At one time, the majority of Southern Baptists appear to have embraced a very narrow view of church, encapsuled in the Landmarkist movment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The main points of this movement, according to the Wikipedia article on Landmarkism (of which our brother and fellow blogger, Bart Barber, confesses to being a primary contributor), are: 1) The exclusive validity of Baptist churches; and 2) The invalidity of non-Baptist churchly acts. Although the influence of Landmarkism has waned a good bit since that time, many believe it is making a comeback in Southern Baptist life in recent years.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, a group of people, affiliated in great part with the Emerging Church movement, have adopted a much more loosely defined understanding of church. At a recent conference entitled “You say you want a Revolution!,” researcher and author, George Barna, gave nine reasons why he “left the conventional church for a house church.” In his book, Revolution, Barna makes it quite clear that he no longer believes that it is necessary for Christians to be members of and participate in a “local church.” When I first heard about Barna’s book, I thought some people might be over-reacting. Surely it was just a question of semantics. But, upon reading the book, I was confronted with quotes such as the following:
“Whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrevelevant to me (and, within boundaries, to God). What matters is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are.” (p.29)From what I understand, Barna, and many others espousing similar views, are well-motivated. They really are interested in glorifying God, advancing His Kingdom, and honoring His Word. I consider him to be a brother in Christ, as well as a treasured co-laborer in the work of the gospel. I myself have been greatly blessed and helped by Barna’s book The Power of Vision. But, on this particular issue, I believe He is wrong. If he were just anybody, what he is saying might not merit that much attention. But, according to the publicity for the Revolution conference, Barna is "the most quoted person in the Church today."
“If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.” (p. 36)
“There is nothing inherently wrong with being involved in a local church. But realize that being part of a group that calls itself a ‘church’ does not make you saved, holy, righteous, or godly any more than being in Yankee Stadium makes you a professional baseball player.” (p. 36)
“Ultimately, we expect to see believers choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal ‘church’ of the individual.” (p. 66).
“The major concern about the Revolution is that millions of its adherents are not affiliated with a local church. As described in earlier chapters, Revolutionaries’ distancing themselves from formal congregations does not reflect a willingness to ignore God as much as a passion to deepen their connection to Him. In my experience, Revolutionaries do not try to draw other people away from the local church. Theirs is a personal choice based on a genuine desire to be holy and obedient, but finding that need better served outside the framework of congregational structures.” (pp. 112-13)
“In fact, there is no verse in Scripture that links the concepts of worshipping God and a ‘church meeting.’” (p. 114)
“It seems that God really doesn’t care how we honor and serve Him, as long as He is number one in our lives and our practices are consistent with His parameters. If a local church facilitates that kind of life, then it is good. And if a person is able to live a godly life outside of a congregation-based faith, then that, too, is good.” (p. 116)
“I am not called to attend or join a church. I am called to be the Church.” (p. 129)
From what I can make out, there is indeed something called the “local church” that is commended to us in the Bible as an important part of God’s plan for this age. It is not enough to say that we are all a part of the “Universal Church,” and that all that really matters is that, in one way or another, we are fulfilling the functions we are meant to fulfill as believers in Christ.
Paul, in 1 Timothy 3.15, tells us that the “church” is the “pillar and ground of the truth.” Some, such as Roman Catholics, have taken this verse, and inferred that the authority of the Roman hierarchy takes precedence even over that of the Bible. I do not at all agree with this interpretation. But, I do see, that in the context in which this verse is placed (right between vv. 1-13, that talk about qualifications of elders, deacons, and either wives or women in ministry, according to the translation you prefer; and v. 16, that talks about the essence of the gospel) seems to indicate a significant role for the local church, with local church offices, and accountability structures, as a key part of His plan to bring the gospel message to the world.
On Jan. 25, 2005, the IMB issued the following statement:
The definition of a local church is given in the 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message:I am in essential agreement with this statement. My only possible caveat would be, if, someone, on the basis of this statement, were to try to argue (a la the Landmarkists) that “non-Baptist” churches were not authentic churches. I am also happy to use these guidelines as an IMB worker as we are specifically involved in “church planting” work.
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scriptures.
We believe that every local church is autonomous under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of His inerrant word. This is as true overseas as it is in the United States. Some churches to which we relate overseas may make decisions in doctrine and practice which we would not choose. Nevertheless, we are accountable to God and to Southern Baptists for the foundation that we lay when we plant churches, for the teaching that we give when we train church leaders, and for the criteria that we use when we count churches. In our church planting and teaching ministries, we will seek to lay a foundation of beliefs and practices that are consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, although local churches overseas may express those beliefs and practices in different ways according to the needs of their cultural settings. Flowing from the definition of a church given above and from the Scriptures from which this definition is derived, we will observe the following guidelines in church planting, leadership training and statistical reporting.
1. A church is intentional about being a church. Members think of themselves as a church. They are committed to one another and to God (associated by covenant) in pursuing all that Scripture requires of a church.
2. A church has an identifiable membership of baptized believers in Jesus Christ.
3. A church practices the baptism of believers only by immersing them in water.
4. A church observes the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis.
5. Under the authority of the local church and its leadership, members may be assigned to carry out the ordinances.
6. A church submits to the inerrant word of God as the ultimate authority for all that it believes and does.
7. A church meets regularly for worship, prayer, the study of God’s word, and fellowship. Members of the church minister to one another’s needs, hold each other accountable, and exercise church discipline as needed. Members encourage one another and build each other up in holiness, maturity in Christ, and love.
8. A church embraces its responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission, both locally and globally, from the beginning of its existence as a church.
9. A church is autonomous and self-governing under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of His Word.
10. A church has identifiable leaders, who are scrutinized and set apart according to the qualifications set forth in Scripture. A church recognizes two Biblical offices of church leadership: pastors/elders/overseers and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
It is true that many of the cultural expressions of church may vary from context to context. For instance, in many contexts around the world, IMB missionaries are finding that several different types of “house church” or “cell church” models seem to be helpful in penetrating their local culture with the gospel. I see no inherent incompatibility with this and the guidelines given above.
I do, however, see some potential incompatibility with what I read from people like Barna and these guidelines. And, when faced with such a dilemma, I am inclined to side with the IMB guidelines (not just out of a sense of duty or organizational loyalty, but out of scriptural interpretation and conviction). I would hope that IMB colleagues, as well as other fellow workers in the Lord’s vineyard (whether in SBC circles or otherwise), would use some serious discernment when reading things well-intentioned people like Barna are writing about “the church.” If, as Paul says to Timothy, the church really is “the pillar and ground of the truth,” we do need to be careful with how we deal with it.
*Other thoughtful perspectives on related issues to this topic (all somewhere in between the extremes of the Landmarkist position on the "right", and Barna's position on the "left"), can be found from:
Bart Barber (expressing a view somewhat to the "right" of my own), at Praisegod Barebones, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and other assorted posts.
Alan Knox (expressing a view somewhat to the "left" of my own), on various assorted posts at The Assembling of the Church.
John Reisinger (expressing a view somewhat closer to my own), here. here, here, here, here and here.