Characteristics of a biblical church

Authority of scripture

We believe that the scripture is the ultimate and sole authority for defining Christian belief and the sole God-given pattern for Christian living. While God is sovereign and is able to give new revelations, the existing scriptures show that he will not do so; (Deut 4:2; Deut 12:32; Mt 5:17; 1 Cor 4:6; Rev 22:18-19) therefore anything that contradicts scripture must be judged not to be of God. For a detailed exposition of this, see Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine part 1.

All other putative authorities must submit to and be judged by the scripture. An authority that will not so submit itself is ipso facto in rebellion against God and must not be followed.

In particular, human traditions have no authority, if they contradict the scripture. We must continually remember that we have in the Bible God's very words, and must not try to improve on them in any way for this cannot be done. Rather we should seek to understand them and then trust them and obey them with all our heart. (Grudem, op. cit. p. 48)

Anyone who does not accept the above statements will presumably not accept the rest of this document.

The biblical pattern for church life and practice

We believe that the bible gives a single pattern for how a church is to be organised and how its life is to be manifested by believers in Jesus. There are, we know, many who claim that the scripture cannot be expected to give a pattern suitable for the modern age and that the church has the right to develop new forms for itself. We do not agree with this. Since God knows all things from the beginning, it is no problem for him to have put all we need in the scriptures. The nature of man does not change, whatever the circumstances. It is worldly arrogance to claim, in effect, that God was incompetent and that we know better.

There are a number of characteristics that the bible would lead us to expect to find in a church organised on the biblical pattern; equally, there are a number of characteristics of existing churches that we do not find in the bible. (We pass over the specific abuses of the Roman Catholic church, which were sufficiently exposed by Luther and the other Reformers.)

This table gives a summary of many of these differences. Not every institutional church shares all the faults in the right-hand column, but they all share in a majority of them:

Biblical church


Non-biblical church

Keep to apostolic tradition

Ex 31:11; Mt 15:1-9; 16:6-12; Mk 8:15; Lk 6:46-49; 11:37-52; 12:1; 1 Cor 11:2; 14:36; Col 2:8; 2 Th 2:15; 3:6

Tradition of the Early Church Fathers, or even later

It is evident that there was a pattern of church life that was handed down by the apostles, and that Paul felt it was necessary for every church to keep to that pattern. In the case of the law, the tabernacle and the temple, under the old covenant, God gave very specific directions. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy in ignoring those commands in order to keep their own tradition. It is unreasonable to suppose that the directions given under the new covenant may be freely ignored.

The Pharisees actually made their own tradition of greater importance than the written law. Similarly, today's institutional churches give greater priority to their own traditions than to the scriptures. No matter how many errors and deviations are pointed out, they would rather keep them than give them up in order to obey God. In this, the institutional churches are just like the Pharisees, and Jesus commands us to beware their leaven -- that is, their hypocrisy -- because "a little leaven leavens the whole lump". Therefore there must be no compromise on this matter, because any compromise is like a little bit of leaven. Those who disregard this warning put themselves in danger of deception.

No hierarchy

Matt 20:25-28; Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:24-27; Jn 13:3-5; 1 Cor 1:10; 7:25; 16:15-16; 2 Cor 1:24; 2:8; 2 Th 3:6; Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:2

Hierarchical leadership

Jesus commanded us not to have any hierarchy, such as the rulers of the nations always have. Christians are not to have leaders who lord it over others; leaders are to be in the position of slaves to the rest. Therefore there can be no question of leaders telling others what to do; they can only seek to persuade. The word often translated "obey", in Hebrews, actually means "let yourself be persuaded". Even the apostles do not command, except when passing on the commands of God.

The best leadership is invisible until it is needed. The literal translation of "episkopos" (overseer) is better rendered "guardian" or "watchman", because those words lack "overseer's" connotations of slavery and accurately describe what the leaders should be doing. The leaders are there to watch over the church, teach and pray; in a meeting, they should normally restrain themselves from intervening as leaders unless the church is departing from the scriptures or otherwise in need of correction. Nevertheless, they do have a strong role in leading the church as a whole and discerning its course.

Small meetings that fit in a home

Ac 2:46; 5:42; Rom 16:5; 16:23; 1 Cor 1:11; 16:19; 14:26 (by implication)

Large gatherings that need large buildings

We know that there were almost no Christian buildings until Constantine made Christianity the state religion. In the first two centuries, no church felt any need to have a special building; this was because the pattern taught by the apostles was of meeting in homes. Small meetings encourage intimacy and mutual support; no one can get lost in a small meeting. In a large meeting, people can easily be ignored and contributions from everybody are impossible; however, 1 Cor 14 shows that everyone is expected to contribute.

