There is no actual, specific command in the New Testament to plant churches. We are commanded to be Jesus’s witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). We are sent out by Jesus, even as the Father sent him (John 20:21). We are told to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations (Luke 24:47). We are commissioned to make disciples of all people groups (Matthew 28:19). However, we are never told to plant churches. Why do we do it?
Church Planting is Biblically Warranted
Church planting, after all, is difficult and messy. Even in areas where churches meet openly without fear of attack, it can be hard work. In places where Christians are persecuted, it’s even harder. New believers often are afraid to meet with others from their own people group. They fear that other local people who profess to follow Jesus may actually be spies who intend to turn them in to government authorities or religious leaders.
Authoritarian societies often breed a culture of deep suspicion toward others. New believers who are immature in their faith may still be immersed in old cultural patterns of holding grudges and refusing to forgive, and when the entire church plant is made up of people like this, holding them together is not easy. We have wrestled firsthand with all of these issues. Given these realities, would it not be easier simply to share the gospel and then disciple new believers one on one?
The International Mission Board is committed to church planting. Our core tasks include evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leadership training, and we are not content until all of them have happened in a connected fashion. We are convinced that this commitment is based on solid, biblical warrant. Here are the reasons for this conviction.
Christians are Part of Churches
Jesus assumed that his followers would be part of a local church. In Matthew 18, when he taught his disciples about how to deal with a fellow believer who has sinned against another, the final step is “tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). This step would be impossible were all believers not incorporated into local assemblies that could be told about such an offense.
The assumption of local church connection is so strong that there is no hint in the text that Jesus could conceive of a churchless Christian. This is simply the first mention of an idea that pervades the New Testament: Christians are always part of churches.
The Great Commission, as recorded in Matthew, contains the command to make disciples. Biblically speaking, that requires the involvement of a church. One-on-one discipleship is a useful tool in the life of a believer, but it is not sufficient. Ephesians 4 makes it clear that we only grow to maturity in Christ as each member of the church does his or her part, and 1 Corinthians 12 makes it equally clear that every believer needs every other believer in the church. Nobody possesses all of the spiritual gifts, so no one person has what another believer needs to grow as a disciple or to function properly as a follower of Jesus. Biblical discipleship only happens in the context of a local church.
Biblical discipleship only happens in the context of a local church.
This need can be met, of course, by including a new believer in an existing church. However, among unreached people groups and in unreached places, there usually are no existing churches. For this reason, on the front lines of the advance of the gospel, the command to make disciples necessarily includes a requirement to plant churches.
The rest of the New Testament confirms this as an apostolic pattern. Wherever the gospel went, churches sprung up. This was the consistent pattern of the apostles, and it was equally the pattern of the anonymous evangelists who took the gospel to places like Antioch and Rome. In the New Testament, new believers in a new location automatically made new churches. Furthermore, the letters of the New Testament are either addressed to churches or else addressed to individuals involved in church leadership. New Testament instruction on how to live the Christian life assumes the context of a local church. It’s safe to say that the New Testament shows no concept of a churchless Christian.
Therefore, we are committed to church planting as a necessary part of biblical mission work. Evangelism and disciple making must be incorporated into a process that includes planting healthy churches and training qualified leaders for those churches. Anything less is sub-biblical.
Zane Pratt is the Vice President of Training at IMB.