Starting a New Testament Local Church
The burden of this article is not to discuss the protocol for legally starting a church. Our concern is the starting of a church after a biblical fashion, a New Testament local church. We shall, however, later notice a few matters under "questions and answers" that we deem of interest that could be legally important. "Church" (Greek ekklesia) as used in a spiritual climate has a number of nuances, however, two basic meanings are the most often observed in the vocabulary of the Greek New Testament. Jesus promised to build his church (ekklesia) and he did (Matt. 16: 18, 19, cp. Acts 5: 11). While part of the language of the King James in Acts 2: 47 is supplied, I believe the meaning is necessarily inferred and, thus, the supplying is justified: "…the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." Notice that to this "church" the Lord added. To be added by the Lord to the church is tantamount to being placed in the Lamb’s book of life (cp. Ex. 32: 32, for further study click on, "The Book of Life"). "Church" in this sense has no organization, but is, rather, a relationship between the saved and God. There is also the use of "church" as applied to a local group of believers, a group that has organized to form a local church. Hence, we read of the "…church of God at Corinth" (I Cor. 1: 2). Man adds to and removes from the local church (cp. Acts 9: 26; 2 Thes. 3: 6).
The Book of Acts and the local church. It is in the Book of Acts that ekklesia is first used (subsequent to Matthew 16: 18, 19) in the Greek New Testament and it is applied to the local church at Jerusalem (Acts 5: 11, see addendum 1). In Acts, we read, "And when they had ordained them elders in every church…" (Acts 14: 23, see addendum 2).
Acts is replete with examples of the word being preached to the lost (Acts 18: 11). This is because the word is the "seed of the kingdom" (Matt. 13: 19, cp. vs. 20, see addendum 3). When people accept the word, the Lord adds them to his church and then they band together, thus constituting a local church. This is how the local church at Corinth became a reality (Acts 18: 8, I Cor. 1: 2). In the local church circumstance, the saved enjoy and experience a special relationship one with another (cp. Acts 2: 42, Heb. 10: 24, I Thes. 5: 11). They are to "know" their elders and submit to their rule (I Thes. 5: 11, Heb. 13: 7, 11). It is intended for every Christian to be a member of a scriptural local church (Heb. 10: 24-29, Eph. 5: 19, 4: 16).
The application of truths seen in Acts. The local church exists as a result of people "calling on the name of the Lord" and then physically, spiritually, and geographically banding themselves together to do the work of the local church (Acts 2: 21, vs. 37-47, Acts 18: 11, 8, I Cor. 1: 2).
Hence, two, especially two, matters emerge as being of paramount importance. The first is the pure seed of the kingdom, the gospel, is an absolute requirement. As noticed, the seed of the kingdom or church, is the means of inception (Luke 8: 11). The seed only produces Christians or the Lord’s church and not the religions of men. In the First Century, there was "one body" or church and only "one faith" for this one church (Eph. 4: 4, 5, cp. I Cor. 12: 13). Denominationalism or many different churches, teaching many different doctrines did not come into existence until centuries later and then they were introduced by men who were discontent with following the simple teaching of the New Testament (cp. I Cor. 1: 10 ff.).
The second matter is that it is imperative that those who have accepted the word of God organize themselves into a local church. We are not provided detailed instructions as to how to organize or form a local church, but I would suggest that the prospective church members come together in a documented meeting and discuss starting such a work. It is a good idea for minutes to be recorded of this meeting and its purpose. I say this for two reasons: The purpose and intent to start a local church needs to be established both spiritually and legally. There is a marked difference between Christians in an area simply coming together on occasion and Christians who have formed and are manifestly a part of a local fellowship. The meeting and minutes should cover what they intend to start (be explicit), its work and worship. Those present should frankly discuss matters of fellowship or requirements relative to being members, starting with those eligible for membership and the conditions for remaining in the fellowship (walking in the light is a scriptural requirement, I John 1: 7-10). Conditional fellowship absolutely needs to be discussed and agreed on (Eph. 5: 10, 11). If the brethren intend to follow the teaching of the New Testament in the matter of withdrawing from disorderly members, they need to express this intention and have it in the minutes. A spiritual and legal description to designate and distinguish themselves and to use for the establishment of a bank account needs to be covered (cp. Rom. 16: 16) as well as the names of the initial members thus forming the local church. The one to "keep the books" and, if possible, the one to primarily do the public teaching all need to be discussed and named, etc. The location for meeting, time and frequency of meeting, and all other pertinent matters need to be considered.