The meetings in the temple were the continuation, for a while, of the Jews' normal practice, and they gave the opportunity for preaching to unconverted people, but the real fellowship happened in homes. When the temple and the synagogue became unavailable, the apostles felt no urge to replace them. This is not to say that buildings may not be used for other purposes, as Paul did when he hired the hall of Tyrannos to hold teaching and evangelistic meetings.

Plural leadership

Eccl 4:9-12; Ac 14:23; 15:2, 22-23; 20:17; 1 Tim 4:14; Tit 1:5; James 5:14; 3 John 9

Single leadership

Everywhere Paul went he appointed elders for the churches. There is no doubt that there were more than one of them. Having plural leadership is a safeguard against the corruption of power. One man alone can easily go off track, as Diotrephes clearly did, snatching at worldly power, but two or more together can protect each other.

Qualified leaders

Ac 6:3; 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:6-9

Various disqualifications ignored

The scripture sets out the requirements for a leader in the church, both for elders and servants (that is, deacons). Nowadays, more and more of these qualifications are ignored by the denominations; we have already seen a "bishop" who has been appointed in spite of having abandoned his family and turned instead to a physical homosexual relationship.

Home-grown leadership

Nu 11:16, 26; Ac 6:3,6; 14:23

Imported leadership

God's principle is that elders (bishops and pastors are the same people as elders) should come from the communities they serve. In this way, they are known by everyone and their good reputation and the respect in which they are held give them authority to deal with any problems. By contrast, the institutional churches import clergy from elsewhere, men who are not known to the local church. Having no earned respect among the people, they have to depend on their position to give them authority, so they automatically turn to a worldly way of working, though some may later earn the respect they should have had before they were appointed. In addition to importing (and sometimes imposing) leaders from outside the local church, some denominations actively seek to move leaders on after a few years, which ensures that any respect they have managed to earn is thrown away.

Male leadership only

Gen 2:18; Jdg 4:4-9; Is 3:12; 1 Ti 2:11-15; 3:2; 3:11

Women in leadership

The bible is quite clear that leadership is male, in both Old and New Covenants. Deborah rebukes Barak for demanding that she come with him; God's commission should have been sufficient for him to lead Israel without her back-up. (It is interesting that Deborah, nevertheless, is the only positive biblical example of a woman in leadership independently of men.)

The Old Testament teaches that woman is complementary to man, and necessary to him, and the New Testament shows that men and women are of equal value and status, but the New Testament also teaches that women are more likely to be deceived and are therefore unsuitable as leaders (whose job is to expose and fight against deception in the church). The institutional churches prefer to worship the spirit of the age, which insists that women are as capable as men in all respects and equal in role as well as in value.

Exercises godly discipline

Mt 18:17-18; 1 Cor 5:1-13; 2 Cor 2:5-8

Does not exercise discipline

It is the responsibility of the church to judge sin in its midst. The initiative for discipline is to come from any person who perceives sin and has not been able to persuade the other person to repent. (This is not a licence for people to nose into others' private lives.) The priority should always be to restore the sinner; not condemn him as the world would.

Many institutional churches avoid the responsibility and tolerate all kinds of sin in the name of "love" and of "not judging others".

Discipline by the whole church

Mt 18:17-18; 1 Cor 5:12-13; 2 Cor 2:5-8

Discipline by a small group

It is necessary for the church to judge sin in its midst, but Jesus commands the matter to be brought before the church, not the elders, and Paul addresses the whole Corinthian church about the man among them who was committing incest; he does not address himself to the elders. But in almost every institutional church, discipline is reserved to some small group of people.

Priesthood of all believers

Ex 19:5-6; Jer 31:33; Heb 4:14; 8:10-13; 2 Ti 4:14-15; 1 Pet 2:5, 9-10; James 5:16; Rev 2:6, 15

Clergy/laity split

All believers have the same status before God and the same responsibilities. Though each is given a different gift, those gifts are not a basis for dividing us. There is not the slightest hint in the New Testament that there should be anything like the Levitical priesthood. A priest's role is to be an intermediary between men and God. Through the cross and the Holy Spirit, all believers have direct access to God and have no need of any other priest than Jesus.

