A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 9: Church & Missiological Issues)

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A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 9: Church & Missiological Issues)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

In the previous post, we gave a summary of the basic tenets of ecclesiology for the purpose of allowing those tenets to drive our treatment of various missiological issues. Here are four of those issues, and the beginnings of a theologically-driven treatment of these issues:

Bible Study or Church?

One of the first questions that a fledgling church planter often faces is “When does a group of believers become a church?” This is another way of asking, “What are the marks of the church?” In the previous post, we affirmed the patristic and Reformation marks of a church. The patristic marks were the answer to a certain set of questions, while the Reformation marks were the answer to another set.

There is, however, yet another challenge which causes us to raise this question once again. Truly evangelical Christians will always seek to evangelize and to see churches formed. This is the case today as the IMB and other like-minded agencies seek to bring the gospel to, and plant churches among, every unreached people group in God’s creation. In an eagerness to do so, some well-intentioned missionaries have counted as churches things that were not churches. For example, Bible studies or small clusters of believers who know one another are sometimes improperly counted as churches.

So, how do we know when a group has become a church? First, we should say that churches can be placed on certain spectrums, such as mature and immature, healthy and unhealthy, developed and undeveloped. A group of believers can be a church without being a fully developed, mature, or healthy church. Second, we must affirm certain things at a minimum in order for a group to qualify as a church. There must be a group of baptized believers, consciously committed to one another under the headship of Christ, partaking of the Lord’s Supper. They may or may not have a pastor, but at the very least must be praying for the Lord to raise up among them a pastor. Such a group may be called a church even if it is a very small group.

Church in a House?

The church is not a building; the church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit. We do not need a temple because we are the temple. Therefore, where the people meet is of less significance, perhaps, than we tend to think. In many of the contexts in which we are seeing the gospel go forth and churches planted, conversion to Christianity is illegal and therefore the purchase of a building is also illegal. In these cases, of course, a church usually meets in a house. This raises two questions.

Does this make house church a second-rate type of church? It absolutely is not, although churches in the United States and Europe might tend to think so. A church is a church, no matter where it meets. It has the same nature, and is held to the same standards, as the church described in the last post. As mentioned in the previous post, there is precedent in the Scriptures for churches meeting in a house, and such churches are never treated as inferior. A house church is, in every sense of the word, a church.

Is house church the superior model for church? We have no grounds for making that argument either. Those who are involved in house churches are sometimes tempted to speak as if churches that meet in houses are superior in every way. This is not the case. While a church in a house might tend to better fulfill one of the ministries of the church (e.g. fellowship) it might also tend to lag behind in another ministry (e.g. teaching).

An Indigenous Church?

Much ado has been made, over the past 100+ years, about the “indigenous” church. Henry Venn, Rufus Anderson, Roland Allen, and others have argued for a church that is self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating, and few Baptists would disagree, at least in principle. Based upon our doctrine of the church, especially our views on regenerate membership and congregational rule, we affirm these principles. In practice, however, we struggle to implement what we believe.

Concerning self-support, often our stateside churches subsidize overseas pastors and fund overseas churches in a way that undermines the health of those same pastors and churches. While it is certainly acceptable to take up special offerings for specified needs, we must be very careful with our well-intended financial gifts. We might very well harm the future of the very national churches we are trying to help. (1) Supporting national pastors tends to sever accountability between the pastor and the church; and (2) supporting national churches on a regular basis can foster the mindset that an expensive building is necessary for a church to be formed. Those who think in such terms, both in America and abroad, likely will not plant multiple other churches to win their people group, because likely they will not be able to afford to financially. Short-term help, in this instance, may handicap long-term growth. It is appropriate that we lovingly allow the churches we plant to grow without being dependent on us.

