An alumna of my ministry recently sent me an email asking what the Biblical requirements of a church were. I thought about it for a bit, and this is what I came up with. I’m sure the list of requirements that I have below is incomplete, and I welcome suggestions for improvement.
But if you, like my former student, are looking for a church home then meditate on these points.
Here’s the email I sent her.
What does the Bible require of a church? Probably not the things you expect. The Bible doesn’t require that a church meets on Sunday morning (although it does set that as the pattern: Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2), nor does it require that a sermon be the centerpiece of the meeting (although that is certainly one way of fulfilling the criteria of Biblical teaching below).
The most important thing that God requires of a church is that it be built upon the confession of Jesus as God’s Son and Christ (Matthew 16:16-18; 1 Cor 3:10-11). What this means practically is that Christ is the center of the church and is the focus of its activities.
The church should be engaged in persuading unbelievers to become disciples of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Timothy 2:2; 2 Timothy 4:5), which the Great Commission defines as baptizing them and teaching them to obey Christ. Disciplemaking also includes taking sin seriously and disciplining impenitent believers (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 1 Timothy 5:19-20; Titus 3:9-11).
The church should meet regularly and the meetings should be encouraging (Hebrews 10:24-25). The encouragement should not come just from the ministry leaders – the community as a whole should be one that strengthens you. Here is a representative list of passages describing how those in the church ought to treat one another.
There should be singing motivated by gratitude to God (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19-20). Gratitude for who God is and what God has done (both on the cross and in our lives) is what I believe is in mind here. As part of its worship, churches should also celebrate communion on a regular basis (1 Corinthians 11:17-34).
The church should also be a community devoted to prayer (1 Timothy 2:8; Ephesians 6:18). We must remember that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to pray together (it is, after all, “our” Father not “my” father – Matthew 6:9). These sorts of prayers ought to be emphasized:
All the spiritual gifts should be welcomed (1 Corinthians 14:26; 1st Corinthians 14:39, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20), although they should be deployed in such a way as to attract and not repel unbelievers (1st Corinthians 14:24-25). Their effect on the church should not be chaotic (1st Corinthians 14:40).
A church should be led by Biblically qualified leaders:
The church ought to care for the poor, especially poor believers. (2nd Corinthians 8-9; James 1:27; 1st Timothy 5:16; Gal 2:9-10; Gal 6:10; Acts 6:1-4). And the poor should be welcomed into the life of the community (James 2:1-7).
The church ought to also pay ministers – both those who teach and lead within the church itself (1st Timothy 5:17-18; 1st Corinthians 9:3-14; Galatians 6:6) and those who are sent out as missionaries (3 John 5-8; Romans 16:1-2; Philippians 4:10-20)
In order to facilitate these latter two points the church should be receiving offerings (Acts 4:32-37; 1st Corinthians 16:1-2), although it does not appear that they must be received in any particular way.
There are probably other things churches should be doing as well, but these seem to me to be essential. No church will be perfect, of course. Give them the same grace that you give to fellow believers, but avoid churches that are not at least attempting to fulfill these mandates.
[January 23, 2010 update: after some feedback on my Facebook notes page, I decided to add the paragraph about prayer. I also made a few small changes.]