The name "Nicolaitan", in Revelation, means "one who dominates the people"; the Nicolaitans then, by the context, are those who claim that some particular group of Christians should rule over the rest, as the clergy do in all institutional churches. This mention in Revelation, and the mention of Alexander by Paul, and Diotrephes in 3 John, show that, even before the end of the first century, men were attempting to use the church to enhance their own power and position.

Every member contributes

Nu 11:29; Joel 2:28; Ac 2:4, 2:17-18; 1 Cor 14:26

A few perform to an audience

From the beginning, God's desire has been that he should be able to work in and through all of his people. The Holy Spirit is poured out on us to equip us for works of service, chief among which is building up the church. This comes about by Jesus' moving each individual to make some particular contribution in a meeting, through which all can be encouraged and edified. If someone fails to make the contributions God gives him, everyone suffers from his failure.

All liturgical churches and most others suppress this ministry of Jesus by disallowing or pre-filtering the contributions of the people. Even where this is not intentional, the very existence of the clergy disables the rest from the full exercise of their gifts.

Besides that, large meetings, and meetings where people are sat in rows facing the front, inhibit the free exercise of his gifts that the Spirit desires.

Encourages the gifts of each

1 Cor 7:7; 12:7-31; 1 Th 5:19-20; 1 Ti 4:14

Suppresses gifts

Since a biblical fellowship is guided by the Lord working through every member, it must seek out the gifts that God has given each member and encourage him to use them; otherwise, the whole body suffers, because one of its members is not working properly.

The institutional churches do not allow most of their members to use gifts such as teaching or prophecy, since these threaten the exclusive position of the clergy. Only "non-threatening" gifts may be used in such a church. Even where the validity of such gifts is acknowledged, their use is subtly discouraged or marginalised. This is what the scripture calls quenching the Spirit. Since such a church is not operating as a body of Christ, but as a human organisation, it does not notice its loss.

Everyone loves and encourages one another

Jn 13:34; 15:17; Rom 1:12; 12:9; 1 Cor 14:31; 16:14; 1 Thes 4:9; 5:11,14; 1 Pet 1:22; 2:17; 1 Jn 3:11; 4:7; 2 Jn 1:5

Little encouragement

There are some 50 exhortations in the New Testament for believers to encourage one another, love one another and so on to one another. The standard Sunday service gives no scope for this. Some churches have fellowship or cell groups in which it can happen; but for the most part it receives little emphasis in comparison with exhortations to keep the organisation going in various ways. The demands of the organisation drain people, whereas a fellowship operating by God's pattern will restore them.

Interestingly, most institutional churches acknowledge that every member should have a ministry, but they seem powerless to bring it about.

Includes children

Lk 18:16; Eph 1:1, 6:1; 1 Jn 2:12-13

Segregates children

Children are part of the family of God, and should be included in his family's activities just as they are in their natural families'. Paul writes to them in a letter intended to be read out in the meeting, so he clearly expects them to be present. To segregate them, insulates them from the experience of the whole church and gives the message that they have no contribution to make to it.

Jesus is able and willing to use children to speak to the church, if the church is humble enough to listen. The teaching of children is the responsibility of their parents. Taking that responsibility from them not only interferes wrongly with God's order for family life, but also removes their teachers from the meeting of the whole church.

If people think that children will be bored in the meeting, it suggests that they are doing things that ought not to be done in the meeting. Children will certainly not be bored if God's Spirit is moving in the meeting. They probably cannot handle long sermons, but that demonstrates that such things do not belong in the fellowship meetings. Intensive teaching should be kept for separate meetings apart from the weekly fellowship.

Jesus controls

Jdg; 1 Sam 8:7; 1 Cor 11:3; 12:27; 14:31

Men control

There can only be one head of a body. The head communicates directly with every part of the body; nerve messages are not mediated to subsidiary controllers. Jesus wishes to direct his people without interference from men. Wherever a man sets himself up as head of his church, he is usurping the place of Jesus. If the people accept this, they are guilty of idolatry, in that they have given to a man honour that belongs to God.

The book of Judges, though depicting a society in which men tend to ignore the law of God and where "every man did what was right in his own eyes," also shows us a theocratic state where there is no organisation apart from the family and (at time of need) the tribal army. (This operated correctly during the lifetimes of the elders who outlived Joshua, though the people later became unfaithful.) When the people want to change this state and have a king, like the other nations, God says that they are rejecting him. When we put leaders over us (instead of among us) we, like Israel, are choosing to reject God's king, Jesus, and have our own, like the other nations.


