From the former chapters it is obvious that church planting does not begin with the missionary, but with the church that trains, approves, and sends him. Thus, it may be said that the Great Commission is primarily the work of “churches planting churches” through the missionaries that they have sent.
In light of the above truth, we may rightly say that the best way to ensure a biblical and mature missionary force is by nurturing biblical and mature churches at home. In fact, much of what is wrong with contemporary mission work is directly related to what is wrong with the local churches that are sending out missionaries. Therefore, before the aspiring missionary thinks about going to the mission field, he must understand the importance of being a vital member of a biblical local church, where he can be trained, held accountable, and eventually sent out.
Although it is beyond the scope of this work to write several chapters on the nature of a biblical church, we can briefly consider a few of the most important characteristics of such a church. However, before we proceed, we must remember that, as we are not perfect, so there are no perfect churches. What we are looking for is not perfection, but an honest and reverent commitment to Christ and His Word. The following is a list of fourteen summary characteristics of a biblical church:
- A commitment to the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Scriptures. This is the foundation stone to any true church. A biblically mature church will not only confess the inerrancy of Scripture but will teach the Scriptures and seek to conform every aspect of the church’s government and ministry to the Scriptures. Churches with a low view of the Scriptures have no sure word by which to be guided and no sure word to proclaim. Regardless of a church’s winsomeness message, attractive worship, or friendly fellowship, if it does not stand firm on the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Scriptures, it will bring great spiritual harm to the believer and the mission field.
- A Biblical & Evangelical Theology. The church’s doctrinal confession must be non-contradictory and within the context of historical evangelicalism. Any claim to “new” or “extra-biblical” revelation” must be regarded as a departure from Scripture and from historic Christianity.
- A high view of God and Recognition of man’s sinfulness and need. The knowledge of the attributes and works of God is the highest and most essential of all knowledge.1 It must be proclaimed so as to create and maintain true love and reverence for Him (i.e. the fear of the Lord). Similarly, a biblical view of man (his fallen nature, sinful deeds, and condemnation) should be proclaimed so that the congregation finds no hope in itself or its works, but looks only to God’s mercy as it is revealed in the gospel?
- The conviction that Christ and His gospel are central or preeminent in the Christian faith. Although Christianity has a specific ethic or morality that should be taught, our great hope is not found in what we do, but in what God has done for us through the person and work of His Son. The central proclamation of a biblical church to both believers and unbelievers should be the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially the vicarious nature and propitiatory elements of His death, His resurrection, and ascension. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe2 and it is the great revelation that leads to true godliness.3
- A Biblical Understanding of Conversion. There must be an understanding of conversion as a supernatural work of the Spirit whereby man’s sinful and unresponsive heart is transformed into a heart that delights in and responds to the person and will of God. One of the great maladies of our day is a superficial gospel which leads people to believe that they are saved simply because they have agreed to some doctrinal statement about Jesus or have repeated a prayer. A biblical church and its leaders will handle the gospel and the souls of men with great reverence, even fear. They will call sinners to repentance and faith, guide them with the Scriptures that they might grow in assurance, and warn them about the dangers of a superficial faith. Consequently, they will avoid the deadly pitfalls of emotionalism and superficial “decisionism.”
- A Qualified Leadership. The Scriptures plainly set forth the requirements of elders4 and deacons.5 These non-negotiable qualifications are the standard by which men are to be approved or disapproved for leadership in the church. A biblical church will only ordain to leadership those men who have been tested and found above reproach. These characteristics help ensure that the elders will be biblical in their leadership of the church, maintaining a proper balance between the exercise of their authority and the will of the congregation. Both weak leadership and dictatorial leadership styles are harmful to the church and the individual Christian.
- A Commitment to Expository Preaching. For a church to declare its high view of Scripture in a doctrinal statement is not enough. The true test is found in the leaders’ commitment to teach the Scriptures and the congregation’s commitment to learn and obey them. There must be an observable and constant devotion on the part of the elders to study, obey, and expound the written Word of God.6
- An Observable Devotion to Prayer. Paul refers to the church as “the household of God.”7 Quoting from Isaiah 56:7, Jesus declared, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”8 In the first description of the early church, we learn that it was “continually devoting itself to prayer.”9 A biblical church will promote and practice individual and congregational praying. We must always remember that a church and an individual are not truly known by what they confess, but by what they do. This is especially true in the matter of prayer! The question is not how much the church talks about prayer or even teaches on prayer, but how much the church actually prays?
- A dedication to God-honoring, Heart-felt, and doctrinally correct worship. A biblical church will approach worship with great reverence and will not allow it to be reduced to entertainment or mere emotionalism. The Scripture is the guide for all true worship. Biblical worship will not only impact the emotions but will also communicate doctrinal truth to the mind. This is clearly demonstrated in Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”10
- Meaningful Church Membership. The elders and congregation must understand and clearly communicate the meaning, importance, and requirements of church membership as they are set forth in the Scriptures. This includes the role of elders as pastors, the discipleship of members, the government of the church, the ordinances, and the practice of church discipline and restoration. We must remember that a church is not merely a preaching point where thousands of nameless faces gather once a week to listen to a praise band or hear a sermon. It is a family of members committed to one another and under the pastoral care of the elders.
- A commitment to pastoral care. A biblical church will care about the spiritual, physical, and material well-being of each of its members. The elders will serve as faithful shepherds, overseeing and being on guard for “all the flock”11 as “those who will give an account.”12 The elders will also be dedicated to pastoral counseling and will use the Scriptures to “teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness.13
- A commitment to training and ordaining future leaders. With the utmost care and oversight, the elders will be dedicated to training men for the ministry. This is the meaning of Paul’s admonition to Timothy in II Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Although elders may call upon the aid of faithful Bible colleges and seminaries, they must continue to oversee the training of all those within their congregation. Only those men who are tested and prove to be truly elder-qualified should be ordained and sent out.14
- An observable commitment to evangelism and missions. The local congregation and its gathering is primarily for the edification of believers.15 Nevertheless, every congregation has been called to participate in the Great Commission.16 A biblical church will seek to maintain a balance between its own edification and the evangelization of those who are near and far. A church that is not actively involved in local evangelization and missions will soon stagnate.
- Brokenness over the church’s shortcomings and a refusal to exalt itself over other congregations. One of the great evidences of true maturity in the individual Christian is a realization of his own failures, a humble and contrite spirit before God, and mercy toward others. The same may be said of a church. We should be wary of any congregation that believes itself to be the only beacon of truth in the land, is constantly critical of the churches around it, and never lifts them up in prayer or reaches out to them with truth and love.
- Jeremiah 9:23-24
- Romans 1:16
- I Timothy 3:16
- I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9
- I Timothy 3:8-13
- Ezra 7:10; II Timothy 2:15
- I Timothy 3:15
- Matthew 21:13
- Acts 2:42
- See also: Ephesians 5:18-21
- Acts 20:28
- Hebrews 13:17
- II Timothy 3:16
- I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; I Timothy 5:22
- Ephesians 4:11-12; Hebrews 10:23-25
- Matthew 28:18-20
Paul serves as the HeartCry Coordinator in Western Europe. He is currently overseeing our missionaries in Italy, Spain, and France. He is also the founder and director of the HeartCry Missionary Society. Paul lives in Radford, Virginia with his wife Charo and their four children: Ian, Evan, Rowan, and Bronwyn.More By Paul David Washer