The Importance Of The "Local Church"
New Testament Church Series #8
God has always made adequate provision for the spiritual needs of His people. One of those needs is togetherness or fellowship with those who share common interests and goals (Acts 2:44). It is our conviction that the provision for this need is found in what is usually called a "local church".
Extreme positions can be held on any Bible subject, and this is certainly true in regard to the local congregation. One of these extremes is found among those who act as if our duties to God begin and end with the local church, its assemblies and activities. Those who think this way need to understand that no such arrangement stands between God and His people. First of all and primarily, being a Christian involves a personal relationship with God (Jo. 15:1-ff; Eph. 2:10) and no organizational arrangement absolves us from those personal responsibilities. The other extreme says that there is no such thing as an organized, functional collective or entity called a "local church"; rather, it is just a loose-knit bunch of Christians. However, a very clear distinction is made between "the church in Sardis", which was dead, and "a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments" (Rev. 3:1,5); the "few names" were not "the church". The church in Sardis was a separate entity from the few names. We do not defend abuses of New Testament teaching about local congregations but neither do we intend to "throw the baby out with the bath water". "Mutant" local churches do not represent God's intended arrangement and the whole concept should not be discarded because of them.
It seems clear from the following considerations that it is not only important for Christians to form and be a part of structured, organized entities (call them "local churches", "local fellowships", "local congregations", or other terms which accurately describe them) but that it is God's intention and will that such be so.
Christ's Remarks To The Churches In Asia. The Lord is pictured as walking among the candlesticks (2:1) which had just been identified as the seven churches (1:20). Not only did the Lord know the spiritual condition of individual saints ("a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments", 3:4), He was also aware of and concerned about the collectivities of those saints---"local congregations." Ephesus had left her first love (2:4), Pergamum and Thyatira were tolerating false teaching and teachers (2:14,20), Sardus was dead (3:1), and Laodicea was lukewarm (3:15-16). In each case the problem was identified and the church as an entity was told how to correct the problem. This is strange language if the local church is not a structured entity as well as a scriptural and important concept. Also note what the Lord didn't say. If it was not the will of God that saints form and work in and through a structured fellowship, isn't it strange that in His entire rebuke Christ didn't reprimand them for forming such arrangements?
Their Leadership and The Work It Was To Do. One of the things that was "wanting", and that Titus was to "set in order", was to "appoint elders in every city" (Tit. 1:5). That this "appointment" was to be in every church is made clear by the activity of Paul and Barnabas on the first preaching tour when "they appointed for them elders in every church" (Acts 14:23). The importance of these men to the "flock of God which is among you" (1Pet. 5:2) can be seen as we read of the work they are to do. They should "tend" and "take the oversight" of the flock (1 Pet. 5:2); "take heed" and "watch" (Acts 20:28,31); "labor", be "over", and "admonish" (1 Thess. 5:12); "take care of the church of God" (1 Tim. 3:5); "rule well" (1 Tim. 5:17); "exhort in the sound doctrine, and to convict the gainsayer" (Tit. 1:9-11) and "watch in behalf of your souls" (Heb. 13:17). Surely a local church with men engaged in these activities would be of interest and importance to a Christian.
Saul's Determination in Acts 9:26. "And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple." Two words are significant in this text. "Tried" means "an intention which includes a certain element of resolution. Thus peirao and periazo convey the general meaning of to try, and in view of the effort required, to exert oneself, strive, undertake." (Colin Brown, vol. 3, p. 799.) "Join" signifies "primarily, to glue or cement together, then, generally, to unite, to join firmly...", (Vine, 606.) What could have caused Paul to make such a determined effort to unite with the saints in Jerusalem unless he knew that such was important to him personally and that it was God's will? Should we not make the same sort of determined effort today and for the same reasons?
The Activities They Provide For. As pointed out previously, our spiritual duties are to be fulfilled primarily on an individual basis. However, as also noted above in the Lord's addresses to the seven churches, God expects local congregations to be active in areas that He has designated. There is no one verse that tells us what these approved activities are, but from a careful reading of the New Testament we gather the following.
When the church was gathered together they provided for praise to be given to God as well as mutual edification (1 Cor. 14). "Upon the first day of the week" provision was made to partake of the Lord's supper (Acts 20:7; 1Cor. 11:17-34). It was on this same day that they collected, as a group, what was needed for their work (1 Cor. 16:1-2). From the common fund created by this collection ("your bounty", 1 Cor. 16:3; "the things that came from you", Phil. 4:16, 18) they provided benevolence for fellow saints (1 Cor. 16:1-2; Acts 11:30; Acts 4:32-35; 2 Cor. 8-9; Rom. 14:25-26) and for the various needs of evangelists including wages (Acts 11:22; 15:3; 2Cor. 11:8-9; Phil. 1:5; 4:15-20 1 Cor. 9:1-14).
What they gathered and sent was done so as a unit and was so acknowledged ("ye had fellowship with my affliction...ye sent once and again...the things that came from you", Phil. 4:14,16,18), and, as an entity they sent and received both the messengers and/or servants who implemented their decisions (Rom. 16:1; Phil. 1:1; 2:25; l Tim. 3:8-13; 2 Cor. 8:19) as well as the evangelists with whom they were having fellowship (Acts 11:22; 15:3-4).
And from the number of "one another" passages, it is obvious that these local fellowships were to provide for love (1 Thess. 3:12), mutual support (1 Cor. 12:25), encouragement (Heb. 10:24), and admonition (Rom. 15:14; 1Thess. 5:11).
Is the local church important? A consideration of these passages should lead to no other conclusion. In spite of imperfections we've found in congregations in the past, or those that are present in the ones we are a part of now, let us busy ourselves with making the group of saints we are in fellowship with all that God intended that it be.
By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 5.8; August 1998