“Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20) is a very precious text of Scripture. In his edition of the Bible, Dr. C. I. Scofield has inserted over it, “The Simplest Form of a Local Church.” Many have come to accept this as the only form of a local church, and look upon this Scripture as a charter for a local congregation. This concept has become so prevalent in some places that its language is unintentionally used with a sectarian connotation.
There is no question about the Lord recognizing and blessing the smallest company of His own. In Matthew 18:20 He gives assurance of His presence to the smallest plural number who meet in His name, but to use this text as a definition of a local church is to ignore the whole tenor of New Testament doctrine on the subject of the Church.
The local church is a congregation of Christians that calls upon the name of the Lord, both their Lord and the Lord of every other similar group (I Cor. 1:2). It is a congregation ruled by an administration through overseers (Acts 20:28), and is sustained by the ministry of the spiritual gifts with which it has been endowed (I Cor. 1:7).
A definition of a local church that is based upon the principles of the New Testament might read like this: A local church is the gathering together in the Lord’s name of a number of Christian persons who are submissive to Christ as Lord, and who are ruled over by elders and deacons, and sustained in life and testimony by a spiritual ministry.
The constitution of a local church is not as simple as some claim who glibly quote Matthew 18:20.
It has been asserted that one may be in the Church of Christ without being in the Church of God. This assertion supposes that the appellation Church of Christ refers only to the universal aspect of the Church, and that the appellation Church of God refers only to the local aspect. This assertion we must investigate.
The Church of Christ: The Lord in Matthew 16:13-18, claimed the Church (the Universal Church) as His own. Peter had acclaimed Him, “The Christ, the Son of the Living God.” In reply, Christ predicted, “Upon this rock, I will build My Church.” Consequently, we must understand the Church Universal to be the Church of Christ.
In Romans 16:16, Paul writes, “The churches of Christ salute you.” In the vicinity of Corinth, the city from which he was writing, there were a number of congregations. From these he sent greetings to the saints at Rome, and in so doing implied that each local church was a church of Christ.
The Church of God: A further survey of Scripture shows that what is true of the appellation Church of Christ is also true of the appellation Church of God. It is used of the universal aspect in such passages as I Corinthians 10:32. I Corinthians 15:9. Galatians 1:13. See Acts 26:10-11. It is likewise used of the local aspect of the Church in passages such as I Corinthians 1:2. I Corinthians 11:16. II Corinthians 1:1.
Obviously, these two appellations are used interchangeably in the Word of God. The universal aspect of the Church is called the Church of Christ as well as the Church of God, and so is the local aspect. From this a dual deduction may be accepted.
First, there is only one Church in the New Testament, and it is presented under two aspects.
Second, that the one, the local, being much smaller than the other, organically is a miniature. Therefore, the local church in the mind of the Lord is a facsimile of the Universal.
All who are in the Universal Church are united to Christ her Risen Head; all who are in the local church should likewise be united to Christ.
If these appellations may be used interchangeably, do they have special significance? In the New Testament there are three names given to the local congregations: the churches of God (I Cor. 1:2; 11:16), the churches of Christ (Rom. 16:16), and the churches of the saints (I Cor. 14:33). There is an evident difference between the first two and the last one, the churches of the saints. This last one suggests the membership of the local churches; they are composed of saints. A difference between the other two might also be expected. The name Church of Christ intimates the architect and founder; the name Church of God, that in character she is to be just what He is, holy (I Pet. 1:16-17). We might therefore conclude that these three intimate: first, membership: the churches of the saints; second, structure: the churches of Christ; third, character: the churches of God.
When studying the universal aspect of the Church, we noticed a number of figures of speech: a flock, a house, a temple, etc. Several of these are likewise applied to the local church, and usually they are said to be of God: the flock of God (I Pet. 5:2), the house of God (I Tim. 3:15), the temple of God (I Cor. 3:16), and, of course, the church of God (I Cor. 1:2).
It is God Himself who gives strength and character to His people. A realization of this will make them more dependent upon Him. It is well to remember that the character of any congregation of saints is only the aggregation of the characters of those who are members of that congregation.
The structure of a local church involves the founda- tion and superstructure, and how the material is built into the superstructure.
The foundation: Speaking of the local church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul said, “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 3:11). The doctrine of Christ, His person and work, is the foundation of the Church in both aspects (Matt. 16:13-18; Eph. 2:20).
The material: Several names in the Epistles are given to the material of which churches are made: saints (I Cor. 1:2. Eph. 1:1. Phil. 1:1; etc.), brethren (Col. 1:2), the beloved of God (Rom. 1:7), the faithful in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:1). From the introductory verses of the Church Epistles, it is evident that God intended that only genuine believers be built into the churches. To be a church member in apostolic days presupposed that one was a real Christian, and so it should ever be.
Building in the material: This is a point quite controversial; we must, therefore, seek to ascertain the literal meaning of Scripture.
Both schools of thought in this regard have some merit, but they are opposites. Each before God must make a choice between them.
The first school of thought contends that since a true believer is a member of the Church Universal, he is, consequently, a member of the church in his locality, and that, whether or not he attends the services of that church.
The second school of thought contends that while all Christians in a locality should be in the church, they are not until they have been duly received by the church.
