The Church Local
The studious reader of the Bible will admit there is only one Church of Christ manifested through a perusal of the New Testament. He also will acknowledge that this Church is presented in Scripture under two aspects, the universal and the local. The universal aspect of the Church is the mighty assembly of all who, in this dispensation, are born of God (1 Cor. 10:32; Gal. 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:9; Matt. 16:13-20). The local aspect is the assembly of God’s people in a geographic place (2 Cor. 8:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; Matt. 18:15-18). A study of the teaching of the Holy Spirit relative to these two aspects reveals that, while there are certain characteristics which are common to both, there are others which belong exclusively to the local church. This distinction becomes more obvious as we examine particularities in the statements of Christ and His apostles. Let us consider some of these:
THE SCRIPTURAL CHARACTER: The character of a local church is seen first, in the meaning, “called out,” of the Greek word, “ekklesia.” The church is composed of persons who have been called from the wickedness and doom of the world. In second place, its character is seen in the use of the two appelations, “Church of God,” and “Church of Christ.” As previously pointed out, these titles are used of both the universal and the local churches, emphasizing that there is a similarity between them; that the local is a facsimile of the universal, a miniature of the mighty whole. In its character a local church should be an expression of the holiness and oneness of the Church.
THE SIMPLE FORM: The simplicity expected in an assembly of saints is revealed throughout the New Testament. It is simple in its membership, a membership composed only of saints (1 Cor. 1:2). “For where two or three are gathered together in My name there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20). Large crowds are not necessary to ensure the presence and blessing of the Lord. It is simple in its place of meeting. Paul intimates that, in the early days of Christianity, the assemblies gathered neither in conservative halls nor in ornate chapels, but, rather, in Christian homes, “The church in thy house” (Philm. 2). “The church which is in His house” (Col. 4:15). It is simple also in its operation. At Philippi there were saints, bishops, and deacons (Phil. 1:1). The saints made up the major part of the church; the bishops, or elders, attended to the spiritual life of all; the deacons, or ministers, cared for temporal affairs. The question might be raised how sincere and holy persons are gathered and sustained in so simple a form. The answer to any such question is found in
THE SECRET DIRECTOR. It is well to notice the use of the passive voice in Matt. 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered (not, where two or three gather) together in My name.” The gatherer is not named, but this silence accords with the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is He Who prompts their hearts, and leads the saints to meet in the Saviour’s name. Men may gather others around themselves, around policies, or creeds, to build up denominations, divisions, and parties, but the Holy Spirit, sometimes directly or indirectly, gathers the saints only in the name of the Lord.
THE SIGNIFICANT CENTRE: Said the Lord Jesus, “Where two or three are gathered together in (unto or into) My name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt. 18:20). The phrase, “In My name,” suggests several things: First, the absence of the Lord Jesus. This statement was made by Christ in anticipation of His triumph at Calvary, His ascension to glory, and the formation of His Church at Pentecost. It implies that we are to meet in the name of our absent Lord. Second, it suggests the authority by which we are to meet. Since the Lord Jesus was leaving His own in a hostile world, He authorized them to use His name in conducting their gatherings. In third place, it suggests our identification with Christ in fellowship, for His name stands for His person and character. The Lord Jesus has returned to heaven, but by His authority we may identify ourselves with Him in separation from the degenerate world.
THE SACRED PRESENCE: “There am I in the midst of them,” said the Lord Jesus. As noted, our beloved Lord Jesus is bodily absent from His own. “After the Lord had spoken unto them, He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19). Nevertheless, He has promised to be present with His people. This promise He made twice in the Gospel according to Matthew, once to individuals, and once to a collective body of saints. In chapter 28 He gave the apostles the great commission as evangelists, pastors, and teachers, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Then He promised, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:18-20). In chapter 18:20, the Church in its simplest form is the present accomplishment of the great commission, and again He promises, “There am I in the midst of them.” Blessed, indeed, the Christians who, in their assemblies, enjoy the consciousness of His presence with its accompanying lordship and authority, for this results in
THE SPIRITUAL UNITY. The prerogative of the Holy Spirit is to gather together in His name. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment… as the dew of Hermon (Psa. 133). This harmony of souls is as fragrant before God as the holy anointing oil, and as fertile as the slopes of Hermon in the world.
