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August 30, 2010


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Joe Beach

Great questions, Editor. IMHO, I think we have to open to numerous different types and flavors of churches. As I said, my primary metaphor for church is a family - an actual, local, particular family of brothers and sisters. But, being a family, no two families are exactly alike.

What counts as a church? That's a tough one. I'd come back to some kind of identifiable servant leaders... Eucharist and baptism... the reading of the Word, prayer, singing, fellowship, etc... I'd also say that a church is a group of people that are quite committed to each other and committed to living life together over the long haul. In other words, committed to being a family - the family that the Holy Spirit has put them in.

Most of all, I'd say that it would be an open fellowship, welcoming to people who are quite different from one another. I'm a bit leery of hyper homogeneous groups. I call that getting together with friends - a perfectly lovely thing to do - but it's not church. My church is packed with people who I wouldn't normally choose to hang out with - radically different in many respects - and I think that's good for them and good for me. I also think it's good for Christ's Kingdom and good for the world.

Joe Beach


Your thoughts and questions are excellent and helpful. To your first question: I would suggest “yes.” I think “the body” and “the church” do, indeed, refer to an actual congregation (see my thoughts below on First Corinthians 11). I would also say, however, that your points about my western paradigm are right on. I meant it when I said that I’m open to any form – each “family of God” is unique. Your point is well-taken: in certain contexts the “congregation” must meet in secret, or in small sections, or in differing locations, different each time. I really am open to vastly different forms and flavors, depending on the context.
I also recognize, as I said, that we have much in common with fellow believers. I do believe that Jesus is present when two or three are gathered in his name. I’m not intending to present a God in a box (or a system). I’m not intending to limit what or how or where God accomplishes his mission to reconcile everything in Christ.

What I am trying to do is to offer a definition of “church” and “Christian” that is rooted in an actual congregation and to counter the “churchless Christian” idea that is somewhat in vogue these days. I do think that your point about questioning an institution that is hurting, harming, and failing people is completely legitimate. Again, though, in my experience, I’ve encountered (far more frequently) many people who leave good and healthy churches simply because someone hurt their feelings or they wanted a better program of some sort or, maybe most of all, because of stresses, hurts, or distractions in their own lives – that aren’t directly caused by the congregation.

I’d like to offer a few words about 1 Cor. 11. I mentioned six references to “gathering together as a church,” and I’d like to quickly list them and explain what I mean. The passage is 1 Cor. 11:17-34.

1. “your meetings” 11:17

2. “when you come together as a church” 11:18

3. “so then, when you come together” 11:20

4. “the church of God” 11:22

5. “so then, brothers and sisters, when you gather” 11:33

6. “when you meet together” 11:34

It seems to me that Paul is talking about an actual, recognizable, definable, regular, official gathering of an actual congregation. Especially when you read the other textual clues – particularly when he contrasts these official gatherings with “PRIVATE” ones: “Don’t you have HOMES to eat and drink in?” I take this to mean that IN PRIVATE (at home, at Starbucks, on the river, on the golf course, at the pub), we can eat what we want, drink what we want, with people we choose to hang out with. But, when we GATHER AS A CHURCH, we are to accept everyone, wait for everyone, welcome everyone, include everyone, and, if possible, reconcile with everyone – especially those most unlike us – and eat and drink together AS A CONGREGATION, as a family of God, as the unified body of Christ, an actual local church (young, old, rich, poor, black, white, left-wing and right-wing, educated or not…) with elders and deacons shepherding and actual flock “of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts. 20:28), the actual “flock that is under your care” (I Peter 5:2).

Anyway, Eric, thanks again for your thoughts. You are pushing me to clarify mine – and I appreciate the conversation. Not for a minute do I presume to have this complicated subject figured out.

Joe B

Joe Beach

Great question(s). Personally, I'm open to about any form of church. I've often wondered if much of Scripture's vagueness or ambiguity regarding church forms/governments/etc. was because no two churches (just like no two families) are exactly alike. My short answer, and I sort of was hinting at this, would have something to do with elders and deacons, i.e. some kind of groups of servant leaders that are committed to serving, knowing, loving, and leading a flock... and that flock would likewise be committed to these groups of leaders and to each other in very serious and committed way. I also think that baptism and communion are a huge part of the definition. I Cor. 11 mentions 6 times (if my memory is correct) something about "when you gather together as a church" - apparently referring to something somewhat official, regular, and recognizable. Finally, regarding baptism, let me suggest the following as a definition of a "Christian" (not at all referring to one's eternal destiny, i.e. whether someone is "saved" or not). A Christian is someone who has been baptized into Jesus Christ's death, burial, and resurrection AND into his body (which only exists in a particular local congregation) - and thereby gives up his or her rights to their own life - submitting one's life to Christ and his body (that local congregation). Well, those are just a few thoughts for now. Thanks.

