Does the Bible Tell Us What Church Should Look Like?

Donald Miller ruffled quite a few feathers when he recently wrote on his blog that he doesn’t regularly attend church.

While I disagree with much of what he said, I won’t parse through every point. Others have already done that. But Miller said one thing that bothered me very much. Actually he said two things, but they were part of the same point. His point was that the Bible does not give us specific instructions as to what church should look like, which therefore means that no one can really claim to attend a “biblical” church.

The reason this statement bothered me so much is that it is so blatantly false. To claim that the Bible doesn’t tell us what church should look like is to ignore many, many very clear scriptures. To claim that Bible doesn’t tell us what church should look like also allows a person to substitute his own preferences for the clear teaching of scripture, which Don Miller seems to do at numerous points in his blog post.

So what does the Bible have to say about church?

1. A biblical church involves at least two people gathering together in the name of Jesus. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Working with a client on a team building exercise, while valuable, is not church. Church consists of believers coming together, in the same physical space, in the name of Jesus Christ. To gather together in the name of Jesus means gather together to publicly worship Jesus, serve Jesus, and help others love Jesus. If you’re not gathering together with other believers in the name of Jesus, don’t call yourself a church.

2. A biblical church celebrates the Lord’s supper together. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Jesus commanded his followers to regularly come together to remember and celebrate his death. This is a command, not an optional add-on for the Christian life. This isn’t about preference or opinion or “connecting with God” (a phrase Miller likes to use). The Lord’s supper is a communal event in which the church publicly proclaims the death of Christ. While not expressly forbidden, there isn’t a single place in scripture where a person celebrates the Lord’s supper by themselves. A biblical church celebrates the Lord’s supper. If you’re not celebrating the Lord’s supper with other believers, don’t call yourself a church.

3. A biblical church is led by qualified elders. In Titus 1:5-9, Paul said to Titus: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

Paul insisted that the churches he founded be led by qualified elders. This was so important to Paul that he left Titus behind in Crete for the express purpose of finding and appointing qualified elders for each church. In our post-modern, democratic society, the idea of eldership isn’t especially popular, but it is especially biblical. If you’re not being led by qualified elders, don’t call yourself a church.

4. A biblical church worships in song together. Ephesians 5:18-21 says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Notice that this passage has both a vertical and a horizontal dimension to it. We are to be filled with the Spirit, making melody in our hearts to the Lord. We are also to address one another with our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Singing isn’t just about you connecting to God or experiencing a particular emotional response. When the church gathers to sing we are also proclaiming truth to one another. Honestly, God isn’t primarily concerned with whether or not we like singing or emote when we worship. He is concerned that we proclaim his goodness and glory to Him and to one another through song. If you’re not singing to the Lord and to one another, don’t call yourself a church.

5. A biblical church maintains corporate holiness through church discipline. Matthew 18:17 says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The church really is a place of spiritual protection. Jesus expects his followers to help one another pursue holiness. If a Christian begins to engage in serious sin, Jesus expects the members of his Christian community to lovingly rebuke him. If the person refuses to repent of his sin, the entire church is expected to get involved.

This process presupposes that a Christian will be vitally connected to other Christians. The reality is, the process of discipline can’t happen apart a local church. If you’re not maintaining holiness through church discipline, don’t call yourself a church.

6. A biblical church is a place where Christians can use their spiritual gifts to bless one another. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”

In writing this verse, Paul was clearly assuming that the Corinthians would be gathering together on a regular basis in the name of Jesus for the purpose of worshiping together. When they gathered together, they were to use their spiritual gifts to build one another up. It is impossible to build other Christians up if you’re not regularly gathering together with other Christians in the context of corporate worship. If you’re not using your spiritual gifts to build other Christians up, don’t call yourself a church.

Contrary to what Donald Miller says, attending church is not about tribalism, or learning styles, or opinion, or preference. Attending church is a matter of obedience.

And there really is such a thing as a biblical church.

  • lisa

    Amen! Will put, Stephen! Thanks for writing this!

    • lisa

      *well put.

  • Grazer #E2H

    I don’t currently attend a church. I stopped going a few months ago because of various issues I had, and still have today. I’ve been reading various responses to Dons post (which I loved and can identify with so much of it) and I wonder if we’re equating the church of Christ with the bricks and mortar church we attend on a Sunday. I just don’t see these things being the same for similar reasons as to why I have issues with the church.

    I can quite happily do your points 1, 2, 4 & 6 without needing to step foot into a “church”; meeting up around someones house is sufficient for that. I think discipline regarding sin (which is much more than just an act) can be handled within that environment though just because I’m a member of a church, my personal life doesn’t suddenly become their business. I want to be accepted for who am I first, then we’ll worry about if any changes need to be made. Churches often get this the other way around.

    As for 3? I’ve disagreed with many pastors/vicars/elders/leaders on a number of issues. I do think having discussion about these things is important but if an elder won’t allow that then he’s failing in his duty in my view. Having an elder doesn’t mean we all should just blindly follow what they say. As for trained in correct doctrine, according to who? Who has the correct doctrine? Not even trained elders universally agree on what that is, and they can’t know everything. Discussions with other Christians can also help take care of doctrinal/scripture interpretation issues.

    Organized services need people to organize them but I’m not convinced the organized Sunday service is the only way to have a church. Christian means “follower of Christ” not “attendee of church”