The Barnabas Ministry

Church Concepts
Think for a moment about this question-- what makes a church? The way most of us think of churches, these are the sort of answers that spring up:
This article will address this question from a Scriptural and practical point of view.

The Definition of "Church"
The word "church" is the common English translation of the Greek word ekklesia.  In the New Testament, it is not a term exclusively applied to the Christian church. Ekklesia simply means a group or assembly. While it is often translated as "church" in English bibles, the word also applies to the mob in Ephesus (ref. Acts 19:32, 39, 41). Simply, ekklesia is a group of people.

Jesus states his intent to build his "group of people" in Matthew 16:19, "I will build my church" (for a more detailed discussion of this particular passage, see this article). This "group" of people, singular in number (that is, not "groups") indicates that Jesus has one group, one "church." Many theologians refer to this as the "universal" church, the one church to which all Christians belong.

The Local Church: A Subset of the Universal Church
Context is always important in biblical interpretation, and it is especially important in considering the word "church." While sometimes the New Testament uses the word "ekklesia" to refer to the universal church, at other times it uses it to refer to the local church. This distinction is usually obvious in the context. The universal church is invisible, an abstraction. It cannot be identified with any single organization or structure. But by contrast, the local church is visible and known by its specific characteristics.

Simply, local churches or congregations are groups of Christians in various places. Individual local churches are thus a subset of the "universal" church.  A Christian in a local church has a dual membership: he is a member of the universal church as a result of his relationship to Christ, and a member of the local church by association with other believers.

The Church Family: A Subset of the Universal Church
It is natural and acceptable for families of churches to have things in common.  In the first century, there were churches that consisted of primarily Jews or Gentiles (ref. Acts 11:2, 15:23, Romans 16:4, 15:26-27, Galatians 2:12, Ephesians 2:11, Titus 1:10). Churches in particular geographical or political areas were referred to collectively as well-- such as Judea (Galatians 1:22, 1 Thessalonians 2:14), Galatia (ref. 1 Corinthians 16:1), Asia (1 Corinthians 16:19), or Macedonia (2 Corinthians 8:1). In addition, churches related to a particular missionary would have that in common (ref. 2 Corinthians 8:11ff, 10:13ff, etc.).  There were differences in leadership styles and mission focus (ref. Acts 15:36-41, 1 Corinthians 1:10ff). Thus, there are biblical examples of local churches being grouped in subsets of the universal church based upon a variety of legitimate traits.

The House Church: A Subset of the Universal Church in a City
In a very real sense, the question at the outset of this article needs to be changed to, "What makes a local congregation?" That's what we really mean by the question in the first place.

The simplest and most fundamental answer, then, is two or more Christians make a congregation: "For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them also" (Matthew 18:20). Local congregations are made up of individual Christians.

Individual local congregations may have a church building, a clergy or professional leader, legal institution status, and/or a confession of faith or statement of beliefs (as well as many other characteristics of various local congregations)-- but fundamentally, what makes a congregation a congregation is two or more Christians.

It has been popular in some church families to advance the idea of "one city, one church." This is usually based upon the references to the seven churches in the book of Revelation (Revelation 2,3).  Some have taken this to mean that the leadership and structure of all Christians in a city should be centralized. Is this really the Scriptural picture?

The early church didn't really have the large "megachurches" that we might have today. Churches typically met in houses-- and clearly a large number of Christians simply can't fit in somebody's house. There is evidence that the early church typically had many "house churches" or "house congregations" in one city.  Consider the following cities in the New Testament church with multiple "house churches:"
Yet, these churches could still be referred to collectively as "the church of God" of that city-- ref. 1 Corinthians 1:2, et. al.  The evidence from the New Testament supports an organizational model of multiple house congregations in a city, collectively comprising a portion of Christ's universal church in that city.

These two factors-- that a church consists of at least two or three Christians and that multiple house churches existed in single cities in New Testament times-- gives rise to the idea that the house church was the primary organizational structure for the church. If a "church" is fundamentally defined by the collection of a relatively small group of at least two or three Christians meeting in a house, does this not suggest that the primary church organization or structure (if, indeed, it can even be called that) is the individual house church and not the collection of house churches in a city?

Consider a few other pieces of information.
  1. Jewish custom allowed for 10 or more Jewish males to form their own synagogue. Historical records show that the average size of a synagogue in Jerusalem in 70 AD (the year of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem) was about 100 (ref. W. Curry Mavis in Advancing the Smaller Church).
  2. The first archaeological evidence for a church building dates to approximately 230AD. A converted home in Syria had a baptistery and large open area for meeting. (ref. Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity).
  3. In our natural families, we know of the distinction between the "immediate family" and the "extended family." Considering that the church is known as the family of God (ref. 1 Peter 4:17, 1 Timothy 3:5), is it not reasonable to make this same distinction within the universal church?
  4. Is it merely a coincidence that Jesus and the apostles were basically a small, mobile house-church sized group?
Many large churches today have adopted the "cell group" approach-- a large church divided up into smaller "cell groups" based upon a particular characteristic to facilitate small-group ministry-- geographical, marital/family status, special interests, etc.  But isn't it at least as biblical to have a collection of these small groups ("house churches") form the larger "church" in a particular region? If the church is truly defined by the people gathered together and not the worldly trappings (e.g. property, clergy, denominational alliance, etc.), then maybe the smaller group is the primary group.

