Question: I've heard churches refer to themselves as a "New Testament Church". What does this mean, and how does it differ from other churches?
Answer: Greetings friend. That’s a great question. What indeed does the phrase “New Testament Church” mean… but especially when used as a distinction? After all, isn’t every church a New Testament church? And if so, what are people saying about their churches when they make statements like, “We’re a real New Testament church!”
I’m an older fellow, and this issue has been on the back burner for many decades now. But today, in honor of your question, I’m ready to bring it to the table. So here’s my conclusion: That phrase means everything… and that phrase means nothing.
The thing you do not have to worry about is that you are missing some elephant-in-the-room issue — this big, crisp and well-defined cultural entity that everyone else knows about… because “the New Testament Church” does not exist like that — not in a special or differentiated way as people might try to assert by that phrase. That being said, the Church has been a critical part of God’s program for millennia… and we can’t ignore any issues which attach themselves to that. So let’s lay out a few ideas.
Most Evangelical Christians can agree on the Church’s technical specifications: it was a born on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2; it is God’s spiritual organization in our current age, and this “Church Age” will continue in its current form until the return of Christ. The Holy Spirit is God’s immanent agent for the Church — and he is differentiated in this age by indwelling every believer. The Church is called the Body of Christ which this tells of its special relationship as the ministering body of the Lord Jesus. And, until he returns, we are (effectively speaking) his hands, feet, mouth, etc.
Now, no local church or organizational church is the Church exclusively or extensively because the Church is not a building nor is it an organization: it is the aggregate of people who believe in Jesus Christ. Therefore, its members can come from anywhere… and no organizational, categorical, ethnic or national boundaries can restrain the Holy Spirit… none! And although it may happen that every member of a local church is also a member of the true Church that is not a guaranteed condition. In fact… I find this to be relatively rare.
Most churches have a big sign out front declaring that there are Christians inside there… but the Holy Spirit is not impressed. He’d rather read the Christians to see if the sign is inside there. Therefore, no local church or church organization has a lock on God’s people... but what a mess this makes for those of us who try to sort them out!
You see, what was once the blessing of America has become the Christian’s bane. We have church buildings everywhere … but they are filled with nominal Christians; they and their cultural religion take up a lot of space in the name of Christ. And unfortunately, these are what people-at-large identify as churches and as Christians. On the other extreme, we have many believers who do not belong to any organizational church… and who may or may not meet regularly with other believers… yet who belong to the Church. There are also many “good” churches out there that are proactive with the gospel and careful about membership — so a good portion are true believers. But since believers are everywhere among these, and since these people are collectively the Church, what would anybody be saying by the phrase “a New Testament Church” — especially when the technical specifications tell us that nearly every church might be at least partially qualified… but that no church would be distinctly qualified?
My first thought involves “the exclusive club.” There are too many among us who “name the name of Christ” — but who insist that their church is God’s only church… and that there is no salvation outside! This is one sign of a cult, of course… thinking that only their organization or assembly might be the biblical Church — the true and complete Body of Christ. But I do not believe this is what most people have in view when they claim that they are a New Testament church. So let’s explore some other options.
There are many more-legitimate local churches that vary in their emphasis of the Old Testament portion of the Scripture. I have heard more than one preacher boast that he only works in the New Testament — and this might be what some people are referencing by a “New Testament church.” The obvious problem with Old Testament exclusion is that when Paul referenced “All Scripture…” in 2 Timothy 3:16, he was talking about the Scripture of Timothy’s youth — the Old Testament. There was no New Testament.
Now, I believe the entire Bible to be inspired and inerrant… but I do not believe that 2 Timothy 3:16 was referencing or prophesying about the New Testament. What this means is that the embryonic Church had only the Old Testament Scriptures. So, any contemporary church which seeks to model the biblical church had better at least include the Old Testament… but I say they should teach it, too.
My second thought is of the Charismatic Christians who emphasize their use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (and particularly the “sign” gifts) in their services. This really does grab the model of Acts chapter 2, and we should note also that the apostle Paul taught a lot about spiritual gifts — and he encouraged their use in the Body. For these reasons I see this is a credible reference to the New Testament church… in spite of the fact that this is not my personal choice in worship or theology. Yet I do not think that this is the primary use of the term either.
My third idea involves the surprising number of churches that emphasize the Church’s Jewish roots… and some to the extent where they might not be recognized as a church by the average Christian. I am very much for learning everything I can about the Old Testament… but I am very uncomfortable about people using Jewish worship as a liturgical model for the New Testament church. This type of church might technically be a New Testament church, but they are (obviously) not going for that identifier. As such, some churches may try to differentiate themselves from these people by advertising their New Testament focus.
My final, and I think my strongest idea, is that Christians are projecting an idealized Christian church by use of that phrase. And the more I ponder this, the more I see where this would be difficult to avoid.
For example, when I tell stories about my youth, I choose the parts that best suit the moment; I sanitize them, idealize them — and then assemble them into a narrative. Now, this is not particularly harmful (and the stories not particularly true), but what does this have to do with people evoking “the New Testament Church?” They are longing for “the good old days”… but there’s a problem: the good old days never existed. Let me demonstrate by looking at the church’s communal living.
Americans associate communal living with that back-to-the-land Hippie culture, where peace, love and understanding would work themselves out in a non-hierarchal community where everyone shared the work and the resources. And like most of those schemes, the rhetoric was great — but the details? Well… not so much. Even though communal living failed as a practical model for Americans, we are left with this romantic impression that the sharing of resources is innately sweet… but it was anything but sweet for the New Testament saints: it was a stop-gap measure to address immanent death!
When a New Testament Jew converted to Christianity, his flow of resources ceased. The Jewish community shut him out. No work, no money, no food… nothing!... and a convert would watch his family die. So the embryonic Christian community took matters in hand; they pooled their resources to save the lives of their fellow believers. This was not sweet… this was a response to desperation… and acutely so at a point in time. They did not continue to live like this after Christianity spread and as economic opportunities opened up… and that is much more the picture of today, not communal living.
Now, when a contemporary New Testament church reaches out to the poor of its membership (and to their world at large) they often associate this with acting like “the New Testament Church”… and that’s okay; we should help people like that. But remember, we are not of the ancient world; we have social safety nets in place. We should not reflect upon the horrors that drove biblical communal life through the lens of the Hippie esthetic. There was nothing sweet about their communal living. It was desperate state and a horrible statement about humanity.
There are any number of New Testament elements that we might idealize like this… and that’s not all wrong. These narratives should lift our eyes. But the phrasal energy supposedly generated when evoking “the New Testament Church” has no substance. In my opinion there is nothing there to worry about.