An old friend recently asked my thoughts on the local church and it occurred to me that I’m odd. If anyone should hate the local church, it’s me. I grew up in an extreme wing of Christian Fundamentalism. My childhood pastor—my Dad—is currently in prison. My world is full of casualties of the unspeakable evils that occurred, not just in the church, but because of the church. And I can honestly say that the greatest challenge to my faith has come directly from the evils I’ve experienced in local churches.
And here I am: A church-planting pastor. And I love the local church. I really, honestly love it.
How is that possible? And why do I still believe in the local church?
For those who don’t believe in the local church
First, I have to say that for those who don’t believe in and love the local church, I get it. I don’t agree with it, but I get it. It is impossible to calculate the damage the church has done. And I feel it. I weep with people who’s hearts, lives, and even their very selves have been systematically ripped to shreds by those in the church who pursued their destruction with sadistic—almost psychopathic—determination. Even when the damage has been less severe, where else can you find people who claim to love you who are less real and more willing to stab you in the back than in many local churches?
What is “the church”?
Before we can have a meaningful discussion, we have to clarify what exactly we mean by “the church.” I understand there to be two primary meanings of church in Scripture: The visible (or local) and the invisible (or universal). The invisible church is the assembly of all the saints of all the ages which to date has never actually assembled, but will one day before the throne of God. The visible church, on the other hand is local assemblies of the members of the body of Christ.
So when a person is converted to Jesus Christ, she becomes a member of the invisible church of Jesus Christ. She is baptised by one Spirit into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13, etc.). But she is not automatically connected to a local assembly. It is another step beyond salvation to seek out and connect with a local assembly of believers.
Now I won’t take the time here to argue for the existence of the invisible church because those who are tempted to dismiss the local, visible assembly generally do so on the basis that the invisible church makes the visible church unnecessary. But I will present a brief explanation of why I feel the local assembly exists as a biblical reality.
Is “the local church” really biblical?
The local church has become something other than what it is in Scripture in many cases. Two aberrations from the biblical pattern that come to mind are, first, the diocesan model employed by the church of the middle ages which we can see by looking at, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican Church today. The notion behind these churches is that there is a single “Church” that is run from the top and is divided into regions and parishes with each parish being “serviced” by a local priest/pastor. I must kindly, but firmly, insist that such a model of the church is entirely foreign to Scripture. In such institutions, The Church is something quite other than the assembly—the people—itself. The assembly comes to receive the services offered by The Church.
A second aberration from the biblical pattern is simply an over-emphasis on the visible assembly. Such an aberration is seen today in the “local church only” movement, particularly among the Independent Baptists, which rejects the existence of the invisible, universal church altogether. Both of these errors make the local church into something that Scripture does not. So what does Scripture make the local church out to be?
The local church is a local assembly that does what local assemblies are supposed to do. Nothing more; nothing less. So this definition has two elements: The assembly. And the things an assembly is supposed to do. Let’s look at these briefly. “Assembly” is the literal translation of the New Testament word for church. It simply means the believers, gathered. So does this mean that any time believers get together (for a picnic, for instance), that they are a local assembly? No. And this brings us to the second part of the definition. The New Testament lists a number of things that local assemblies do or are. We’ve got to look at these things in order to know when some believers gathered is a local assembly in the sense that Scripture means. So what are some of these things?
First, a church must be open to any believer. Paul makes it very clear that no one who is a believer is to be excluded. Indeed, the diversity of the church is to be one of it’s hallmarks. Jews and Gentiles. Slaves and freemen. Men and women. Old and young. Rich and poor.
Second, a biblical church must be organised. Granted, the level of organisation will vary based on the size and circumstances, but the point remains. Biblical churches are self-governing. They make decisions, appoint leaders, and minister in organised, systematic ways.
Third, a biblical church has authority that no individual outside Jesus Christ has. The church is authorised to baptise, to serve the Lord’s table, to judge disputes, to discipline members, and to generally act as a body. Who among us would dare to unilaterally decide that someone is to be treated as a non-believer and yet the gospel of Matthew (18:17) says “If he refuses to listen to them [a small group of individuals in assembly], tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Fourth, a biblical church engages in the things the New Testament describes including fellowship, teaching, the ordinances, prayer, etc. (e.g. Acts 2:42).
Does Scripture recognise local churches?
One objection to the existence of a visible, local church is the idea that perhaps when Paul referred to “the Church at Corinth,” for instance, he simply meant all the members of the invisible, universal church who happened to live at Corinth, but didn’t necessarily all worship in one local assembly as we know it today.
The simplest biblical counter to this view that comes to mind is the use of the plural of church over thirty times in the New Testament. For instance, Luke says “So the churches were strengthened in the faith” (Acts 16:5, emphasis added). Or John says “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:13, emphasis added). Or Paul says “there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28, emphasis added). I cannot think of any explanation for the use of the plural of church unless there is some concept of individual, local churches. Otherwise you would simply use the singular in each of the above cases.
Another important point to note in Scripture is the word church (ekklesia) itself. The word does not mean merely an assembly, as in a bunch of people. Rather, it actually means an assembly assembled. Of course where that assembly is more formal, there is some element of the word that leaves with the individual. For instance, John is an MP, a member of parliament. Yes, he is still part of the parliament when he leaves the parliament for the sitting break, but his identity as part of the parliament is directly tied to the assembling of the parliament. A parliament that indefinitely ceases to assemble, by definition ceases to be a parliament. So with the church.
I know this isn’t a conclusive set of arguments per se, but it is some of the stuff I’ve been thinking through and wrestling with recently. God willing I will add some additional thoughts in another post soon.
I invite your insights and counterpoints in the comments below. I pray that God will bring healing to those harmed by the church and that God will raise up many more churches that are God-besotted havens of grace and growth.
Grace to you.