And Since We’re Talking about the Church

Yesterday my wife pointed me to an excellent article written by Jeff Purswell titled “Don’t Go to Church?” Purswell serves as the Dean of the Sovereign Grace Pastor’s College. In his article, Purswell criticizes the false dichotomy between “being” the church and gathering as the church. I sometimes hear this type of thinking from some of my students who either were very involved in collegiate parachurch ministries or have been influenced by churches that embrace the very type of false dichotomy Purswell addresses in his article. Purswell offers a good word, and I hope you’ll take the time to read it.

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  1. David Rogers   •  

    In my opinion, there is much to be commended in Purswell’s article. I am totally on board with the main point he is making. However, I think I would state a couple of things slightly differently than he did.

    I think, for instance, I would say: “Don’t JUST go to church. Be the church.” In a way this gets back to something I was saying on the last post. I think we, as Baptists, have typically done an overkill on the “assembling” aspect of the essence of church, focusing in on the etymology of “ekklesia” to the exclusion of other biblical descriptors of the NT People of God. This is why I think it is best to start with the Universal Church, and define a “local church” as a local expression of the Universal Church.

    Purswell says, for instance: “By definition, to be the church is to gather in God’s presence and to worship God together.” As I understand it, by defintion, to be the church INCLUDES gathering in God’s presence and to worship God together; but it is much more than that. In my understanding, the “church scattered” is every bit as much the church (esse) as is the “church gathered.”

    However, I would definitely agree that a “church” that does not gather is defective, and quite possibly not even a church at all (esse).

    However, there is still a sense in which all of the true believers in a given locality are the “church” in that locality, independently of whether they actually gather together in one place or not. They are still one expression of the Body of Christ–the citywide expression of the Body.

    In terms of “bene esse,” I think it would be good for this entire citywide collective of people to assemble together from time to time. However, since it is often not very practical, not much effort is given toward making this a reality.

    And none of this takes away from the fact that an individual congregation (corresponding to the “house churches” in the NT, if my view is correct) is also a true, authentic “church,” and a genuine expression of the Universal Church.

  2. Chris Krycho   •  

    Nathan, I’m curious:
    (1) Why, do you think, do you see that attitude more prevalently in students who have been heavily involved in parachurch collegiate ministries?
    (2) What do you tell those students?

    This is something I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about, simply because I ended up leaving a parachurch ministry–one which at least verbally professes a strong commitment to supporting local churches–frustrated by just how much it kept people from engaging more actively in the church. However, I’m the odd one out here: most students never think about the issues that led me to leave. How, I’m wondering, can I prompt others to think through this issue more carefully?

  3. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    You mention that Southern Baptists have overemphasized the assembling aspect of what it means to be a church. I think that is probably true of the Baby Boom generation in particular. In the churches of which I’ve been a member, there have been many who thought of the church only in the sense of Sunday morning and (perhaps) Sunday night and Wednesday night. Even worse, some thought of the church as mostly the facilities and/or the programs rather than the people themselves. So I don’t disagree with what your saying in general.

    Nevertheless, I sense a different struggle with many Generation X and Y folks, and I suspect these are the people Purswell has in mind. Again, for many of my students and generational peers, we are “always” the church and the “assembly” is borderline incidental to who we are. A few go so far as to downplay local churches completely in favor of a nebulous “I’m a part of the church because I’m a Christian” sort of thing, which sounds spiritual, but seems different from the NT emphasis.

    My parents, who love the Lord and are active members of their local Southern Baptist church, talk about getting up to “go to church” on Sunday morning. Of course if we were to ask them if the church is a meeting, a building, or a people, they would say its a people. But that doesn’t change the fact that they use the language they use, which they learned from my grandparents. I think this is what you are talking about.

    Some of my students, who also love the Lord, talk about being the church all week long and are only nominally involved in the body life (including weekly gatherings) of a local church. Yet though they are only tangentially committed to a local body, they talk much about how they are the church at school, and the church at Target, and the church at Applebee’s, and the church at work. I have a friend (not a student) who actually complained that his local church had a covenant because he thought that overemphasized the significance of his local church–after all, he is *really* a member of the universal church and just enjoys the teaching he gets at _______ Baptist Church. I suspect it’s these folks Purswell is talking about. I know they are who I’m thinking about when I read his article.


  4. Brian   •  

    Please be gracious with my initial musings. I have not spent long hours thinking deeply on this subject, but my initial response is that the church (local or universal) requires community. In other words, no isolated individual Christian is an expression of the church, regardless of setting. (not in Target, not in school, nowhere.)

    It is only when individual believers interact with (and in concert with) one another that they are church. Simply living in a particular geographic location (city/parish) is insufficient, as is simply gathering in a building. It is when believers gather under the headship of Christ (read doing what He told us to do) that Spiritual Gifts are properly exercised, Ordinances are properly observed, and ministry is properly conducted. I say “in concert” as well to include coordinated efforts for evangelism and other ministries to the lost.

