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Not All Church Planting in Missions Is Created Equal

More than any time in recent memory, evangelical missions is focused on planting churches. In the previous century, as the World Council of Churches drifted toward liberalism and ecumenism, some missiologists began to downplay the role of establishing local churches. Instead, they preferred to speak of expanding the kingdom, establishing shalom, or starting missional communities.

This language was thought to carry less rigid expectations for structure, less divisive doctrinal distinctions, and less potential for importing cultural baggage. Today, however, “church” is again in vogue in missiology. Church planting is increasingly seen as the aim of missions.

Despite this positive shift, what missiologists and missionaries mean when they speak of the church often remains unclear. Therefore, defining our goal for the church will be the determining factor in whether this renaissance in church-centeredness results in a healthy course correction. Following Ken Caruthers, I understand a healthy church to be one that is and does what the Bible says a church should be and do.

Mere Church?

One current temptation in missions is to pursue a “mere” ecclesiology for the purpose of reducing cultural imposition and increasing reproducibility. Proponents of mere church are content to focus their efforts on reproducing communities of disciples that follow the Acts 2:37–47 pattern.

Unfortunately, that passage doesn’t intend to define the local church. Nor do the elements recorded there exhaust the biblical descriptions or functions of the local church.

Church planting is increasingly seen as the aim of missions.

If we aim for something less than the full biblical understanding—even for the good reasons of increased multiplication and enculturated contextualization—we endanger those who’ll one day give an account for their role in the church. With that in mind, I’ll offer three important texts that give direction and definition to our goal of establishing churches worldwide.

Pillar and Foundation

Up to the end of 1 Timothy 3, Paul has been discussing how people are supposed to behave in the church and what qualifications there are for being appointed to church offices. He clearly states his rationale for doing so: “I have written so that you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (3:14–15, CSB).

If being church-centered means our missions efforts aim at establishing churches, that aim must be informed by Paul’s definition of the church as the household of God, a pillar and foundation of the truth. To be church-centered in this sense requires us to realize the saints in covenant with one another don’t merely exist for man-centered fellowship, encouragement, or training for evangelism. The local church is to be a God-centered community, gathering as the household of the living God, ordering its behaviors and recognizing its leaders by the standards given.

These standards are provided so the church will be a display (pillar) and support (foundation) of the truth. To display God’s manifold wisdom and truth, it must be protected from swerving toward false doctrine and teaching. Any compromise or misstep in what’s taught and believed will subsequently malform what the church displays to a watching world.

Those entrusted with teaching—the ones Paul identifies as elders earlier in the chapter—must be capable of rightly dividing the Word, guarding doctrine, and identifying false teaching.

Defend and Teach

In multiple places throughout the New Testament, the church and its leaders are instructed to guard and teach doctrine. Second Timothy is an especially helpful example as Paul connects the importance of Scripture as God’s inspired Word with his solemn charge to his protégé—a church elder—to preach and teach the Word (2 Tim. 2:2; 4:1–2). This is important for church-centered missions because it addresses doctrine’s source and its transmission within the church.

To display God’s manifold wisdom and truth, it must be protected from swerving toward false doctrine and teaching.

By contrast, Paul highlights those whose teaching and conniving have attempted to woo people toward harmful and false teachings. He reminds Timothy his truth source is the faithful teaching he’s received from Paul, rooted in the God-breathed Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16). It’s useful—and to be used for—teaching, rebuking, correcting, training in righteousness, and equipping.

Despite the proper desire to avoid passing along cultural preferences and extrabiblical understandings, missionaries and those they equip to lead must be able to divide the Word of truth, to identify false teaching, and to teach true doctrine. This is the role of the church and its elders. While the preaching might take a different form from one context to another, authoritative instruction from the Word is necessary as part of the noble shepherding task for which every elder will one day give an account.

Authority and Accountability

Scripture reminds believers we’ll give an account for our lives. While our salvation is secured in Christ, there’s the possibility our work might yet be burned up (1 Cor. 3:10–15). In addition to that general warning, elders and overseers are told they’ll be held to a higher standard. James 3:1 states this explicitly: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

If we’re to be truly church-centered in our missions, we must be committed to equipping local elders to know how to rightly divide the Word (2 Tim. 2:15), to watch their life and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16), and to contend for the faith delivered to the saints once for all (Jude 3).

Lest we appoint people too hastily to a role—and a judgment—for which they aren’t prepared, we must recognize the missionary task doesn’t just require preparing a church for growth and reproduction. We must ultimately prepare churches and their leaders to give an account for all that Scripture calls us to be and do.

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