Defining the Church
The new UBF history website created in 2013 attempts to define “church” on this page. After that, it tries to build a case, based on this definition, for UBF’s chapter structure. The definition of church used, however, is simplistic at best, and biblically and church-historically inaccurate at worst. In other words, there are many ecclesiological problems with the definition of church (The branch of theology that teaches what scripture has to say about the church is called “Ecclesiology”).
First, notice that sections of the italicized definition are pasted below and numbered, followed by questions/comments that can help expose the underlined errors therein and (perhaps incompletely) point to some more biblical perspectives.
Second, a much better definition of the church (by no means the only one), is provided. I adapted this definition from a class on Ecclesiology at Reformed Baptist Seminary with Greg Nichols. I loved his class because he drew on no other sources than the scriptures (as will be evident).
Third, I will suggest positive steps for UBF’s future, pointing out that UBF shouldn’t identify itself as a local church (in form) while it almost exclusively operates as a para-church (in function). Based on concepts from 9Marks, I suggest UBF either fully commit to para-church life, or reform into an association of local churches.
UBF is close to my heart, and I love many who still serve therein. So I write this to promote what scripture says about church life. Also, I write this not only to be polemical, but to promote a careful readership that refuses to take simplistic statements at face value, but rather puts everything under scripture’s scrutiny. My purpose is to stir the waters, so that what seemed clear becomes muddy, so that thinking Christians would once again “go back to the Bible.” I hope to encourage even more elaboration.
1. A Bad Definition of Church on UBF’s new Heritage Website
1) UBF definition:
“Church is a group of believers.”
This definition seems true on the surface, but hidden beneath is an over-simplification. Believers all throughout church history have wrestled with whether a true local church only needs a group of believers, or whether there needs to be an ordained elder present who can perform Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So this statement is overly simplistic, overlooking the sincere struggles of those in the historical church who grappled with this question. When I invite Christian friends over for tea and Twinkies, does that form a church? At the simplest level, a church is not only a gathering, but an assembly that performs the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (John 4:24; 1 Cor. 14:23-25; Heb. 13:15, Acts 2:41, 10:47, 48; 1 Cor. 10:16, 17, 11:25).
2) UBF definition continued:
“So it is diverse in that every believer is unique, yet is one in that every believer has many things in common, notably faith (Eph. 4:4,5). The church was formed when Jesus ascended into heaven. About one hundred and twenty people gathered in Jerusalem, stayed in one place, and prayed together waiting for the Holy Spirit Jesus had promised (Acts 1:14). After the Holy Spirit came upon them Peter spoke boldly about Jesus in front of the public. On that day about three thousand were added to the church (Acts 1:41). The church bounded in number (Acts 2:47). As the church expanded, she faced many problems as well. For example, she had to care for widows that had not been the plan of the church. To handle many practical problems in the early church the Apostles appointed seven stewards (Acts 6:5). No Apostles had any blue print on running the church as an organization.”
This statement does not do justice to scripture or to church history. If there was no blueprint on running churches, why do the Pastoral Epistles exist (1-2 Timothy, Titus)? Why does Paul tell Timothy to “Guard what has been entrusted to him” (1 Tim 6:20) and proceed to give him and Titus instructions on church structure, elders and deacons, and procedures to guide church life? What was Timothy to guard? What else did Paul mean by “the tradition they received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6)? The apostles DID HAVE A BLUEPRINT, and they got it from the Lord Jesus Christ, the master architect of his church. From whom do you think Paul learned these traditions pertaining to the church? As professing Christians, we must seek to structure our local churches after that design, found not in our tastes, preferences, or imaginations, but in scripture.
Also, there is a scriptural contradiction by using Acts 6 in the above paragraph. If the apostles had no blueprint, then why were deacons chosen in order for the apostles to better devote their time to prayer and the word? Obviously there were some priorities and pre-defined roles for leadership already at this early stage in church history.
3) UBF definition continued:
“The church was the outcome of their devotion to world mission.”
Again, an aspect of truth is here, but it is imbalanced and potentially misleading. Largely, this is a theological and biblical error, for the church was not the outcome of human devotion, but of Christ’s personal building project (Matt 16:18). God chose and gave to Christ the elect, the group believers of all time who would belong to him and believe in him (John 17:6, 24; Eph. 1:4; 1 Pet 1:1-2). Christ himself planned and ordained and built his church, and had in mind certain aspects and features for its well-being, and he still governs and shepherds it today, in particular, tangible ways. So, the church and world mission was the outcome of God keeping his promise to Abraham, that his seed (Israel>David>Christ: the True Israel and True David) would bless the nations—NOT because of the devotion of the apostles to world mission.
