Understanding the church in a locality is among the “Defective and Undone,” things that need “Straightening Out,” that are “Out of Order” and that are “Lacking” in the church today. (see Titus 1:5) The misunderstanding of the nature of the local church as an independent, autonomous, seperated grouping based on doctrine, personalities, practices, areas of focus, or “distinctives” affects our unity, our ability to minister to one another, and our example of love to the world.
Most of us think of the church as bounded by a group of people who have joined themselves together. But this joining together also purposely serves to separate ourselves from other saints because of disagreements of one sort or another. We are “us” and right (or righter); they are “them” and wrong (or not as right). It is up to us to choose the best church, the one we most agree with. Most think you become accepted as a member of this defined church formally (by actively agreeing to join this group); others think this is done informally (or passively, simply by frequent attendance). If you ask most active Christians what church they belong to, they can give you the name of their church. They may live quite a distance away; they may drive past a dozen other churches on their way, but this particular group of saints is “their church.” Unfortunately, this is the house that Joe builds.
The house that Jesus builds is different on several levels. Suspend for a moment what you “already know” about how to define/bound a church as we take a fresh look at the scriptures. When Paul writes to the church divided in the NT, he begins with:
“To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours…” I Cor 1:2 KJV
“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:” I Cor 1:2 NIV
“To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours:” I Cor 1:2 NASB
Where this church was seeking to form into parties who followed specific doctrines and teachers, Paul underscores several points:
1. The church is bounded by the city (not by doctrines, not by personalities)
2. The church is set apart in Christ Jesus (not by externally defined membership)
3. The church in Corinth is not independent:
- the church is together with all those everywhere
- the church has the same Lord everywhere
Note the following as you consider how God bounds the churches:
1. Paul uses the singular in reference to the church when referring to a locality. (see Acts 11:22; 13:1; 14:26-27; 15:4; 20:17; Rom 16:1; I Cor 1:2; II Cor 1:1; I Thess 1:1; II Thess 1:1; Rev 2:1, 8, 12, 18, etc
2. Paul uses the plural when referring to churches in a region. (see Acts 9:31; 15:41; 16:4-5; Romans 16:4; I Cor 16:19; Gal 1:2; Gal 1:22
3. The use of the phrase “the whole church” in a locality indicates it is likely the church in a locality often met in smaller units.
- For the phrase, “the whole church,” see Acts 15:22; Romans 16:23; I Cor 14:23)
4. These smaller units were typically in homes, and were also called a “church.”
- In Romans (Rom. 16:5,14, 15), it seems there were at least 3 congregations recognized by Paul and also referred to as the church in a home.
- In I Cor 16:3-5 Aquila and Priscilla hosted a church in their house.
- I Cor 16:15 probably refers to a church hosted in the home of Stephanus
- In Col 4:15, Nympha hosted a church in her house in Laodicea
- In Philemon 1:2 the church met in Philemon’s home
- Acts 8:3 implies the church in a locality met in many houses
- Taking I Cor 1:2 and the whole chapter of Rom 16 together, we see that there is an essential unity in a locality (and beyond), even though the church may meet in separate homes (congregations)
5. Paul associates elders (pastors) in the plural with a locality, not with a house. (see Acts 14:23; 15:22; 20:17; Phil 1:1; I Thess 5:12; Titus 1:5)
- John gives us one exception in II John in the case of Diotrephes, whose actions John denounced.
Philip Schaff, in Vol 1 of Apostolic Christianity (p.475) sums up the church in this way:
The prominent members and first converts, as Mary, the mother of John Mark in Jerusalem, Cornelius in Caesarea, Lydia in Philippi, Jason in Thessalonica, Justus in Corinth, Priscilla in Ephesus, Philemon in Colosse, gladly opened their houses for social worship. In larger cities, as in Rome, the Christian community divided itself into several such assemblies at private houses, which, however, are always addressed in the epistles as a unit.
The church in the NT then is seen bounded by a locality, a locality has a plurality of elders (pastors), the church often and regularly meets in smaller groups in homes and the church occasionally meets all together as a whole. But importantly, the believers in a locality are in relational unity, loving one another whenever and wherever they can.
One more thing. Let’s stop building our own kingdoms. It might help us perceive the depth of this error if we stop using the phrase “my church” or “our church” and start speaking in terms of “His church” in this locality or that locality, or “the church that meets at xyz.”
Why is this important?
I don’t know. I don’t have to know. I’m happy enough with the “God said so” answer to these things. But if I had to guess?
1. Bonus Now - Because God does everything for our good, being open and connecting relationally with all believers in our locality (and when available, beyond) is good for us and them.
2. Bonus Later – Obedience matters to God; being faithful to Him will be rewarded.
3. Kingdom Demo – Relational unity among the saints demonstrates the Kingdom of God better than the competitive divisions we now display to the world.
4. The Main Apologetic for the lost – Our Lord’s prayer in John 17 reveals why He wanted us to be in unity:
They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.
Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
What are the implications?
1. Work towards connecting with and participating in the lives of other believers where you live, without regard to building the “your church” thing. This includes being open to sharing your resources with them.
2. Work towards recognizing the locality as the bound for building relationships. Yes, this may mean you need to consider whether the people attending “your church” should be regularly connecting with saints somewhere nearer where they live, rather than attending “your church.”
3. Consider that those you work with for 40 hours a week may be the ones you need to focus on building up and receiving help from, rather than those you meet with once a week for an hour or two.
4. …what else do you see this perspective changing in your life?
How do we proceed?
Let us not perpetuate new separations nor cling to existing divisions. My natural eyes can’t see past the divisions that ravage His impure and impoverished bride. But read the scriptures and consider what He sees.
There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Do you hear His sweet whisperings? Dismiss what is seen with the eye. We are one in Him. Stop relying on our senses. Through His eyes, through His word, see no denominations, no clergy-laity hierarchies and no multi-million dollar holy places. Though they are shadows along the way, they are not barriers keeping us in or out. Let us rather submit to all believers, esteem them all better than ourselves. He invites us to join in intermingled life–not only with our own congregation–but also, as opportunities arise, with every brother and sister in as many practical ways as possible. Let us simply believe He is the active, living Head and that we are one with our brothers and sisters. Seek to see Him in every saint.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
I have hope because I see what He sees: His life in every believer, His church clean and pure, His glory manifested by the church in every place. Love is that process where my arms are pried from being wrapped tightly around myself, and opened to embrace–to give and receive—from/with/to every brother and sister. To know He is in them, and in me, and among us. Love sees that in the other and elicits it; love receives instruction and rebuke in seeking Him to live in us more freely. We are hidden in His love and under no threat from without or within. His love for us is endless and unchanging, and births in us a similar passion for others.
Alan Knox described this on his blog this way:
So, what is it that creates or maintains relational unity between myself and my neighbors? God creates the unity, and we decide to maintain that unity in the way that we treat and interact with one another. If we decide to ignore one another, even though we say we are brothers/sisters and even though we live next door to one another, [or work together all week long -added,] we will quench the work that God is attempting to do in our lives in creating and maintaining relational unity.
However, if we choose to spend time with one another (regardless of what our denominations decide), and if we choose to accept one another and treat one another as brothers/sisters, then we are working to maintain the unity that God has created in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
This is the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed, and this is the kind of unity that Jesus said would demonstrate to the world that the Father sent him into the world.