Published On: 12 February, 2018|By |

An old friend recently asked my thoughts on the local church and it occurred to me that I’m odd. If anyone should hate the local church, it’s me. I grew up in an extreme wing of Christian Fundamentalism. My childhood pastor—my Dad—is currently in prison. My world is full of casualties of the unspeakable evils that occurred, not just in the church, but because of the church. And I can honestly say that the greatest challenge to my faith has come directly from the evils I’ve experienced in local churches.

And here I am: A church-planting pastor. And I love the local church. I really, honestly love it.

How is that possible? And why do I still believe in the local church?

For those who don’t believe in the local church

First, I have to say that for those who don’t believe in and love the local church, I get it. I don’t agree with it, but I get it. It is impossible to calculate the damage the church has done. And I feel it. I weep with people who’s hearts, lives, and even their very selves have been systematically ripped to shreds by those in the church who pursued their destruction with sadistic—almost psychopathic—determination. Even when the damage has been less severe, where else can you find people who claim to love you who are less real and more willing to stab you in the back than in many local churches?

What is “the church”?

Before we can have a meaningful discussion, we have to clarify what exactly we mean by “the church.” I understand there to be two primary meanings of church in Scripture: The visible (or local) and the invisible (or universal). The invisible church is the assembly of all the saints of all the ages which to date has never actually assembled, but will one day before the throne of God. The visible church, on the other hand is local assemblies of the members of the body of Christ.

So when a person is converted to Jesus Christ, she becomes a member of the invisible church of Jesus Christ. She is baptised by one Spirit into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13, etc.). But she is not automatically connected to a local assembly. It is another step beyond salvation to seek out and connect with a local assembly of believers.

Now I won’t take the time here to argue for the existence of the invisible church because those who are tempted to dismiss the local, visible assembly generally do so on the basis that the invisible church makes the visible church unnecessary. But I will present a brief explanation of why I feel the local assembly exists as a biblical reality.

Is “the local church” really biblical?

The local church has become something other than what it is in Scripture in many cases. Two aberrations from the biblical pattern that come to mind are, first, the diocesan model employed by the church of the middle ages which we can see by looking at, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican Church today. The notion behind these churches is that there is a single “Church” that is run from the top and is divided into regions and parishes with each parish being “serviced” by a local priest/pastor. I must kindly, but firmly, insist that such a model of the church is entirely foreign to Scripture. In such institutions, The Church is something quite other than the assembly—the people—itself. The assembly comes to receive the services offered by The Church.

A second aberration from the biblical pattern is simply an over-emphasis on the visible assembly. Such an aberration is seen today in the “local church only” movement, particularly among the Independent Baptists, which rejects the existence of the invisible, universal church altogether. Both of these errors make the local church into something that Scripture does not. So what does Scripture make the local church out to be?

The local church is a local assembly that does what local assemblies are supposed to do. Nothing more; nothing less. So this definition has two elements: The assembly. And the things an assembly is supposed to do. Let’s look at these briefly. “Assembly” is the literal translation of the New Testament word for church. It simply means the believers, gathered. So does this mean that any time believers get together (for a picnic, for instance), that they are a local assembly? No. And this brings us to the second part of the definition. The New Testament lists a number of things that local assemblies do or are. We’ve got to look at these things in order to know when some believers gathered is a local assembly in the sense that Scripture means. So what are some of these things?

First, a church must be open to any believer. Paul makes it very clear that no one who is a believer is to be excluded. Indeed, the diversity of the church is to be one of it’s hallmarks. Jews and Gentiles. Slaves and freemen. Men and women. Old and young. Rich and poor.

Second, a biblical church must be organised. Granted, the level of organisation will vary based on the size and circumstances, but the point remains. Biblical churches are self-governing. They make decisions, appoint leaders, and minister in organised, systematic ways.

Third, a biblical church has authority that no individual outside Jesus Christ has. The church is authorised to baptise, to serve the Lord’s table, to judge disputes, to discipline members, and to generally act as a body. Who among us would dare to unilaterally decide that someone is to be treated as a non-believer and yet the gospel of Matthew (18:17) says “If he refuses to listen to them [a small group of individuals in assembly], tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Fourth, a biblical church engages in the things the New Testament describes including fellowship, teaching, the ordinances, prayer, etc. (e.g. Acts 2:42).

Does Scripture recognise local churches?

One objection to the existence of a visible, local church is the idea that perhaps when Paul referred to “the Church at Corinth,” for instance, he simply meant all the members of the invisible, universal church who happened to live at Corinth, but didn’t necessarily all worship in one local assembly as we know it today.

The simplest biblical counter to this view that comes to mind is the use of the plural of church over thirty times in the New Testament. For instance, Luke says “So the churches were strengthened in the faith” (Acts 16:5, emphasis added). Or John says “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:13, emphasis added). Or Paul says “there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28, emphasis added). I cannot think of any explanation for the use of the plural of church unless there is some concept of individual, local churches. Otherwise you would simply use the singular in each of the above cases.

