:25; 4:14-16). It participates with other churches in the advance of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 8:1-4; 9:1-5; Philippians 2: 25; 4:14-16).
The appropriate financial support deals with the economic obligations of the church. Offerings are assumed as a personal commitment with God for the support of the work and is celebrated under the principles of regularity, spontaneity (it is voluntary), order, and proportionality (every one gives as the Lord has prospered him) (1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 9:7). The administrative management of the church should be given to people who are spiritually qualified and gifted (Acts 6:1-7). The church should sustain its ministers and its ministries as needed (1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 3:13-14). The priority of the church in helping believers in need should be focused on those who do not have any other means of receiving economic help (for example, widows: 1 Timothy 5:3-10). At the same time, believers should be taught to work and support their households so as not to burden the church (1 Timothy 5:8). Everyone should be exhorted to work in order to make a living, support their own family, and to have to help those in need (Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15).
The reproductive vision has to do with the evangelistic outreach of the church. Members develop relationship evangelism as a permanent habit (Acts 10:24, 27; 16:15, 34). The church has a positive and evident impact on the community, which serves as a platform for efficient evangelism (Acts 4:4; 5:11, 13; 1 Thessalonians 1:7-10). The church reproduces itself in new churches, giving priority to areas or communities that lack the testimony of a Christian community (Acts 13:1-3; 19:10; Romans 15:20; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-8). Missionaries are sent by the church to unreached areas of the world to plant churches (Acts 13:1-3; 2 Corinthians 10:15-16).
A healthy relationship with other churches deals with the ways churches relate to each other. Every church should strive to be a model for other churches (1 Thessalonians 1:7). They can provide resources to other churches and receive help from them (Acts 11:22; 27-30; Romans 15:26; 1Cororinthians 16:1; Philippians 2:25; 4:14-16). The church recognizes its interdependence with other churches and participates with them in the advance of the gospel (2 Corinthians 8:1-4; 9:1-5; Philippians 2: 25; 4:14-16).
Worship as a lifestyle is a vital characteristic for an established church. Every believer and family cultivates a permanent devotional life, following our Lord’s example (Mark 1:35). Believers should gather regularly to worship the Lord together (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:25). Public and private expressions of worship are in harmony with Scripture and begins with a clear comprehension of what worship is (John 4:23-24; 1 Timothy 2:9-12; 1 Corinthians 14:1-40; 11:17-34). The forms of worship are efficient vehicles of spiritual expression, culturally relevant and biblically consistent (Ephesians 5:18-20; Colossians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 14.26).
Established families are what really make a church established. Men, women, and children assume their respective roles in the family (Ephesians 5:22—6:4; Titus 2:4-5). The men assume the spiritual headship of the family as God intended (1 Cor. 11:3; 1 Timothy 2:11-12). An effort is made to bring whole families to Christ (Acts 16:31).
As you can see, these characteristics combine to give picture of a church that is functioning as God expects it to function. It becomes a goal toward which each church can work. Strategic planning can be done to help the church grow in every area and become established. I encourage pastors to study these characteristics with their leaders, and then present them to their churches. May God help us as leaders and churches to grow in these eight characteristics!
(If you have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)