In other words, they must not only be called out, as the Greek word ecclesia implies, but they must be gathered together.
A survey of the use of the word ecclesia in the Book of Acts helps in this matter. The Jewish use (Acts 7:38) pictures Israel not only in the wilderness called out of Egypt but gathered together around the tabernacle in which the divine Presence dwelt. The pagan use (Acts 19:39) implies the same. Although, as the archaeologists tell us, there were 25 thousand persons in the theatre, only those in that theatre formed the unlawful assembly (church). It would seem proper that before one can be a member of a local congregation, it is required that he be called out by a divine summons and then gathered together in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Church reception: Reception into the Church Universal is on the ground of the atoning work of Christ and acceptance in Him through the Father. Acceptance into the local church is through the responsibility of the church under the guidance of its elders. The Word of God presents certain guides relevant to this: for original reception, Romans 14:1; for occasional reception, Romans 16:1-2; for interassembly reception, Romans 15:7.
The quality of the material: Good material is of paramount importance. All who are received into the fellowship of a local church should be morally clean (I Cor. 5) and doctrinally sound (I Tim. 1:19-20).
The maintenance of a local church depends upon two divine provisions, elders and spiritual gifts. Occasion- ally these are considered to be but one. The distinction is clear when it is noticed that elders are appointed by the Spirit of God over their own congregations only (Acts 20:28); whereas, spiritual gifts are given to the whole Body of Christ (Eph. 4:10-13). The service of the elder is primarily that of administration in church affairs; the service of the spiritual gifts: evangelist, pastor and teacher, is “for the perfecting (equipping) of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the Body of Christ.”
The fact that both Peter and John, men endowed with superior spiritual gift, that of apostle, speak of themselves as elders (I Pet. 5:1. II John 1. Ill John 1) indicates that men of spiritual gifts may be considered elders among God’s people wherever they go, elders exercising their gift as pastors. This has also been deduced from I Timothy 5:17, where the elders who rule well are they who have been appointed by the Lord for the administration of matters pertaining to their own local churches, and those who minister in the Word and doctrine are spiritual gifts like Peter and John who serve to edify the members of the Body of Christ.
There is another way in which we may understand Peter’s and John’s use of the word elder; that is, literally; both were elderly when they wrote their respective Epistles.
The outreach of the local church moves in two directions, churchward and worldward.
Churchward: The churches to which epistles were sent all were addressed as separate congregations, as units of testimony in their respective localities: “The church of God at Corinth” (I Cor. 1:2. II Cor. 1:1), “The churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2), “the church of the Thessalonians” (I Thess. 1:1. II Thess. 1:1). Each church was independent of the others.
This is further emphasized in the history of the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 2-3). Each of the seven was an individual lampstand, and each was individually appraised by the Lord. Local churches are envisaged throughout the New Testament as independent congregations wholly dependent upon the Lord and responsible to Him as Head and Lord.
Notwithstanding, there are statements throughout Paul’s epistles which suggest a gracious interdependence among apostolic churches: “The churches of Christ salute you” (Rom. 16:16), “To them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (I Cor. 1:2), “As the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk, and so ordain I in all churches” (I Cor. 7:17), “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (I Cor. 14:33), “Let your women keep silence in the churches” (I Cor. 14:34). While each church independently must bear its own responsibility before the Lord, each may enjoy an interdependent fellowship with other churches.
In her projection churchward, a local church should maintain its independence and yet foster an interdependent fellowship with other assemblies in sending greetings (Rom. 16:16), in receiving visitors (Rom. 15:7; 16:1-2), in prayers (II Thess. 3:1), in helping the poor (Gal. 2:10. II Cor. 9:1-2), in financially supporting the evangelization of other areas (Phil. 4:15-16).
Worldward: The outreach of a local church world-ward might be considered as Christian witnessing under three aspects: a stable witness, a public witness, and a vicarious witness.
A stable witness (I Tim. 3:15-16): What is true of the Church Universal should likewise be true of the church local. In this reference the Church is envisaged as a monument made of a base and shaft. Upon these is inscribed the eventful life of the Lord Jesus. The doctrine of Christ is shown upon the monument. This idea indicates what the constant testimony of a church should be in any locality.
A public witness (I Thess. 1:8): Paul’s commendation of the Thessalonians illustrates the public testimony of a local church. As they divulged the gospel publicly, even so should all individual congregations.
A vicarious witness (Acts 13:1-5): The church at Antioch, directed by the Holy Spirit, identified itself with some who had been called to witness for Christ in the regions beyond.
The projection of a local church toward the world should be seen in every phase of active witnessing. The sum-total of all that a church is and does should be a monument to Christ in the community. Such a local church should be committed to the public preaching of the Word, and to the commendation of workers to any part of the great harvest field.
Tests on This Chapter
1. Give in your own words a definition of a local church.
2. What, constitutionally, is a local church?
3. Under how many aspects is the Church presented in the New Testament?
4. Does the title Church of Christ imply the universal aspect of the Church, and the title Church of God the local aspect?
5. Why did you answer the fourth question as you did?
6. What must a candidate be in order to become part of a local church?
7. What disqualifies a candidate for church reception?
8. By what divine means is a local church maintained?
9. To what or whom is a local church responsible?
10. What is the projection of the churches worldward?