Why Plant Churches? Four theological reasons...
Vision in the local church is what the Bible tells us God wants for us, in us, and through us to the praise of his glory in Jesus Christ. Based on the observations below, it is our conviction that an important part of the Bible’s vision for local churches is for them to plant more local churches, where new disciples can manifest God’s kingdom on earth and submit to one another in love and truth. Yes, we should desire to see people added to established churches (Acts 2:41; 4:4). Yes, we should also aim to mature as an already established church (Eph 4:1-16). Nevertheless, Christ’s vision for the ongoing establishment of more healthy churches worldwide should not be forgotten.
Why, then, should planting local churches remain part of our vision and mission as a church until Jesus returns? At least four reasons…
1. The Great Commission envisions the establishment of local churches.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18-20 ring very familiar to many of us: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
When people teach on this passage, they rightly focus on our responsibility to introduce as many individuals as we can to Jesus and to the forgiveness of sins available through a relationship with Jesus.[i] Yet many times the stress on individual conversion overlooks that making disciples includes more.
Converts must identify publicly with Jesus and his church through baptism.
Making disciples also includes helping these converts identify themselves publicly with Jesus and his church. Notice that Jesus includes “baptizing them” (Matt 28:19). Baptism is an ordinance Jesus gave to the church. Baptism is no mere ritual, but the visual expression that one is now dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:1-4). Baptism is our pledge to submit to Jesus’ lordship alone.
Yet baptism also identifies the believer with Christ’s church, his visible kingdom on earth. According to Acts 2:41, to be baptized is simultaneously to be “added” to the church, to join the Messiah’s new community. Also, as the apostles write letters to local churches, they work from the assumption that the members of these churches have all been baptized.[ii] Their baptisms become a convenient teaching point, since nobody was in the church who hadn’t gone through baptism already. The fact that Jesus mentions baptism suggests that he envisions the local church in the Great Commission.
Converts must obey and be held accountable to Jesus’ commandments.
What is more, Jesus also commissions disciples to teach every convert his commandments. Furthermore, they must also hold each other accountable to “observe” Jesus’ commandments (Matt 28:19). Matthew 18:15-20 is instructive. Jesus already had the local church in mind before issuing the Great Commission (also Matt 16:18-19).
Local churches must practice corrective discipline when unrepentance characterizes an erring member (Matt 18:15-16). If a professing Christian is not following Jesus’ commands and refuses to repent again and again, the matter is to be taken before “the church” (Matt 18:17). The church even has the authority under Christ to excommunicate the person if they refuse to submit to Jesus: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18). In other words, Jesus’ heavenly authority becomes visible on earth through assemblies submitting to his commands and disciplining those who don’t.[iii]
Thus, baptism and teaching are part of making disciples, because the church is part of God’s plan in training and keeping disciples walking in step with their new identity in Christ. In the words of Ralph Winter, the goal of the Great Commission is not merely the conversion of individuals, but to see “obedient disciple-making fellowships of believers within every people” group of the inhabited earth.[iv]
2. The apostles establish local churches where the gospel is received.
When we fast-forward to the Spirit-empowered mission of the disciples, we witness churches being planted. At Pentecost we see people believing the gospel and identified with the local church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41-47). Later, in Acts 11:19-25, Christ establishes a church in Antioch through the preaching of those who were scattered because of the persecution over Stephen. In Acts 13:1-4, the church in Antioch then sends off Paul and Barnabas to do the Lord’s work. That work included preaching the gospel and establishing the disciples in local congregations with elders (Acts 14:1-5, 21-23).[v]
Paul follows the same pattern on his second missionary journey, where he plants a church in the city of Corinth (Acts 18:4-5, 8).[vi] A coworker named Epaphras does likewise in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis (Col 1:7; 4:12-13). The pattern continues throughout Asia and Macedonia until Paul has no more room to work. While the churches he planted continue to make disciples, he must carry the gospel to Spain where there was no access to the gospel and no churches (Rom 15:19-23).
3. Life under the new covenant necessitates church planting.
When Jesus died and rose again, he inaugurated a new covenant in which everybody who trusts in Jesus would receive the forgiveness of their sins, be given a new heart, and have the Spirit indwell them.[vii] The Spirit would then empower them to live according to the new covenant Jesus set in place through his blood.[viii] That new covenant, though, has numerous commands:
- “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12);
- “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10);
- “live in harmony with one another” (Rom 12:16);
- “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom 15:7);
- “aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace” (2 Cor 13:11);
- “through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13);
- “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2);
- “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32);
- “exhort one another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13);
- “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25).
How many of these commands can someone obey as a solitary Christian? How can one live under the new covenant in isolation from the people of the new covenant? How does somebody observe all that Jesus commanded (see above), without the local church? The answers to these questions are clear enough. The corporate nature of life under the new covenant precludes believers from neglecting devotion to the gathered church.
Even the Spirit gives a variety of gifts to each of Jesus’ followers. The Spirit does this, however, not for believers to enjoy their gifts in isolation, but for believers to serve the well-being of the local church with whom they assemble.[ix] Thus, whenever we preach the gospel, we shouldn’t overlook incorporating the ones who believe into a community where new-covenant life might be enjoyed.
4. God displays the glory of his wisdom through local churches.
Ephesians 3:8-11 says, “To me…this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
God displays his manifold wisdom through the church. The church is God’s object lesson, his tangible reminder to the universe, that through Christ’s death and resurrection God disarmed the rulers and authorities, he broke the power of sin, and he’s bringing all things in subjection to Christ.[x] Disciples gathering in healthy local churches magnify God’s glory. Therefore, church planting is part of our vision as a church, and something we should grow to embrace more for the glory of God.
For these four reasons, planting local churches should be part of our vision and mission as a church. Church planting is bound up with the Great Commission, the early church gives us a paradigm to follow, life under the new covenant demands we not leave converts by themselves but gather them together as one, and the glory of God’s wisdom goes on display when the saints assemble and submit to Jesus’ lordship together.
[i]Cf. also Matt 24:14; Luke 24:47; Rom 1:16; 10:14-15.
[ii]E.g., see Rom 6:1-4; Gal 3:26-27; Col 2:11-12; 1 Pet 3:21.
[iii]Cf. also Matt 16:18-19; 28:18; John 20:21-23.
[iv]Ralph D. Winter and Bruce A. Koch, “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge” IJFM 19.4 (2002), 16. Accessible online at http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/19_4_PDFs/winter_koch_task.pdf.
[v]Acts 13:13-47; 14:1-5, 7, 21-23.
[vi]Cf. 1 Cor 3:6 (“I planted [the gospel]”) and 1 Cor 3:10 (“like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation [for the church]”).
[vii]Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 36:26-27; Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20.
[viii]Joel 2:28-29; Luke 24:49; Acts 2:14-21.
[ix]See Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:7; Eph 4:16; 1 Pet 4:9-11.
[x]Eph 1:9-10, 20-21; 3:10-11; Col 3:15; Heb 2:14; cf. 1 Cor 15:24.