What Makes a Group of People “Church?” Part 1

What Makes a Group of People “Church?” Part 1 April 17, 2020

What Makes a Group of People “Church?” Part 1

Let’s get something out of the way—right away—to head off a predictable but unwelcome response. I have studied American churches for many years. I am the editor (really author) of the 14th edition of the Handbook of American Denominations in the United States (Abingdon Press). I have studied and visited literally hundreds of “Christian” churches over the years and been a faithful attender—often member and sometimes leader—of about thirteen individual congregations. I am convinced that not every group of people who calls itself “church” really is a church—theologically speaking. I do not go with the common opinion that every group that calls itself “church” really deserves that identity. Of course, I have no authority or power to suppress or prevent any group from calling itself anything. But as a Christian theologian who is also an avid student of churches, I have decided that there are many so-called “churches” in America that I do not consider authentically churches.

I am not writing this as a sociologist of religion; I am writing this blog—always—as a Christian theologian. My two main areas of research, study and teaching are historical theology and systematic theology. In other words, I do not approach “church” merely descriptively (except in the Handbook mentioned above—due to its history) but also prescriptively.

Of the myriad of groups in America that call themselves “church,” which ones deserve my recognition as living up to that description? That is what I ask myself and sometimes my students and others.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

It is my opinion that American nominalism has led many people, even many orthodox Christians, to regard every group that calls itself “church” as authentically “church.” But when I have this conversation with fellow evangelical, orthodox Christians (e.g., students) I easily break that attitude down by mentioning and describing some so-called churches that I know about. I’m not going to name any of those here, but I will point to some by description.

I know of one “church” that exists really as a haven for white racists and includes within itself an active chapter of a white racist organization. And I know it’s not the only one in the country.

On the other hand, I also know of “churches” that exist primarily to be inclusive of everybody and exclude nobody. You don’t even have to believe in God to be a member or even a leader within the church.

There are “churches” that exist primarily to rake in money from gullible people. They promise those people freedom from sickness, poverty, even sometimes the limitations of matter and time.

There is a large network of “churches” in America that flourishes on offering members a spiritual technology that is virtually “guaranteed” to bring them financial prosperity, health, and success in life. Most of the members and leaders believe in reincarnation.

On and on and on I could go.

Yes, sociologically speaking, all are churches just because they claim to be. Although, in the past, anyway, the Internal Revenue Service has withdrawn tax exempt status from some self-identified “churches” when it was discovered that they were really profit-making businesses. One notable leader of such a network of “churches” famously went to federal prison for tax evasion because the government decided he was deceiving the government about the group’s finances.

However, for the most part, Americans, even most conservative Protestants, evangelicals, simply assume that any group that calls itself “church” is a “church.” Very little thought goes into this.

Some years ago Pope Benedict XVI ordered Catholics to stop calling non-Catholic churches churches. He declared that they are, at best, “ecclesial communities.” I asked a conservative Catholic friend who happens to be a priest of the Catholic church what that means. He very honestly said “parachurch organization.”

You might assume that I would be angry about that, but you would be wrong. I respected the Pope for at least not emptying the word “church” of meaning by recognizing every group that calls itself “church” truly a church. I disagree with the Catholic church about that, but I respect its having a vision of what constitutes “church”—really, theologically.

All of this has come to the forefront of my thoughts lately for two practical reasons (beyond teaching ecclesiology as part of my teaching about theology). First, I have been looking for a new church to join in a city where I do not yet live. I go there often and sometimes stay for two or three weeks. During the last three years I have visited at least ten churches in that metropolitan area—especially in a certain large and diverse suburb. Sometime I will move there and I don’t want to wait until then to find a church to attend and probably join.

Second, the current pandemic crisis has raised the question, for me, at least, of whether a church can exist solely in “virtual reality”—“online”—without physical gatherings. Even before this pandemic began there were “churches” that existed only in virtual reality—connecting members solely by the internet. I often used that as a case study for class discussions when we came to ecclesiology.

In my future metropolitan area, where I will live in retirement, I visit only churches that I think are probably evangelical in a broad sense of that term. And they are of many different denominations or totally independent. What criteria should I use in deciding whether one is really “church” or just a group of people gathering on Sundays and maybe Wednesday evenings for—something? That is the question.

To make the question clearer—what are the necessary “marks” of “true church?”

Now, again, let me warn you not to waste your time composing a comment here that won’t pass muster, that won’t pass moderation and show up on my blog. Don’t bother saying that only one particular denomination or fellowship or family of congregations constitutes the true church of Jesus Christ. We all know of that belief on the part of some denominations. I forbid that here. Instead of simply asserting that “such-and-such” a denomination or fellowship of congregations is the one true church, say why. What makes it that? If you say “apostolic succession” I will laugh and try to be nice because every historian knows there are breaks in apostolic succession where it is really impossible to say that a particular bishop (for example) stands in unbroken ordination “pedigree” back to one of the first century apostles. But don’t waste my and our time with that argument because it simply can’t “work” for those of us who are not members of churches that adhere to apostolic succession in that way. This is an evangelical blog. My question is mainly to evangelical Christians and surely every evangelical Christian knows that it takes more than apostolic succession to be authentically “the (or a) church of Jesus Christ.”

In my follow up post to this one, “Part 2,” I will share my own thoughts about the subject—what criteria I apply when attempting to decide whether a group of people really “counts” as church.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).


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