4) UBF definition continued:
“So the infrastructure of the church was flexible and adaptable as needed.“
Again, see #3 above. What scriptural support is cited for this statement? The church has been very INFLEXIBLE throughout the ages, again, because Christ has been guarding it. Hasn’t the church’s history been replete with heretics being thrown out, of reformations, of wrestling with and clarifying true biblical doctrines? If anything, one of evangelicalism’s biggest scandals is that it HAS BEEN TOO FLEXIBLE AND ADAPTABLE, often not in line with scripture by the leading of the Sovereign Church Director Jesus Christ. Rather, it has been FLEXED by the cultural prejudices, whims, trends, and tastes of the society around it. The apostles and church members are not those who “adapt the church as needed.” The Lord Jesus Christ actively administers and governs all true local churches today, and at any time He sovereignly chooses, He can remove a church’s lampstand (Rev 2-3).
5) UBF definition continued:
“As time passed, the church took its own course and made its own shape. For example, it became the imperial state church by AD 400. At her climax around AD 1200 every person born in Europe was born into one church – the Catholic. Then the religious reformation came and the church was diversified into many independent organizations. The UBF has become one of them.”
See #4 above. Also, the church never “takes its own course.” This is a sad characterization of the church that is instituted, built, nurtured, and led by the Lord Jesus (c.f., Matt 16:18).
Furthermore, this statement jumps from the Protestant Reformation (the one that gave us Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Whitefield, Packer, Stott, Edwards, Owen—the rest of the Puritans—Keller, Piper, Carson, etc.) to UBF! Shouldn’t we want to listen to how the Holy Spirit throughout the centuries taught and led these reformers to come to fuller, more biblical, and more Christ-centered understandings of the gospel? Wouldn’t it be arrogant to assume that we have the biblically true church design, while never having learned from these Bible teachers?
I think it’s a great disservice to the casual reader (who will not study church history beyond this paragraph) to say the reformation’s only effect on the world was to make “many independent organizations” (!). Calvin would cry at this. Luther would shout! The reformation GAVE US BACK THE GOSPEL that had been lost (sorry for the oversimplification).
One last thing: this bad definition of church neglects a discussion of CHURCH MEMBERSHIP, which, at the time of writing this article, UBF currently does not have. The word “member” is on the page 3 times, but UBF provides no guidelines/requirements for membership. This is very dangerous, since lack of membership creates difficulty for loving church discipline to be intentionally and consistently carried out, and it creates opportunities for those who hold heretical viewpoints to rise in popularity and influence within UBF chapters. Also, because
1. Scripture explicitly affirms church membership (Eph 4:25, 5:29-30)
2. Pastoral care mandates church membership (Acts 20:28-32)
3. Church discipline mandates church membership (Matt 18:15-18)
4. Joining the church mandates church membership (Acts 9:25-30)
Look up the references and study for yourself.
2. A Better Definition of “Church”—in one very long sentence (with scripture references)
What follows is a better definition of the church, adapted from an excellent class I took on Ecclesiology with Greg Nichols. It’s one LONG sentence. Be sure to study the scripture references.
The Church is Christ’s saved society…
… PURPOSED in God’s eternal plan and solemn pledge of salvation (Eph. 3:10; 2 Thess. 1:1, 4-5; Gen. 3:15);
which was PORTRAYED in supernatural creation; in covenant promises of salvation, and in John’s gospel commencement (Rom. 5:14, Isa. 54:9-10; Heb. 12:22, John 4:1-2);
which was FORMED through salvation accomplished and applied by Christ (Matt. 16:18, Acts 20:28),
in its Identity: God’s new creation (Christ’s body, bride, and posterity), the covenant community (his children, people, kingdom, temple, and priesthood), and Christ’s gospel assembly of glorified spirits in heaven and of his disciples on earth (Rom. 5:14-19, Isa. 54:9, Isa. 53:9; Heb. 2:13-14, Rom. 9:6, 24-26; Matt. 21:43; Col. 1:13; Eph. 5:24-33 Acts 11:26, 19:32-41);
in its Extraordinary form: structured collectively as one universal assembly consisting of many local assemblies and disciples (Gal. 1:13, 22)
and distinguished by seven prominent features;
instituted personally by Christ (Matt. 16:18);
composed evangelically of believers in Christ (Acts 2:47, 5:14, 14:21-23);
administered universally by Christ, his Spirit, and apostles, locally by elders and deacons (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18, Acts 13:2, Acts 16:4; 1 Cor. 7:17, Acts 14:23, 20:17, 28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13);
constituted solemnly by divine covenant with Christ’s blood symbolized in the Lord ’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:16, 17, 11:25; Heb. 8:6-13);
consecrated by endowment with God’s Spirit;
convoked weekly on the Lord’s Day (Acts 1:5; 1 Cor. 3:16, Exod. 20:8; Acts 20:7);
and commissioned to display God’s glory in Christian salvation and integration (Acts 11:26; Eph. 3:5-10);
in its Sacred vocation (upward, inward, outward), appointed and endowed by Christ
to draw near to God in worship, ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer (John 4:24; 1 Cor. 14:23-25; Heb. 13:15, Acts 2:41, 10:47, 48; 1 Cor. 10:16,17, 11:25, 1 Tim. 2:1-8);
to love God’s people by nurture, benevolence, and discipline (John 13:34-35, 1 Tim. 5:16, Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13);
and to love humanity by gospel evangelism (Matt. 28:18-20);
and in its Institutional relations within the Nohaic covenant community, a compliment to family and state (Matt. 19:3-12; Eph. 5:22-24, Rom. 13:1-7);
which is PRESERVED throughout its militant history through the gospel application of salvation in every generation in spiritual warfare with the world, sin, devil, death, and hell, through great apostasy, and with a gospel recovery (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 3:21, 6:10-18, 2 Thess. 2:3-12; 1 Tim. 4:1-2, Acts 3:19-21; Rom. 11:17-32);
and which WILL BE GLORIFIED at its triumphant destiny in the completion of salvation with ultimate victory (1 Cor. 15:25-26), with translation unto glory, and with eternal life (Eph. 5:27; 1 Thess. 4:13-17).
