A Theology of Church Planting
Right living must always be based in right believing. Or, to say this in another way, orthopraxy must be based in orthodoxy. A correct church planting method must be rooted in sound theology. It will discipline our practice, teach us how to proceed, provide us with a framework for believing prayer, and assist us when we face blessing or trouble.
We should begin with a definition of church planting. Here’s one: ‘Church planting is about bringing to birth, by the work of God’s Spirit, worshipping congregations.’ That’s a fairly simple place to start. We want and need to see the Lord do this, and we must proceed intelligently. Let’s consider six theological principles from the book of Ephesians to guide our thinking and our practice.
1. Our practice of church planting must take into account the doctrine of God’s plan and purpose, Ephesians 3:1-13.
At the end of chapter 2, Paul emphasizes the Lordship of Christ in the church, and the role of apostles and prophets in its growth. This is followed by the words ‘for this reason’ he says that he has received a revelation about the mystery of Christ as well as the means of revealing it. Three facts are emphasized:
- It is God’s eternal purpose to save a people from the Jews and the Gentiles. This is the ordained result of the revelation of the mystery. There will be a glorious bride presented to Christ according to the covenant of salvation.
- God’s eternal purpose includes the two-fold means, the history of salvation and the application of salvation in the life of each individual. The story of the Bible is simple. After the Fall of Adam and Eve, God promised that a redeemer would come and suffer, triumphing over the Evil One. The main theme of the rest of the Old Testament is the expectation of the fulfillment of this promise, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New Testament explains and applies this doctrine, calling people to repent and believe the Gospel. That which God planned in eternity is accomplished in history through Christ, and then must be applied to individuals through preaching.
- God’s eternal purpose has progressively revealed the mystery, right up to its present culmination. Originally, this was done through families gathered into worshiping units, then through Abraham and the nation descended from him, and finally in Christ. But the goal is not simply evangelism—bringing individuals to faith—it is church planting. In verse 10, we read that the church is central to God’s purpose!
This perspective must be at the very foundation of church planting. When we seek to do this work, we are God’s instruments in fulfilling his eternal purpose, and the churches planted are the result.
2. Our practice of church planting must take into account the priority of God’s glory. Ephesians 3:14-21.
What is the goal of God’s eternal purpose? It is to glorify himself. As Paul contemplates this doctrine of the revelation of the mystery of Christ, he worships (v. 14), and then he prays (v.16-19) that these Christians would know all that there is to know about Christ. Then, he expresses the purpose of it all: God’s glory in the church. “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever (3:20-21 ESV).” Here is doxology. God does these things, and he does them to bring glory to himself, in the church, through every generation.
This is the stated purpose of God—to bring worshippers to himself—men and women who will know him in all of his beauty and majesty, who will be able to comprehend the amazing love of God in Christ, who will be filled with all the fullness of God.
This is a fundamentally important principle with tremendous implications, so much so that everything must be governed by this fact. The central purpose of the church must be the glory of God! Church planters must bear this in mind, people must bear this in mind, it must be a topic of prayer (as in this very passage). This is our goal!
3. Our practice of church planting must take into account the reality of the Bible’s history, especially as it is centered in Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:15-23, 4:1-16.
The Bible is really a book about Christ. This is what our Lord taught his disciples on the evening of his resurrection (Luke 24:25-27; 44-45). Jesus gave them a lesson in Old Testament theology! Let’s consider this in three ways.
- The Bible is true history in all it says. When it speaks of creation, fall and redemption, it is trustworthy. The Old Testament is the book of promise and preparation; the New testament is the book of fulfillment. All of the facts recorded throughout its pages are true.
- The Bible is not just a book about past history, for it speaks to the present as well. Christ is now Lord, the new age has come in Christ. He is present with the church and he is to be proclaimed by the church. Our message must be totally Christ-centered.
- As present Lord of the church, he governs and directs it. We see this especially in 4:1-16. There, Paul speaks to the unity and diversity in the church, All share together the blessings of Christ and are to pursue Christ-likeness, but some serve in special capacities (Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers). This is his will for us.
The importance of this principle may be noted in two ways: 1. The only saving message is ‘we preach Christ and him crucified.’ We proclaim the truth of the Word of God, for in it is life. 2. We preach and follow Christ who is ascended. He is now Lord, and is present and active with the Church.
4. Our practice of church planting must take into account the reality of the sovereignty of God’s grace. Ephesians 2:1-18.
We may consider this in three ways.
- God is consistently portrayed to us in the Bible as one who seeks after people—we might consult many passages to demonstrate this point. Ephesians 3:7-9, “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, 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” expresses this well. This is the point of being a herald, a preacher, or an ambassador. We represent another, so that our task is to represent God, bringing his good news to the lost.
- God blesses the declaration about himself by imparting new life to sinners (2:1-18). Though these sinners were dead (2:1-3), God makes them alive (2:4-5), and he does this through preaching (v.17). What a great blessing this is to preachers! We are not doing the work of conversion, but God is. What a tremendous encouragement!
- For his own purposes, God may choose to keep people in darkness. In 2:1-3, Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians that they were brought to life by God, but there were many others around them who were left in their own sins. Sometimes, for his own reasons, the Lord leaves people in their sins. We see this in passages such as Isaiah 6:9-13, John 12:37-41, Acts 16:6-7, 17:32-34 and 28:25-28. This ought to be a real comfort to us. If a church is not planted, it does not mean that we are failures, but may simply be that it is not the Lord’s purpose to establish a congregation of his people there.
5. Our practice of church planting must take into account the reality of the immediate purpose of God, which is to make people Christ-like. Ephesians 4:17-6:20.
This is a lengthy section, but it may be summarized simply. Ministers are given by Christ to teach his people to be holy, to mortify sin and to walk in humble faith. The principle is found in 4:17-24 (believers ought not to live as they did in the past) and fleshed out in 4:25-6:20. The general categories of wholesome speech, godly families, honest workers and Christian warfare are explored by Paul.
God’s purpose for the church is that it be a society full of people who are like their Savior, and this must be the church planter’s goal. He must strive to see growing conformity to Christ in every area of life. We must train Christians to be Christians: good husbands and wives and parents, good citizens, good workers, all by faith resisting the devil.
Church planters must make this a priority—bringing converts to a growing maturity.
6. Our practice of church planting must take into account the reality of the ultimate goal of God’s purpose, which is to glorify himself in his son. Ephesians 1:1-14.
The long sentence recoded in Ephesians 1:3-14 is famous. Despite all of the words and ideas used, its message is simple: “Blessed be God.” All of the great truths recorded there turn back to one act, which is the worship of God. Above all things, God is to be worshipped for who he is, Father Son and Holy Spirit, and for what he has done, namely redeemed his people in Jesus Christ.
Church planting is about bringing to birth, by the work of God’s Spirit, worshiping congregations. It’s not about activism, or personal success, or empire building. It’s about God. These six principles ought to mold our practice. May the Lord teach them to us, and work mightily for his own glory.
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