Another important point to note in Scripture is the word church (ekklesia) itself. The word does not mean merely an assembly, as in a bunch of people. Rather, it actually means an assembly assembled. Of course where that assembly is more formal, there is some element of the word that leaves with the individual. For instance, John is an MP, a member of parliament. Yes, he is still part of the parliament when he leaves the parliament for the sitting break, but his identity as part of the parliament is directly tied to the assembling of the parliament. A parliament that indefinitely ceases to assemble, by definition ceases to be a parliament. So with the church.

Conclusion

I know this isn’t a conclusive set of arguments per se, but it is some of the stuff I’ve been thinking through and wrestling with recently. God willing I will add some additional thoughts in another post soon.

I invite your insights and counterpoints in the comments below. I pray that God will bring healing to those harmed by the church and that God will raise up many more churches that are God-besotted havens of grace and growth.

Grace to you.

About the Author: Jason Harris

Jason loves to communicate God's word both in the local church and at conferences and retreats. Jason has been involved with Worship Music since 1996 and InFocus since 2005. Jason has degrees in theology, music, accounting, and research and is currently a PhD candidate and lecturer in the College of Business, Law, and Governance at James Cook University, Cairns. Jason is also a pastor at CrossPoint Church. You can contact Jason at jason@jasonharris.com.au.

4 Comments

  1. Belinda Ezzy 12 February, 2018 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    Thanks Jason,
    Your reflections have given me something to think about. I struggle with wanting to return to the “local church”, feeling somewhat disillusioned with my own experiences.

  2. LW. 12 February, 2018 at 7:43 pm - Reply

    Hey Jason, Great post.

    I’ve read through your post and have some thoughts.

    Firstly, when we think of a church we imagine a building, religious club or religious meetings. We never use the word church to refer simply to believers of Jesus who live in a particular locality.

    Acts 14:27 says, “And when they were come, and had gathered the ekklesia (church) together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.”

    You wrote that, “The local church simply means the believers, gathered”.

    I politely disagree and believe that Acts 14:27 suggests that the Ekklesia (church) isn’t gathered by definition, but quite simply is simply a reference to the Body of Christ (the believers) who live in a particular locality. (you disagree with this view in your post).

    Please consider Acts 14:27 if the Ekklesia (church) is by your definition, a gathering…

    “And when they were come, they gathered the already gathered believers together”.

    Jason, the verse makes no sense if the Ekklesia IS a gathering of believers (for meeting purposes).

    You do not need to gather together that which is already gathered.

    I would also like you to consider Acts 2:46-47:

    “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the Ekklesia (church) daily such as should be saved.”

    Some thoughts: Their daily meetings in the temple is not called ‘church’.
    They (the Ekklesia, who are the believers) met from ‘house to house’. Their meetings are not Ekklesia, THEY (the people) are.

    It was the LORD who ADDED to the Ekklesia (the body, singular) those saved individuals.

    So what exactly is the Lord adding to?

    The house to house gatherings or the temple gatherings?

    No where in the above text are we told that the Lord added to the ‘gathering’ (or assembly in one particular place).

    The Lord added believers (living stones) to his singular body.

    How many bodies does the Lord have? One? Or one million?

    I believe there is an assumption that this word Ekklesia (church) must have a visible local presence in order to exist. I honestly don’t see this in Scripture.

    You mention the plurality of the word ‘churches’ toward the end of your post.

    Consider the word multitude and multitudes.

    Is it possible that the Ekklesia (in plural form) is simply a reference to the multitudes (plural-churches in English bibles) within a particular city and not a reference to a plurality of religious meeting places/clubhouses (how we define church today?).

    I’d also like to point out a passage which has the word Ekklesia and in English bibles the word has been translated as Assembly:

    Acts 19:32.

    “Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together. 33 And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander beckoned with the hand, and would have made his defence unto the people.”

    The word Assembly in Acts 19:32 is the same Greek word which everywhere else has been translated as Church, yet here we see no such religious gathering of believers. We see Jews here in the Ekklesia ‘assembly’.

    Again, consider the word multitude. The word multitude fits here in this context perfectly.

    If we substitute the word Assembly in Acts 19:32 for church then the context makes absolutely no sense.

    I believe the Ekklesia (translated church) is simply a reference to the members of the Body of Christ within a particular location (which you disagree with in your post). You said you believe it’s a gathering of believers.

    Yes, I agree that the Ekklesia DOES gather (for fellowship, exhortation etc) but I do not believe that the Ekklesia is by definition, gathered.

    When we are talking about the church (ekklesia) we’re talking about PEOPLE, not religious meetings, clubs or organisations run by some guy calling himself ‘The Pastor’.

    Jesus’ body is not only his body when all together in one room.

    The Scripture is clear Jesus only has ONE BODY made of many members.

