The New Testament makes it clear that for one to be considered a Christian, that person must be recognized by a biblical church because there is no salvation outside of the Body (John 15:1-11; Colossians 1:24; 1 John 2:18-20) and because it is the church who holds the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:18-20; 18:18-20). In addition, notable theologians, particularly Cyprian and Calvin all recognized that a person cannot consider God to be his Father unless the church, a true church, is also his mother. Thus, the critical role played by the church in salvation impresses upon every believer the imperative to carefully examine the validity of the church where we are currently attending or when choosing a church to join. Clearly, the New Testament sees the believer’s life as one that is completely dependent on the visible church.
However, these are impossible tasks without first determining the biblical standards that define a church. The vast portion of the New Testament is focused on revealing the details of how the church should operate and how the believer is to function within the church. But we need look no further than the account of the planting of the church at Antioch in order to see the initial requirements for a church to be a true church.
Here are the five Scriptural requirements that must be met in order for a group of believers to be considered a church according to the record of the first church plant in Acts 11:19-26:
1. A biblical church will have the sound Gospel.
Despite the conversion of the Cornelius, a Gentile, in Acts chapters 10 and 11, the idea of non-Jews coming into a right relationship with God was still revolutionary. Yet, this is what we see happening in Antioch: large numbers of Gentiles coming to Christ which caused the demographics of the church in Antioch to be very different from that of the church in Jerusalem. This made it extremely important that the gospel being preached to both Gentile and Jewish believers in Antioch was identical to the gospel preached in Jerusalem: faith in Jesus Christ alone and perseverance in faithfulness.
But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord . . . When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose. – Acts 11:20-21, 23)
The first requirement for a biblical church is that it possesses the biblical gospel, particularly both aspects of “getting in” by faith and “staying in” by faithful obedience and full compliance to all that Christ commanded.
2. A biblical church is a visible congregation of professing believers.
From the very start of Christianity, the first step for a believer who expressed faith in Christ was to be baptized into a church and every church that we find recorded in Scripture is identified geographically. This pattern begins with the church at Jerusalem (Acts 8:1; 11:22; 15:40), continues with the church in Antioch (Acts 11:26; 13:1) and is carried throughout the rest of the New Testament. While this does not necessarily mean that a biblical church must have a geographical identification in its formal name, it is however, absolutely certain that a biblical church will function in a local and visible way where members can be objectively identified.
There is no recognition in Scripture of true Christians whose membership lies only within the so-called “universal/invisible” church. In fact, there is little, if any mention of an entity corresponding to a universal/invisible church in the Bible. Even if, for the sake of argument, we were to assume that such a universal/invisible church could be proven to exist, it is clear that the Bible would consider no one to be a member of that universal church without first being a part of a local, visible church. Beyond that, none of the biblically prescribed activities of a church could be carried out on the universal/invisible level. Baptism, the observance of the Lord’s Table, fellowship, edification, discipline, teaching, training of teachers, etc. are all the responsibilities of the local, visible church.
There is no instruction in Acts 11 or anywhere else directed toward the universal church. Thus, a biblical church is always visible and local.
3. A biblical church always has at least one biblically qualified elder.
A group of believers is not a church unless it has a biblical elder. We can infer this requirement from Acts 11 because of the way the planting of the church at Antioch is recorded with respect to verbal, plenary inspiration:
. . . there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenistsalso, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. – Acts 1120-21
In the verse above, we hear of just a group of believers. The word “church” is not used until verse 26:
So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. – Acts 11:25-26
It was only after Jerusalem, an already-established church, became aware of this group and assigned Barnabas (a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith – Acts 11:25) to lead it that Scripture begins to designate this group in Antioch as “a church.” Since Barnabas had been appointed and ordained by a biblical church, he was qualified to function as the first pastor of the church at Antioch. And the group of believers at Antioch only became a church after Barnabas became its elder.
4. A biblical church is initially under the support of another biblical church.
The starting of the church at Antioch was supported by the church at Jerusalem. Jerusalem evaluated the gospel of the believers in Antioch, provided that group with a pastor and then recognized its legitimacy as a church (Acts 11:21-22).
In turn, Paul as a church-planting missionary (Is there any other kind?) was eventually sent out by Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). He became the church-at-Antioch’s missionary, thus the church at Antioch supported all of Paul’s church plants and all of the churches in Asia and elsewhere that were started by Paul began with the support of Antioch.
This then provides a pattern from which there is no deviation in the New Testament and instructs us that any church-plant which is not endorsed or supported by another biblical church is illegitimate and cannot be a true church.
5. A biblical church carries out the biblical mandates for the church.
Here in Antioch, we also find three biblical mandates for the local church. Under these mandates fall all of the other activities and functions of the local church that are explained in greater detail throughout the rest of the New Testament:
First, in Acts 11:23 we see that a church must have a commitment to faithful obedience: Barnabas “exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.” Secondly, a biblical church is committed to sharing the gospel and making disciples (Acts 11:24). Thirdly, the Antioch church was committed to teaching sound doctrine and establishing faithful teachers of that doctrine (Acts 11:25-26). These three mandates form the pattern that must be emulated by all true churches.
Any church that neglects to exhort its members to faithful obedience, does not make disciples or considers sound doctrine to be not all that important is a church whose candlestick either has been removed or is in danger of being removed (Revelation 2:5).