Concerning self-governance, the churches we plant must submit to the leadership of Christ, who is their Head. We must not, unintentionally, set up a hierarchy with the church planter (or the mother church or the church planting agency) as the Pope. Long and Rowthorn describe the missiological context in which Roland Allen proclaimed the need for an indigenous church: “In missionary work overseas, concern for ‘traditions’ made missionaries reluctant to hand over real responsibility to indigenous leaders and often confused the Tradition of the gospel with the particular traditions of the church and society from which the missionaries came.” We must love and care for, exhort and admonish, and even hold them accountable, but we must not control the congregations that we plant.

Concerning self-propagation, we must consciously seek to plant churches who understand their responsibility to reach their own people group. We must plant sound, healthy churches that will grow over the long run and not just in the short term, and we must remove anything that unnecessarily hinders the potentially rapid growth and multiplication of the church. They must not see the Westerner as the “key” to the evangelization of their people group; they have the God-given privilege of winning their own people.

Church Planting Movements?

In recent days, much has been said about Church Planting Movements (CPM), and rightly so. David Garrison defines a church planting movement as, “a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment.” Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, have long been praying for and working towards the birth of CPMs among the unreached people groups of the world, and indeed, even in our own country.

But there is much work left to be done to ensure that, here in the United States and across the oceans, our methodology is driven by the Scriptures. It must be biblical theology that gives church planting methodology its starting point, trajectory, and parameters. Of the many substantial missiological issues that cluster around CPM theory, here are two that must be treated:

First, in regards to CPM as a goal: As laid out in Part Three of this series, our ultimate goal, above all others, is the increase of God’s glory. No goal that we have should subvert this goal. For this reason, we are concerned not only with rapidity, but also more importantly with the purity of the gospel and the health of the church. On the one hand, if the church multiplies rapidly, but is not healthy, the long-term picture is bleak. An inordinate emphasis on rapidity will likely lead to reductionist methods of evangelism and discipleship that will harm the church in the long term and actually curb its growth. On the other hand, if the church is “doctrinally pure,” but not seeking to multiply, the long-term picture is bleak. Or maybe it would be better to say that a church cannot be doctrinally pure without praying for, and working toward, the healthy and rapid growth of God’s church.

A final note regarding CPM as a goal: CPMs are not the only worthwhile missiological accomplishment. Sometimes, God does not grant such a thing or He does not grant it immediately. In Hebrews 11, we read of men and women of great faith whose reward was not a CPM; instead, their reward was torture, destitution, affliction, and martyrdom. Many faithful workers who labor in prayer and in deed, hoping with all that is within them to see a CPM, never see the birth of a CPM. This does not mean that their labor is in vain. If they have labored for the glory of God, then He is pleased with their efforts. (Also, it should be pointed out that the early church experienced its most explosive growth only after many years of prayer and work. See Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Early Christianity.)

Second, in relation to leadership development: The rapid reproduction of the church will lead to some challenges in leadership identification and development. If multiple churches are planted in a short period of time, the churches are faced with the question of how recent is “too recent” for a believer to be recognized as an elder. Further, in a context where the church is persecuted, how will these elders train for pastoral ministry? Also, how will they be discipled if they are not able to read? These are not hypothetical scenarios; there are multiple church planting situations, globally, that are facing these challenges at any given time. We must take seriously the biblical teaching concerning the church, discipleship, and elder qualifications and work hard to apply it in challenging situations such as the one above.

Conclusion

These are only a few of the methodological issues connected to the doctrine of the church. Not only are there many more issues, but each of the issues are raised from within numerous different civilizational, social, and cultural contexts. Further, the answers are not always clearly given in Scripture. We must do the hard work of taking biblical principles and applying them to conrete situations. However, though the challenges are many and though they are not easily met, we may conclude with J. L. Dagg that, “Church order and the ceremonials of religion, are less important than a new heart; and in the view of some, any laborious investigation of questions respecting them may appear to be needless and unprofitable. But we know, from the Holy Scriptures, that Christ gave commands on these subjects, and we cannot refuse to obey. Love prompts our obedience; and love prompts also the search which may be necessary to ascertain his will. Let us, therefore, prosecute the investigations which are before us, with a fervent prayer, that the Holy Spirit, who guides into all truth, may assist us to learn the will of him who we supremely love and adore.”