    These religious clubs we call ‘churches’ (in my opinion) are not Ekklesia (which Jesus said HE would BUILD) but are something else entirely (a scary thought).

    And when we look at so called ‘church history’ which for the most part traces back to Rome… we start to question all of the traditions like ‘church’ buildings, pews, sermons, salaried religious leaders who love to have the pre-eminence (Diotrephes) and so on it all goes.

    Is it at all possible that Christianity has gone completely rogue and these things we call ‘churches’ are not Ekklesia at all?

    Have you ever considered that this thing we call ‘Church’ is not what Jesus is building but is the handiwork of someone else?

    A long post… my apologies (not really :D )

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on those passages I posted.

    I LOVE the ‘local church’ (the Ekklesia who are the PEOPLE of God in my town).

    I haven’t set foot in a religious building for over 4 years and yet I love all those who call on the name of Christ who live in my town. I will happily fellowship with anyone who names Jesus as their Lord and Saviour but I certainly don’t believe I need to set foot in a dedicated building in order to exhort and encourage others within Christ’s body.

    And I’m fairly confident Scripture is on my side.

    LW.

  3. A. Amos Love 13 February, 2018 at 1:50 am - Reply

    LW

    Your comments are excellent about “His Ekklesia.”
    His Called Out Ones. His Body. His Church.

    “When we are talking about the church (ekklesia) we’re talking about PEOPLE, not religious meetings, clubs or organisations run by some guy calling himself ‘The Pastor’.”

    Yes, The Ekklesia of God, are His PEOPLE…
    His Redeemed, His Ambassadors, His Sheep, His Disciples.
    The House of God. The Temple of the Holy Spirit.
    The sons of God. Led by “The Spirit.”
    NOT led by Mere Fallible Humans.

    And, In the Bible…
    NOT one of of **His Disciples** called themself ‘The Pastor’?
    Or lead pastor. Or shepherd. Or leader. Or reverend.

    NOT one of of **His Disciples** was called ‘The Pastor’?
    Or lead pastor. Or shepherd. Or leader. Or reverend.
    ——-

    “These religious clubs we call ‘churches’ (in my opinion) are not Ekklesia (which Jesus said HE would BUILD) but are something else entirely (a scary thought).”
    ——-

    “Is it at all possible that Christianity has gone completely rogue and these things we call ‘churches’ are not Ekklesia at all?”
    ——-

    What is popular is NOT always “Truth.”
    What is “Truth” is NOT always popular.

  4. A. Amos Love 13 February, 2018 at 2:58 am - Reply

    Jason

    Thanks for asking for “insights and counterpoints”
    To your comments. — I have a few counterpoints. :-)

    I’m-a-thinkn, “the local church” has caused much damage. Created many “Tradtions,” that are NOT in the Bible. And those “Tradtions,” “Make Void,” “Nullify,” the Word of God. Mark 7:13. You ask in the post, “Is “the local church” really biblical?” The asnswer is NO, beause the term “local church,” is NOT in the Bible.”

    When Today’s “local church” promotes their church…
    And the Bible talks about His Ekklesia, His Body…
    His Called Out Ones, His Church…
    It just ain’t the sam ting…

    Seems, When you promote terms NOT in the Bible…
    You wind up promoting lots of other… errr… stuff…
    NOT in the Bible. Oy Vey!!! :-(
    ——-

    What does this word “church” really mean?
    Makes an interesting study. And challenge.
    Print out all verses with “church” in it…
    Read all verses with “church” in it…
    Over and over, again and again…
    And ask yourself… Ask Jesus…

    In the Bible?
    Did any of **”His Disciples?”**
    Ever?

    1 – *Go to* Church?
    2 – *Join* a Church?
    3 – *Lead* a Church?
    4 – *Plant* a Church?
    5 – *Pastor* a Church?
    6 – *Attend* a Church?
    7 – *Tithe* to a Church?
    9 – *Rebrand* a Church?
    8 – *Look for* a Church?
    9 – *Teach* Go to Church?
    10 – *Bring their friends* to Church?
    11 – *Become Members* of a Church?
    12 – *Apply for Membership* in a Church?
    13 – *Call themselves, Pastor,* in a Church?
    14 – *Call themselves, Leader,* in a Church?
    15 – *Call themselves, Reverend,* in a Church?
    16 – *Give Silver, or Gold, or Money* to a Church?
    17 – *Build a building with a Cross* and call it Church?

    18 – *Were any of **His Disciples,** ever Hired?
    As a Paid, Professional, Pastor, in a Pulpit?
    Preaching, to People in Pews?
    Weak after Weak?
    In a church?
    ——-

    NOPE…

    These things are taught, and exist, in Today’s “local church.”

    But, NONE of these things exist in the Bible…
    For one of **His Disciples.**

    If, In the Bible…
    Jesus did NOT teach **His Disciples** to do these things?
    And, **His Disciples** did NOT do these things?

    Why do WE? His Sheep? His Body? His Servants?
    Think it’s okay? To do these things?

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