In Matthew 16.15-18 Jesus engaged his disciples in a discussion of his identity. But as his response to their confession that he was the Son of God, he turned the conversation to a Bible truth of fundamental importance – both then and now: “… on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (16.18)
In Part 1 we noted several metaphors from scripture that give us some sense of what this church really is. In Part 2 we noted how the church is discussed in the Bible in a universal sense – that is, all the people in the world who are or ever have been faithful disciples. In this Part 3 we will consider the other sense in which the church is described in the New Testament – the local church – that is, a congregation of individuals that meets in one location.
A local church or congregation is what Paul referred to when he wrote to the Romans that “all the churches of Christ greet you” (Romans 16.16) – several different local churches in various places. He also wrote to the Corinthians explaining that certain brothers were “messengers of the churches” (2 Corinthians 8.23). Paul also used the term “church” in this way when he wrote to the Galatians that he “was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.” (Galatians 1.22). Clearly Paul was referring to local churches of Christians in certain locations – not the entire body of all the saved people everywhere in the world.
What is the local church?
As with the universal church, we may note several important characteristics of a local congregation of Christians.
- The local church includes all those who are Christians in one location – Several salutations among Paul’s epistles make use of the term this way. He wrote to Corinth, “To the church of God that is in Corinth…” (1 Corinthians 1.2), and to Thessalonica, “To the church of the Thessalonians…” (1 Thessalonians 1.1).
- There are many local churches, not just one – Paul references multiple local churches in passages we have already noted such as Romans 16.16, and Galatians 1.2. There are as many local churches as there are locations where Christians meet to work and worship together.
- Local churches begin whenever people join themselves together to work together – As the gospel spread during the early age of the church after Pentecost (Acts 2), those in particular areas started working and worshiping together, and started local churches. Acts 11 describes the development of several local churches. Notice:
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. – Acts 11.19-26
Notice that the report of many conversions came to the “church in Jerusalem” – a local church of Christians meeting together in that city. And that later Barnabas sought out Saul and together they went to Antioch and work for a whole year “with the church” in that city. The faithful Christians in these local churches are also a part of the universal church (part of all the saved), but they determined to work together in a certain location with others as a local church.
- Entrance is by joining oneself to a local church – Unlike God’s adding of those who are saved to the universal church (Acts 2.47), an individual who is a Christian may join himself/herself to any local congregation of other Christians. Notice Saul’s actions when he came to Jerusalem:
And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. – Acts 9.26-28
Saul wanted to join a local church. He met with resistance at first, but after Barnabas vouched for him, he joined himself to the assembly of Christians in Jerusalem. God had already added him to the universal church when he was saved in Damascus – now he joined a local church of his choosing.
- Enrollment is by human judgment – While God knows who is in the universal church (because he alone puts saved people in it), the leaders of a local church decide whether to accept a person into a local congregation. This judgment must be exercised to ensure that faithful Christians are accepted into a local church. In Acts 18, when Apollos left Ephesus to go to Achaia, the brethren in Ephesus wrote letters to the local churches in Achaia vouching for Apollos’ faithfulness, so that they would accept him into their local churches. This enrollment in local churches does not affect fellowship with God – it is entirely possible that a local church may mistakenly accept a person who is not in fellowship with God, or may reject a person (based on their best judgment) who is in fellowship with God. Enrollment in the universal church – by God – is the overriding membership of importance.
- Local churches contain both saved and lost people – Since only God knows who is in fellowship with him, and thus in the universal church, and enrollment in local churches is by human judgment, local churches inevitably will have members who are saved (in a faithful relationship with God), and members who are (unknown to the group) in a lost state (not in a faithful relationship with God).
- Membership is not necessary for salvation – Those who are saved are added to the universal church by God. That is the membership of all the saved, and only the saved. Membership in a local church is not necessary to be in fellowship with God, and one can be saved without being a member of a local church. However, many of the activities and responsibilities of Christians grow out of opportunities working with other Christians at a particular location – so it seems wise, given the teaching of scripture, for all Christians to find a group to be part of at a local level.
- Local churches have an earthly functional roles – Though the church is not an institution or organization, there are elements of organization within local churches in the form of functional roles of certain individuals. Local churches have elders and deacons, who have specific roles and responsibilities within those local churches. These are outlined in Philippians 1.1, Acts 14.23, and 1 Timothy 3.
- Local churches can be divided – And in fact, this happens with some frequency. Many issues may cause a local fellowship to divide. Differences over issues arise because the church is made up of human beings who often exhibit human tendencies for power, authority, and notoriety. Or a local church may divide in order for some of the members to move to a new location and begin another local church. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the issues that were dividing them to express his displeasure with their division over carnal things:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” – 1 Corinthians 1.10-13
- Death affects membership – When one dies, membership in a local church ends. Only living individuals are part of local churches, while all saved individuals – living and dead – are part of the universal church.
These traits of local churches tell us that members of the church Jesus built, while part of a universal body, function in a practical way in the localities where they reside, and with the other Christians who live and worship with them. The local church is comprised of people who obey during their lives on earth; is a physical gathering of spiritually-minded individuals; is limited to one locale; contains both saved and lost people (likely); whose membership is optional and approved by men’s judgment; that functions with roles for specific individuals; that can be divided; and that loses members as they die physically.
May grace reign through righteousness in your life.
– Bo Couchman