Why would I mention such matters as the foregoing? Again, I recommend such for scriptural and legal reasons. Too many times Christians (local church) who have been sloppy have sought to administer discipline to one who is "walking disorderly" are told, "I never placed membership there, etc." (See 2 Thessalonians 3: 6.) Once the local church is started, membership should never be just assumed (see addendum 4).
I freely acknowledge that the foregoing is not exhaustive and does not cover every possible point, both from a biblical and practical standpoint. For this reason, I shall deal below with some often asked questions and attempt to provide biblical and possibly legal answers. (To read these questions and answers, simply scroll down and if you wish to now return to the Archives page, click on the return button that follows the addendums.) (You might like to read, "House Churches Versus Meeting in Houses".)
Addendum 1: These whom the Lord had added upon their obedience to the gospel "continued together" and, in this condition, constituted a local church, the first of its kind (Acts 2: 42). This is the same local church to which Paul or Saul had later wanted to be joined (Acts 9: 26).
Addendum 2: The church in Jerusalem ("Judaea") already had elders (Acts 11: 30, this is the first time "elders" (presbuterous) is used in the sense of superintendents of a local church (cp. I Pet. 5: 1, 2). The church universal has no overseers, such a concept only applies to the local church.
Addendum 3: The term "church" (ekklesia) and "kingdom" (basileia) are interchangeably used (Matt. 16: 18, 19). They are used to connote and described the same people under "the called out" and "those submitting to God’s reign"). While "kingdom" is primarily used in the sense of the universally saved, Jesus did use "kingdom" as applied to the local church (Matt. 13: 41).
Addendum 4: Too many times one who simply attends more than once is considered a member. Such leads to confusion and misunderstanding. A prospective member needs to express their desire to be a member and the church needs to consider the request, determining if the person is one who is "walking in the light" (I John 1: 7ff., Acts 9: 26, 27). "Letters of recommendation" are almost a practice of the past, alas (cp. 2 Cor. 3: 1).
Questions and Answers
Question: I have always heard it taught that you cannot "join the church," but you indicate differently, can you explain?
Answer: Upon obedience to the gospel, one is added by the Lord to the church universal (Acts 2: 47, KJV). Scriptural water baptism places one into Christ, his church, but baptism does not place one into any local church (Gal. 3: 26, 27, I Cor. 12: 13). One is to "join" (Greek kollao, meaning "to glue or cement together," suggestive of the close and intimate relationship within the local church) the local church (Acts 9: 26, 27). The confusion of "church" and the thinking that you cannot join or identify yourself with a local church is responsible for many false practices, including but not limited to fluid, abstract, and abused fellowship.
Question: Can one be a faithful Christian and not a member of a local church?
Answer: First, if one is a faithful Christian one will want to be with other faithful Christians (cp. Heb. 10: 24, 25). Moreover, a number of commands given to the Christian apply to the local church circumstance (cp. I Cor. 16: 1, 2, Eph. 5: 19, Acts 20: 7, etc.).
Question: What if a couple become Christians and there are no other Christians in the area?
Answer: If there is no local church within reasonable driving distance, the couple can simply start a local church (one purpose for this article). They may elect to start by meeting in their own house and as they have ability and opportunity, perhaps rent a more public place that would be more conducive to visitors and teaching opportunities (cp. Rom. 16: 4, 5, Acts 18: 7; 9).
Question: Should starting a local church be considered when the area churches are teaching and practicing error?
Answer: There should be a determined effort to teach and restore, but if such cannot be done, then what other recourse is there but to establish a sound local church (cp. 2 John 9-11)? When error is introduced, one should not simply run off and start another church (cp. I Cor. 11: 19). It could be that the error can be challenged and corrected. To simply flee is to prevent the circumstance for God testing people. It should be seriously considered before moving to an area that does not have what would at least appear to be a sound church whether or not there is the residual strength on the part of the individuals to start a church. It does take resolve and much work. The weak can easily be seriously discouraged.
Question: Are there inherent dangers in starting a local church?
Answer: As just mentioned, there can be a number of sacrifices and discouragements. On the other hand, there are many rewards. Care must be taken to avoid the "House Church Movement" and such fallacious practices. Also, the tendencies of meeting "at home" should not be allowed to result in the "come as you are" philosophy and "causally worshipping God" that lends itself to sloppy, irreverent, and careless worship.
