Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,
This post is part of a series on church membership. If you missed the introduction, you can find it here.
It could go without saying that by and large, professing Christians have become very casual about the local church. A common view is that membership in the worldwide body of Christ is the thing that really matters, and the local church is simply the gathering of nearby Christians who happen to share a doctrinal persuasion. Because that view only represents a sliver of the New Testament’s teaching on the subject, people come or go, attend or stay home, invest or fritter, with no awareness of how one or the other relates to faithfulness.
I want to argue that the inspired authors of the New Testament actually put forward the local church as a real, distinct entity, one which serves critical functions, and that this has monumental implications for our life together.
Most Christians understand and affirm the existence of the Big-C-Church. This is the universal church, the people of God, past, present, and future. Ephesians 4:4 says, “There is one body”. This is the Church. Simple enough. The author of Hebrews speaks of “so great a cloud of witnesses”(Hebrews 12:1), which includes the great men and women of faith from the preceding chapter – Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Moses, and Rahab, to name a few. One day all those of faith will sit down with them at a great wedding feast. What a Church! What a glorious prospect!
The little-c-church may be a bit foggier in our minds. What exactly are these local assemblies of professed believers, these local churches where we have most of our eyeball-to-eyeball interaction with brothers and sisters in Christ? The New Testament sets forth a clear testimony of the local church as a distinct entity.
View of the inspired New Testament authors
– 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul writes “To the church of God which is at Corinth”. Can we agree that this is not the Big-C-Church? However the parameters are defined, it is clear enough that this is a church with borders. This isn’t an open letter to Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab et al. It is a rather personal letter to a distinct group of people. Later in the same chapter, verse 11, Paul bemoans the contentions that have been declared to him, and then in verse 13 he asks, “Is Christ divided?” He means, “Is the Big-C-Church divided?” This is a rhetorical question and the obvious answer is “No!” At first glance it may seem like this argues against the local church as a distinct entity, but actually the opposite is true. It gives us a picture of the local church that mirrors the character of God. Is God one? Yes. Deuteronomy 6:4, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one!”. Is God many? He is Three. Genesis 1:26, Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image”; Matthew 3:16,17, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him [Jesus], and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Here in 1 Corinthians 1 we see the Church and the church, side by side, the one and the many. This is not division, this is the design of God, founded on the nature of God. Are we surprised to discover ways in which the people of God reflect the nature of God?
– Acts 20:17 recounts Paul sending to Ephesus “for the elders of the church.” Again, this is clearly the church, not the Church. Paul is not sending for men who have an accountability for the souls of every Christian, as elders have for the souls in a specific local church. He is summoning real men with real responsibilities as the God-appointed leaders of a local church.
– Revelation 1-3, the letters to the churches. In 1:12-16, our resurrected Lord, in the most glorious form, is walking among seven lampstands. Then in verse 20 Jesus says to John, “the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.” As the succeeding chapters unfold, we see with great clarity that these churches are indeed distinct entities, each with a personality, things to be praised, things requiring rebuke, commands to be obeyed. A nebulous concept of the local church is a thousand miles away from the letters to the churches.
I hope that these texts satisfy us on a critical point: the universal church and the local church, the Church and the church, are both thoroughly Biblical categories. The inspired writers of the New Testament speak of both, fluidly and without a hint of contradiction. So far from being a single category, or two categories which stand in opposition, the universal church and the local church actually represent a compelling vision of how God intends to relate to His people, care for them, and equip them for the work of the ministry. Like all things of His design, they fit hand-in-glove.
If we miss this, we undervalue an entity given to us by God according to the kind intention of His will, miss the blessing, and dishonor Jesus Christ.
In a few days I will engage Argument 2 in the series: The Local Church Is a Flock.