This doesn't mean larger congregations are illegitimate, but it does mean that house congregations are at least as legitimate as institutional churches.

A Visual Model
The following graphic illustrates these various relationships: local congregations consist of individual Christians, and church families consist of churches who share something particular in common with each other but not with other Christians. These things could include things such as a particular location, relationship with certain church leaders, particular understandings or practices, and the like.  Collectively, they are part of the universal church along with Christians who may not be gathered into a local congregation at this time.







Thoughts about "Divisions"
Let's now discuss the question of healthy vs. unhealthy divisions among local congregations and the differences between larger and smaller churches (relating to the question of house churches vs. "mega churches").

Healthy and Unhealthy Divisions
As mentioned above, divisions between local congregations or church families are natural and normal in many ways. However, these become a problem when they become unhealthy, uncharitable, exclusive, or derogatory towards others. Examples of unhealthy divisions are seen in Bible times in Acts 15:1, 15:5, 1 Corinthians 1:10ff, Galatians 2:12, 3 John 1:10 and other passages. Unlike natural and normal divisions, these work towards undermining the unity of the universal church that Jesus prayed for:

"I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that You did send Me. And the glory which You have given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that You did send Me, and did love them, even as You did love Me." (John 17:20-23)

It is fallacious to state that, because some differences among believers or congregations are wrong, therefore all differences among congregations or believers are wrong. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 1:10ff, sometimes cited to speak against "denominationalism" or any divisions in the church, in reality speak against "church family" or party loyalties superceding loyalty to Christ. In fact, Jesus' prayer for unity seems to recognize that there will be various divisions among believers, and that a move towards unity to overcome any unhealthy aspects to those divisions should always be a part of the Christian mission (see also Ephesians 4:13, Colossians 3:11).

Bruce Shelley, in Church History in Plain Language, discusses the origins of the denominational theory of the church. His words (pp. 306-308) merit serious consideration:
Denominationalism, as originally designed, is the opposite of sectarianism. A sect claims the authority of Christ for itself alone. It believes that it is the true body of Christ; all truth belongs to it and to no other religion. So by definition a sect is exclusive.

The word denomination by contrast was an inclusive term. It implied that the Christian group called or denominated by a particular name was but one member of a larger group-- the church-- to which all denominations belong.

The denominational theory of the church, then, insists that the true church cannot be identified with any single ecclesiastical structure. No denomination claims to represent the whole church of Christ. Each simply constitutes a different form-- in worship and organization-- of the larger life of the church.

... The real architects of the denominational theory of the church were the seventeenth-century Independents (Congregationalists) who represented the minority voice at the Westminster Assembly (1642-1649). The majority at the Assembly held to Presbyterian principles and expressed these convictions classically in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

The Independents, however, who held to congregational principles, were keenly aware of the dangers of "dividing the godly Protestant party" in England so they looked for some way to express Christian unity even when Christians did not agree.

These dissenting Brethren of Westminster articulated the denominational theory of the church in several fundamental truths:

First, considering man's inability to always see the truth clearly, differences of opinion about the outward form of the church are inevitable.

Second, even though these differences do not involve fundamentals of the faith, they are not matters of indifference. Every Christian is obligated to practice what he believes the Bible teaches.

Third, since no church has a final and full grasp of divine truth, the true Church of Christ can never be fully represented by any single ecclesiastical institution.

Finally, the mere fact of separation does not of itself constitute schism. It is possible to be divided at many points and still be united in Christ.

Thus, the denominational theory of the church looked for Christian unity in some inward religious experience-- and allowed diversity in the outward expressions of that personal faith.

This tolerant attitude was not born of doctrinal indifference. The Independent had no intention of extending Christian unity to all religious professions. The identity of the "one true church" was restricted to those who shared a common understanding of the core of the Christian faith.

... Few advocates of the denominational view of the church in the seventeenth century envisioned the hundreds of Christian groups included under the umbrella today. They had no intention of reducing the basic beliefs of Christianity to a general feeling of religious sincerity. But they could not control the future. They simply knew that the traditional bigotry and bloodshed in the name of Christ was not the way forward.