The church of God at Corinth is a contrast to this. Chloe, the visiting sister, saw there the evidence of carnality (1 Cor. 1:12-13). To the precious words of the Master, “Gathered together in My name,” let us add the words of the apostle to the Church, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you” (1 Cor. 1:10). We must consider another feature of the church local,
THE STATELY INDEPENDENCE. The word of the Lord, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name” (Matt. 18:20), suggests the possibility of there being numerous churches in as many places, and each a complete unit meeting in His name, and claiming His Divine Presence. In spite of differences in size, each church, in its constitution, is strictly independent of all others.
The apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, assumes the independence of each church when he states, “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth… with all (churches) that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2).
We have become so accustomed to the prophetic interpretation of the letters to the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 2-3), that in great measure we have lost the picture of first century assembly constitution, life, and testimony. These seven churches actually existed in apostolic and post-apostolic times. Each is represented by a complete lampstand, not a branch on a lampstand wholly responsible to the Risen Christ Who is in the midst of all. It is impossible to form groups of these churches, or to classify them under some distinctive appelation. Each in constitution, responsibility, condition, and degeneracy, is independent of all others. Nevertheless, we must maintain a balance of truth and examine carefully
THE SALUTARY INTERDEPENDENCE: While each assembly constitutionally is complete and responsible wholly to the Lord, it is the divine intention that among all there be an intimate fellowship, a pleasant interdependence. This association is well attested by the New Testament. Let us note a few convincing facts. First, the same divine instruction is sent to all irrespective of place or time, “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). An example of this interchange of instruction is given at the close of the Colossian epistle, “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (4:16). Second, this interdependence among assemblies is noticeable in the helpful influence they exert the one upon the other. The apostle Paul commends the church of the Thessalonians saying, “For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 2:14). Third, God’s blessing is the same upon all His assemblies, for we read, “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33). Fourth, the churches are to salute, therefore, acknowledge each other. Writing to the saints at Rome, Paul says, “The churches of Christ salute you” (Rom. 16:16). Finally, the churches of Christ are to receive the one from the other, “Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). From the closing chapter of the Roman epistle, it is clear that there were at least three different groups of believers gathering in Rome (Vv. 5, 14, 15). Possibly relationships had become strained; consequently, they were exhorted to receive one another.
In Scripture there is no support for a federation of churches, nor a confederation of assemblies; nevertheless, it is the purpose of the Lord that, although each assembly is individually responsible to Him, and exists independently, no church is to stand in isolation from other churches of God in the world. Each independent church is possessed of
THE SOLE AUTHORITY. It has been stated that the epistle to the Ephesians is the epistle of the universal Church, and the epistles to the Corinthians are they of the local church. In the light of this, it is well to remember that the epistles to the Corinthians are they of the lordship of Christ. The title “Lord” is found many times in both letters. It is important every one understand that the authority of the Church is purely delegated, and is given by the Risen Lord, not that one church may act in an arbitrary manner over other churches, but that each properly administer her own matters. This authority in the church local is seen: First, in ministry, corrective or instructive, “Now I beseech you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (His authority) - (1 Cor. 1:10). In second place, in administration, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, when ye be gathered together… to deliver such an one unto Satan” (1 Cor. 5:5). The work and authority of the under shepherd is received from the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:1-4), the service of overseeing brethren from the One to whom they must give account of their stewardship (Heb. 13:17).
The authority of the Risen Head is invested in the churches, and when His authority, and not the capricious rule of men, is exercised, heaven ratifies the action of the assemblies on earth (Matt. 18:14-20).
Finally, let us examine
THE SUBSTANTIAL TESTIMONY. The testimony of the churches of God reaches in two directions: The first, toward the world, their gospel testimony. Writing to the Thessalonians Paul declares, “For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad” (1 Thess. 1:8). The ordinances are a testimony to the world. It is when the churches keep the appointments of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:2) that the unlearned are convinced and worshipping will report that God is truly in the midst of His people (1 Cor. 14:25). While baptism is connected with conversion, and the Lord’s supper with church fellowship; both, nevertheless, witness to the world. Of the latter we read, “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew (proclaim) the Lord’s death till He come” (1 Cor. 11:26).
The second direction in which the churches witness is toward the angels. In Paul’s exposition of Divine Headship he says, “For this cause ought the woman to have power (a sign of authority) on her head because of the angels” (1 Cor. 10:10). Angelic principalities learn by the Church the manifold wisdom of God.
What an honour to belong to a local assembly of God! May grace be given to be loyal in all the responsibilities which we share. It has been said, “He helps best the Church militant who best helps his church local.