Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Local Church (Part 2) - Marks of a Healthy Church

The Biblical Functions of the Local Church Determine its Minimum Number

As I had stated earlier, I will approach the "local church" issue from a Reformed perspective. The true church must be able to perform its most fundamental functions as a local church. These include worship, evangelism, edification of the saints, and biblical church discipline. Furthermore, every local church pastor must preach the Word - that is, all the counsel of God (Acts 20:27) - and administer the sacraments. With those basic functions of the local church in view, it is not difficult to solve the scenarios presented in the previous post.

The minimum number of members is also dependent upon the circumstances and situation whereby the church is established. In scenarios whereby a missionary is sent to a foreign land as a pioneering pastor, it is often difficult for the newly established church to fulfill all its functions adequately. On top of leading the worship, preaching the Word and administering the sacraments, the pioneering pastor must do the work of an evangelist, groom believers to fill the church offices of elders and deacons, and oversee the young congregation. Sometimes, the home church may be able to send helpers or elders to assist the young missionary church. But this help is not always available. Oftentimes, the missionary pastor has to work alone. Tent-making may even be needful.

I once attended a missionary Baptist church while I was in Ireland (for those who do not realize, I was a Baptist then). Although the Baptist church was essentially a congregational church that did not believe in a plurality of elders, I had the privilege to labor with the pastor’s family, which was an excellent testimony for the Lord in the small county they were in. The family had to endure much hardship and persecution in order to witness to the local community. That Baptist church was a very small church. It was basically made up of the Pastor, his wife and children, and a handful of members. Despite its size, it was able to perform all the required functions of the local church. There were pastoral oversight, good church discipline, administration of the sacraments, faithful preaching of the Word, worship, evangelism, and warm Christian fellowship.

We must also consider the local churches in countries that persecute Christians; these are often located within the 10/40 window. In such countries, it is quite impossible for the faithful church to worship or evangelize openly. Despite the intense persecution, such local churches are not always small. On the contrary, some underground churches in countries such as China are quite sizeable. The spiritual health of these churches is sometimes even better than the best in so-called "Christian" states or countries.

By now, the reader should realize that the spiritual state of a local church is not related to its size. We cannot choose a local church based upon the size of its congregation, its architectural ingenuity, its sound system, the professionalism of its choir and musicians, the eloquence of its pastor, the number of communal facilities it has, the accessibility of its lavatories, or its proximity to one’s lodging. What, then, should we look for in a local church?

Marks of a Good Local Church

Please note that I will not be writing in any detail - except in passing - concerning the question of, "What constitutes a good, faithful church?" This issue is adequately addressed in Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004).

1) Doctrinal Faithfulness: First of all, we should look for doctrinal faithfulness to the Scripture in the local church. In my humble opinion, the old time Reformed evangelicalism known to Spurgeon, Whitfield, and the Great Puritan preachers ought to be greatly treasured. The veracity of the pulpit ministry and the church’s Sunday school are some of the things we should consider.

2) Expositional Preaching: There must be the courageous, expositional preaching of the whole council of God. The pastor should pay particular attention to the systematic preaching of the books of the Bible. He should seek to unfold the meaning of the Word, and apply it to the lives of the congregation. This is contrasted with topical preaching, whereby the pastor picks a topic to speak on, and uses certain Scripture texts to support his point of view.

3) Godly Leadership: A good local church should have godly leadership formed by a plurality of elders, with an emphasis on pastoral visitations and church oversight.

4) Godly Worship: There must be worship according to God’s standards and requirements. This is also known as the Regulative Principle of Worship. The reader should be aware that there is much debate concerning what constitutes true worship, and what constitutes an abomination to the thrice Holy God. For example, should worship be anglicized? That is, are we to use only English-sounding melodies in worship? Does God mandate the usage of only anglicized hymns and melodies? For those who advocate absolute psalmody, is it mandatory for the psalms to be sung with anglicized tunes and melodies? What about different chord sequences, rhythm, dissonance, etc?

