I love the local Church, more and more as I continue to walk the Way in Christ. I love the gathering where members greet one another and visitors, pray together, sing together, gather at the Lord’s Table, and get fed Christ in His Word. I am a Baptist, Reformed Baptist in my theology and a member of a local congregation voluntarily associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. I have never demanded that other orthodox Christians share my theology – though never afraid to speak of my interpretations of Scripture, I have always endeavored to do so in an attitude of brotherly love in Christ. It’s always been popular and easy to bash the local Church, since she’s so full of messed-up sinners (unlike those outside the local Church!?). But I thought I’d take time to describe why I believe the New Testament teaches the reality of the local Church. I do not believe that any particular local congregation is “the Church” to the exception of any other local congregation, but we do see the New Testament calling local congregations “the Church.” If it’s good enough for the New Testament, it’s good enough for me.
The New Testament speaks of both “the Church” in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1; 11:22; 15:4) and “the Churches” in Judea (Galatians 1:22; 1 Thessalonians 2:14). I assume that the individual congregations in Judea didn’t call themselves “the Churches,” but “the Church.” I also assume that each local congregation did not see itself as the only Church, despite being called “the Church.” It seems reasonable to speak of a local congregation today as “the Church” without meaning that it is the only Church to the exclusion of every other organized gathering of disciples of Jesus Christ.
Similarly, we have “the Church” in Antioch (Acts 11:26; 13:1), Caesarea (Acts 18:22), Cenchrea (Romans 16:1), Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1), Laodicea (Colossians 4:16; Revelation 3:14), Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1), Ephesus (Revelation 2:1), Smyrna (Revelation 2:8), Peramum (Revelation 2:12), Thyatira (Revelation 2:18), Sardis (Revelation 3:1), and Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7). We have “the Churches” in regions like Galatia (Galatians 1:2). We have “the Church” in Ephesus (Acts 20:17) spoken of along with “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (20:28), seeing the local and universal Church together without losing the distinctiveness between the two ideas.
The New Testament speaks of “the Church” in various households: Prisca and Aquila’s (Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19), Nympha’s (Colossians 4:15), and Philemon’s (Philemon 2). All “the Churches” met in homes at this time, so let’s not assume these were unorganized, unstructured groups with no membership or “officers.” If the New Testament speaks of these elements of the local Church, and all Churches met in homes, then house-Churches had these elements.
So, given the usage of the term “the Church” in reference to the local congregation in the New Testament, I think we’re safe in referring to our local gathering of disciples as “the Church” without violating the idea of the universal Church or being exclusively cultish.
I believe in membership in the local Church as a function of accountability and discipline (Matthew 18:15-17). As an Elder of a local congregation who will be held account by God for how he shepherded Christ’s flock, I believe membership to be a necessary tool to define the local covenant community of faith for which I will be held responsible (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-3). Baptists have always believed in the liberty of the human conscience before God. We do not force anyone into membership or require it for those attending our gatherings. I uphold membership but leave it to the individual conscience and the Holy Spirit – we have individuals who have attended for years but never joined in our local congregation. I also believe membership to be an important expression of commitment in an age that is severely allergic to any expression of commitment.
I believe that the local Church is “incorporated.” I know it’s popular to criticize the Church as an “institution,” but the Church in the New Testament has organized, structured elements commended to it that necessarily define it. We are to observe baptism, the Lord’s Supper, teach the Bible, sing, have Elders/overseers/pastors, deacons, maintain a common treasury for the needs of the saints near and far, engage the community of unbelievers for the sake of the Gospel, and have orderly gatherings. These structuring elements could be seen negatively as “institutional,” or as God’s ordinances for His Churches (the Church). We may not agree on how these various ordinances of structure are to be implemented, but we cannot easily deny that the Scripture imposes order on the local congregation. Therefore, we who agree on how to interpret these commands gather with other believers who interpret them similarly, without regarding ourselves as infallible – my own views of the local Church have grown as I have continued studying the Scriptures during the journey of my discipleship in Christ. Often those who condemn the local Church as too localized fail to see that they themselves segregate from other saints who do not interpret the Scriptures as they do. We all have growing to do in this area!
Finally, I believe the Scriptures teach that the local Church must gather and disciples must gather in a local Church (1 Corinthians 11:18; Hebrews 10:25).
Here’s the thing: if you believe that these are wrong interpretations/applications of Scripture, that’s fine. Again, being Baptist has historically meant that we believe in the freedom of the conscience of the individual before God. This isn’t “live and let live,” but we want the freedom to pursue the Way as we believe it to be commanded in Scripture, and believe you should have the same freedom without coercion. If, despite this, you feel the need to criticize “local Churchers” or “institutional Churchers,” consider speaking to what you may regard as “weaker brothers” the way Paul commanded in Romans 14:13-23; 1 Corinthians 8:13-9:1,12. In our relationships with each other (and even with the lost), we do not use details non-essential to the Gospel to “tear down the work of God” (Romans 14:20), with the result that “through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died” (1 Corinthians 8:11). This is a “sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:12), even though what you may be taking a stand for is scriptural! Gentleness (2 Timothy 3:24-26; James 3:13-18) must accompany us when correcting others or growing others up in the knowledge of the truth. This does not mean we compromise the truth, but that we are “speaking the truth in love” so that we “grow up in all aspects into Him Who is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). I always appreciate fellow believers who challenge me in my convictions about Scripture; it brings me back to those Scriptures, which is always edifying.
May these horribly sad words never apply to our disagreements on the application of Scripture to our lives as believers walking together in the Way: “For it is not an enemy who reproaches me, then I could bear it; nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me, then I could hide myself from him. But it is you, a man my equal, my companion and my familiar friend; we who had sweet fellowship together walked in the house of God in the throng” (Psalm 55:12-14).
So, I will keep loving the local Church. I will keep being inspired by passages in my daily reading of the Psalms to desire the gathering of the Church (35:18; 40:9,10; 107:32; 149:1, for example). I will keep sharing my love for the local Church and the Scriptures that I believe support these convictions, hoping to strengthen the saints in their membership, attendance, and participation (and to encourage those outside the local Church to consider visiting the gathering to hear the Gospel). I will continue in covenant membership of the local Church with those who confess to be disciples of Jesus, even when it’s not easy because of personality/doctrinal differences. And I believe I have some scriptural precedent for doing so.
I love the local Church.
“A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is
an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant
in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of
Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges
invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of
the earth...the New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ
which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe,
and tongue, and people, and nation” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, VI).