You Can’t Plant a Church If You Don’t Know What a Church Is

So, you’re thinking about planting a church.
What do you think you need? The gospel? Yes. The enabling power of the Spirit? Yes. A sending church? Yes. Others to go with you? Yes. Some money? Probably.

But what about a robust ecclesiology?

Ecclesiology can’t be assumed nor should it be considered a distraction to the church planter’s “mission.” It also can’t be a kind of add-on that you insert here and there as you have need. Instead, ecclesiology should inform, instruct, and even excite the mission of planting churches to the glory of God.

In other words: church planter, you need a robust ecclesiology that’s in place well before you start trying to plant a church.

A church is more than a gathering of people around a preaching point and singing. There are brightly defined lines that have been given to us by the Lord. These lines mark Christians off from the world so as to picture a better city in which we’ll all live for eternity. We must take the time to think through these lines and carefully institute them for the good of our neighbor and the glory of God.

We planted Restoration church here inside the District of Columbia in 2010. Allow me to walk you through four of the questions that were instructive to us as we began our work.

1. What is a church?

It sounds ridiculously simplistic, but answering this question proved to be one of the most helpful things we did.

Was our Bible study a church? Was the gathering of people with music and preaching a church? How did we know we “succeeded” in planting a church?

By simply breaking down the word “church” (ekklessia) in the Bible we learned that the church was an assembly of “called out” ones.

We also found the classic definition wonderfully practical. This definition requires three things before a gathering of Christians is considered a “church”:

  • The proper preaching of God’s Word (Proclaim the Gospel)
  • The proper administration of the ordinances (Portray the Gospel)
  • Exercising restorative church discipline (Protect the Gospel)

Armed with that definition and those three descriptions, we knew both our goal and success looked like.

2. Who makes up the church?

The answer to this question might seem easy except for all those warnings in the Bible of false teachers, professors who don’t endure, and those who do things in the name of the Lord but were never actually known by him. Therefore, we knew we needed to be careful about who identified with the church.

Texts like Matthew 16:13–20 and 18:15–20 were wonderfully instructive to us. They helped us see the need to properly define both the gospel message and the possessors of that message by binding and loosing people according to their gospel doctrine and gospel living.

Because of this, we also spent a lot of time teaching on the gospel and what it looked like to live as a Christian. Only after doing all this did we then begin to welcome those around us into the membership of the church we were prayerfully forming (1 Corinthians 12).

3. Who takes the ordinances?

Once the definition of a church and the people who make up the church were clarified, we began to discuss the relationship between the church and the ordinances of baptism (Matt. 28:19–20, Rom. 6:1–4) and the Lord’s Supper (Mk. 14:22–25; 1 Cor. 11:17–33).

The ordinances were given to the church as signs or markers of the ambassadors of the kingdom. Therefore, we knew instinctively not to practice them until we’d become a church.

On March 28, 2010 we had a ceremony whereby members covenanted together in accordance to our statement of faith and a church covenant. Another man and I were subsequently installed as elders and only after that did we practice baptism and take the Lord’s Supper together.

You can imagine the joy of those 18 people that night as we came together and became a church. The very thing we’d been praying, teaching, and talking about for many months finally became a reality. A church had been planted, and Christ was exalted as yet another gathering of Christians had been marked off from the world through the bright, bold lines of membership, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

4. What’s my job as a pastor?

We were installed as pastors because our people had been instructed what to look for in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim. 3:1–7, Titus 1:5–9). Once we’d become a church and been officially called as pastors, we took our cues from Acts 6:1–6 and 20:17–35.

These passages told us the bulk of our work was to preach, pray, watch out for wolves, shepherd the flock, watch ourselves, care for our families, and make disciples. Hebrews 13:17 stood prominently in our minds as well: we’ll answer to God for how we’ve led these people.

Ecclesiology Matters

A clear ecclesiology on the front end defined our orientation for church planting. It directed us, encouraged us, and kept us focused on God’s plan for his people. The work was hard, and it continues to be. But we’ve never regretted wielding the sword of God’s Word in the difficult work of planting churches.

Ecclesiology is one of God’s methodologies for glory. It doesn’t slow or deviate from mission. Instead, it fuels the church’s mission by marking off God’s people from the world. Paul wrote to one local church and told them that they were “lights . . . in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15).

Church planter, think through these questions now. Don’t wait to institute clear convictions after you’ve gathered a crowd, but carefully put them in place as you go. Explain to those around you what you’re or not doing, so they can be informed for the good of their neighbor and the glory of God.

Nathan Knight

Nathan Knight is the pastor of Restoration Church in Washington, D.C.

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