Nine Marks and the Definition of a Church

dever_9marksSo I’m making my way through Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, which a new friend gave me to read. It’s a popular book among pastors, and I never turn away a free book 🙂 I’ll take a few posts to interact with the book, giving my reactions as I go along.

Dever summons a consensus from several (Reformed) sources and concludes that three things must be present in order to proclaim a gathering of people a legitimate church: the preaching of the Word of God, observance of the sacraments, and exercise of church discipline.

Of course, there’s lots of room for interpretation there. How many sacraments do you count? And what if you don’t actually call them or label them as “sacraments” in the old Catholic sense of the term? At what point does really bad preaching disqualify a church from being taken seriously?

This is all beside the point that I want to make in response. What I really want to do in response to this is answer a question a brother asked me in Dayton, Ohio, a couple of months ago. His question was this:

What’s the difference between a house church and a cell group/small group?

This comes up as traditional churches debate how to integrate smaller community groups into their church structure. Someone on staff becomes convinced that “small groups are where it’s at” for whatever reason (better accountability, more authentic community, more effective missions, etc). Then they get busy figuring out how to make it happen. Do they phase out Sunday School or do both at the same time? And what will be the purposes and goals of these groups?

And what do you call them?

Life groups? Cell groups? Home groups? House churches?

Most of the time, I don’t get too hung up on what you name things. For example, I’d rather see good eldership and oversight exercised among a group of people than hear the “right” biblical term used for each function. Same goes for any other kind of spiritual gifting. It’s more important to have a gift functioning than it is to know the right thing to call it. I think some people are way too obsessed with terminology some times.

HOWEVER, I think it would help to call these small groups house churches and them treat them as such. If you work in a traditional church setup and you want to integrate the house church model into what your church does, don’t treat them like they’re anything less than bonafide house churches in and of themselves.

Teach them to provide their own ministry. Teach them to celebrate communion and baptisms together, in their groups. Teach them to recognize leaders among them and guide them through the process of learning to exercise their own church discipline.

In other words, treat them like real churches. Think of them and speak of them in that way. Don’t tie long strings to each group and micro-manage them like marionettes under your control. That’s the difference between a cell group and a house church in my opinion. House churches carry out all the functions of a church: teaching, prayer, fellowship, evangelism, discipline, marrying, burying, baptizing, communion, etc. They do it all.

Maybe they still gather together with the rest of the larger church on a regular basis. Maybe once a month, maybe twice, or maybe once every week. Whatever. The staff still trains, supports, and troubleshoots the microchurches that result from the larger church’s ministry. But everything they do serves to EQUIP those groups to find the guidance of the Spirit for themselves.

Is anyone doing such a thing?

Sure. I visited at least four churches like that this past summer. They ranged in membership from 80 people to about 4000. And I heard of several more. Such things do exist.

Not in my part of town, mind you. But some day.

For today’s post, I’ll let Dever’s definition of a church inform the formation of house churches, too.

There are at least a dozen other comments I’d like to make in response to Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. I’ll get to them soon enough…

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One Response to “Nine Marks and the Definition of a Church”

  1. Carrie Says:

    This is great stuff, Neil! I like the philosophy.

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