While the term "New Testament Church" has been used for centuries to describe an authentic gathering of believers, it is valuable to define what this actually means.
For some, to be a New Testament church tends to relate to Bible versions and music style and the use or non-use of instruments and sound equipment.
For others, it has to do with church polity and hierarchical denominationalism.
Yet, there is a definition that is clear. It is affirmed with Scripture and is the template for who we are (since the church is the people, not the building.)
There are at least two (and some say three) ways the word "church" is used in the New Testament.
- Universal body of believers throughout history.
- Group of Christ followers associated because of geography.
- Home groups*
*While there are home groups mentioned in Scripture (i.e. Nympha's, Aquila & Prisca's) some believe this could actually be another version of definition number 2 in that in certain areas there were very small groups of believers gathering together as the church, thus the home became the meeting place.
The local church as seen in the New Testament is a group of baptized believers who gather together regularly to worship God, exhort the Word of God, partake of the Lord's Supper together and celebrate the goodness and holiness of God. They seek to serve God by serving each other. They fall under the teaching and leadership of God's appointed man for the sake of the Gospel.
Thanks to John Piper for clarifying much of this. So, using this defintion as a template, here are some things that make a "church" a real church. . .
- It's full of believers. Only those who have surrendered to the lordship of Christ are part of His church. While guests may visit in our gatherings, the church truly is the people of God.
- The believers have been baptized. This is not a legalistic rule. This is an affirmation of Christ's death and resurrection and the disciple's new live in Christ. Baptism is not salvational, but a sign of obedience. Of course, I believe the biblical mode of baptism is immersion.
- The believers gather regularly. What is regularly? Once a year? Probably not. I like weekly. For some, it may be once every couple of weeks. For others, two or three times a week, but the key is to gather together regularly. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to not forsake the gathering together.
- There is a purpose for the gathering and it is worship. I know, I know, there are five purposes for the church (thanks Rick Warren) but of the five, the paramount one that identifies the church is worship. Our gatherings are ultimately about God. He is the center of the story. He is the reason we exist. The other four purposes (fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism) flow from the first one - worship.
- Meetings include the exhortation of the Word of God. The Bible is to be taught. The truth is told. The shepherd (pastor) holds a great responsibility of bringing the Word of Truth. A gathering with no exhortation is fruitless. The Word can be presented in creative ways, however. It may be through song, drama, video or preaching. Nonetheless, the gospel must be clear.
- The Lord's Supper must be celebrated. This ordinance is commanded by Christ and is for the church. It's a time of remembrance and worship. Not necessarily observed at every gathering, but it must not be forsaken nor turned into a minimal expression of worship or a worship service "add on."
- The church must fall under the leadership of God's chosen shepherd/pastor and appointed leaders. I understand there are many "pastors" who have muddied the waters here. Those with titles and no integrity are dangerous. The men of God who have been called and serve accordingly are called to study the Word, pray and equip the saints. Other duties are there as well, but these three are primary.
In Acts, when the church was birthed, the Spirit of God led them to love Him and each other. The New Testament church? Seen first in Acts here.
42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.
44And all who believed were together and had all things in common.
45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,
47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.