In the end, then, the denominational form of the church has marked the recent centuries of Christian history, not because it is ideal, but because it is better than any alternative the years have offered.
Denominationalism may not be perfect. But it allows those having honest differences to treat each other with respect and love, not unwarranted judgment (ref. Romans 14:13). It gives everybody Christian freedom to follow God as they understand Him and His words, with a clear conscience. It allows Christians in a congregation to focus on God and not on items that may divide them from others, while simultaneously treating others with  respect and giving them the freedom to do likewise. It allows Christians to respect Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17 by recognizing and loving other Christians. The spirit of distinguishing and distancing oneself from other Christians, or claiming to be superior to them, is not found in John 17.

Indeed, many of the differences between congregations allow for the body of Christ to meet needs in various ways, just as individual members of a local congregation also allow for those members to meet the needs of that local congregation (ref. 1 Corinthians 12:12ff).  However, this also requires that individual congregations make efforts to treat each other in ways that honor Christ.


Differences Between Smaller Congregations and Larger Congregations
Moderns tend to think "bigger is better." But common sense and careful thought show that there are some cases where a smaller congregation has advantages over a larger congregation, and vice versa.

W. Curry Mavis in Advancing the Smaller Church has identified pros and cons of smaller churches, especially in view of the current attraction to "megachurches" that currently characterizes much of the Christian world. This chart illustrates and compares some of these traits:
Wesley Roberts and Glenn Marshall in Restoring God's Original Intent for the Church (see review), lament the shortcomings of many larger churches. In a worthwhile discussion, they identify several areas where a smaller church, or a house church, can excel compared to the larger church:
Personal Observations about Size
There are some things I like about larger churches. I value well-done worship services with modern technology and conveniences (e.g. diverse and talented musical expressions of faith and praise, well-maintained and useful buildings, sound systems, lights, overhead projections, etc.), I value a well-defined theology and healthy church culture that a larger church is more likely to have than a small church. Larger churches may have more robust specialized ministries-- everything from youth ministry to ministries built around special interests of all sorts (e.g. hiking, computers, music, etc.).  A larger church may pool the resources of many members and do larger-scale benevolent projects.  People's area of service may more closely match their gifts.  Leadership may be better trained and more competent in specialized areas. It also feels good to be a part of something bigger, because to many people size brings legitimacy or thwarts accusations of "weirdness." Some even see size as a sign of God's approval or endorsement though one probably "shouldn't go there" with such notions.


Yet, in my own personal reflection upon this topic, it is evident to me that there are also many dissatisfying things about larger churches. Because larger groups of people are involved, changes become harder to make. People tend to become power-oriented, and trust and relationships tend to break down as politics come into play. The larger organization starts taking priority over God and the individual Christian. Individual needs not within the "program" may go unmet, or point to failings in the system-- findings that may not be well received to those who have a lot of emotional energy invested in the system.
A large group may easily develop a warped or non-existent conscience (ref. "A Sober Look at Unity," especially the paragraph headed "Additional Unhealthy Group Dynamics"), to the point where "seek first the kingdom" becomes "seek first the organization" -- and "don't ever question or speak of the failings of the organization." A bureaucratic Christian church is something of an oxymoron.

Small churches, such as house churches, are blessedly, frighteningly small. There is ample room for close personal relationships-- and relationship conflicts to go with them. There is no fancy technology, no larger organization's agenda to promote. Accomplishment is measured on a personal, not organizational, level. It is a group of peers-- challenging our concepts of leadership, service, and laziness. Service may be necessary in areas where one is not gifted, and support of those serving in such ways is also necessary.

Both large and small churches have to relate to other Christians in a benevolent manner somehow. Larger groups typically do this at an organizational, leadership or bureaucratic level, while smaller groups are more likely to do this at a personal or relationship level.  Each can be tempted to live in its own "little world" as though nothing outside of it exists.

Likewise, both large and small churches are concerned about how others view them. Both large and churches can be tempted to point to their size (or something related to it, like the size or impact of particular programs) as a mark of their legitimacy. However, we should observe that only Christ gives a congregation legitimacy.

And in making these statements, I realize that these are generalizations. A particular large church could be very adept as practicing small-church strategies, and a small church could be bogged down in big-church bureaucracy.

This whole debate between the large church vs. the small church may be viewed as similar to the debate between the "big box" stores and mom-and-pop stores of the world. Mom and pop stores typically have far more personal service, but may not have the best selection or prices. "Big Box" stores can have better prices and selections because of their size but often have impersonal, bureaucratic and ineffective service (and of course, these too are generalizations that are not likely to describe every situation).  As in the case of the big-box vs. the mom-and-pop stores, the question between the large church vs. the small church may in the end simply be a matter of personal taste. But we should be wary of reducing love and Christian ministry into spiritual commodities.


Like the tide and many other things in life, there are cycles where various ways come and go in popularity. As  large churches experience large-church problems, some will long for the days of small churches where those large church problems go away. But those in small churches will experience small-church problems and will long for large churches where those small church problems go away.  It is evident that there are pros and cons to each, and a certain healthy tension between the large and small church approach is advisable.

Copyright © 2004 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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