The earliest church creeds affirm that the Second Person of the Trinity was generated (or begotten), not created. This doctrinal truth means that the First Person eternally grants to the Second Person his person-of-the-Son, or sonship life (John 5:26; 1 John 5:18). The Son of God is eternally generated by the Father, not created by him. Thus, the Son is true God of true God, consubstantial with the Father as regards his deity, of the same nature (homoousios) as the Father. At the heart of consubstantiality is the principle that like begets like: the fully divine Father begets the fully divine Son, and the two persons are equal in essence, glory, and power. The Father did not create the Son; if this were the case, the Son would be of a different nature (heteroousios) than the Father (e.g., while the Father is eternal, the Son would not be).
If there is any truth to the contemporary notion that the church somehow mirrors the Trinity, then the eternal generation of the Son has something to say about how a new church is to come into existence: a church is generated, not created. This affirmation means that church planters are not like architects who draw up new blueprints for their church, nor like tool and dye makers who construct a new mold for their church, which when planted and develop is unlike any other church. Church planters who take this approach to their work create the church, and they create the church in the image of current cultural trends or the latest ecclesial fad or as a protest to old models and ways of doing church. They create the church according to their own imagination, in their own image.
Against the common idea that we create the church, church planters generate the church. The planted church is true church of true church, consubstantial with the already existing church, of the same nature (homoousios) as that church. Like begets like: the planted church is like the church that planted it, being the same in nature (one body) and having one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father (Ephesians 4:4-6). A church generates another church. Church planters are like mothers: re-productive, not productive.
This proposal does not deny the necessity that every church plant must be contextualized. The refusal or failure to consider seriously the culture and ethos of the location in which the church is to be generated, and to adapt its generation accordingly, is a major mistake in church planting efforts. All churches must be contextualized in terms of their worship, discipleship, mission, community, and service.
Still, as the church plant is being embedded in its particular space, it is being generated, not created. It bears the attributes of the church, classically expressed as oneness (or unity), holiness (progress in sanctification), catholicity (or universality of mission), and apostolicity (committed to the teachings of the apostles, or Scripture). It professes “the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), including belief in the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the accomplishment of salvation by Christ’s death and resurrection, the grace-filled application of such salvation through the Word and the Spirit of God, and more. It possesses the marks of the church, historically (for Protestantism) enumerated as rightly preaching and obediently hearing the Word of God, regularly administering baptism (as the initiatory rite of the new covenant) and the Lord’s Supper (as the continuing rite of the new covenant), and (at least for some) exercising church discipline. The church exhibits the evangelical distinctives of biblicism (a commitment to the inspiration, truthfulness/inerrancy, sufficiency, necessity, clarity, authority, and power of Scripture), crucicentrism (a focus on the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross), conversionism (a devotion to call people to embrace the gospel through repentance from sin and faith in Christ), and activism (a duty to live responsibly in accordance with the gospel and to be merciful to those in need).
To oversimplify it, a church plant is a gospel-centered church generated by an already existing gospel-centered church. The gospel on which it is centered is the same gospel that was preached by Jesus Christ, the apostles, the earliest Christians, and all the faithful throughout the two millennia of church history. Because the gospel is not novel, the church that is planted by an already existing gospel-centered church is generated, not created. Church planting is re-productive, not productive.
Where do we see churches that were created, not generated?
- One example is cults or sects, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, which invented their own religion with a counterfeit gospel.
- A second type is true churches that originally generated other true churches (perhaps many generations of them) but tragically moved away from, and thus betrayed, the gospel, resulting in false churches.
- A third kind is churches, like emergent churches, that came into existence in protest to the carnality and deformity of churches around them. They were theologically orthodox but, as a result of overreaction, ended up ecclesiologically distorted (and, in the case of some, heretical).
These created-not-generated churches underscore a perennial challenge, “the problem of how far we should accommodate the Christian message [and thus the church] to the surrounding culture without losing Christian identity.” It seems as though the church has been, is, and will always be saddled with the difficulty of innovation, novelty, compromise, syncretism, protest, and the like. Though this proposal is certainly not a panacea, an easy fix for these challenges, it at least provides church planters with a framework for facing and hopefully surmounting them: A church is generated, not created. The church is like a mother giving birth to her children. Church planters generate the church. They don’t create the church. Their work is re-productive, not productive.