    Again these are initial musings for your consideration, not polished, dearly held, opinions.

    be blessed.


  5. David Rogers   •  


    On a practical, day-to-day level, yes, I totally agree with what you say here. I think it is a good description of how all this plays out in our actual lives.

    I am also, however, referring to the theory behind the practical application.

    Another example of how this plays out is in the current discussion about multi-site churches. One of the arguments used by the 9-Marks guys against multi-site is that it goes against the biblical definition of church as a gathered assembly. Personally, I think this is pushing the “assembling” aspect of what defines the church too far.

    On a pragmatic basis, I am not so sure that the multi-site model best accomplishes all of the purposes the church is meant to fulfill (summarized, as I understand them, in the “one another” commands/exhortations of the NT). But, then again, neither do many single-site congregations. I think small groups and/or houses churches are a key component for seeing that happen.

    But I don’t think the problem with multi-site is so much theological (i.e. everyone in the congregation meeting together at the same time and same place is a sine qua non of the “esse” of the church) as it is practical (i.e. there are a lot of important things churches ought to do that don’t get done quite so well in a multi-site configuration as in a single-site configuration).

  6. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I think this is because so many parachurch college ministries function as alternatives to local churches. I have met literally hundreds of collegians who were strong Christians by all appearances, seriously plugged in to a parachurch campus ministry, who had virtually no connection to a local church. Sometimes literally zero connection. I have met many, many collegians who considered their Tuesday night meeting to be their church.

    Unfortunately, many churches in college towns have little interest in ministering to collegians–students don’t tithe much, after all. I’ve seen many college town churches who have zero interest in reaching lost collegians, let alone helping Christian collegians become a vital part of their church.

    But I am thankful for the growing number of churches that are interested in really reaching campuses–and by this I mean more than simply offering a college SS class and hoping some co-eds show up. I’m also thankful for a renewed interest in having collegians actually join local churches in their college towns, a trend that men like Mark Dever, C. J. Mahaney, and Joshua Harris have helped influence.

    At the risk of offending a bunch of readers, here goes: I tell students that I am not opposed to parachurch ministries in principle, but neither would I say I am for them. I am thankful that, in God’s providence, there are many parachurch ministries doing good work for the sake of the gospel. But I believe the primary arena for God’s redemptive activities in this world is the local church, and I do not believe that parachurch ministries are “the church” in the same sense that local churches are “the church.”

    Parachurchism is a relative recent phenomenon birthed during the two great awakenings and then given a new lease on life during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies. Many do good work. As long as they really do see themselves and function in a complementary way to local churches, I’m OK with them. If they see themselves as alternatives to churches or even superior to churches, I’m not cool with that.

    Let me say it like this. If every parachurch ministry disappeared tomorrow, some good things would go undone, but the gospel would go forward as it always has since the first century: through the ministry of local churches. If every local church disappeared tomorrow and even the best of parachurch ministries remained, then Christianity as it is expressed in the NT will have come to an end and we will have based our beliefs on a book that turned out to be less than a sure word from God.


  7. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    The multi-site trend is one I struggle with. I don’t think you can make a air-tight argument from Scripture that multi-campus churches are illegitimate. And I remain unconvinced by word-study arguments from ekklesia that are used to criticize the phenomenon. Yet I am not a “fan” of multi-campus churches in the sense that I think churches planting new, autonomous, like-minded, sister churches is a better model than one church meeting in different campuses all over a city (or wider geographic area).

    Having stated my concerns, I do think there are better and worse models even within the multi-campus movement. I am very uncomfortable with multi-campus churches where the whole church never assembles together for corporate worship or even membership meetings and the congregation watches video preaching rather than sitting under a live pastor. I have less discomfort with churches like Highview Baptist in Louisville where there are campus pastors at each branch and the whole body assembles several times a year for communion, to conduct church business, and when necessary to practice church discipline. For the record, I have friends involved in both models.

    One day I am going to write a blog post on “Sandy Creek, Church Planting, and the Multi-Campus Church: A Proposal.” I’ve been stewing on it for literally a year.


  8. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I think you have some good thoughts. I’m not sure I would say the church universal requires community–Paul after all speaks of a universal church as a present reality, at least in my understanding. But I would definitely lean toward local churches requiring community. I think of it like this: I am always a part of the First Baptist Church of Durham, but we are the First Baptist Church of Durham in the truest sense of the term when we come together every Lord’s Day.


  9. Brian   •  


    To push the idea a little further, I think the church universal does require community (though perhaps that is not the best word for what I mean). I mean a concious association, coordinated effort, and common purpose. Even as a present reality, we are members of the church universal as we follow in their (best) traditions of breaking bread and sitting under the apostles’ teaching. We pursue the Great Commission, a strategic evagelistic effort begun in Jerusalem, and we do so seeking to please and obey God just as they did. Isn’t that community?

    To press the “community” aspect a bit further, as Seminarians we are quite aware of the debt we owe to those generations of believers who have gone before us, and who continue to instruct, counsel, and inspire us through their writings, and the history of their lives.


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