Question: What would be one thing that you would recommend against in starting a local church?
Answer: Other than points already discussed, I think one serious mistake that some brethren make is the practice of almost immediately placing themselves in hampering debt in the purchasing of a meeting place. Some churches are virtually helpless for thirty years, it is all that they can do to make the monthly building mortgage. I am not opposed to a building in which to meet owned by the church (a meeting place is authorized under the command to assemble, Heb. 10: 25). Some churches are so aware of their financial debt that they demand that the "Preaching be softened" so as not to negatively affect the contribution.
At the time of this writing (April of 2011), I have started a local church (seven months ago). We have been meeting in our house (there are presently nine actual members). We recently found and purchased a perfect large lot with an existing building. We are ourselves doing work to restore the building and make it suitable for a meeting place. If all goes as planned, we should start meeting in it within a few months and the beauty of it all is that the church only has a monthly payment of $300. 00 and the entire loan should be retired in just over three years. I only mention this as an example of a church avoiding crippling debt. We will not have an edifice or as "nice" of a meeting place as the local Baptists, but the emphasis in the scriptures is not on the material, but rather the people who comprise the church (I Pet. 2: 5).
Question: Should a church legally incorporate?
Answer: Some believe that IRS and State law require a church to incorporate. However, I do not believe such is the case. It is my understanding, I am no legal authority in church incorporation laws, that the local church is considered by the IRS as "income tax exempt," all things equal and understood (see IRS Publication 526). One advantage of incorporation could be that in the case of a lawsuit say for preacher sexual misconduct in the course of his work, all the members would not automatically be held legally responsible. The process of incorporation, on the other hand, presents some problems for thinking Christians.
What are the "bylaws" of the local church that are required for incorporation? I knew of one local church that supplied a copy of the New Testament only to be refused incorporation.
There is also the problem of the local church that is subject to only Christ being subject to incorporation laws, voting, and the "board of directors" (Eph. 1: 22, 23).
Last but not necessarily least, there is the circumstance involved in incorporation of the church entity and the people making up the church being separately considered. The people are indeed considered separate from the entity and this is why the people are not necessarily affected by a lawsuit against the entity, the local church. In New Testament concept, the people are the church (Acts 9: 1, 2, cp. I Cor. 15: 9).
Question: Must a local church be incorporated in order for contributions to be claimed for tax benefits?
Answer: When considering the IRS codes for churches, one encounters problems and apparent contradictions. First, according to the IRS Publication Number 526, it appears that churches are automatically tax exempt and that contributions can be claimed. On the other hand, in the IRS Private Letter Ruling Number 200830028, there appear to be fourteen points that are used for establishing an entity as a local church. Notice number two is "a recognized creed." Based on my experiences, the IRS does not accept the New Testament as a "recognized creed." Number 13 mentions Sunday Schools (do they refer to Bible classes or to some entity, etc.) and number 14 calls for schools for the preparation of its ministers. Again, such requirements present problems for Christians making up New Testament local churches. In all fairness, some viewed as IRS authorities maintain that these requirements are really not binding. You should research the matter and draw your own conclusions.
Question: We have just started a local church and some are wondering about filing a 501c3 form, does such a form violate scriptural principles?
Answer: The 501c3 form is usually considered in the process of incorporation (they are actually two different events, as I understand them). If my memory serves me, the 501c3 form was introduced in 1954 and was an effort on the part of government to be able to "know about local churches." In the matter of incorporation and form 501c3 Christians need to be informed. Does such make it illegal for a church having gone through these legal processes to publicly teach against anything the government has said is legal (abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, etc.)? Again, I am no legal authority, but upon serious investigation (I do recommend that you do your own research and make your own decisions based on your research), I think you will at least find the circumstance for many conflicts, to say the least.
Question: Is a church having an assigned tax number the mark of the beast?
Answer: I do not believe Revelation chapter 13, beginning in verse 13 is necessarily pertaining to a church tax exempt number. I do not believe such to be a Revelation 13 issue; unless, obtaining such a tax number binds a church to the government over God or seriously limits what a church can and cannot teach, etc.
Question: You seem to be binding matters not bound or mentioned in scripture, such as the keeping of "minutes," "keeper of the books," "business meetings," and other such matters. How do you explain such?