Jn 8:36 Gal 2:4; 5:13; Col 3:16-23


Christianity is a relationship with Jesus and one another; it is not a set of rules. If we submit to rules and to the commands of men, we give up the freedom Christ has bought for us and put ourselves back in bondage. Many churches, however, turn Christianity into rules and laws; or they insist on having everyone obey the pastor as if he were entitled to give commands. Even where the pastor is not eager to command others, they will frequently sit back and defer to him, leaving all action to his initiative. Instead of this, the church, as the family of God, should have the same freedom and informality as an ordinary family.

Working of the Holy Spirit

Ac 2:4; 6:3; 10:44; Rom 8:9-11; 1 Cor 2:10; 12:4; 14:26,39; Gal 5:25; 1 Th 5:19

Spirit is quenched, or deceiving spirits are allowed to operate

The Holy Spirit dwells in every believer, to teach him all things and to manifest in him particular gifts to benefit the whole church. The church needs all those gifts, so that it can be built up as God wants. Of particular importance is prophecy, for it is by that (subject of course to its not contradicting the scripture) that God speaks to the church to guide, encourage and correct.

The institutional churches reacted to the excesses of Montanism and similar errors by going to the opposite extreme and banning prophecy altogether; the Charismatic movement brought back some knowledge of these things to the church, but some have denied it and some have carried it to dreadful excess.

Heal the sick and cast out demons

Mathew 10:8; Matthew 28:20; Mark 16:17-18

Healing is only for a few, or not for now

Jesus commands all of us to heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead. But we don't have the faith to do it. Instead the churches construct a theology to justify our failure.

Minimal structure

Gen 11:1-9; 1 Sam 8:8; Mt 20:18; Ac 6:1-6

Worldly organisation

A biblical church works in small autonomous congregations and therefore needs almost no organisation. Where organisation is required, servants (traditionally called "deacons") are appointed to undertake purely practical matters, apparently restricted to managing distributions to the needy.

In the world, it has been a pattern from very early times for some men to try to seize power over others, and for others to wish them to do so. The people demanded that Samuel give them a king, like the other nations; and God told him that in doing so they were rejecting God himself. The pattern has always been for men to reject God's provision and seek their own ways of doing things instead. Men's ways always involve hierarchy and central control; the ways of God, who rejects human wisdom, do not. Men need organisation, because they cannot handle large projects without it; God is infinite and can speak to and direct every one of his people separately and individually, so he needs no organisation to do his work for him. Genesis tells us how God frustrated the early, premature attempt to achieve human unity by organisation and central command. By confusing men's languages, he made it impossible for them to maintain their organisation and control.

No expensive resources

2 Cor 8:1-15

Very expensive resources

The only requirement for money in the New Testament church is to relieve poverty among other believers. Nowhere is there to be found any appeal for money to pay for buildings or equipment. It is acknowledged that some workers are entitled to receive some support, though there is no record of their asking for it.

The institutional churches' obsession with buildings and salaries means that the people have little to spare for the relief of poverty and are greatly burdened by unnecessary demands for their money. In some churches we now see the blatant marrying of money-seeking with the church, as pastors strive to increase their salaries and build larger and richer churches, so that the world will respect them. The world may do so, but God will not!

No salaried leaders

Gal 6:6; 1 Pet 5:2

Salaried leaders

Those who are taught ought to share with their teachers. But this is a personal relationship, not an official salary.

Some leaders, such as apostles and full-time teachers, have a right to support from the church. However, it does not seem that this applied to many. Paul himself took care not to make any demand of the church where he was working, but worked with his own hands to support himself, or received support from other churches.

For elders to be paid a salary, immediately sets them apart as different from the rest. Any support for them should certainly be voluntary freewill offering rather than tithed. The idea of tithing (as a law) belongs to the old covenant, and to the system for support of the temple, which God has swept away. The bible does not indicate that we should resurrect this system to maintain a hierarchy of worldly leaders.

In view of the persistent chasing after money throughout the centuries and across nearly all churches, I suggest it would be better for church leaders to forego even what the bible permits them, so that this scourge of money-seeking should be cut off at the root. Let all emulate those who live by faith, without asking anyone for money. If they are doing God's work, he will provide.

