Truth That Matters

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" - Jesus Christ

The Local Church

As mentioned in the Church Basics page, the word "church" in the Bible is used only in two senses. One of these senses is a "church at a particular place" (Example: 1 Corinthians 1:2, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, Acts 13:1, etc). For convenience, I will refer to this church as a local church or assembly. The church refers to the Christians who are gathering, not the building or hall where they do so.

The non-essential (non-defining) features of a church

When I call these features non-essential, I don't mean that churches shouldn't strive to have them or that the Lord Jesus Christ does not want these features. I mean that a church does not cease to be a Biblical church just because it fails to have these features.

  1. Good worship, Bible study, prayer and sermons;
  2. Love and zeal for God and each other
  3. High standards of personal purity and holiness
  4. Proper exercise of authority by the church leadership
  5. Relationships between members devoid of any quarrels or misunderstandings 
  6. Oneness of mind and full understanding about all points of doctrine
  7. Spiritual maturity among the members 

The Corinthian church lacked these features (1 Corinthians 1:11, 1 Corinthians 3:1, 1 Corinthians 6:6, 1 Corinthians 5:1). Paul still calls them "the church of God in Corinth" (1 Corinthians 1:2). The church leadership at Pergamos was not assertive, and so a female false teacher was misleading people (Revelation 2:20). The Ephesian church had lost its first love (Revelation 2:4) and the Laodiceans were complacent (Revelation 3:15) but all these "churches" are addressed as churches by Christ.

The essential (defining) features of a local church

The churches in the New Testament show a wide variation; some were very good (like the ones at Philadelphia and Smyrna), and some were very bad (like the ones at Laodecia and Corinth). But they all had some things in common - these are thus essential features that a church should have to call itself a Biblical church:

  1. The membership was open to all those who were born again in their locality and to no one else.
  2. The churches were autonomous.
  3. The theme of the churches was the Lord Jesus Christ 
  4. The churches had a plural, homegrown, single tier leadership. 

If a church does not have these features, it is NOT a church in the Biblical sense. Some of these features are elaborated on below. 

The theme of a local church

We usually name things according to their theme. Thus the theme of a local church is connected to its name. According to the New Testament, the theme of a local church is to be gathering to Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2), not a particular teaching or personality of the Bible. In the New Testament, we don't find a "grace church", a "prophecy church", a "great commission church", a "St Peter's church", a "St Paul's church", an "Antiochan church at Corinth", a "Jerusalemite church at Rome", etc. Nor do we find the Pauline church or the Petrine mission. All local churches are to have only Jesus Christ as their theme. Then how do we distinguish between different local churches? The Biblical answer is: LOCALITY, AND NOTHING ELSE. So how should churches be named? We can have a Times Square Church, a Manhattan church, or a Jerusalem church. Some churches may prefer a Biblical language term (Example: Bethel means house of God in Hebrew). Anything else is a deviation from the Bible.

The membership of a local church

A person becomes eligible to join a local church when he gets saved and is baptized (Acts 2:41). Such a person would believe in such things as the deity, humanity and work of Christ (called the doctrine of Christ in 2 John 1:9-10) and the inspiration of the Bible, (which is the only eye-witness account of the Lord Jesus) because you cannot be saved without believing these things.

A "church" ceases to be a church in the Biblical sense if it does not distinguish between saved and unsaved people (for example, if it admits members on the basis of infant baptism or confirmation), or if it discriminates on some criterion other than salvation (you're welcome only if you're white, or only if you believe such and such doctrine, etc)

Some clarifications are in order however.

  1. A supposed believer who continues in sin is to be put out of fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:11).
  2. Those who attempt to divide the church based on false doctrine (Romans 16:17) or try to form a sect (Titus 3:10) need to be put out. 
  3. It is taken for granted in the New Testament that the members of a local church are from that particular locality. There is no record of people from, say Corinth preferring to fellowship with the church in the adjacent city, Cenchrea.
  4. Although unbelievers may not be admitted as members, they may be present in the meetings as guests. We must welcome them as guests, at the same time make the difference between being saved and unsaved clear to them, and pray that God would convict them (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).
  5. The other "guest" mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:24 is the "unlearned" person. He is a Christian, but one who has not yet understood church fundamentals. 

Which church do I join?

From the above, the decision becomes self-evident. In your list of churches, first delete the ones that don't have the essential, defining features of a Biblical church. Now suppose you've got several churches remaining in your list. Which will you attend?

The Biblical answer: THE ONE CLOSEST TO YOUR RESIDENCE.

People today often choose their churches on the basis of which church they think is "happening", which church uses the kind of music they like, which church has their friends in it, which church has  people with the same doctrinal views, which church has people from the same ethnic background/age/socioeconomic level, etc. but these criteria are absent in the New Testament. The only reason that Epaphras was part of the Colossian church was that he lived in Colossae.

What if the nearest church has people I just can't get along with? The Bible has the answer. In the church at Philippi, there were two women who couldn't stand each other (Philippians 4:2). Paul does not suggest that one of them should consider attending another church. Both of them were residents of Philippi, and so the Philippian church was God's place for them. So Paul asks them to reconcile with each other. 

What if the nearest church is not a nice one? When the Lord Jesus praises the Philadelphian church and censures the Laodicean church (Revelation 3), he does not suggest that all sincere people in Laodicea should start attending the Philadelphian church. God expected sincere Laodiceans to make a difference where they are. Of course, the instruction is different if your church is not a church in the Biblical sense (2 Corinthians 6:14-17). When a customer enters a restaurant, he checks the food and service, and depending on whether he is satisfied or not, either continues to come or chooses another restaurant. We are not customers visiting a local church. We are the local church. So if your church is not good, God does not want you to shift to another church. He wants you to be the change that is needed, where you are. We join a church because it is the church in our locality that satisfies the Biblical definition of church, not because it is a "good" church.

The autonomy of a local church

Notice two things from the New Testament:-

  1. There is no hierarchy sanctioned in the Bible. We read of churches in Colosse, Corinth, Ephesus, etc. but no structure above them.
  2. In Revelation 2 and 3, the Lord Jesus sends separate messages to each local church - not to a central authority that is supposedly directing the churches "under its jurisdiction". Further, the Lord Jesus did not ask the good churches in Revelation 2 to clean up the bad churches. Each church was solely accountable to him.

Conclusion: local churches are to be autonomous - they should take their own decisions.

However, different local churches can cooperate or help each other (Romans 15:26). The apostles exercised authority over several churches, but they were not part of any hierarchical structure. So, apostolic leadership cannot be used to justify hierarchies today. Hierarchical leaders today are not successors of the apostles.

A denomination is a hierarchy of churches having similar beliefs and practices. All denominations are unscriptural, because we don't find such a concept in the Bible! There was no chain of Pauline churches having their headquarters in Antioch, or Petrine churches having their headquarters in Jerusalem. Similarly, there was no "Pauline Mission in Ephesus" and "Petrine Mission in Ephesus". But there was a church in Ephesus. The image shows the meeting hall of Queenstown Bible Chapel, a local church in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Conclusion

God has saved us - purchased us with His own blood. But He did not take us immediately to heaven. He left us on earth because He evidently had a purpose for us on earth. This purpose is intricately linked with our membership in a local church. So find the nearest church that satisfies the Biblical definition of church - join it and glorify God.

Also see:-