Answer: The local church is to do things "decently and in order" (I Cor. 14: 40). Also, there is to be the avoidance of "confusion" (vs. 33). In order for a local church to execute the work God has assigned to it (I Tim. 3: 15), there must be some type of practice such as business meetings and minutes. The treasury necessitates one to keep it and be responsible for making a record of the spending, it would seem to be (cp. I Cor. 16: 2). Well kept business minutes can avoid much confusion and establish needed record. Also, most new local churches will not be blessed with scriptural elders. Hence, they must "make do" with the most expedient means possible.
Question: You mention starting a church apparently from scratch. Is this the only way?
Answer: At first glance, the question seems awkward. However, upon closer examination, it is a good question and one to help us to further provide detail. When I moved (please pardon the personal illustration) to my present location, the nearest "sound church" was 90 miles. I was offered a chance to fill in for a church that was not sound (their minister was "out-of-pocket"). I accepted the offer with the stipulation that there were to be no limitations on my preaching. I preached truths that they especially needed for five months and then their preacher returned. At first, the church told him they had changed and wanted to continue in the truths they had learned. He, though, was able to work through several influential families and gathered enough support that the majority wanted to return to their unscriptural practices. To make a long story short, several families pulled out and formed the nucleus of the new work. So, we have illustrated another way a local church can come into existence.
Question: Why do you believe initial minutes of how the church is to function are so important?
Answer: Such thought-out minutes should serve as a reminder of the intent of the church. They also serve as documentation of the intent, even legal documentation. For instance, in the case of church discipline, the walking disorderly member cannot come back and say this is something new. Providing the fact that the church practices discipline (2 Thes. 3: 6) is told to prospective members, as it should be, they cannot say that they did not know about this practice. There are many other possible examples.
Question: Do not such minutes as you mention constitute a creed for the new local church?
Answer: They should not, the New Testament is the creed. However, minutes provide identity, clarity, and intent of the new local church, which is very important and care should be taken that the wording of these minutes is correct. Lawsuits have been won and lost based on the wording of the minutes.
Question: How does a new church go about obtaining assistance from other local churches or various organizations?
Answer: The only example we have in the New Testament of one local church or churches financially assisting another local church or churches is in the matter of benevolence for needy saints (cp. Acts 11: 29, 30). The only means of financing the local work is the weekly contribution of the members as they give into the local treasury (cp. I Cor. 16: 1, 2). Also, if monies are taken from the mentioned sources, it is usually only a matter of time before there is outside interference and autonomy is destroyed.
Question: You mentioned "conditional fellowship" in the article. What do you mean?
Answer: A local church is only authorized to extend fellowship (membership) to those living according to the teaching of the New Testament (I John 1: 7, 3). It behooves, therefore, the local church to check out those wanting to place membership. Churches being number hungry has corrupted the doctrinal and moral purity of many local churches.
Question: There are only two of us, my wife and myself, making up the local church, how can we go about teaching others?
Answer: This is the age old challenge, how to reach others with the gospel. Family, friends, neighbors, and general acquaintances are where we generally start. I have found that it is important to make yourself generally visible. Take walks, go to functions, and meet people. We are meeting a number of people who come by and ask about what we are doing with the building we purchased. View situations from the aspect of talking to people. Having a religious tract to give people can serve as a door opener. Run an ad in the local paper announcing the fact that a church has been started (this is especially good when you are in a public building). Place announcements and invitations on local bulletin boards, etc. I believe you will find that home Bible studies can be productive and a good tool in teaching people.
One closing matter that I might inject is that when you are meeting in your house you need to be aware of liability issues. In my case, I am using my house in "my work as an evangelist." Hence, there can be special liability insurance needs that your home owners insurance may not cover. Most will probably be better situated in that they are not established with IRS and on record as a preacher, the way the world views such matters. However, you might still want to look into such and use as much precaution as you deem good.
Also, if you have more than a few cars involved bringing people to service, be aware of local zoning issues and fire safety requirements and laws. Many local municipalities do not have much interest in you meeting in your house or a public building providing there are not parking, noise, or safety issues. The public building also is legally required, as a rule, to be handicap accessible. The new church needs to be aware of all these matters and comply. As soon as financially possible, the church also needs to check into liability insurance and the "church package," as it is usually called. While expensive, Church Mutual provides about all a new church needs for both liability and property protection.
I have often remarked that one amazing thing about pristine Christianity is all you need is the word, good and honest hearts, and water, initially, to start the Lord’s church today. The local church must have people who are committed to the cause and what a cause it is!