Baptise believers immediately on conversion

Ac 2:41; 8:38; 10:48; 19:5; 1 Cor 7:14

Baptise infants or non-believers; delay baptism

It is clear from the scripture that baptism is for believers only and is to be given by full immersion. A child may and should be baptised as soon as he repents and commits his life to Jesus, but no sooner. Infant baptism apparently developed because of a wrong belief that an unbaptised person could not be saved. There is no authority for delaying baptism pending instruction. If someone has repented and believed, he should be baptised immediately, though teaching should obviously be given as soon as possible.

Bible teaching

Deut 4:1-2; 6:6-9; 2 Ti 3:16

Humanistic teaching

A biblical church will take care to train new believers in understanding the scripture and applying it to their own lives. Many churches today do not respect scripture as the true word of God and their ultimate guide; their teaching is frequently woolly moralising or worldly speculation, and frequently adds to or takes away from scripture.

Dialogue teaching

Lk 2:46-47; Ac 2:14-40; 3:11-26; 20:7

Sermon monologues

Teaching in Jewish tradition and in the New Testament was by discussion, not by lecturing. We see Jesus, as a boy, questioning the teachers in the temple. When Paul spoke till midnight at Troas, the word used is dialogeuo, from which we get the English word, dialogue. Sermons were only introduced when pagan orators were converted and brought their rhetorical shows into the church. However good a speaker may be, the fact that he is giving a sermon makes him almost immune to challenge or question and therefore makes it possible for him to spread erroneous teaching unchecked. Peter's addresses recorded in Acts are evangelistic messages to unbelievers; they are not addressed to the church.

Fellowship meal

Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24 ; Lk 22:17-20; Ac 2:42,46; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:18-34; 2 Pet 2:13; Jude 12; Rev 19:9

Ritual communion

It is plain that the communion was in origin a full meal, at which the bread and wine were blessed and distributed, just as happens at every Sabbath evening meal among the Jews even now. Jesus invested this normal ritual with new meaning: now it teaches that the whole body of Christ share together in him. Although 1 Cor 12 says that people should eat at home if they are hungry, this is not the ideal; ideally they should wait for each other and eat their fill together, just as every good family does.

The Old Testament teaches that in the resurrection, we will sit down to feast at the Lord's table. In the New Testament, the communion meal is a foretaste of that banquet. To make it anything less than a full meal is to denude the promise of its meaning and destroy the reality of our fellowship. A wafer or a small morsel of bread and a sip of wine are a poor symbol of the feast to which God invites us!

The love-feast was actually forbidden by a church council at Laodicaea in the fourth century, so far had they departed from the scripture.


Jn 17:20-23; 1 Cor 1:10-13


The New Testament knows of three modes of the church: the church in the home; the church in the town (or district); and the universal church, the bride of Christ. Where Christians are in reach of one another, they are commanded to be of one mind. To maintain denominations is plain disobedience.

Modern attempts at "Christian Unity" are mostly directed at papering over the cracks of disunity. In John, at the Last Supper, Jesus prays that we should be one, as he and the Father are one. That is not what the modern churches call "Christian Unity"! True unity can only come from everyone's obeying Jesus together and becoming of one mind under his direction.


Ac 15:1-31; Rev 2:1-3:22

Organisational hierarchy

The New Testament model for the church is of autonomous churches in each town; these churches cover those in easy reach of a particular centre. No such church has authority over any other church, just as no believer has authority over another believer.

An apparent exception to this is where the church in Antioch sent people to Jerusalem to consult about the question of making Gentile converts keep the law. If we read this carefully, we see that the church in Antioch are sending to complain to the Jerusalem church about the teachings of some of their people; this is a successful attempt to bring both churches to understand the mind of the Lord so that they can agree together about this important doctrine.

In Revelation, Jesus addresses the seven churches individually. Although they are all in the same region (Western Asia Minor), he does not regard them as in any way dependent on one another. Nowhere in the New Testament is there any idea of one church governing another.

The principle of autonomy is important for keeping error from spreading. If one fellowship does fall into error, autonomy means that it cannot impose its error on any other fellowship. Under the hierarchical system, on the other hand, an error at the top is commanded to be followed by all the rest of the denomination.


Idolatry is not just bowing down to images. The scripture says that covetousness is idolatry. God says "My glory I will not give to another." When we take any part of the honour, glory, obedience and devotion due to God and give it instead to something of man's creation, that is idolatry. So loyalty to a denomination or a human tradition is idolatry. Spending excessive effort on a church building or a church program is idolatry. Tolerating evil in the church, where God demands purity, is idolatry.

Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 Jn 5:21)

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Last changed on 23rd June 2017