5) Godly Church Discipline: There ought to be scrupulous church discipline, not to destroy the flock, but as a true manifestation of godly love for the local church. Sins, and in fact, all sins are to be rebuked and discouraged. Sinning members should be disciplined according to scriptural injunctions, and publicly sinning members should be publicly disciplined. Besides ethical and moral issues, doctrinal errors should also be dealt with. The leadership should have sufficient knowledge, wisdom, integrity, and love so as to be able to protect the flock against false doctrines and philosophies that are so prevalent in contemporary Christendom. Sometimes, the leadership may have sufficient knowledge, but lack the moral courage or integrity to rebuke such false teachings. This is the reason why aberrant doctrines are having a foothold in so many evangelical churches.
6) Sacraments: There must be the proper administration of the sacraments. Again, this is an area of rabid disagreement amongst brethren-in-Christ.

7) Evangelism: There should be a passionate concern with reaching out to the unbelieving world around us, and I am not referring to social work or political involvement. The church should be making disciples of all nations. It should not only be inward looking, but outward looking as well. The needs of the flock are paramount, but a lack of concern for the lost indicates a serious weakness in the local church members and leaders.

We shall explore some of the aforementioned points further when we consider the responsibilities of the individual church member. Furthermore, it is beneficial for us to study in passing what some evangelical leaders are saying concerning the marks of a healthy, local church.

John MacArthur, Marks of a Healthy Church (Chicago: Moody, 1990).

Marks of an Effective Church (p. 23)

1. godly leaders
2. functional goals and objectives
3. discipleship
4. penetrating the community
5. active church members
6. concern for one another
7. devotion to the family
8. Bible teaching and preaching
9. a willingness to change
10. great faith
11. sacrifice
12. worshiping God

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994).

Twelve Signs of a More Pure Church

1. biblical doctrine (or right preaching of the Word)
2. proper use of the sacraments (or ordinances)
3. right use of church discipline .
4. genuine worship
5. effective prayer
6. effective witness
7. effective fellowship
8. biblical church government
9. spiritual power in ministry
10. personal holiness of life among members
11. care for the poor
12. love for Christ

Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004).

1. expositional preaching
2. biblical theology
3. biblical understanding of the good news
4. biblical understanding of conversion
5. biblical understanding of evangelism
6. biblical understanding of church membership
7. biblical understanding of church discipline
8. biblical understanding of church leadership
9. concern for promoting Christian discipleship and growth

In my next post, we shall consider some of the reasons why certain Christians are not committed to faithful church membership.


Jenson said...

Nice summaries of the "great and the good" (Dever, MacArthur and Grudem) there.

Some of the (early) Plymouth Brethren would advocate a smaller congregation - about 30 maximum. When it gets too big, they would split - which is not too difficult since they don't believe in the "paid-ministry".

A pastor was once asked the question of the ideal size of a congregation. He made reference to John 10:14 - "I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine." and commented that a pastor ought to KNOW his people. However, if he has 300 members, he will be unable to KNOW them.

I must say, I know what he meant and agree with him on that.

vincit omnia veritas said...

Yes Jenson, I am thinking about the same things. It always perplexes me as to why some churches keep such a large congregation, while the pastor claims to be too busy to see what is going on in his church! Well, I am trying to avoid doing the maths here, but it seems irresistible for some (irresistible grace?). Personally, I think one lone pastor may be able to “know” a congregation of <80, perhaps even only <50. I will be going into the responsibility part in my next post. Any thoughts or contributions?

Jenson said...

My current pastor, Dr. Peter Masters has frequently been compared to the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Among the many reasons are...

1) Both have large congregations
2) Both never visit their members
3) Both are accused of having a "preaching centre" (though wrongly, I would say, at least for the Met Tab)

Ideally, I would prefer a pastor/elder to visit his "flock", simply because that is vital part of the Christian ministry - to know his people. Visiting a member opens up many opportunities for "helpful discussion" which may not be possible in a church setting.

As for the number issue, I would prefer to go for a ratio of elder:people, rather than burden the lone pastor with everyone. But that is purely an opinion.

Some have tried to make a Scriptural case of the sizes of congregation (based on excavation of ancient church architecture, numbers converted in Pentecost, etc) mentioned in the NT, but I do not find that convincing.