Eric H Janzen

Is there any indication that 'The Body' and the 'The Church' were meant to be taken as a particular faith community rooted in a particular locale? When we us the capitalized versions of these words we are referring to the Community of Jesus...his brothers and sisters flung far and wide around the globe. Now in some parts of the globe Jesus' brothers and sisters can form fancy 'legal' societies and build/rent a physical location to meet together and they call it 'church'. In others parts of the globe Jesus brothers and sisters have to ask the State for special permissions to meet together in a particular physical locale and follow strict State enforced guidelines when they meet together...and they call it 'church'. In other parts of the globe Jesus' brothers and sisters must meet in secret and never in the same physical location twice in a row lest they be arrested...imprisoned...and killed..and they call these covert meetings 'church'.

Now, I'm not trying to be obtuse and mean spirited here...its just that the above article is so rooted in a 'Western' paradigm that we need to look beyond it a little bit. The Scriptures are speaking to believers everywhere..not just western Christians who enjoy the freedom to go to church on Sunday..or not and have breakfast with their 'accountability group' instead.
When Jesus says that he is there where two or three are gathered in his name he gives an incredible hope to the millions of his followers that have through history only been able to meet in that way. We should never treat those words lightly. When people leave 'church' because it has become merely an institution that does not cause them to grow in their faith shouldn't the first question we ask be in regards to the institution and not if they are breaking some kind of rule by not getting up on Sunday morning?

I think when Paul wrote of people being baptized into the Body in Corinthians that his vision was much broader than that of the local faith community. Paul was seeing the entirety of the Family of God. The issues the above article raises are vast and can't all be addressed here, which is enough to set off some alarm bells for us that this is not a simple issue, but a complex one that needs to be thought through and discussed further.

For the record I am more of a fan of sticking with a 'church' than the dropping it for coffee shop fellowship System, which I have personally observed for years now. The truth is that most people who quit 'church' for whatever given reason usually end up disenfranchised, bitter, and at worst even begin to develop personalized theologies that are not scriptural. We cannot substitute genuine faith community/fellowship with the post-modern model. I hate to be the one to sound the death knell, but that experiment is failing just as surely as the institution it sought to replace is failing.

Keep the conversation going..this is a worthwhile topic.

eric h janzen


Hi Joe,

Question for you, in a moment:

Depending on who I talk to, there is a wide range of what counts when we invoke the word "Church." I found O'Brian's 4th point very helpful. One of my pastors, Peter Bartel, once said something similar to me re: why Mennonites combine baptism and church membership. Using 1 Cor. 12, he said that Paul talks about us being baptized into the Body, whose only manifestation in this age is the local churches (pl.). He found 'the Universal Church' idea to be an abstraction, and frequently an excuse to neither join nor attend anything.

My question is about what counts. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches seem to regard themselves as the Church and beyond that, our sectarian gatherings may be estranged brotherhoods, but not quite the Church. On the other extreme, I have friends who assume that any time two or three of them gather, even for a poker night, they're 'doing church'. I myself suspect that there are forms beyond what we normally imagine (a gathering of believers in a church building for worship, etc.) that might count.

A bunch of rhetorical questions will lead to the real one:

Does my church count as church if it rents a gym because we can't buy a building? Does it still count if we were to meet Saturday? Would it still count on Sundays when it's a soup fellowship lunch instead of a sing along with a lesson afterwards? What about if we met as house groups instead of a larger worship celebration? What if we met at the restaurant instead? What if it was twice a month? What if we met irregularly but saw it as a dispersed community committed to a common faith?

Now you can see how I'm purposely disintegrating the original form. How far can I go before this is no longer church? Not that I want to, but I think it's good to establish the minimum requirements of what counts. I remember Frontier Missions needing to do this because evangelism in some nations is so slow that after 5 years, they might have 3 believers and these would comprise 'the church'. IF WHAT? Jesus talks about two or three gathering in his name and that seems to count (?). My agenda here is how to address ex-church members who still do meet around breakfast and talk about their faith enough that they believe it counts as church. What NEEDS to happen for it to be the Church rather than just some guys eating bacon and shooting the breeze?

Finally to my actual question: What is your sense of the necessary ingredients for us to identify a local gathering as 'the church'? Your input is very welcome. Thanks so much for writing this piece and allowing us to air it.

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