Here’s a quick summary of the definition: The church is Christ’s saved society: purposed in God’s eternal plan and solemn pledge of salvation, portrayed in covenant promises of salvation, formed in Christ’s accomplishment of salvation, preserved through the gospel application of salvation, and glorified in the completion of salvation. Here’s the same definition in its full form with all scripture references.
I hope that readers of this will at least go through the scripture references. If not even that, please take away from this that the first paragraph on the web page cited contains a biblically and church-historically inaccurate definition of the church. Then, the web site attempts to proceed in argument from this definition to justify the structure of UBF. However, careful readers should expose and question the errors of this definition, so that what proceeds from it may also be found biblically baseless. And it’s okay to publish an article on your organization’s structure. But it’s not okay to make it seem like your organization’s structure is supported by biblical teaching, especially when the way you use the bible verses and narrate church history is imbalanced and misleading.
3. My Hope for UBF’s Future
My wife and I lived with, cried with, grew with, and were nurtured by people in UBF for over 9.5 years! We love them, so everything written here should be understood from that viewpoint. So, in recognition of the scriptural definition of the church above, it is my sincere hope and prayer (I actually have been praying this for 3 years) that UBF refrain from identifying itself as a local church (in its outward form) while it continues being essentially a para-church organization (in its day-to-day function). (See 9Marks Journal, April 2011 issue for a distinction on church vs. para-church organizations.)
In particular, UBF should either:
1. Commit to being only a para-church organization.
UBF should shift its major focus to protecting, supporting, promoting and nurturing nearby local churches, eventually sending those it evangelizes on campuses and disciples to nearby local churches; perhaps UBF can enact a “three-year training” program for its “sheep,” after which the “shepherds” are then sent out to surrounding local churches; by sending out trained, seasoned shepherds/house churches to serve nearby local churches; and by requiring all UBF participants to have membership, or at least associate membership, in a local church. This could foster a deeper respect for the local church and a healthier, more mutually supportive relationship between UBF chapters and local churches—an atmosphere in which local churches may even considering their college-age young people to UBF for a time of fellowship and discipleship. OR UBF should
2. Commit to being an association of autonomous local churches.
UBF should “reform” into an association of autonomous local churches (UBF chapters–> local churches), each of which develops:
1) local church polity for members, deacons, and pastors/elders (a church constitution), ordination and preaching-license requirements;
2) membership requirements, and especially a church discipline covenant; and
3) a doctrinal confession that not only includes traditional evangelical beliefs but articulates clearly and adduces scriptural support for all of UBF’s uniquely-nuanced-yet-unwritten practices. Provide written/published explanations of expectations for members, and scriptural support for terms/concepts like marriage by faith, fishing, one-to-one bible study, common life, the polarization of grace and truth, the use of the term “sheep” to refer indistinguishably to believers and unbelievers, etc.—so that expectations and concepts are explicitly and verbally articulated rather than only implicitly and nonverbally infused in the behavior/culture of UBF.
These are just (imperfect) suggestions that I’ve been thinking/praying to God about. I defer to God to do exceedingly and abundantly more than I can ask or imagine. But whatever changes take place, I pray that those who do them are motivated by the fact that the Church is wholly the possession and the executive responsibility of Jesus Christ, and His church exists to display his glory in its upward, inward, and outward vocation. Then UBF, committing either to Christ-centered para-church or to local church life, would have, I believe, a much greater impact in its intended mission.
Remember, when you write a definition of “church,” you are writing about Christ’s bride, whom He looks after, and is jealous for. I’d be careful how I write about someone’s bride. So, just stick to the New Testament’s teaching on it, which came from Christ himself (Jn 16:13; 14:26; 15:26, 27).
This post also appeared on UBFriends.com.